Stefan Theil

Stories by Stefan Theil

  • Blues Versus Reds

    Baron Gotthard von Winterfeld hadn't seen his ancestors' feudal estate in nearly half a century. When he finally did so 12 years ago, after the fall of the Berlin wall, his eyes filled with tears. His forefathers first settled in the tiny village of Neuenfeld, on the plains of northern Brandenburg, in the 13th century. A hundred years ago they'd built a handsome manor house on the property. But all that remained was a low pile of stones, overgrown with birches and weeds. The brick outbuildings still stood, but their roofs leaked and the interiors were rotting. "Everything was gone," the now-73-year-old recalls thinking as he sat on an old gravestone with his son Jorn, but he knew what he had to do. "We owed it to the family to come back and rebuild."Many other blue-blooded German families feel the same way. Driven off their agricultural estates in East Germany by the Soviet Army in 1945, their homesteads pillaged and lands expropriated, these rustic country squires were considered ...
  • TURNING OFF THE LIGHTS

    When Tony Blair turns on his lights in Downing Street, the power comes from Electricite de France. Reason: when Britain opened its energy market to competition in 1990, the French company leapt in. But fat chance for a British company to light up the Elysee palace, where French President Jacques Chirac lives. For despite vociferous complaints and its own promises, France stubbornly clings to its state-owned monopoly, protecting 120,000 jobs and closing out foreign rivals--in defiance of its partners in the European Union.Never has so much history hinged on a simple, boring power company. In the epic battle over the course of Europe's future, EdF has become an improbable litmus test. Will the Continent go along in its time-honored way, protecting government monopolies, favored industries and cozy social-welfare systems? Or will it embrace the free-market reforms economists say are necessary to get growing again--and realize the grand ambition of creating a genuine single market of...
  • THE THREAT OF A LINUX GENERATION

    Even computer programmers can sometimes let their emotions get the better of them. "If I made a great product, and Microsoft offered me a lot of money, I would spit in their faces," says Brett Slatkin, a student at Columbia University in New York. His colleagues roll their eyes and accuse him of being stuck at the "hippy stage." But when talk turns to the serious business of programming, they are of one pragmatic mind.One of the burning issues in computer circles is whether servers--the fastest-growing segment of the computer business--are going to run Microsoft software or an alternative, Linux, in the future. Microsoft's selling point has been its universe of tightly designed software that fits together like a puzzle, from the basic operating systems that make each computer run to software that controls networks to programs designed for specific tasks. But lately Microsoft has been placing more and more restrictions on how its software can be used. That bothers programmers, who...
  • Combing For Nukes

    The hunt had been on for a month, held back by heavy snow and inaccessible mountain terrain. Finally, last week, in the former Soviet republic of Georgia, a team of local and international nuclear experts secured two highly lethal, radioactive canisters on a mountainside close to the province of Abkhazia, where local nationalists are fighting for independence. The last stretch up a remote logging road took five hours because the heavy military truck carrying a five-ton lead container came close to sinking into deep mud. At the end of the road, two dozen men in heavy protective gear wielding six-foot tongs carefully picked up the two ceramic cylinders, each no bigger than a can of soup, and placed them safely into the lead container. The canisters were so deadly that each man was allowed to spend no more than a minute standing near them, and even so was not allowed within a meter. ...
  • Burning Out?

    In Thomas Mann's epic novel "Buddenbrooks," a well-heeled family of German burghers slides into genteel decline. The first generation lays the foundations for a fortune, the second amasses it and the third squanders the family's riches on a life of leisure. Their hardworking neighbors, meanwhile, grow steadily more prosperous. In the end, the impoverished, defeated scion of the once great family meets an untimely death. ...
  • Second Thoughts

    From Tony Blair to George W. Bush to Gerhard Schroder, everyone agrees that the war on terror won't be won solely in the mountains of Afghanistan. This is also a fight on the home front. Across Europe, governments are following America's lead: arresting suspects, freezing bank accounts, trying to break up terrorist networks. And as in America, they're rushing to enact a whole book of new laws they say will help them to better do the job.But hold on. In the United States, Attorney General John Ashcroft is under fire for the plan to create secret military tribunals and, as many Americans see it, infringe on basic civil rights. And so it is in Europe. Last week in London, in a telling reversal of fortune, Tony Blair's efforts to muscle a radical package of antiterror measures into law backfired spectacularly when the package was carpet-bombed in the House of Lords by naysayers from both the political left and right. Among other things, the far-reaching legislation would allow...
  • Tolerating The Intolerable

