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Wordle after a month 1 March 2022

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It was inevitable I would try these new-fangled Wordles as soon as I heard of them a mere 4 weeks ago, because I’d fallen in love with the very word long ago. Only that time they were a particularly elegant sort of word cloud which would turn a piece of text into a beautiful picture. It was unusually and handily customisable: you could specify the fonts, colours, orientation and shape of the whole word map. Very importantly, you could specify the number of words it took into account. Why it disappeared I do not know. It’s a great shame a popular newspaper did not buy it up. Here’s one I made 8 years ago to display the success factors of community-led local development:

CLLD success factors
CLLD success factors

Edwordle tries to fill the gap but isn’t as good.

Today’s Wordles are elegant too, in a way that Hangman never was. They are one of the first few things I do when I get up in the morning. I have stayed true to the New York Times version even though Barbara tells me that other Wordles are available. I have no quibble with its universality – after all it has included both the very American ‘honor’ and the very Commonwealth ‘bloke’ in the last  month. I take it relatively seriously. My strategy is based purely on letter frequency:  I start with a word like ‘heart’ or ‘crate’ which includes some of the most frequent vowels and consonants, and follow up with words like ‘loins’ that fill the gaps. According to the Concise Oxford Dictionary the order is EARIO TNSLC UDPMH GBFYW KVXZJQ, which is NB not the same as the frequency they occur in texts. I get out pen and paper to visualise the options. I confess I have even resorted to the highly recommendable oneacross.com on one occasion. My average score is now 4.00 and falling imperceptibly. Twice I’ve done it in 2, and only once in the early days not done it at all.

There are two main ways I go wrong. Firstly I sometimes mistake a yellow letter for a green one, which sends me up a wrong avenue entirely, thinking I must have a certain letter in a position where I must definitely must not have. Secondly I sometimes forget that you can have double letters, and omit the green and yellow ones from my search. Only today, with ‘rupee’, I discovered that it doesn’t always colour in the first occurrence of the same letter.

I don’t know how long my enthusiasm is going to last – probably until it gets too commercial. I have looked at Nerdle – which was bogglingly difficult – and Worldle – which was too easy. I haven’t yet tried it in any other languages but there are plenty to choose from. Actually on my first attempt I just got the German one in 5! It’s all to play for.

Bouncing forward together – recovery through community-led approaches 10 April 2021

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Good local development responses to Covid were showcased at the first of LDnet’s recovery webinars on 8 April, from rural, urban and coastal areas.
The ADAC Leader Action Group in Guadalajara, Spain, started by surveying what businesses need, said Lola Fernández Perpiñan:
• to adapt their business models: an internet visibility seminar
• safety training: a certificated course was run, but most businesses found it too expensive to put the recommendations into practice
• investment: the LAG set up a €600,000 grant fund
• workers: the LAG used social media to identify 800 potential asparagus pickers, of whom 200 were employed
Covid has had the benefit of stemming depopulation as urbanites retreat to the countryside to telework. The Structural Funds will be used to improve broadband.

According to Giuseppe Pace of the Institute for Studies on the Mediterranean, the impact of Covid in Naples was that the tourism boom of the past decade fell off a cliff (a 73% fall). Researchers found that the industry was fragmented and working on the supposition of endless, but unsustainable, growth. No one had the skills to develop digital marketing tools. The municipality has developed a plan to reform governance, to defragment the market, and to diversify. It will create a platform on which public authorities and private entrepreneurs can co-operate, make more of the area’s UNESCO-level cultural heritage, and improve digital skills.

New products and new co-operations

Monica Veronesi from Farnet said that Fisheries Local Action Groups (FLAGs) have been taking actions including securing protective equipment, promoting seafood, digital sales, negotiating manageable restrictions on social distancing at sea, developing new products like sanitiser, and building new partnerships – for instance between fishers, processors, restaurants, carers and delivery services.
The Baltic Sea Coast FLAG in Germany was relatively well-prepared. Back in 2011 it set up Fisch vom Kutter, a simple system that enables 60 fishers to text details of their catch to port as they sail home. Buyers meet the boats at the quay: they get fresher fish and the fishers get higher prices. When Covid struck, sales rose 20% despite the absence of tourists.
In France, the Esterel Côte d’Azur FLAG reacted rapidly to the pandemic by bringing fishers, fish farmers, a fileting company and restaurants together to deliver ready meals to emergency workers such as doctors, nurses and firefighters, whose canteens had closed down. It thus created both new products and new co-operations. It also distributed branded cool boxes to stimulate direct sales.

These presentations led to a lively Q&A session from the 50+ participants, from Finland to North Macedonia.

