Sunday, 30 September 2012

Michael Schumacher and the (Male) German Psyche

The news spread like a brushfire through the German media on Friday morning: Mercedes had fired their legendary Formula One driver, Michael Schumacher. Well, to be completely accurate, the reports were that they would not be renewing his contract beyond the end of this season, which amounts to more or less the same thing. Therefore the chances are good that, at the age of forty three, Schumacher will be retiring for the second time from the first division of motor racing – this time for good.

So what? Another overpaid top sportsman finally quits. Like Michael Jordan, Zinedine Zidane, Carl Lewis, David Beckham, and all the others. They entertained and were idolised by hundreds of millions, earned hundreds of millions and then rode off into the sunset, turning up occasionally as experts or “celebrities” on TV, their doings (particularly if there was even a whiff of scandal about them) being breathlessly reported in illustrated magazines and the more sensationalist of newspapers and (increasingly) web-sites. Big deal.

And the same is largely true of Schumacher. In 2010, one source estimated his net worth at around 830 million US dollars. That was the year he came back to Formula One after three years in retirement, Mercedes reportedly paying him around 30 million US$ annually to do so (not including what he earns from endorsements).

The argument often made with regards to the insane amounts earned by top sportsmen is that – in terms of returns – they are actually worth it, earning through their success much larger sums (through sponsorships, advertising value, TV-rights – especially TV-rights) for those who are actually paying them their millions. The irony about Schumacher is that success has eluded him and his Mercedes paymasters for the past three years; the best he has achieved in that period is one third place in a Grand Prix. 90 million dollars plus for that kind of performance? Nice work, if you can get it.

But maybe I shouldn’t be so small minded. Formula One is a global business where the millions are simply sloshing around, and Bernie Ecclestone, the geriatric Andy Warhol lookalike who actually owns the whole circus, is much richer than Schumacher. Economically rising and wannabe prestige-hungry countries like India, Russia, Turkey and Bahrain (to mention but a few) are all spending millions on purpose-built circuits just to attract this circus for an annual visit. They are also prepared – according to most reports – to pay Mr. Ecclestone handsomely for the privilege. And if there are human-rights or other such issues (as, most famously, in Bahrain recently), well, that kind of thing doesn’t really bother Bernie. Sport is sport and politics is politics and, hey folks, the show must go on. Bernie has been known to express some rather strange political views (about not everything being old Adolf’s fault, for instance) but then, there may be the onset of some slight senility here. His comrade in arms for much of his career, Max Mosley (boss of the FIA, the sporting body responsible for Fomula One), had the dubious distinction of being the son of the old British fascist, Sir Oswald Mosley – but then, we can’t choose our parents, can we?

Schumacher – to be fair to him – doesn’t really seem to be driven by greed; not as much as many of the others involved in his business/sport at any rate. He is quite a generous philanthropist, most famously donating $ 10 million in the wake of the Indian Ocean Tsunami/Earthquake of 2004. On the other hand, he moved his main residence from Germany to Switzerland, apparently for tax purposes. But then, a reluctance to pay taxes on their massive earnings in their native countries is a characteristic he shares with many of his racing colleagues, quite a few of whom prefer Monte Carlo as their place of residence. And from the beginning of his career up to a few years ago he was managed by the notorious, larger-than-life Willi Weber, a German impresario with a tendency to occasionally questionable business practices and a sharp eye for the best deal in every conceivable situation. Weber discovered the young Schumacher, gambling on his talent and bankrolling his entrance into Formula One in 1991 in return for a fifth of all Schumacher’s earnings for the next ten years, thus gaining him the nickname “Mr. Twenty Percent.” That deal gave Weber a powerful incentive to maximally market his client in every conceivable way, and he was diligent indeed.