    Harun Aydin, a 29-year-old medical student from Turkey, was about to board an Iran Air flight from Frankfurt to Tehran. Suddenly, a phalanx of German police appeared and whisked him away. In his suitcase investigators found a chemical-warfare protection suit, a bottle of a mercury-type liquid used to make bomb detonators and a CD-ROM full of jihadist propaganda. Investigators say Aydin is a high-ranking member of Caliphate State, a radical Islamic group in Cologne that calls for the destruction of Western democracy. It admits contacts to Osama bin Laden--yet is a perfectly legal organization in Germany. Indeed, Caliphate State enjoys the special status of a religious association. It's even tax-exempt.Such coddling of criminals is far from rare in Europe. Taking advantage of liberal asylum laws that don't distinguish between religious Islam and fanatical Islamism, groups similar to Caliphate State have for years tapped into European freedoms (and social benefits) to attract support...
  • The Berlin Question

    The sign doesn't mince words: EUROPE'S FASTEST ELEVATOR. And fast it is. It takes just 20 seconds to zip up to the top of the 25-story DaimlerChrysler building, one of a crop of brand-new sky-scrapers sprouting from the heart of the New Berlin. It's easy to see why the dramatic changes here have fired the world's imagination. Little more than a decade ago, Potsdamer Platz was a no man's land sundered by the Berlin wall. Now, as everyone knows, it's a showcase for the snazzy works of modern architects, from Renzo Piano to Helmut Jahn. But look past the bustling construction sites, toward a football-field-size vacant lot a stone's throw from the Brandenburg Gate. It's set to become the site of the Berlin Holocaust Memorial, Germany's first real monument to the annihilation of European Jewry during World War II.As a symbol of the new Berlin, the contrast could not be more apt: past and future, in constant ferment. After a roller-coaster century of shattered imperial dreams and the...
  • It's Hip To Say 'Ich Bin Ein Berliner'

    The sign seems appropriate, somehow, to the spirit of the New Berlin: EUROPE'S FASTEST ELEVATOR. It takes just 20 seconds to zip to the top of the 25-story DaimlerChrysler building, one of a crop of brand-new skyscrapers sprouting from the heart of this city 10 years after the cold war. Look down from the viewing platform, and it immediately becomes apparent why the changes sweeping the city have been firing Germany's collective imagination. A little more than a decade ago Potsdamer Platz, the local Times Square, was a no man's land sundered by the Berlin wall. Now the city's center is a showcase for the snazzy works of some of the world's best architects. It is a place of green promenades and cafes, Rollerbladers and high-tech rickshaws, in a city vibrant with possibility.But peering down from the top of the DaimlerChrysler building, one can't help but spot something else: a giant scar in the earth. The vacant lot, just a stone's throw from the Brandenburg Gate, is a reminder that...
  • Germany: The East--Still Sinking

    Commies love concrete. P. J. O'Rourke, the American humorist, wrote that about the old East bloc in the dying days of communism. But he could have been talking about Complex No. 7 in the city of Eisenhuttenstadt, a battered steel town in eastern Germany. It's a vast block of six-story prefabs, begrimed in the brownish-gray hues of slag and coal dust, hemmed in by a highway overpass and an overgrown railway. To one side a boarded-up supermarket offers a blank face to graffitists who seem to have long gone. On another, the inaptly named Pizzeria Paradieso caters to a clientele, at 8 p.m., of precisely zero. As for Complex No. 7, a third of its flats are empty, their windows dark and bare. Someday, "the forest will be growing here again," says Paul Bortel, one of the elderly residents who call these grim precincts home. "Anyone who's good at anything moves away," he says, waving vaguely westward toward the setting sun.Chancellor Gerhard Schroder visited last week, a stop in his annual...
  • Rediscovering The Old East

