Former ADAC president Peter Meyer. Photo by Raimond Spekking (Wikimedia Commons)
I have a German friend – let's call him Max – who lives three storeys above a busy Spanish tapas restaurant. The outdoor seating fills up quickly in the warmer months, and the pavement tables usually remain full till well past midnight, even though the law requires lower noise levels after 10pm. Max, who has two small children, was unhappy about the noise, so he complained to the restaurant's owner, who in turn offered my friend a €400 monthly cash payment from April through September so that he keep his mouth shut and not report the restaurant to the Ordnungsamt for violating the noise ordinance. Max happily accepted the bribe. He saves the cash and pays for a nice summer holiday for his family every year with it. This is the kind of guy who is happy to report a poorly parked car to the Ordnungsamt. A little hypocritical, you might think. And not so "German", right?
A lot of Germans I know, and the German media, like to chuckle or bitch about corruption, nepotism, tax evasion and benefits-cheating in places like Greece. We're the hard-working, honest paymasters of the continent – so goes the narrative. But a glimpse at a German newspaper these days tells a different story.
Last week the Tagesspiegel ran the front page headline "Germany not corrupt - but endangered", citing the EU's new anti-corruption report. Someone on the paper's editorial staff was having a laugh that day, because the two other big front-page stories were on feminist publisher Alice Schwarzer's tax evasion and Mayor Klaus Wowereit's cover-up of his cultural secretary Andre Schmitz's tax evasion. Okay, tax evasion isn't "corruption" per se, but I put it in the same category of naughty behaviour.
The ADAC, Germany's 19-million-member automobile club, has provided the latest evidence that Germany is not as squeaky clean as its reputation. Every day since late January some fun news has come from this €2 billion mega-Verein: the club's president Peter Meyer took ADAC rescue helicopters for business trips; relatives of top functionaries took the ADAC jet for private holidays; a ADAC helicopter was used to dry the grass on a football pitch before a Bundesliga match; the ADAC was bribed by southern European tourism promoters to give a positive report on water quality at Mediterranean beaches; 165,000 drivers were sold new car batteries they didn't need by ADAC road-side assistance; and, last but not least, the ADAC faked surveys about Germany's favourite car brands, and manipulated the rankings of the winners of the "Gelber Engel" car award! To be continued!
It's not surprising that the car industry is a major player when it comes to influence peddling and corruption in Germany. Remember last October's news that the Quandt family, the biggest shareholders of BMW, donated €690,000 to Angela Merkel's CDU? Coincidentally, at almost exactly the same time, Ms. Merkel's government was able to block new EU regulations on car pollution.
I could go on and on about this... and yet, according to Transparency International's "Corruption Perceptions Index 2013" Germany is the 12th least corrupt nation on earth – with Denmark topping the table – at least according to people's perception. That's right, the survey is based on 'perceptions'. It recorded citizens' beliefs and feelings - not hard facts.
While I can't speak for the rest of the world, there's plenty of corruption at every level of German society. From my bribe-able friend Max to our bribe-able Chancellor Merkel. Have Germans themselves fallen for the image of rectitude and honesty they've been enjoying the world over. Seems like self-disillusion on a national scale.