Book for the remaining 3 webinars, on 15th, 22nd and 29th April, at: https://ldnet.eu/registration-opens-for-ldnet-webinars-recovery-through-community-led-approaches-april-2021/

Books and music as routes to migrant integration 8 April 2021

Posted by cooperatoby in EU, migrants.
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This afternoon I attended the Greek Diversity Dialogue Forum, part of the MAX project, which was really interesting, full of energising stories. It’s one of 15 such events taking place around Europe.

El Sistema Greece uses music to give refugee children in Athens and Corinth a new family where they can be themselves. Each child is given an instrument so that they can practice at home – and they are noticeably proud when they show them off. They attend weekly classical music lessons in groups of 10, which is in itself rare in Europe. The groups rapidly become multi-level as students come and go. The students support each other but nevertheless it’s a big challenge for the teachers.

In a group where 40 languages are spoken, teaching is mainly done in Greek and English but it works by magic – because everybody wants it to. Apart from the weekly lessons and rehearsals, El Sistema holds prestigious concerts of its Youth Choir and Youth Orchestra.

We Need Books, which runs libraries that have developed all sorts of non-formal educational activities. It relies on donated books, and at the moment gives them away, although it is hoping to grow into a lending library. Its library, in one of Athens’s most multicultural neighbourhoods, Kypseli, now houses 14,000 volumes in 28 languages. It has become a cultural centre offering a language café and classes in origami, philosophy, music and story-telling. This varied non-formal education is crucial in helping migrants to integrate into Greek society.

Apart from these excellent examples, the forum also addressed employability, the role of Athens municipality, and that of the media in changing the narrative to report the positive sides of migration, not only the negative stereotype.

Watch the DDF space!

ESF+ and social innovation – a slow boat to privatisation 8 April 2021

Posted by cooperatoby in social innovation.
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They keep getting better. DIESIS organised a corking webinar on 11 March on a subject dear to all our hearts – EU finance for the social economy. The 3 speakers from DG EMPL covered ESF+, EaSI and InvestEU, and easy access via Zoom allowed 60 DIESIS members to take part.
It fell to Risto Raivio, now in EMPL’s ESF Co-ordination unit, to set out as clearly as he could – no easy job – how ESF+ will support social innovation. The way it looks is that transnational innovation has to progress through three hoops:
1. An initial phase of idea creation which has to win the support of a national or regional ESF authority
2. An intermediate phase where a tiny number are brought together for transnational piloting
3. A third phase where control goes back to countries and regions for replication and mainstreaming

Innovation downgraded

Since the high days of EQUAL in 2002-08 we have seen the progressive downgrading of innovation and transnational co-operation on social affairs. This time around we see a repeat of this syndrome: we have a minuscule common budget (only €175 million out of the ESF+ total of €88,000 million – that’s 0.2%). So 99.8% of the ESF+ goes to national-level projects. (Think back to EQUAL which had 5% of the ESF, or €3,000 million.) This is a massive missed opportunity. There is a tremendous appetite among local and national organisations working on employment and social welfare to work together to improve their effectiveness, and they thrive on encouragement. Instead it looks like the architecture of ESF+ is yet another impenetrable maze of rules and regulations which can only have the effect of suppressing grassroots initiative.
The Commission is in some senses right to expect private, charitable and other social finance to play a big role, but governments are missing out on big gearing effects by failing to set up good conditions for partnership.

Indirect management

The one thing that is right about this construct is the intermediate phase, where a true European vision can be implemented. EMPL has learnt from REGIO here by choosing the method, called ‘indirect management’, under which an enthusiastic and competent Managing Authority is chosen to manage it. We can only imagine which of them might bid for this work, but, to take one example, Flanders has very good track record of using the ESF innovatively.
Someone has to say it: However hard they try, the ESF remains too complicated, and not optimally designed to carry out its self-proclaimed task of modernising Europe’s labour force and improving social conditions. The political reality is that it is caught between lofty ambitions and defensive behaviour from national governments more concerned to “keep control” rather than move things forward. The paradox is that in an era of globalisation Europe’s public authorities seem content to let private finance dominate, and see their role as scurrying round to make life easy for them.

See also: How to support innovation using the ESF

ESG is capitalist’s self-protection 1 April 2021

Posted by cooperatoby in Social enterprise.
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I am grateful to Laura Joffre at Pioneer’s Post ; who in her 12th March editorial said:

ESG and stakeholder capitalism: these are two solid concepts well-suited to doing good business, aren’t they? That’s what I thought – or wanted to think – until I attended the opening sessions of the Esela conference on Monday. Leo Strine Jr., a former judge at the Delaware supreme court and corporate law expert, explained how ‘ESG’ (environmental, social and governance) blatantly overlooked the driving force of society: workers. Minutes later, Beate Sjåfjell, a professor at the University of Oslo, demonstrated how stakeholder corporate governance didn’t bring any guarantee that a company would be sustainable. Both gave a real masterclass in jargon busting and myth debunking: buzzwords and woolly concepts are not going to solve society’s problems – don’t try to simplify the narrative. 