    Getting there is half the fun. My convertible blasts along ancient, tree-lined country lanes, through fields of rye ripening under a Curacao-blue sky. Nothing could be farther away from the metropolitan frazzle of Berlin than the wide-open Pomeranian countryside, three hours north of the capital. Past rolling hills and through dusty medieval villages, the road ends at the dock of a small passenger ferry. Across a narrow channel of the Baltic Sea lies a long, low strip of land, reachable only by boat. No cars allowed. Hiddensee is an island time forgot.Preserved under the glass bubble of communism until German reunification a decade ago, the place is just as it was in the '20s, when Thomas Mann and Albert Einstein summered in its thatched-roof cottages. No roads, motels, neon signs--nothing but a few simple villages, winding bike paths and sandy walking trails. Even in midsummer, its beaches are deserted.A decade after the fall of the wall, Germany's old East is drawing visitors...
  • Idle By Law

    Things are looking a lot better for Imer Duraku now than when he was fleeing war-torn Kosovo eight years ago. Granted a haven in Germany, the 41-year-old attorney and his family just moved into a comfortable, three-bedroom apartment in Bernau, a leafy suburb north of Berlin. Today his six children--the youngest born in Berlin--speak perfect German, have many German friends, and their bombed-out homeland is no more than a remote memory. They would be an upwardly mobile immigrant family with a bright future, if it were allowed.Germany does not allow it. The government keeps tens of thousands of war refugees like Duraku barred from the labor market--even if they have been here for years, bring needed skills and have already assimilated into society. So even though he has learned German, taken a computer course and found an employer who wants him as a paralegal, the local labor office keeps saying nein. His children have stamps in their passports that say all work or education beyond...
  • A Crisis Of Biotech

    The package that Wolfgang Franz received at his laboratory at the University of Lubeck was nondescript, but the contents were explosive. The molecular biologist had ordered a sample of 100,000 or so stem cells to use in his medical experiments. In particular, he wanted to find out if the cells could be used to repair heart damage from cardiac arrest. But now it looks like he won't get a chance, at least not soon. Word of the shipment got out and immediately ignited a controversy. Last week the German government called for a voluntary halt to all research involving human embryonic tissue--including stem cells. Under that kind of pressure, Franz had no choice but to put his stem cells in liquid-nitrogen storage and his research on ice.In Germany, embryos are protected under one of the strictest such laws in the world: the 1990 Embryonenschutzgesetz--embryo-protection law. It says that life begins at conception and that every fertilized egg has a right to survive. Since stem cells are...
  • Techies Turn To Organized Muscle

    This time last year, Pixelpark was New Economy to the core. At the high-flying Web-design agency, in a converted east Berlin light-bulb factory, proud staffers called themselves Pixels. They pulled all-nighters alongside CEO Paulus Neef in a happy team effort to get rich quick. The company stock they owned rose tenfold in just six months. Then came the downturn, and revolt. With losses mounting and Neef threatening to lay off 200 of the 1,500 Pixels, they did the unthinkable: dusting off a predigital relic of German industry, they elected a work council--employee representatives with the power under German law to negotiate firings, hirings and company policy--and took Neef to court to challenge the layoffs. "The time when we could resolve our differences with Paulus in the kitchen is long gone," says Pixelpark project manager and work-council chair Katja Karger.As layoffs loom at many of Germany's leading Internet companies, nervous dot-comers are seeking old-fashioned protection...
  • Crashing Clones

    In the beginning there was only Nasdaq, the American mother of all high-flying tech markets. As the New York exchange took off, others would try to follow. Starting in 1996 with Easdaq in Belgium and Kosdaq in South Korea, a mania for cloning Nasdaq spread from Frankfurt to Tokyo and beyond. Whether indulged by the famously savvy (Singapore) or the merely wishful (Romania), the hope everywhere was to ignite an American-style boom by creating a market that allows small, unprofitable and unproved companies to sell stock directly to the public. Now some of these exchanges are as shaky as the dot-coms they were peddling. Since Nasdaq began to collapse in March 2000, many of its copycats have fallen into scandal, depression and disrepute on a scale that makes the New York original look calm by comparison. On its Web site, Romania Invest offers this blunt warning on the stillborn local market, Rasdaq: "We advise against investing."The shakeout is coming. At a time when investors are...
  • Germany's 'Kohlosseum'

