Stefan Theil

Stories by Stefan Theil

  • CLASS REVIVAL

    Every few years, a national polling institute asks Germans what they want most from their society. Each time, a majority--or close to it--answers Gleichheit, or equality. It is the supreme good, more highly prized in Germany even than Freiheit, freedom. Indeed, Germans' vision of equality--spreading the country's wealth, eliminating capitalist-class barriers, creating a prosperous and socially open meritocracy--has, over the decades, become the very foundation of their modern welfare state.How ironic, then, that Gleichheit has in recent years turned on itself. The very institutions meant to bring about equality are now doing precisely the opposite--creating new inequalities, killing opportunity and erecting fresh barriers to social advancement. Institutionalized mass unemployment, a direct result of the phasing out of low-wage jobs in the name of Gleichheit, has created families where two or three generations live off government handouts. Rigid labor laws protect well-off jobholders...
  • A Bit Of Optimism Is Ok

    Finally, some good news. After more than two years of skirting recession, Germany is starting to grow again. The German economy will expand by 1.7 percent in 2004, according to the latest upbeat forecast from the IFO Institute in Munich. Employment is up. Business confidence has risen for the third month in a row. Frankfurt's stock market has surged more than 60 percent since its March low.Whom to credit for the new optimism? The spinmeisters would claim Chancellor Gerhard Schroder and his wide-ranging package of labor and entitlement reforms, called Agenda 2010. The Bundestag is expected to pass the measures this week. And last week Berlin's ruling and opposition pols agreed to a long-overdue reform of the country's out-of-control public health-care system. With an energizing 16 billion euro income-tax cut planned for January, it looks as though Germany is the sick man of Europe no more.Alas, all is not as it appears. First the growth forecast. A third of next year's anticipated...
  • Challenging The Qur'an

    In a note of encouragement to his fellow hijackers, September 11 ringleader Muhammad Atta cheered their impending "marriage in Paradise" to the 72 wide-eyed virgins the Qur'an promises to the departed faithful. Palestinian newspapers have been known to describe the death of a suicide bomber as a "wedding to the black-eyed in eternal Paradise." But if a German expert on Middle Eastern languages is correct, these hopes of sexual reward in the afterlife are based on a terrible misunderstanding. Arguing that today's version of the Qur'an has been mistranscribed from the original text, scholar Christoph Luxenberg says that what are described as "houris" with "swelling breasts" refer to nothing more than "white raisins" and "juicy fruits."Luxenberg--a pseudonym--is one of a small but growing group of scholars, most of them working in non-Muslim countries, studying the language and history of the Qur'an. When his new book is published this fall, it's likely to be the most far-reaching...
  • The Sweetest Revenge

    When Shlomo Afanasev and his parents set out to make a new life for themselves late last year, they had choices. The country where they lived--Uzbekistan--was an economic basket case, and its 2,000-year-old Jewish community had all but disappeared. It was time to go to a place where they'd be welcomed as Jews, and where they'd have opportunities. They considered going to Israel. But like thousands of other Jews from the former Soviet Union, they decided instead to settle in Germany. "The political and economic situation in Israel is terrible," says Afanasev, speaking over a kosher lunch in a Berlin yeshiva. "Here life is so much better."Jewish immigration and an increasingly vibrant cultural life have even fueled talk of a German-Jewish renaissance. "We never thought it could happen," says Michael May, executive director of Berlin's Jewish Community organization. "Jewish life is thriving here again 60 years after the Holocaust." In perhaps the most delicate of ironies, Germany last...
  • Half-Breed Organ

    Liver-transplant operations are almost routine these days. Finding suitable donors remains the hard part. Each year thousands of patients suffering from cirrhosis, hepatitis and other severe liver ailments die while on waiting lists. Artificial livers aren't likely to fill the gap, either. The liver is almost as complex as the brain: it handles some 400 physiological functions, from detoxifying the blood to turning food into the nutrients and chemicals our cells need to function and survive.Recently, researchers have begun to take a new tack. Rather than looking for a replacement liver, they're trying to harness the body's own biological building blocks to grow new, healthy liver tissue. At the Department for Experimental Surgery at Berlin's Charite Hospital, scientists have developed something called a "bioreactor"--a plastic device slightly larger than a fist. Inside is a matrix of hundreds of membranes, within which they've coaxed human adult liver stem cells to grow into complex...
  • A Heavy Burden