At Esela’s 2021 virtual conference Strine said:

“Don’t get too high-minded that you talk about ESG, because ESG is actually an investor word for moving away from corporate social responsibility. It’s a much more investor-oriented approach. It’s not coincidental that it doesn’t cover workers.”

He supports ‘EESG’ – employee, environmental, social and governance – as a better metric.

See the full conference report at: https://www.pioneerspost.com/news-views/20210310/workers-being-forgotten-esg-us-corporate-law-expert

At the same time, the Guardian reports reports that big investors are adopting ESG criteria out of self-protection, not a desire to achieve impact. It interviews Tariq Fancy, founder of Rumie, a learning technology charity in Toronto, who used to be responsible for ESG at BlackRock, the world’s largest asset manager. He says “I don’t think the public realizes we are not talking about stopping climate change. We are literally talking about selling assets so we don’t get caught up in the damage when it hits.” Investors take a short-term view: they reacted to COVID but for climate change the incentives are too long-term. Nor does disinvestment solve anything as there are always hedge funds which will buy if you sell. So government intervention is the only solution: “If you put a tax on carbon, every single portfolio manager would adjust their portfolio,” he says.

Be more self-confident – Social Economy Intergroup on digitalisation 19 February 2021

Posted by cooperatoby in social economy, Social enterprise.
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The social economy should be more self-confident in addressing the digital transition. It is perfectly placed to lead a fair and democratic digital recovery, and should be at the heart of policy. The drafters of the Social Economy Action Plan are working on several ideas.

Digitalisation was the subject and digitalisation was the method. Online accessibility led to a massive turnout of 270 for the session of the EP’s Social Economy Intergroup on 18 February entitled Skills and Digitalisation: Investing in the Social Economy as tomorrow’s economy.

The chair Heather Roy (Eurodiaconia) pinpointed the key issue, skills – an area in which the social economy is ahead of the game. The big question is should we adapt to digitalisation, or should we ask digitalisation to adapt to the SE?

Patrizia Toia MEP said that the SE should be at the heart of the digital transition, not on the sidelines. It should be given a wider role in training. It is also perfectly fitted to provide the sort of trusted data intermediaries envisaged in the Digital Governance Act.

Be more self-confident

Sven Giegold MEP noted that the digital agenda throws up some surprising issues. In economic terms, the monopolies enjoyed by social media platforms allow them to cream off unearned economic rents, i.e. to make excess profits. Co-operative banks and housing co-operatives already show how democratic ownership and trust can combat this. Linux and Wikipedia demonstrate it in the digital world. Public authorities should make a point of using open rather than proprietary software. The SE should be more energetic in pointing out the benefits of co-operative solutions which put user value first. Blockchain and other distributed ledger technologies (despite the dubious example of Bitcoin) offers fascinating possibilities, allowing people to co-operate to provide a public good.

The SE should be more self-confident when it talks about inclusion, and when it talks about the digital agenda it should promote open tech and fair market rules.

The SE must be a strong and equal part of the overall economy

Commissioner Nicolas Schmit restated that this Commission does prioritise the SE, and sees the advantages of co-operative management in many areas. It has nominated the SE as one of the 14 key industrial ecosystems for the recovery. The SE can be in the lead in several areas, and the SE Action Plan will include work on:

  • Helping the SE to create new sorts of platforms for social purposes. This means scaling up the SE and giving it the resources – not only technology (this is more or less already available) but skills. The SE must be attractive for people in the digital sphere to create new business models.
  • Enabling the SE to address the digital divide. For instance there are major roles in improving digital literacy so that citizens can benefit from eHealth, and in ensuring equal access in rural areas.
  • Making the SE a strong and equal part of the overall economy. We will not be able to handle the green transition with only companies looking at their stock valuation.

Technology is our ally

Juan Antonio Pedreño SEE) emphasised his passion for education, and mentioned plans to create a centre of excellence in co-op entrepreneurship in Spain, focusing on young people. The SE also plays a major role in renewable energy. It is important for disabled and marginalised people, and we need to harness digitalisation to ensure a fair transition. In digitalisation, the world’s largest association of independent video-game producers is La Guilde du jeu vidéo du Québec, a co-operative of 200 SMEs employing 13,000 people. COCETA is a partner in Spain’s first blockchain co-operative, BlockchainFUE. Technology is our ally, and can redynamise rural and depopulated areas – in housing, energy, agriculture and other fields.

