Germany means cars. It wasn’t always so, I confess. When I was growing up and reading recent history, Germany meant trains to me. Trains – and the awful whistle of the engine on a one-way trip to a death camp.
But times change. Today Germany is a staunch ally of Israel. Chabad Lubavitch, a worldwide Hasidic Jewish movement, has 14 centers in Germany, including a Yeshiva in Frankfurt. And I drive a German car, an Audi. To be precise, I love my Audi A4 2006 manual Turbo Diesel, the finest car I’ve ever owned.
So, when I went to Stuttgart Germany on business recently I had my eyes on the road. I liked what I saw, and not only because of all the Audis, BMW’s, Mercedes, and Porsches. It was the driving that pleased me.
The roads of Stuttgart were crowded but calm. I saw nobody speeding. I noticed only one person go through a yellow light. There were no cowboy lane-changers, no drivers talking on cell phones, and road rage was nowhere to be seen. In fact, my American host, a long-time resident of Germany, had never even heard of “road rage.”
Was this a combination of Germany’s famous orderliness and infamous obedience? No. Americans would drive this way too if our roads, like Germany’s were lined with cameras that capture speeders and scofflaws and send out hefty tickets. Nor does it hurt that Germany requires substantial and expensive “driver’s ed” classes before you can apply for a driver’s license.
I enjoyed all this on the way to a gearhead’s paradise – Stuttgart’s Mercedes-Benz Museum, where I spent a free afternoon. (For the museum, see http://www.mercedes-benz-classic.com/content/classic/mpc/mpc_classic_website/en/mpc_home/mbc/home/museum/overview_museum.html.)
This remarkable museum tells the story of the automobile from its invention in Stuttgart in the 1880s to the present day, all through the lens of the Daimler-Benz Company. It’s an architectural curiosity, a building in the round, a sort of pumped-up Guggenheim Museum with an exterior that looks like it’s made out of car bumpers. And it overwhelms a visitor with a magnificent collection of classic cars, from oddball pioneers to a 1930s sleek red roadster, to Adenauer’s postwar classic black sedan, to the emissions-free fantasy of the future. But you won’t see any of the three custom-made Mercedes that Hitler owned.
And that’s all to the good. It’s better for a country to face its past calmly and frankly than to sensationalize or, even worse, glamorize it. The museum has made the right call.
In fact, the museum handles history admirably. Panels along the wall tell the company’s story in the context of German history, and they don’t pull any punches. They make it clear that Daimler-Benz collaborated enthusiastically with the Nazis. The company smoothly transitioned from making luxury cars to manufacturing Panzer tanks and Messerschmidt airplane engines. There are exhibits on the company’s use of slave labor and there’s no attempt to absolve it of a share of blame for the Holocaust. And, as is entirely appropriate, it doesn’t dwell too long on the Third Reich either. There’s plenty here on the Wilhelmian Era, the First World War, the Weimar Republic, the postwar period, and the fall of Communism and German reunification.
Still, there are a few false notes. A panel on the assassination of U.S. President John F. Kennedy, says something to the effect of “To this day, it has never been discovered who was behind the assassination.” The only thing worse than this paranoia is the airbrushing in an exhibit on the Munich Olympics of 1972 – it doesn’t say a word about the kidnapping and murder of Israel's Olympic athletes by the Black September terrorists.
But this didn’t spoil the magnificent Mercedes Museum, which I highly recommend. Yet I brought back an even fonder memory from my trip. One week back at home in the non-urban jungle where I live – a college town in Upstate, New York – one week back driving with all the lane jockeys, tailgaters, and anger-management-class candidates, and I miss those law-abiding German drivers. Do I ever.