No, no, no! I could easily carry on in this vein for the rest of the essay, the slightly supercilious tone of the university-educated, left-leaning, eco-conscious, culture-vulture, politically-correct intellectual I suppose I am, doing the usual condescending deconstruction of one of the favourite sports of the shallow, media-conned masses. This kind of thing practically writes itself. I could sneer about all the things that irritate me about Michael Schumacher, particularly his deification by so many ordinary German men, the kind who read the Bild newspaper, pin up Playboy centrefolds in their places of work, wash their cars every Saturday, go to Majorca with their mates from the bowling-club for a long weekend of boozing and tail-chasing every year, and dream of driving expensive cars with three-pointed stars or blue and white badges. Let me try another approach …

Benz Patent Motorwagen 1885
Germans have a particular fascination with motor cars. Although there were many people working on the concept of the “horseless carriage” in the second half of the 19th Century, it is generally agreed that the inventor of the automobile was the German Karl Benz, who took out a patent for it in 1886. Many of the other significant names working in the area were also German, Gottlieb Daimler and Rudolf Diesel, for instance. So from the very beginning there has been a deep connection between Germans and the automobile, something they themselves are well conscious of, frequently calling the car “des Deutschen liebstes Kind / the German’s favourite child.”

The argument I am developing here may be contradicted by many Americans, who can justifiably mention the central role the automobile has played in American consciousness for a hundred years, referring to Buicks and Chevrolets, Pontiacs and Chryslers and pointing out that Henry Ford was mass-producing Model Ts decades before Adolf Hitler ordered Ferdinand Porsche to design a “Peoples’ Car” / Volkswagen. And there is, of course, much truth in this.

However, I would contend that the essential difference between Americans and Germans in this regard is that the American fascination is fundamentally that with the road, while the German obsession is with the car itself. Both have to do with mobility, of course, but the meme of the road, as central to the understanding of the American psyche, goes far beyond the means of transportation to encompass all sorts of themes like freedom, frontier, adventure, leaving it all behind, a whole way of life and consciousness. The German preoccupation with the car has more to do with the object itself; its possibilities, its design, its engineering, speed and comfort. The car as a symbol of … status, power, even freedom.

For many Germans, the car itself quickly becomes an object of obsession, almost a fetish. While the dusty, battered pick-up is one of the cultural icons of a particular American rugged identity, the idea of driving a dirty, dinged car is almost physically painful to most German motorists. The following ad, highlighting one of the differences between the French and the Germans, illustrates the point I am trying to make very well:

For the typical German male, his car is one of his most treasured possessions. It is carefully looked after, regularly serviced, the smallest defect is immediately taken care of, and it is washed, waxed and polished regularly (traditionally on Saturdays, though for environmental reasons the private washing of cars is today generally prohibited). Even the smallest, most insignificant scrape between two cars will, in Germany, immediately lead to the police being called (so that questions of liability can be cleared up immediately, in case of possible dispute), where everywhere else people are quite happy to simply exchange insurance numbers. Though in many respects I have become completely “Germanised” after twenty six years in this country, in this case I am, and will remain, obstinately foreign; I regard an automobile as nothing more than a comfortable means of conveyance from A to B and still do not understand why nearly all modern cars are sold with bumpers painted the same colour as the rest of the vehicle.

While I don’t want to get into sexism or genderism here, I think it is generally accepted that an interest in the “mechanics” of things is more prevalent among the male of the species. Combine this with a fascination for speed, and a strong competitive instinct (also more typical masculine preoccupations) and you start to understand the seemingly mindless pleasure men derive from watching cars driving at speed around in circles, or – even better – driving them themselves.

Almost uniquely, the Germans – normally so uptight and controlling about things – actually allow everyone with a driving licence the possibility to live this out to an extent. On the German Autobahns there is no speed-limit, so that you can actually personally check out the top speed specifications the manufacturer claims for your car. Of course, large parts of the motorways do have speed limits for all sorts of safety reasons, but there are also enough long straight stretches where you can really let it rip. Despite a general acceptance of all sorts of “green” consciousness by Germans, none of the major political parties (with the obvious exception of the Greens) are prepared to put general Autobahn speed-limits into their programmes – it’s an absolute vote killer. And let me tell you, there is something viscerally very satisfying about driving at well over a hundred miles an hour, your concentration completely on what you are doing – and fuck the fact that you’re burning twenty per cent more fuel than you would be by driving more sedately. Need for speed, yeah!