Worker co-ops – a solution for platform workers

Giuseppe Guerini (CECOP) said that digitalisation has changed companies. People used to come together but now they are fragmented, working in isolation and doing individualised work. People lack the opportunity to choose – it’s all done by algorithms. And we give our data to social networks. This can lead to alienation and exploitation of people. Platforms can be an introduction to co-operation, by organising power horizontally. Blockchain is the main tool, and requires training. There are also opportunities in the Digital Governance Act. He highlighted CECOP’s All for One study and the EESC opinion on Blockchain and distributed ledger technology as an ideal infrastructure for Social Economy.

Laura Peracaula (Suara, Catalonia) is looking at improving homecare through the use of technologies such as remote monitoring and services delivered by television. Digitalisation can help both client and professional, for instance by combating loneliness.

Sibylle Reichert (AIM) mentioned the public role mutuals are playing during the pandemic, for instance in distributing information and tracking & tracing Health growth point of a sustainable economy not based on profit.

Patrizia Bussi (ENSIE) outlined the B-WISE Erasmus+ project, led by EASPD and ENSIE with 28 partners, which has just started to develop a skills strategy for WISEs.  Will cover skills for users, supporters and enablers (managers and engineers).

Victor Meseguer (SEE) said that Social Economy Europe will publish its proposals on the first week of March.

Initiatives mentioned

A number digital initiatives were mentioned in the comments:

EESC debate on the Social Economy Action Plan 17 February 2021

Posted by cooperatoby in social economy, Social enterprise.
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Notes on the EESC hearing of 17 Feb 21 on:

“Role of social economy in a fair and sustainable recovery: input for the future Action Plan on social economy

NB The event was attended by 73 people.

Alain Coheur noted that 14 countries have signed the Toledo Declaration.

Precise demands

In his inimitably concise way, Sven Giegold MEP called for:

  • The European statutes for associations, mutuals and associations, and a European charitable status. If this is again blocked by the unanimity rule, it should be done through enhanced co-operation.
  • Equality of legal status
  • An end to the VAT anomaly that prevents distributors like Amazon from donating returned items to charity
  • A scan of competition and state aid policy to ensure that social economy enterprises have the same opportunities as other firms. Reform is needed to facilitate the circular economy and fair trade, and is already planned as part of the Green Deal

For the employers, Maxime Cerruti of BusinessEurope expressed concern that public investment should support growth, innovation and job creation. Support for SSGIs should not distort fair competition. Investment should be coupled with structural reform of ALMPs, VET and social protection.

Víctor Meseguer (SEE), echoed by others, commented that social economy employers should represented in the EU intersectoral social dialogue alongside other employers. At the moment 2.8 million enterprises with 13.6 million employees – across all sectors, not only social services – are not properly represented.

Filipa Farelo (CASES, PT) outlined the 3 Presidency priorities: (1) a fair and sustainable recovery from the pandemic; (2) the EPSR; and (3) a European economy open to the world that is more social, green and digital. She announced a high-level conference on 29 Mar on SE and job creation, and the Porto summit 7-8 May.

SEE’s 7 priorities

Juán Antonio Pedreño (SEE) outlined the myriad ways in which the SE is contributing to a fair and sustainable recovery. He pointed out that as announced last week, SE projects are one of the priorities for recovery finance. SEE has published a document on the SEAP with 7 priorities and 48 actions. The 7 pillars are:

  • A clear and inclusive definition of social economy
  • Visibility – satellite accounts
  • Access to finance and EU funds such as InvestEU and Recovery Fund
  • Access to markets – amend Art. 54
  • Promote SE globally as driver for SDGs
  • Inclusion of SE in the Social dialogue
  • Coordinate, implement and follow up SEAP 2021-27

A sharp profile for the social economy

Jan Willem Goudriaan (EPSU) called for an end to austerity and a re-evaluation of role of state. The EESC opinion should address the flaws in our current economic model more. The SE must not be a cheap alternative to cheap affordable public services. More controversially, he said a ‘sharp profile’ for the SE is needed: the opinion should be clearer about what the SE is not, i.e. it is non-profit. Sometimes the opinion looks like it is calling for the deregulation of all enterprises (NB this may be about being clear about profit making vs. profit distribution).

Luigi Martignetti (REVES) commented that on public procurement, grassroots organisations of the social economy and local public authorities keep saying that this is not the most fitting instrument for partnerships pursuing the general interest. The EU should be aware of this, and change the overall legal framework for partnerships of this kind.