    Berlin, 2050. The once flourishing metropolis resembles a cross between an old-age home and a ghost town. The average age of its citizenry is 50. With fewer and fewer couples having children, schools and kindergartens have closed. For every retired senior living off a government pension, just one younger German is left to pay into the system. To save money and free up precious workers, the Bundestag votes to abolish the pensions bureaucracy. From now on, each retiree will be assigned his or her working-age wage slave, who'll hand over half his salary.Is this Europe's future--an aging vampire society whose financial IVs are hitched to an ever-smaller pool of working-age taxpayers? We've all heard about the "demographic time bomb," and the pensions crisis that will hit as Europe rapidly ages. But if you think this bomb won't explode until a faraway future, think again. It already has, and the first tremors are rocking Europe today. The crippling strikes of recent weeks in France,...
  • Schroder's Big Chill

    "This is where he sat and lied to me," a furious George W. Bush recently told a visiting European head of state. "He" is German Chancellor Gerhard Schroder, with whom Bush believed he had a deal--private acquiescence on Iraq in return for Bush's not pressing for public support in the run-up to last September's German elections. Everyone knows what happened instead. The plain-speaking Texan says he harbors no grudges against Germans or Germany. But his aversion to the German leader is deep, personal and abiding. "Schroder is no longer welcome here," the president apparently told Jurgen Schrempp, DaimlerChrysler's chairman, at a recent White House event, according to NEWSWEEK sources.Attempting to improve relations, Schroder met with Secretary of State Colin Powell last Friday and agreed to U.S. demands that U.N. sanctions on Iraq be lifted. But the last one-on-one contact the chancellor had with Bush himself was a phone call in October, during which Bush reportedly listened in icy...
  • Reform Now, Or I'll Quit

    Berliners were rubbing their eyes in disbelief. Just ahead of the May 1 Labor Day holiday last week, billboards began popping up at bus stops and subway stations, proclaiming less welfare state means more jobs. Among Germans left and right, such statements were once the ideological equivalent of treason. But the slogan was put up by a public- interest foundation whose trustees include Wolfgang Clement, Germany's powerful new Economics minister. There it was--official policy in black and white.The world markets don't pay much attention to Berlin billboards, but perhaps they should. With bankruptcy and unemployment rates on track to set new records this year, Chancellor Gerhard Schroder threatened to resign last week if his own Social Democrats failed to adopt his "historic" reforms of a cripplingly generous welfare system. The showdown over what's become known as Agenda 2010 comes at a party conference on June 1, but unions and left-wing party members were out in force for May Day...
  • The Saudis: A Missing Diplomat?

    It looked like a successful strike against Al Qaeda in Europe. Last month German police raided a suspected terrorist cell in Berlin, arresting a half-dozen men and seizing bomb-making equipment, flight-simulator software and chemicals. Now the investigation has taken an unexpected turn. German officials say the terror suspects may have had a highly placed friend: a top diplomat at the Saudi Embassy in Berlin. Sources say Muhammad J. Fakihi, chief of the embassy's Islamic-affairs branch, met frequently with the suspected terrorist cell's leader, Ihsan Garnaoui, at Berlin's Al Nur mosque--a notorious haven for Islamic extremists. The Germans confronted the Saudis and threatened to declare Fakihi persona non grata. "We don't do that unless the evidence is very grave," says a German official. Four days after the arrests, Fakihi left Germany and was supposed to have returned to Saudi Arabia. But, NEWSWEEK has learned, he never showed up. Now the Saudis want him for questioning, and...
  • Voting With Their Feet