    The tour guide jokes with passengers as the boat cruises up the Spree in Berlin. "This building is an exact copy of the train station in Baku," he quips, pointing toward a towering block of gray concrete vaguely suggesting a socialist monument. The tourists gape in awe at one of Berlin's biggest construction projects, a sprawling mass that stretches the length of 3i football fields between the left bank of the river and the fresh spring green of Berlin's Tiergarten park. Eight stories high, it's a melange of stark walls, irregular columns, and metallic green trim. Because of the giant, oval window in the facade, says the guide, "Berliners call it the 'washing machine'." ...
  • Love Those Wearables!

    Thad Starner first started wearing his computer in 1993. He would strap a shoe box of electronics to his waist and a small keyboard to his wrist and don a bulky headset with a small display monitor suspended in front of his left eye. After a while the other students at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology stopped gawking and accepted him as just another nerd. Nowadays, however, Starner is looking much more fashionable. He's a professor at Georgia Tech in Atlanta, for one thing, and his wearable computer looks just like a pair of ordinary black-rimmed glasses--except for the thumb-size gadget on the frame that beams a tiny, bright image onto the lens. "The goal," says Starner, "is to have the computer disappear into your clothes so that no one knows you have it." ...
  • The Japan Connection

    Europeans wondering what to do with their agonizingly slow wireless Internet phones might want to check out what's going on in Japan. The country is hooked--chiefly to NTT DoCoMo's i-mode service. Already almost 20 million Japanese use i-mode wireless phones to play games, send photos to their friends and get instant maps to the nearest karaoke bar. They have tens of thousands of services to choose from, and they never have to dial up: i-mode is always on. They're always connected. ...
  • Getting Serious

    On Saturday, peaceful Switzerland bared its teeth. In the biggest security alert the Alpine nation has ever seen, riot police sealed off all approaches to Davos, the genteel ski resort that hosts the annual network-athon of CEOs, heads of state and other VIPs known as the World Economic Forum. Anticapitalist activists, including militant anarchists, had promised via the Internet to "wipe out" the meeting. The authorities took them seriously. Declaring any demonstration illegal, they transformed placid Davos into an armed camp, turning back hundreds of would-be protesters at Swiss borders. Some of those stranded in Zurich set fire to cars there, prompting police to respond with tear gas and rubber pellets. Even the 200 demonstrators who somehow made it to Davos didn't get very far. When they came within a kilometer of the forum, riot police opened fire with water cannons. Drenched, the crowd didn't linger long.Some 6,700 miles away, a much larger group of protesters gathered in...
  • THE MINISTER'S ALL RIGHT

    The footage dates from April 7, 1973. The scene: a street riot in Frankfurt, at the height of Germany's militant student-protest movement. Suddenly one of the radicals corners a policeman. Wearing a tight leather jacket and a motorcycle helmet, the apparent leader gathers four other rioters around him. In what looks like a well-rehearsed routine, the five overwhelm the policeman, tear his helmet away and throw him to the ground. The long-haired leader raises his gloved fist to punch the policeman. Seconds later he kicks the defenseless cop as he lies on the ground.That cop-kicking radical was Joschka Fischer, currently Germany's foreign minister and vice chancellor. A Marxist in his youth, Fischer later joined the pacifist Green Party, which now governs Germany with the Social Democrats. As shocking as the TV footage--dug up earlier this month by the German weekly Stern--may be, Fischer's radical past has never hurt him. Not only has the 52-year-old dutifully repented his past sins,...
  • Bluetooth's Connection

    You're a busy person who likes to work on the go. What must your life be like? Say you just bought a new Nokia cell phone and, naturally, you want to use it to get a wireless Internet hookup for your Toshiba laptop. You go out and buy a special cable (which only Nokia makes) to connect the two devices. Then you spend hours downloading driver software, installing it and fiddling with the settings. At last the online connection works. The next day, as your bullet train leaves the station, you power up your laptop and--arrrrgh!--you left your mobile at home. The passenger next to you offers her Motorola, but it doesn't like the Nokia plug, and anyway you'd need to install entirely different software on your laptop... So you give up and look out the window.Getting digital gadgets to talk to each other can drive anyone nuts, but that may be ready to change. A consortium of 2,000 high-tech companies, including Microsoft, IBM, Sony and Intel, is pushing Bluetooth technology, a new global...
  • George Jetson's Car Lot

