OBSERVATIONS IN CENTRAL EUROPE

Miscellaneous Observations During a 14 Day Tour

FUTURECASTS online magazine
www.futurecasts.com
Vol. 5, No. 8, 8/1/03

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A guided tour:

 

 

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  A 14 day guided tour of some of the standard tourist attractions in the Czech Republic and eastern Germany is - like the one in China last year - hardly likely in itself to provide profound insights into this region. Nevertheless - as with China - there is much of more or less interest that can be seen as a tour proceeds through major and smaller cities and various stretches of countryside - much that can be seen of things that seldom if ever find their way into Western print media.
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  This article thus is limited to providing a few otherwise generally unavailable pieces of the puzzle that is two of the transformation economies of Central Europe, plus a few narrowly drawn conclusions. There is no pretence herein of larger purposes.
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The miracle:

  A sense of the miraculous is the first sensation after landing in Central Europe. That free peoples now routinely move freely about this region still has a feeling of unreality to those who have lived through the Cold War. Whatever the residual handicaps from the decades of socialism, this sense of freedom is palpable.
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Many are anxious about this world of capitalist competition - and some miss the sense of larger mission. Many professionals, in particular, miss the security of their government paychecks, light workloads, job security and long vacations.

 

There is everywhere clear evidence that these newly freed peoples are successfully achieving a prosperous future.

  The benefits of cooperation and integration among nations is everywhere acknowledged. Only questions of degree of integration remain. The Germans have encouragingly had their fill of war.
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  However, many Czechs and Germans remain dubious
about their newly won economic freedom - with its concomitant risks  and personal responsibility. They are, of course, readily accepting of the benefits - the ability to travel freely, own their own homes and businesses and pursue individual interests.
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  However, many are anxious about this world of capitalist competition - and some miss the sense of larger mission. Many professionals, in particular, miss the reliability of their government paychecks, their light workloads, job security and long vacations. This is especially true of those over 60 year of age - those who could have fled before the Wall went up - but chose to stay.
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  It clearly is not easy to change a social welfare state into a capitalist democracy. These nations will seek their own balances - but driven always by the inexorable logic of the markets - and may not become wholly comfortable with their new economic freedoms, opportunities, risks and responsibilities until a new generation has arrived in sufficient numbers to become the predominant economic cohort.
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  Nevertheless, it is little short of amazing how far these people have come in little more than a decade. Despite democratic systems that are far from perfect - economic policies that are far from perfect - and in some cases the substantial looting of public assets - the peoples of Central Europe have nevertheless been able to lift themselves out of poverty, and establish observably thriving communities.
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   What a marvelous engine of wealth creation capitalism is! There can be no more spectacular evidence of the benefits of economic freedom - of the capitalist free enterprise system. Fortunately, market perfection is not required - since it is of course seldom achieved. Of course, lots of problems remain, but there is everywhere clear evidence that these newly freed peoples are successfully achieving a prosperous future.
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  Instances of mythmaking about WW-II
  occasionally disconcertingly arise. However, at least they are apparently confined to relatively minor matters. None of these current myths is remotely like the "stab in the back" myth that caused so much mischief after WW-I. While instances of residual petty socialist officiousness are not unusual, the people are almost invariably welcoming.
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Property rights:

 

 

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  The impact of property rights or lack thereof is immediately evident when touring these transformation economies. Flying into or out of the Czech Republic or eastern Germany on clear days in June, one is struck by the beauty of the countryside with its well kept tree bordered farmlands, all in various shades of green, interspersed with woodlands of various extent and along streams. The scene is dotted with small clusters of neat little homes, brightly painted and roofed in red tile in the European style.
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Homes and shops are kept attractive and well maintained. Here and there, in jarring juxtaposition, is a dilapidated structure - generally where property rights have not yet been resolved.

  One benefit of a stagnant population is the absence of suburban sprawl. Where the towns end, the countryside begins, with little suburban ambiguity evident even around the larger cities. At least in June, no major traffic jams were evident anywhere.
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  On the ground, it becomes immediately evident that homes and shops are kept attractive and well maintained. Here and there, in jarring juxtaposition, is a dilapidated structure - generally where property rights have not yet been resolved. This contrasts sharply with such nations as China, in which - like all socialist nations without legally enforceable private property rights - a massive bill for deferred maintenance is glaringly accumulating in the homes, apartment blocks and shops leased from the government. See, "Observations about China."
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Residual impact of WW-II:

  Traditional construction in the Czech Republic and eastern Germany is predominantly brick covered with stucco brightly painted in baroque and rococo style.
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Prague was spared most of the destruction of combat, and thus provides a marvelous example of old Europe at its most charming best.