4 opportunities

Ulla Engelmann (GROW) highlighted 4 issues:

– She said that innovation depends crucially on upskilling. In the Pact for Skills, one of 14 industrial ecosystems is the ‘proximity and social economy’. It already has 94 signatories. See notes of meeting with Commissioner Schmit.

– There is a big role for the social economy in the Renovation wave, which contains an affordable housing initiative.

– On procurement, GROW has started an awareness campaign to make public authorities aware of the possibilities, and published the ‘Buying Social’ guide.

– GECES has a working group on clusters of social and ecological innovation, like the French Pôle Territorial de Coopération Economique, which will be discussed at EUSES on 26-27 May.

Jordi Cañas MEP noted that this Commission has been in office for two years, yet we still know nothing about the SEAP except that it will be published later this year. He questioned whether the social economy is a priority for the Commission at all. He proposes that the European Parliament should take the initiative by issuing an own initiative opinion before the Commission publishes the SEAP.

Luca Pastorelli (Diesis) pointed out the new role of social economy enterprises in sustainable tourism, the Balkans and the Mediterranean region.

Marina Monaco (ETUC) sad there are many areas of co-operation between trade unions and the social economy, such as worker buyouts. But they should not be used as tool to privatise public services.

Everyone recognises the social economy’s importance

Finally Ann Branch (EMPL) denied Jordi Cañas’s accusation. The Commission does take the SEAP and the EPSR seriously, and has been using the time to engage with Member States and other stakeholders. But in the meantime a number of initiatives have been taken, e.g. on a minimum wage.

The SE is important because of its resilience and its contribution to good working conditions, social protection and inclusion, as an effective way of organising welfare services and public participation. MSs need to include civil society through the SE. Everyone recognises its importance and that it has an untapped potential in inventing the economy of the future.

The SEAP recognises whole range of organisations in the social economy, all of which put people first. It aims to improve enabling conditions and enhance social investment, start-ups and scaling up, innovation, job creation, accessible services, labour market integration and upskilling. The impact assessment of the SBI found that it did indeed contribute to this – e.g. 16 MSs have new legal frameworks and €1m of ESF money has been injected – the ESF has been a game-changer in some countries.

The Digital Social Economy flexes its muscles 29 October 2020

Posted by cooperatoby in cooperative, EU, social economy, Social enterprise.
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To open, a digital cooperative joke: “How many cooperators does it take to change a lightbulb? – 11011/1100100”.

I’ve just been really impressed by the workshop on the digital social economy at the second session today of the EU social economy summit (EUSES). Chaired by Luca Pastorelli of DIESIS, the workshop made it an online conference that was definitely worth taking part in.

The key message is that 75% of the world’s digital economy is run from the USA, and only 3% from the EU. The social economy, by building bridges between innovation and local communities, plays a crucial role in Europe’s digital strategy, which aims to deliver technology that works for people, a fair and competitive digital economy, an open, democratic and sustainable digital society, and Europe as a global digital player. To do that, the digital social economy needs to scale up, and this requires investment and ecosystem support.

At the moment, the digital economy does not work for people and is unfair, closed and undemocratic. An acute analysis by Professor Trebor Scholz of the Platform Cooperativism Consortium (PCC) shows that it provides insecure low-paid and risky jobs that leave workers subject to harassment and unable to plan their lives. It fragments the workforce and makes it difficult for them to organise. “Behind every Uber driver on the street are hundreds of invisible workers in care and tech,” he said.

Giuseppe Guerini of CECOP pointed out that the digital economy has created new forms of inequality and exclusion, and that trust has become a scarce social resource. Cooperatives can help rectify this by providing work which offers dignity and a sense of identity.

Leading edge platform cooperatives

Damiano Avellino defined platforms – they don’t own or produce what they sell – they connect people. And in so doing, they extract money from local economies through the commissions they levy. during the pandemic, the owners of major platforms have enriched themselves inordinately. Contrast this with the behaviour of Fairbnb, which donates half of its 15% commission to local community projects. In the Emilia Romagna region of Italy, 1/3 of production is cooperative, and next month sees the launch of a new platform initiative called Coop Valley. Connecting people is what social enterprises are great at doing.

Sven Bartilsson reported that in Sweden, Coompanion is working with the Fairgig and Giglab projects to set up open date platforms which will allow freelancers to keep control of their own reputations. It is difficult to challenge monopolistic incumbents, and new cooperative platforms need capital if they are to survive the ‘valley of death’ as they build up a critical mass of users. He hopes to set up a €10m investment fund for digital cooperatives (Fairfond).

Timo Berg of Germany’s largest freelance cooperative, 4freelance Recruitment offers its 700 members a low (10%) commission, transparency through an open books policy, fair contracts with no ‘handcuffs’, control over their CVs, and benefits like cheap liability insurance.