    These days your typical online car-buying experience might go something like this: you're looking for, say, an Audi A4. You click onto one of the popular Web referral services--like Autobytel or AutoWeb--and configure your new set of wheels. The service locates a dealer who can match your options, but the showroom happens to be 100 miles away. And, you have to put up with blue when you wanted silver. Price? The dealer's got MSRP in mind, rather than invoice.You start sending e-mails or decide to visit the dealer, but either way you're forced to haggle just like the last time you bought a car. And you're left with the nagging feeling that you could have gotten a better deal.For all the New Economy fanfare, the Net hasn't exactly revolutionized the way we buy cars. Yes, some new cars come Web-ready and with all kinds of gizmos, as enthusiasts at the Paris Auto Show saw last month. And the Net surely can let us save time by doing car research online. No longer do we have to call a...
  • Running On Fuel Cells

    Soaring gasoline prices are no big deal. The real push for greener cars is from the lawmakers--especially in California, where the Zero Emissions Mandate requires that by 2003, 10 percent of all cars sold will be pollution-free. To meet that standard the auto industry is betting on a new power source: hydrogen fuel cells. In theory, you can get limitless hydrogen from seawater using solar power. And when you burn it, you get energy and plain water--nothing else. In recent years carmakers and oil companies have spent billions of dollars learning to make the cells cheaper and more efficient.Now the first cell-powered prototype cars are finally appearing. The pacesetter for the Sydney Games marathon was Opel's HydroGen 1 prototype. BMW has built a test fleet of 15 hydrogen-powered 7-Series vehicles. General Motors Chairman Harry Pearce calls the fuel cell Precept, unveiled in January, his "baby." Mercedes-Benz says it will start producing a hydrogen-fueled car in 2004. By January Ford...
  • Taking It To The Streets

    The big economic summit hadn't even started, and already Prague was under something like a state of siege. At border crossings into the Czech Republic, traffic was backed up for miles last week as police and frontier guards tried to weed out troublemakers. In Prague, the authorities advised citizens to stock up on food and then bolt their doors and stay inside. The U.S. State Department warned Americans to avoid unnecessary travel to the Czech capital this week and next. At a still-secret location in the countryside, seasoned activists were preparing a three-day session to train the leaders of some 20,000 demonstrators in protest tactics, media relations and first aid. On the Internet, a Web site called destroyimf.org, run by several left-wing workers' groups, was promising to "turn Prague into Seattle." The organizers vowed to "shut down that summit with the biggest international demo Europe has ever seen."There's a good chance the protests in Prague will not add up to another ...
  • A Cold West Wind

    I'm ashamed of what people from my country have to do to survive," says Svetlana, an unemployed Ukrainian schoolteacher. Svetlana, 27, is downing vodka with her husband at a seedy, $2.50-a-night guesthouse next to the bus station in Przemysl, just over the border in Poland. Like many Ukrainians, Svetlana now ekes out a living in the border bazaars that sprang up across Eastern Europe after the fall of the Berlin wall. Every few weeks, Svetlana crosses into Poland carrying bagloads of goods to sell at a jumble of derelict stalls and tables in what used to be the football stadium in Przemysl. Svetlana refuses to give her last name, not from shame, but because the Poles are cracking down on traders like her.From Poland north to Estonia and south to Romania, former Soviet states and satellite nations are tightening their eastern borders. All aspire to join the European Union, which offers more open trade with rich nations like France and Germany, but demands greater vigilance against...
  • Defiant And Dismissive