 

Dresden remains a controversial example of the residual impact of WW-II, and grieves the loss of much of its architectural heritage.

  Prague is a thoroughly charming city, with pervasive idiosyncratic architectural flourishes added to the facades and roofs. These make it look like a set from a Walt Disney animated film. Tinker Bell might have flown in over the rooftops at any minute. Like several other cities and towns in this vicinity, WW-II ended before the arrival of the Soviet troops, so it was spared most of the destruction of combat. It thus provides a marvelous example of old Europe at its most charming best.
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  To see a spirited production of Mozart's "Don Giovanni" in the lovely old opera house where Mozart himself conducted the opera adds yet another dimension to the storybook character of the city.
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  In the northwestern Czech Republic and southernmost areas of eastern Germany, the scene remains the same, but the architecture is much plainer than in Prague. However, it does not take long to reach towns in Germany with some industrial base that made them targets for WW-II bombing. Here, Dresden remains a controversial example, and grieves the loss of much of its architectural heritage.
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The charmless communist era apartment blocks that remain constitute much resented scars on the skylines of rapidly rebuilding eastern German towns and cities. Eastern Germany is also littered with derelict socialist industrial facilities.

 

 In Berlin, the world's most celebrated architects are transforming the rivers' edges into an open, airy new and remarkable masterpiece.

  The East German sector suffered twice from WW-II destruction. First, it suffered from Allied bombing and sometimes from Eastern Front combat. But then - much more lastingly - it suffered again - from communist reconstruction in the charmless "socialist realism" style - akin to urban renewal architecture in the U.S. - only more so.
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  Some of these apartment blocks have been renovated for low cost housing - some are being knocked down to free up valuable real estate - and much is currently left derelict. All that remain constitute much resented scars on the skylines of rapidly rebuilding eastern German towns and cities. Eastern Germany is also littered with derelict socialist industrial facilities.
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  The area has its share of monumental castles, glorious palaces and cathedrals, charming churches and intriguing museums. Sanssouci, the summer palace of Frederick the Great in Potsdam, is a delight. One of the great benefits of the days of royalty is the extent to which palaces and castles have been transformed into delightful parks for public enjoyment.
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The Elbe - after Prague -
is a small meandering brown rag of a river that has a hard time moving through the lack of life and the hard conditions of its shores - as lumpy as its river bottom over which the shallow-draft flat-bottomed river cruise boat frequently scrapes. Floating northwards, the new clear waters of entering rivers feed and clarify the expanding river. With lakes, wetlands and islands, the river and the old and new lands seem washed afresh and full of new promise and expanded energy.
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  The great Konigstein Castle on its dominating height offers panoramic views of the river and countryside. The weathered spires of the black sandstone mountains offer fantastic examples of God's architectural prowess. Antonin Dvorack's home, Meissen's Porcelain Museum, Albrecht's Castle, and the world of Martin Luther - including the door (represented by a replacement) in Wittenberg where the Reformation began - are highlights along the way.
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  Through Potsdam, Sanssouci, and the Grunewald, the river and connecting canals - changing direction, changing names and clarifying its new climate and purpose - becomes the winding Spree lapping and watering the new Berlin. Liebeskind, Jahn, Piano, Gehry and Foster - the great sculptors of the energized city - are mirroring the waters' light in glass and steel. These sculptors - the world's most celebrated architects - are transforming the rivers' edges into an open, airy new and remarkable masterpiece.
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  In Dresden and Berlin,
the museums let you get close up and personal with such masters as Rubens, Rembrandt, Italian masters of cityscapes and Flemish masters of still-life and rural scenes. While Nazi looters like Göring took good care of the paintings, some of the exhibits - like  the Egyptian columns and arches - could not be moved, and show damage from the bombing. Nevertheless, they retain their interest - and the bust of Nefertiti in Berlin is exceptional.
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Monumental structures:

  A sandstone is the primarily available and preferred stone used for monumental structures in Germany. It is a soft stone, easily worked, permitting a variety of decorative flourishes. However, the peculiar nature of this stone is that it turns a sooty black with age due to natural chemical processes.
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  In essence, it rusts a sooty black. Nor can it be cleaned without removing the surface stone, a process that is impossible with statuary, friezes and other fine ornamental work. Thus, Germany lives with blackened cathedrals, churches, monuments and municipal buildings.
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  Some people find this attractive and grieve for the many blackened old structures destroyed in WW-II. Others find it foreboding - a suitable backdrop for Germany's recent history. At present, it is a clear indication of which structures were unscathed, which were restored, and which have been rebuilt since WW-II. On some major restored structures, the presence of two or three white statues at various points among the black statues along the rooftops probably provide a good indication of where the bombs fell.
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  Nevertheless, Prague, Berlin, and the towns along the Elbe, are all very exciting historically and architecturally lovely. Dresden clearly deserves its reputation for architectural beauty. A long wall of the Langer Gang building - decorated with porcelain tiles depicting the procession of Saxon rulers - is an awesome monument to German craftsmanship.
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Berlin:

  Berlin, of course, is sui generis. It is too big to be charming, but not big enough to be imposing. It sprawls over a vast expanse, accommodating  small rivers and lakes and an impressive array of parks.
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Despite the recent relocation of Germany's federal government to Berlin, the population of the city has declined substantially in the last few years.

 

Vacancies in apartment buildings and office buildings are already at alarming levels, and although construction remains widely evident, the building boom is clearly past its peak.

  There are still the occasional ruins from WW-II, and the rare structures that were untouched or recoverable in the old baroque style. Indeed, many of the new apartments are in the old baroque style, but the new office buildings and many of the new apartments are modern, with those spectacular glass sided structures of substantial but not skyscraper height sprouting in the city centers - examples of the finest of modern architecture.
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  Those who traveled to Berlin during the Cold War - and especially those who were able to get into East Berlin - are invariably astounded by the progress that has been made. The clearing away of both the remaining rubble of WW-II and the architectural abominations of socialist realism leaves Berlin a vibrant, modern city - a magnet for visitors from everywhere.
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  Segments of the Berlin Wall
still stand - most notably a one mile stretch along the river - an inspiration for numerous graffiti artists - and an ominous reminder of the lengths that man will go to to dominate and enslave his fellow man. A thin line of paving bricks snakes across the city marking where the Wall once stood.
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  It is not unusual to pass groups of youngsters - late teens and early 20s - in jeans and backpacks - and to realize as you get close enough to hear their chatter that they are from the U.S. Indeed, there are many such groups chattering in many different languages. However, despite the recent relocation of Germany's federal government to Berlin, the population of the city has declined substantially in the last few years.
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  Again a benefit of stagnant population, land is not so expensive as to justify skyscraper construction. Indeed, there are frequent vacant lots - some of considerable size - just a couple of miles to the east of the city center. There are a variety of other  factors that have prevented skyscraper construction in Berlin, something that is actually a substantial scenic advantage. In any event, vacancies in apartment buildings and office buildings are already at alarming levels, and although construction remains widely evident, the building boom is clearly past its peak.
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  Middle income apartment buildings sport an array of satellite dishes on every little balcony on the appropriate side of the building. The dishes are much less in evidence in the low rent apartments, and the luxury buildings undoubtedly have satellite access built in. Turkish and Asian peoples are widely evident.
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Living conditions:

  There has been a vast improvement in living conditions since the fall of the Berlin Wall - much of types that escape the economic statistics. Much of the home beautification and maintenance is undoubtedly of the self help variety.
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The shops close early, and throngs of people leisurely enjoy the long summer evenings in broad town squares, along attractive boulevards, and in restaurants and cafes and various places of amusement.

 

Graffiti is everywhere. Unemployment among the young is dangerously high in Germany.

  The quality and variety of goods and services available has blossomed. These, too, are vital factors in living standards that are poorly reflected in economic statistics. The availability of citrus fruits and fashionable clothing and quality appliances are examples of such benefits.
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  "Victory garden" spaces are provided in many towns in both countries. These garden plots are clearly very productive. The little structures in which tools are kept are well maintained - some looking like oversized doll houses. Work in these gardens is considered a form of recreation as well as a source of fresh produce and flowers.
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  Every town has its town square, and the larger towns have several. Farmers markets and flea markets are regular features, drawing throngs of townspeople into the squares. These markets are just the most obvious signs of a thriving gray market.
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  Everywhere, the shops close early, and throngs of people leisurely enjoy the long summer evenings in broad town squares, along attractive boulevards, and in restaurants and cafes and various places of amusement. There is the buoyant sense of freedom - something else that doesn't appear in the economic statistics.
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  However, although not as glaring as in New York City, graffiti is everywhere. Unemployment among the young is dangerously high in Germany. Germany will not be able to solve its growing economic problems without accommodating market realities.

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Copyright © 2003 Dan Blatt