It may look like Goliath has won the day, but the social economy has distinct strengths. David is starting to flex his muscles.

Presentations are to be posted on the DIESIS and EUSES websites.

To read:

New technologies and digitisation: opportunities and challenges for the social economy and social enterprises

Plateformes coopératives : des infrastructures territoriales de coopération. Un modèle d’entreprenariat numérique basé sur les communs, au service des territoires

Belief, technology and propaganda – five north German museums 29 September 2020

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Tourism is a great thing. Through tourism we learn about the world and its people and refresh our ideas. Done right, it’s a sort of play. I’m certainly missing it. Seeing as the only sort of tourism most of us are getting at the moment is the armchair sort, I am moved to write about the museums we visited during our tour of northern Germany in July.

Germany is not a very fashionable holiday destination, but it is indisputably a country and a culture to be reckoned with, and since my childhood I’ve been fascinated by its culture. I probably inherit this from my dad, who spent the latter part of his life trying to understand the people he had fought in the war. He made many German friends, particularly among Freemasons (he helped found several international lodges). My earliest memories are of wonderment and recognition of kinship when I learnt that ice cream was simply called Eis, that they had marvellous redcurrant juice (Johannisbeersaft) and we didn’t, and that they made better electrical equipment (Dad was in that business and bought from Siemens). Latterly there is the whole question of trams and urban design of course. Germany is on the whole a Good Thing, as Sellar and Yeatman would have said. Simon Winder’s trilogy Germania, Danubia and Lotharingia give a good, humorous taste of the complexities.

During this summer’s lockdown, Germany also presented the singular advantage of being right nextdoor; we could visit it without getting on a plane, and so that’s what we did. In the space of 3 weeks we went to 8 museums (we tried to go the National Museum is Szczecin too, but Poland was less organised and it was closed).

What did I learn?

I took away some powerful lessons about the power of belief, in particular regarding technology and propaganda:

  • It’s not so much technology as what people believe about technology that makes the difference. As Hitler admitted in 1943, if he had believed in the power of rockets a decade earlier he might very well have not won, but avoided World War II.
  • Propaganda is often more powerful than fact: most of the German people bought the myths that were foisted on them, like that Prora and the VW were for their benefit. Rationality and good governance are fragile!
  • Finally, that the Germans should be praised for their thorough and honest appraisal of their history, and for building such interesting museums.

Prototype for the EU

The Hansemuseum in Lübeck is truly about the Hanseatic League as a whole, not just Lübeck’s leading role in it. It has whole rooms evoking what Bruges and London were like during its heyday, with bearskins hanging up. There’s also a cog (the successful shallow-draught cargo ship they used) from 1150 which was dug up in Denmark in 1978.

The building is a bit odd in that you climb a long flight of steps to get in, and then go down in a lift to see round. But there’s a café with a fine view on top, which sells excellent Störtebeker beer,  named after a famous pirate who name implies that he “emptied the mug in one gulp”.

In some ways the Hanse prefigures the European Union – a free trade area founded in Lübeck in 1356 which at its height protected the merchants of some 165 cities against their quarrelling overlords. Dinant, Hasselt, Groningen, Stockholm, Berlin, Königsberg and Kraków were all members. In 1474 English King Henry IV signed the Treaty of Utrecht which gave the Hanse its own little self-governed enclave in London, the Steelyard (Stalhof), a 1.3-acre block of land in the City which they have now built Cannon St station on. The Hanse also had trading posts (Kontore) in Boston and King’s Lynn (as well as Novgorod, Bergen and Bruges). This lasted until 1598 when Elizabeth I expelled the Hanse because it monopolised wool exports and would not give English ships access to German ports.

The merchants had an interesting fiddle based on the different ways measures were defined: a ship’s pound of wax weighed 480 kg in Novgorod, but only 320 kg in Lübeck, so they could make a 50% profit just by keeping the price per pound the same.

A wool price enigma: A chart in the museum claims that the price of wool in London halved between 1386 and 1500, citing historian J H Munro. I have had trouble making sense of this. If wool cost ‘6.000 sterling silver pounds’ per sack of 364 lbs, then that was £39/kg, or £47,000 in today’s money. This is incredible as people could actually afford to wear clothes in those days. Munro says that wool sold for 5/- a stone in 1330, which is 39p/kg, so I can only conclude the museum has erred by a factor of 100. Even so, a kilo of wool would have cost £470 in today’s money, as against today’s price of between 32p and £3/kg. At any rate, in the middle ages, keeping warm was a luxury.