    A year ago life looked bleak for Jens Sroka. He had just lost his job, courtesy of Germany's never-ending economic slump. Nor did prospects look good in hometown Wurschnitz, a village in eastern Saxony where one in five people is out of work. So he did what millions have done before when they have lost faith in their country's future. He left. Destination: a boomtown in western Sweden called Boras, where bricklayers like himself are in short supply. Today he earns twice what he used to. Soon he'll send for his wife and two sons.In better times Germany was renowned for its Gastarbeiter--guest workers drawn by the millions from Italy, Greece, Turkey and the Balkans. These days it's Germany that is sending its own downtrodden abroad. Last year a net 111,000 people moved out of the country--five times the rate of emigration in healthier times. The overwhelming majority were young workers and their families. Frustrated with their government's economic failures, they are leaving for the...
  • 'Move To The Moon'

    British and American losses mount as street fighting rages in Baghdad. CNN and Al-Jazeera broadcast harrowing images of war casualties. Responding to unrest at home, Arab governments cut oil production and Western access to their military bases. An attack on Tel Aviv draws Israel into the war. Al Qaeda sets off bombs in London and Los Angeles. In a final Gotterdmmerung, Saddam destroys his country's oilfields and fires off the weapons of mass destruction he has, after all, developed.While businesses are betting that Gulf War II will follow the pattern set by Gulf War I--short, followed by a quick drop in oil prices--everyone is pondering the alternative. The worst-case scenario above was drawn up at the Center for Strategic & International Studies in Washington by a panel including former U.S. State Department staff and economists from Goldman Sachs and Deutsche Bank, who gave it a 5 to 10 percent probability. The chance of a less significant escalation: 50 percent.The problem...
  • A Voice Of Conscience

    For decades, novelist Imre Kertesz was unknown even in his native Hungary. When he published a semiautobiographical novel in 1975 called "Fateless," it went almost unnoticed. But two weeks ago Kertesz made literary history when the Swedish Academy awarded him this year's Nobel Prize in Literature, primarily for the moving book, in which he chronicles the year he spent as a young Jew in Nazi concentration camps during World War II. It is the first work in Hungarian and the first to deal with the Holocaust to win the honor. Kertesz spoke with NEWSWEEK's Stefan Theil after picking up the award. Excerpts:You've said you feel lucky to have been at Auschwitz. Please excuse me for finding that shocking.I experienced my most radical moments of happiness in the concentration camp. You cannot imagine what it's like to be allowed to lie in the camp's hospital, or to have a 10-minute break from indescribable labor. To be very close to death is also a kind of happiness. Just surviving becomes...
  • The Angry Republic

    "Schroder is stupid." That's how a Berlin daily, Die Welt, sums up German public opinion. A more intellectual--and vicious--insult these days is to compare Chancellor Gerhard Schroder to Heinrich Bruning, the hapless Weimar-era chancellor whose incompetent handling of the Great Depression helped bring on Adolf Hitler.Ouch. Never has a postwar German leader experienced such a sharp reversal of political fortunes--or met such a wave of public and editorial invective. Just two months ago, Schroder and his Social Democrats celebrated their narrow re-election. Today, half the people who voted for him wish they hadn't. Were the election held again, the opposition Christian Democrats would get 50 percent of the vote, the Social Democrats 28.Germans see plenty of reasons to be angry. After pledging during the campaign not to raise taxes, Schroder's government just slapped citizens and businesses with up to ¤23 billion in new levies, effective Jan. 1. Instead of passing a tediously...
  • Germany's Jobless Racket

    Simone Richter, 29, has been unemployed since 1997. After being downsized from a public-housing agency, she put herself through half a dozen government-sponsored training courses, from IT for Office Workers to Practical Administrative Skills. They were supposed to beef up her secretarial experience and help her land a job. Instead, she says, listless students spent much of their class time surfing the Net under the eyes of unmotivated instructors. No one she knows has found work.Half a million Germans are sent by the Labor Bureau to take such courses every year--without any visible effect on Germany's 9.4 percent jobless rate. "They told us from the beginning that we'd never find a job," says Richter. "I have the feeling they're just shuffling us around." If there's one economic sector that's booming around Cottbus, her depressed hometown near Berlin, it's the retraining industry. Thanks to an endless flow of public funds, the third biggest single employer in the region is, in fact,...
  • Beware, Bordeaux

