Which country made automobiles popular?
German motorists: The Germans have to get rid of the car
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The German car is like football. Nothing can harm its popularity - no crisis, no scandal, no shit. The former Volkswagen boss can be accused of fraud, the Daimler Group can be confronted with new allegations of manipulation, the entire industry can be faced with an existence-threatening change: The Germans simply drive on as if nothing had happened, just like they probably still watch football would if half the national team and coach were behind bars for tax evasion.
Germany is not just the land of poets and thinkers. It is also the land of the drivers. Nowhere is the car so interwoven with national identity. The German automobile - that’s what we are ourselves. That’s why the subject excites Germans like no other: whoever attacks the German car, attacks the Germans too.
The car debate does not only have an economic, political and ecological dimension. It's not just about the future of the internal combustion engine, nitrogen oxide and particulate matter levels, speed limits and electromobility. It's also about a German way of life, an almost total car culture that pervades this country down to the last corner. The car is deep in our heads, it determines our lives. We must therefore lead the car debate in a much more radical, much more fundamental way. It's about what the car means to us.
is editor-in-chief of the philosophy magazine "Hohe Luft" and author of the recently published book "Land der Lenker" (wbgTheiss), on which this text is based. In his previous life he drove a 420 hp sports car from a well-known southern German brand.
It is the driver's view, his view of the world - the "driver's perspective". The driver's gaze is primarily directed to the front of the road. Whatever he encounters while driving, he perceives it as a potential obstacle. The driver's perspective is a narrowed perspective, his gaze a tunnel vision, which is fixated on driving itself, on the fastest and unhindered progress possible.
The driver's perspective - that is the view through the windshield, the perspective of the automotive subject. This is not just the view of the German driver. It is also the automotive industry's point of view. We live in a world that is tailored to the driver's perspective. That is precisely why it is so difficult for us to part with the car.
For Germans, the automobile is not just a means of transport. It is the German dream of freedom, of self-movement ("auto-mobility"), of movement for its own sake, which manifests itself in the joy of driving. The crisis of the German car is the crisis of this self-movement. It is the crisis of the automotive subject, that strange hybrid being made up of people and technology that has assumed its most highly developed form in Germany. It is the crisis of the German driver's perspective, a German view of the world.
The diesel crisis is not only affecting the German automotive industry, on which this country is so economically dependent. It also meets a national myth that shapes our self-image like no other. The German automobile stands for many things that are important to Germans, for reliability and quality, for engineering skill and technical perfection. It stands for export strength and economic power, for the resurgence of Germany after the war. German car myths include pioneers such as Carl Benz and Ferdinand Porsche, including the global icon VW Beetle, and motorsport legends such as Walter Röhrl and Michael Schumacher, who many Germans consider the best drivers of all time, if they are not themselves. If we want to understand the relationship between Germans and automobiles, we have to know their history.
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The car as a post-heroic narrative from the German
The car was invented in Germany. But at the beginning of the 20th century it was the exclusive pleasure of a few rich people. First, the Germans had to let the French show them how to successfully market the car. Then the Americans showed how to make a mass product out of it with Ford's Model T. In order to protect the lagging domestic manufacturers from US imports, protectionist measures were even resorted to in the interwar period. In this respect, it is not without a certain irony when German manufacturers and politicians today complain about Donald Trump's threat of punitive tariffs against the German auto industry. As recently as the 1930s, German manufacturers were hopelessly trailing behind the competition. Only Hitler's motorization program, which was based on the Ford model, promised the car for everyone. The motorway project remained behind the propaganda goals. Not a single car from the "Volkswagen" made it to customers; Instead, military bucket cars rolled off the production line in Wolfsburg. But the Nazi policy created the conditions for the later German car miracle. After the war, the Germans didn't just drive on Hitler's highways. Many also sat in cars that had been designed for Hitler.
No other product after 1945 contributed so much to renewing the image of the Germans as the automobile. There are no German tanks on the streets of the world today, but German cars. The German car myth is the post-heroic narrative of the German who, thanks to superior technology, managed to gain greatness again in a peaceful way.
Today car manufacturers are careful to avoid all militaristic connotations, all possible associations with the Nazi era. Radiator hoods may appear martial and aggressive, but not arouse dark memories. A German SUV has to feel like a tank, but it can't look like that. At least outwardly, the will to power and greatness has been driven out of the German automobile. The "power through joy" promised by the Volkswagen turned into "sheer driving pleasure" after the war.
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