A populist lie – the Volksgemeinschaft

The most thought-provoking of these was MACHTUrlaub (‘POWERholiday’) in the ex-Nazi holiday-camp at Prora on the Baltic island of Rügen. It spaciously displays the various implications of the Nazi concept of Volksgemeinschaft or ‘popular community’ – a populist concept that we see abused today. Any infringement of human rights or democracy could be justified because of that currently so misused term the ‘will of the people’. It is a supremely slippery concept, used not only to enforce racial purity, but also in the most banal purposes, for example to exhort workers to keep their workplaces nice and clean. Similarly, companies were redefined as Betriebsgemeinschaften (enterprise communities), with a ‘leader’ and ‘followers’. Of course as members of a homogeneous ‘community’, you have no need of labour rights, but will naturally obey the bosses. After all, we are all in it together. Ring any bells?

One of the tools to bring the Volksgemeinschaft together was the Kraft durch Freude (KdF – ‘Strength through Joy’) movement, of which both Prora and the Volkswagen were projects. The Nazis worked some wonderful scams on their loyal subjects. Conned by the adverts proclaiming 5 Mark die Woche must du sparen, willst du im eignen Auto fahren, 336,000 of them dutifully filled up their savings stamp books to prepay 990 Reichsmarks (£310) for a Volkswagen. But when the ‘People’s Car’ actually hit the road in 1939, production went exclusively to the army. Everybody’s careful savings were written off. There’s also a telling reminder of the continuity of capitalism: a Mercedes Benz poster showing off its half-tracks and warplanes, for which it made engines.

The museum also gives the sickening detail of Nazi ideology and practices such as the Drang nach Osten, Lebensraum, autarky, phrenology and euthanasia: “Comrade, it costs the community 60,000 marks to keep this hereditarily sick person alive – it is your money!

Architecturally, Prora is impressive. This massive holiday resort was a forerunner of today’s packaged holidays. But it was another KdF swindle as it was supposedly built to give Nazi party members a good time on the Baltic beaches, but in the end converted into a military hospital. It was originally 6 km long and was to accommodate 20,000 holidaymakers, but it has now been trimmed to 4 km. It was built, as many Nazi megastructures were, partly by slave labour, and consisted of eight half-kilometre long 6-storey blocks lining the beach, with communal facilities in lobes sticking out to landwards. Ironically, seeing as the Nazis disapproved of and closed down the Bauhaus, it’s a beautiful clean-lined Bauhaus-inspired building, especially now it’s painted white. By now about half of the remaining 5 blocks have been renovated, and you can buy a seafront flat there for €430,000. After the Wende in 1990, a good number of voluntary associations and employment creation projects found space there, but sadly they have all been thrown out as the premises have been ruthlessly privatised. Unnecessarily, as there are still acres of echoing empty space.

Today, the long sandy beach is strewn with peaceful wicker Strandkörbe. But an uncomfortable history is all around. Just up the coast towards Sassnitz is the road-rail port of Neu Mukran, built in 1982 so that the Russians could import their tanks into East Germany direct from Klaipėda in Lithuania without going through Poland, which was getting restless and putting the transit fees up. It has a massive marshalling yard where stuff loaded on Russian 5-foot gauge wagons was transhipped. Ironically in 1994 the ferry was used to ship Russia’s atomic missiles out of Germany. The service closed in 2013, but a new dock has been built for a ferry to Trelleborg in Sweden.

The world’s first rocket factory

85 km away along the coast, Peenemünde occupies an enormous area on the northwest tip of Usedom, Germany’s easternmost island. During World War II it comprised the famously innovative rocket laboratory and testpads, a settlement for researchers and workers, a port and a power station.

It is a little disappointing that most of the site has been razed, leaving only the entrance-cum-control bunker, the coal conveyor and the power station, because the DDR kept it running until 1991. They have imported a V1 and ramp, a V2 and a Stadtbahn train (the works was so gigantic it had its own commuter railway). The power station was there because it takes immense amounts of electricity to make liquid oxygen fuel. It has its own harbour to import coal. Like Prora and Zollverein, even this humble industrial building has marvellously clean Bauhaus lines, and in particular the stairwell is beautiful, with neatly indented radiators. It has a nice little DDR-redolent café and you can go up on the roof for a panoramic view.

The history of rocket development is exhaustive, including things like the list of successful (not many) and unsuccessful test firings. The V2s were ready by October 1942, and there was no defence against them. After R V Jones had deciphered the aerial photos, the RAF pulled out all the stops and mounted a massive bombing raid in August 1942, dropping in a single night more explosive than all the V1s and V2s put together ever delivered. Unfortunately they wiped out the slave labourers’ quarters. Rocket-making was shifted to the Dora underground factory in the Harz (see below) which eventually churned out 600 V2s a week. Those that landed on London (one exploded just in front of a bus in which my ex-partner Sally was riding) were cunningly launched from mobile trailers, and there’s a photo of one set up right outside the Gemeentemuseum in the Hague.