    When Helmut Kohl finally testified last Thursday before the Bundestag about his role in Germany's biggest postwar political scandal, his performance was, well, vintage Kohl. The former chancellor was asked all the tough questions: who gave 2 million marks in secret campaign donations to his party, the Christian Democratic Union? Why did lobbyists and businesses deposit millions more in the coffers of the CDU shortly after closing deals with Kohl's government? And why did official records of these deals disappear shortly before Kohl left office in 1998? Rather than clearing up the mystery, the 70-year-old ex-chancellor lashed out at his questioners. "This panel... only has the goal of defaming 16 years of government under Helmut Kohl," he fumed. As to the charges, they were nothing but "absurd."Despite his defiance, Kohl's woes keep growing. Since the Spendenaffre (Donation Affair) first shocked Germany last November, CDU officials have had to admit that Kohl and his associates ran a...
  • This Fair Could Flop

    The mishaps began early. at the grand opening of the Hanover world's fair earlier this month, Polish President Aleksandr Kwasniewski got stuck in an elevator in the newly unveiled European Union pavilion. Technicians rushed to the scene but couldn't get the brand-new lift to budge. After anxious minutes, the hefty statesman had to climb a ladder and wriggle through a narrow hatch onto the roof. The elevator mishap was just for openers. Last week, Prince Ernst August of Hanover, in town with his wife, Princess Caroline of Monaco, suddenly collapsed at a gala after a long day shaking hands on the fairgrounds. Medics whisked him away; the exact cause and nature of his fainting spell remain unknown. Fortunately, when Ludmila Putin blasted in last week during her husband's state visit to Germany, the Russian First Lady got away unscathed.The fair itself may not be so lucky. Barely three weeks into its four-month run, Expo 2000, as the fair is known, is off to an embarrassing start. The...
  • Hey--Where Can I Get Some Of That?

    In a dimly lit room high above Berlin's busy Kurfurstendamm Boulevard, Dirk Schmidt's gaze is fixed on a PC monitor. Since March the 32-year-old unemployed subway conductor has been a day trader, using the facilities at a brand-new company called D-Trade. Though his modest start-up stake of 25,000 euro (a severance payment) has shrunk by 2,000 euro, he's not worried. "No way am I going back to my old job," he says. "My future is in the stock market."Schmidt may or may not be unrealistic. But in Germany, his faith in the stock market is no longer unusual. Already warming to stocks, average folks—subway conductors, teachers, housewives— have noticed the country's celebrated entrepreneurs and concluded that they, too, can get rich, or at least richer, if they're willing to take a few risks. For most, that doesn't mean starting companies; it means buying shares, often in the companies the entrepreneurs run. Fourteen percent of Germans now own stocks, up from 8 percent in 1997.Plain...
  • The Wiles Of The Old World

    Leave it to the French to tell an American multinational where to go. Last year, having noticed how much money the government was spending on software--mostly from Microsoft--Paris bureaucrats advised state agencies to switch to cheaper products. The Ministry of Culture has since ditched Windows in favor of Linux, and other agencies plan to do likewise.Europe's competition authorities are keeping a careful eye on the U.S. case against Microsoft. Brussels will likely want any remedies imposed in America to be applied in its bailiwick, too. And meanwhile, it's proceeding with its own, separate antitrust probe into Windows 2000. Yet as France's Culture Ministry showed, Bill Gates doesn't enjoy quite the clout in the Old World that he wields in the New. "In the U.S., it tends to be a foregone conclusion that you're wedded to Windows," says Matthew Nordan, senior analyst for Forrester Research in Amsterdam. "In Europe, people are much more likely to search for alternatives."The reason?...
  • Scandal Sinks Schauble

    In the north wing of Berlin's Reichstag, Germany's despairing Christian Democrats huddled in a smoky third-floor conference room. After weeks of scandal, plummeting approval ratings and even a suicide, more than 100 CDU parliamentarians were locked in a bitter argument about the future of their party. Finally a group of renegade deputies from North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany's most populous state, decided the moment was right for a mutiny. In a tense exchange with the party's embattled chairman, Wolfgang Schauble, they demanded early elections for a new leadership. By the end of the day, Schauble had become the latest casualty in the corruption scandal tearing apart the country's conservative opposition. "We cannot go on like this," he conceded to fellow parliamentarians before announcing his resignation at a hastily called news conference. "We need a new beginning."They sure do. Schauble's ouster last Wednesday was the second shock to convulse the Christian Democratic Union in as...