    Bernhard Huber's epiphany was buried in a bundle of dusty old papers. Digging through historical documents in the archive of his home village of Malterdingen, the German wine-making apprentice found a fragile parchment covered in ancient script. Written in the 13th century by Cistercian monks, it praised Malterdingen's elegant and much sought-after wines. What a far cry from recent years, when the town's wine-making cooperative produced swill that in good years was drunk by the locals--and in bad years was hardly drunk at all. "If they made good wine back then, it's got to be possible to make good wine now," Huber says he thought.He was right. After discovering those papers back in 1984, Huber took his family's vineyards out of the cooperative and set about overhauling their product. Now, 18 years later--and for the first time in generations--Malterdingen wine is again winning plaudits. At professional wine tastings in Paris, London and Copenhagen, Huber's Sptburgunder--a silky,...
  • The Fine Art Of Shopping

    Every mall rat knows that shopping is an art: finding the perfect cashmere sweater, staking out a spot early at the end- of-season shoe sale. Now a new exhibit at Frankfurt's Schirn Kunsthalle celebrates shopping as a work of art. Called "Shopping--100 Years of Art and Commerce" (through Dec. 1, then moving to the Tate Liverpool), the show is as gratifying as an afternoon spent browsing the racks. Filled with images of consumerism by artists ranging from turn-of-the-century French photographer Eugene Atget to modern-day British bad-boy Damien Hirst, "Shopping" pointedly explores the relationship between high culture and mall culture.That connection is stronger than ever. As more than a few sociologists have pointed out, consumerism is one of the defining social phenomena of our age, and a key source of public interaction. Throughout much of the world, shopping is no longer merely a way to fulfill essential needs but a primary leisure activity. And in the wake of September 11,...
  • Going Its Own Way

    Here's the CW. George Bush "went ballistic" over Germany's independent demarche on Iraq, as one White House aide puts it. But has a historic relationship been irreparably harmed? No, say most spinmeisters. Chancellor Gerhard Schroder had an election to win, and it helped to just say no to war. But that was mostly rhetoric, at worst an honest disagreement among friends. Time and diplomacy will heal the rift.That's one way to see it. Another is that this issue is here to stay. The reason: what's fast becoming the new German Problem--the question of where the Schroder government's defiant path is taking Europe's largest nation, and what it might mean for others. Last week NEWSWEEK offered a review of the economic challenges facing Germany, and how radically the country is departing from the European mainstream in refusing to address them. Similar problems are emerging in its foreign relations. For the first time since World War II, Germany is charting a course that may split it not...
  • A Contrarian View: Learning From The East

    When the German automaker BMW decided to build a new assembly plant for its 3 Series sedan, executives scouted 250 locations around the world. They considered sites in France and the Czech Republic, where lower wages and a friendly regulatory climate meant they could operate more cheaply and efficiently than in high-cost Germany. But in the end they picked a green field outside Leipzig, in Germany's east. The reason: labor costs that are more than a third lower than in western Germany, coupled with a flexible agreement with the local union that would allow BMW to run its plant 140 hours a week--not quite 24/7, as you might find in some parts of the globe, but as close to it as BMW could wish.The deal, says BMW spokesman Hubert Bergmann, is better than the company could have gotten anywhere else in Europe. And it's clearly good for Leipzig and surrounding towns, which stand to gain some 11,000 new jobs when the plant opens in 2005. Perhaps most important, it's a sign of good news for...
  • The High Price Of Victory

    Germans glued to their TV sets Sunday night called it a political thriller: the tightest election cliffhanger in their nation's history. When votes were counted in the early hours of the morning, incumbent Chancellor Gerhard Schroder had managed--just--to cling to power. ...
  • Young At Heart

    Kihabara shopping district, Tokyo, 2012: in a street once dominated by electronics dealers and toy stores, a new business is opening its doors. Signs in extra-bold lettering are advertising "authentic" whalebone walking canes, along with the newest high-tech wheelchairs. Three doors down, at one of the few surviving electronic-gadget stores, Sony's new snap-on cholesterol sensors are all the rage. But few of the stores are doing well. Instead, the once lively neighborhood is being taken over by undertakers, doctors' practices and "silver age" hotels whose bright neon signs advertise tiny cubicles and nursing robots. Last year, the average Japanese turned 46 years old. The over-80s have reached 9 million. With fewer children born every year, Tokyo will soon start thinning out as Japan's population continues its long decline.This is how most people view the silvering of our planet: it's a future in which the aging population of rich nations produces a bleak panorama of crises, from...
  • Does This Vote Matter?