There’s a fascinating organisational tale too: the army and air force ran separate operations, which were incompatible because the army insisted on doing everything itself, while the air force was used to partnering with private firms. This led to deadlock and the project was taken over by the Waffen-SS. But in any case it was too late to change the course of the war, because Hitler had opposed the rocket programme for too long. In fact its main function was political: to keep the Wehrmacht fighting by giving out false hope of a ‘miracle weapon’.

Afterwards, it was shameful how the Allies, in their scramble to build their own rockets, gave a free pass to the scientists they poached, because Von Braun for instance was a Nazi. There’s also a rather unnecessary section on modern uses of rocketry, attempting to whitewash weaponry as space exploration.

KZ Mittelbau-Dora in the Harz was where the V2s were built after Peenemünde was bombed. Again almost everything has been demolished, but is compensated for by a spanking new museum and an expansive view. As you drive up from the main road along the possibly deliberately-named Freiheitsstraße, you cross the Harzquerbahn with its diesel-electric trams speeding between Nordhausen and Ilfeld. You then see the railway marshalling yard and then pass the blasted entrances to tunnels A and B on your right. Straight ahead is the site of the concentration camp, but we didn’t tour that (we already ran over the 6 p.m. closing time in the museum). If we’d planned better, we might have got a tour of the tunnels.

Spooky SS castle

I happened to spot a brown tourist sign to Wewelsburg on the A44 as we sped home from Göttingen towards Essen, so given Philip Kerr’s story of the spooky Nazi memorabilia in the local inn I wanted to see it. It’s in a modern building at the edge of the moat of the original castle, and you can walk to the Nordturm to see (but in theory not to photograph) the SS cult temple in the basement. There is material showing how the SS was intent on building a new culture, for instance ‘Yule balls’ to replace Christmas tree decorations. Also testimonies from inmates of the KZ and ‘whatever happened to’s of the leading men. The SS was a sprawling state within a state, an elite community with its own quasi-religious oaths, beliefs and rituals. Wewelsburg was to be its cult centre. If things had turned out differently, it would now be a massive SS religious site, which Himmler modestly called ‘the centre of the world’. These people were quite bonkers.


Short notes on the three other museums we saw:

Zollverein colliery, Essen: a fine and immense site, dominated by the iconic double-sided headgear of shaft XII. It’s that unlikely thing, a beautiful coal mine. The Ruhrmuseum it houses is a diverting hotchpotch of various local collections, from ammonites to religious statues to wolves to drainage maps (the mines still need pumping, and there are large areas of polder caused by subsidence) to pictures of local kiosks (omnipresent linchpins of local culture). It’s comforting that yellow no. 107 trams pass by. The Friends Hotel is very stylish and has a great terrace.

• The Emigration Museum in Bremerhaven has statistics, a mock-up of boarding a ship, mock-up ships’ cabins, a mock-up of a hall in Grand Central Station, and maps showing who settled where. The semi-detached afterthought on immigration has the potential to be more interesting: at the moment it has a nice recreation of a shopping street in the 50s, immigrant foods etc.

• The old Meeresmuseum and the new Ozeanium in the beautiful town of Stralsund were ok, if you like whale skeletons. The former has touchingly preserved a section on the prowess of the DDR fishing fleet, claiming it invented a new type of trawl. Unhappily the town museum next door was closed (I think for renovation).

In the beginning was the word – blikvangers 27 September 2020

Posted by cooperatoby in journalism.
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Blikvanger. Image Erik1980, CC BY-SA 3.0, httpscommons.wikimedia.orgwindex.phpcurid=1765008

There aren’t many things that have been magicked into existence purely on account of a word, but blikvangers are such a rare thing. They are the solution to a problem nobody knew existed – how to throw an empty can away. It’s not so much a matter of form following function as function following joke, a pun made real.

Blikvangers only exist because of an ambiguity: in Dutch blik means both ‘glance’ and ‘tin can’. Vangen means ‘to catch’. So the original meaning of blikvanger is just ‘eye-catcher’, something which looks attractive. It’s also used for an attention-grabbing introduction to a journalistic article or advertisement. But if you think laterally and imagine what a ‘can-catcher’ might be, you end up with a net on a hoop, into which you can throw rubbish as you drive, cycle or walk by. Banished in a moment is that terrible problem of pausing for half a second by a waste bin. You can save the world without even dismounting from your bike!

Blikvangers are not exactly bad things, but they are certainly an eccentricity. And as street furniture they aren’t even particularly nice to look at.

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