    One of Germany's favorite Internet sites, these days, is the Kanzlergenerator. Start with a grinning image of Der Kanzler, Gerhard Schroder. With a few clicks, mix in a couple of facial features from his challenger in next week's national election, Bavarian Premier Edmund Stoiber. Depending on how you blend nose, mouth, eyes and hair, you get an Edhard Schoiber, a Germund Stroder--or a Schoider, a Schrober, a Stoider. "To lower CO2 emissions, we have to protect women from violence and reduce the tax on small business," one of these political polymorphs tells us.For many Germans, such gobbledygook too closely resembles the real campaign. With 4 million unemployed, near-zero growth and the astonishing transformation of Germany from Europe's juggernaut to economic laggard, the Sept. 22 election should by rights be a juicy dogfight over who's to blame for the mess--and how to fix it. But no. The latest ZDF Politbarometer poll puts both candidates at 38 percent, with a big chunk of...
  • Marketing To The Elder Set

    Imagine this scene in the ginza shopping district of Tokyo just 10 years from now: in a street once dominated by electronics dealers and toy stores, a new business is opening its doors. Signs in bold lettering are advertising "authentic" whalebone walking canes, along with high-tech wheelchairs. Three doors down, Sony's new snap-on cholesterol sensors are all the rage. But few stores are doing well. Instead, the once lively neighborhood is getting taken over by undertakers, physicians and hotels featuring tiny cubicles and nursing robots.Welcome to Silver World: a landscape of rapidly aging populations. This year the average Japanese turned 42 years old. The over-70s have reached 14 million. The demographics are clear, and irreversible. Two thirds of all senior citizens who've ever lived are alive today. The number of people born between 1990 and 1995 was only about half as large as the number born between 1970 and 1975. That means more old people, and fewer younger workers to...
  • Let Them Eat Organic

    Baron Wolfgang Von Munchhausen gets a premium price for his premium crops. Ten years ago, after getting ill from some of the 125 different pesticides he was spraying on his 300 acres of wheat, rye and other grains, he converted his farm in the German state of Schleswig-Holstein to organic agriculture, eschewing chemical fertilizers and toxic pesticides in favor of crop rotation, farmyard manure and other traditional measures. Today he delivers his produce to "bio" bakeries, where well-heeled Germans pay extra for the privilege of eating organic bread. So what if Munchhausen's yields are 50 percent lower than those of chemical-happy colleagues'?At least that's how critics of organic farming see it. Organic farmers are just skimming the cream. Agrochemicals, the argument goes, were an essential part of the "green revolution" of the 1950s and 1960s that made it possible for Third World countries like India to feed their fast-growing populations. But is this really true? No, say...
  • Cowboys Und Indians

    A village of 390 tepees stretches along the valley floor, close by a gurgling stream. Squaws cook breakfast over open fires. Young girls play lacrosse. A pair of warriors skin a buffalo. Others have painted themselves with black ash and white chalk and donned their tribal finery. Today will be the Great Dance, with prayers for the grass to grow so that the buffalo may multiply.Morning on the American Great Plains, 1850? No, Langenwetzendorf in eastern Germany, a sleepy town in the forests south of Berlin. The buffalo comes from a breeder in Nuremberg (yes, it's been tested for BSE), and 15 port-a-pots stand ready in a meadow. As for the thousand residents of the tepee village, not one claims a drop of American blood. Instead, these half-naked "natives" are lawyers from Leipzig, doctors from Hamburg and office workers from Oberhausen. Called Indian Week, the secretive, sealed-off camp with the strictest of dress codes is organized by one of the more than 200 clubs in Germany devoted...
  • Let's Stay In Style

    "You are where you stay," hotel owner Ian Schrager once said. If that's true, then many of us are Holiday Inns. And by the same token, many of us are going to become much more hip, as chic designer hotels come to dominate the industry.Judging by properties like the new W Times Square in New York, the days of the generic hotel are numbered. Water flowing down glass plates gives the hotel's lobby a Zen-like serenity. The staircase is wrapped in sequins. Glowing amber cubes serve as night tables. The swank leather-and-pinstriped staff uniforms are by American designer Kenneth Cole. Rising above New York's post-September 11 doldrums, the W Times Square sold out only three months after it opened in January.Meanwhile, in Tokyo, the Four Seasons chain, known for plush but predictable luxury, will soon open a branch at the ultra-contemporary, glass-clad Pacific Century Place in the central business district. It's a trend. With even the big hotel chains trying to achieve cool, designer...
  • Staying In High Style

    You are where you stay," hotel owner Ian Schrager once said. If that's true, then many of us have been as bland as a Holiday Inn, about as interesting as a wood-grain Formica television stand. And by the same token, many of us are going to become much more hip, as chic designer hotels come to dominate the industry.Judging by properties like the new W Times Square in New York, the days of the generic, "If It's Tuesday, This Must Be Belgium" chain hotel are numbered. Water flowing down glass plates gives the hotel's lobby a serene, Zen-like feel. The staircase is wrapped in sequins. Glowing amber cubes serve as night tables. The swank, leather-and-pinstripe staff uniforms are by American designer Kenneth Cole. Beating the travel industry's--and especially New York's--post-9-11 doldrums, the W Times Square sold out only three months after it opened in January. With even the big hotel chains trying to get cool, designer hotels have graduated from insider tips traded by urban hipsters to...
  • Getaway? Go Away!

    German vacationers on the sun-soaked Mediterranean island of Majorca get a special kind of welcome these days at Es Trenc. On the beach encircling the turquoise bay, someone has spray-painted a one-word message to them on the side of an old concrete shelter: raus--"Beat it!"--along with a giant swastika.Majorcans are getting thoroughly sick of tourists. Not only of Germans--tourists from just about anywhere. No one denies tourism's vital role in the local economy. The industry has transformed Majorca from one of Spain's poorest parts to the richest in per capita income. But the island's 630,000 year-round inhabitants are increasingly convinced that 14 million foreign visitors a year are far too much of a good thing. Water is rationed. Pollution is worsening. Big hotels have mushroomed, and Spanish has fallen to second-language status on much of the island. "The tourists are unbearable," says Frederico Medina, 32, a local gardener. "They act like they own the island. They're like...
  • The End Of Swag?

    Baksheesh. Kiti Kodogo. Swag. Most every language has its vaguely derogatory slang term for bribery. The King James Bible predicted long ago that the "the congregation of hypocrites shall be desolate, and fire shall consume the tabernacles of bribery." It didn't say when. Whether delivered in a bag, a brown wrapper or a red envelope, bribery has been accepted for centuries as part of the lamentable human condition. Cultures that outlawed paying bribes did so only at home, while allowing or even encouraging the habit abroad. The puritanical exception was the United States, which banned the "corrupt practice" of bribing foreigners in foreign lands as early as 1977 and has been trying to get the rest of the rich world to pass similar rules of law ever since. Now this long-shot campaign to turn back centuries of grease and greed is gaining unlikely momentum.Consider: the World Bank is compiling a blacklist of bribers, sending shudders through the international construction companies...
  • Culture On The Cheap

    ParisStart the day with a cafe creme and a croissant at the Cafe de Flore, just as Hemingway did before you. (Stand at the counter--it's cheaper.) In the great Parisian tradition, stroll along the Boulevard Saint-Germain to the Luxembourg garden. Nearby, stop at the rue de Medicis side of the garden to find Eric Valli's photo exhibit, "Himalaya, World's Crossroad" hanging on the iron gates. For lunch, grab a baguette sandwich (3.5 euros) and a chair next to the Luxembourg's central fountain. Hop a metro (1.30 euros) to Les Invalides, and wander around the spectacular sculpture gardens of the Rodin Museum. It's free, like all French national museums, on the first Sunday of each month. If you're sightseeing midweek, head to the European House of Photography, free on Wednesday evenings. The Parc Floral, near the Chateau de Vincennes metro stop, costs 1.5 euros to enter, but has free children's puppet shows most days at 3 and 4 p.m. Until the end of July, it's also the site of the Paris...