But, of course, to do this at the really top speeds possible, in competition with others, demands a level of skills very few of us have, a willingness to risk one’s life continually in order to win, and the kind of motorised technology beyond the financial possibilities of most of us. Hence motor racing.

And then there’s that other thing, the thing we don’t like to admit to, that deeper truth which comes from that more savage, dark, primitive part of our nature. The thing that set our ancestors howling on the stands of the Roman gladiatorial arenas, hissing at medieval beheadings, or heretic or witch burnings, looking on with grim, self-righteous approval at 19th Century public hangings. That part of us which isn’t just appreciating the speed of the competitors, their skills in overtaking opponents, the clever strategy of a pit-stop judged just right. The cruel, bloodthirsty part of us which is just waiting for – to be honest, hoping for – the crash. Wreckage and maybe even blood and body parts flying all over the place. Burn, baby, burn!

Ok, so what about Schumacher? Get on with it!

A combination of circumstances can sometimes give rise to a situation where a figure of general public interest may become something more than this; an avatar of the hopes and aspirations of a whole group or nation. The most complete and perfect way to this kind of transformation comes through sudden, usually (though not always) violent death. Examples of this kind of apotheosis are Elvis, John Lennon and, of course, Princess Diana. But it happens to the living too, like a kind of aura which comes over them and lets them shine in an almost inhuman way for particular groups, nations or transnational groups for a while. It happened to Bob Dylan in the early sixties, and the Beatles soon after that. Muhammad Ali was one, so was Michael Jordan. Bob Marley (already before his death in his native Jamaica, after it worldwide).

During the 1990s Michael Schumacher’s popularity grew steadily in his native Germany, particularly after he won the World Championships in 1994 and 1995. In the 1996 season he moved to Ferrari and over the next few years worked with the Italian team to establish the combination of the best driver in the best car in Formula One. The result was an unprecedented period from 2000 to 2004, when Schumacher was World Champion for five years in a row.

This was the period when Schumacher became immortal for his German fans and an icon of the hopes and dreams of millions of German men. Ordinary men, what you might call “blue-collar” men.

At the end of the last century, many of the traditional self-defining characteristics of the ordinary German blue-collar male were coming under pressure. The increasing mainstream acceptance of much of the feminist agenda had much to do with this (as in the rest of the developed world), but there were also other, specifically German factors. The economic and social pressures caused by reunification were starting to make themselves felt, as were the effects of increasing globalisation. Immigrants were making up an ever more visible part of the human landscape.

The old social consensus of the Bonner Republik was in flux, the model according to which anyone prepared to work hard would find a job, be able to live a decent live with a modicum of comfort with his family and look forward to a happy old age, backed up by a secure contributory state pension. Tax money was flowing in billions into the former GDR, leaving less for the old West Germany, semi-skilled jobs were melting away, wandering into Eastern Europe or Asia where wage-costs were much lower. The old, relaxed, certain world of the work place was coming more under the turbo pressure of performance maximisation and targets, rationalisation, increased continual training and expertise requirements. Brain trumped brawn everywhere and it was the young business graduates with their suits and computers who seemed to be taking control of everything.

But against all this, there was Schumi, the kid from an ordinary working-class family, without privilege and attitude (or even much formal education), who wouldn’t even had had enough money and influence to break into the elite super-rich world of Formula One, despite his talent, if Willi Weber hadn’t financed him. But he did break into it and showed the world what an ordinary German man, possessing the characteristics of an ordinary German man, the ability to work hard, be dependable, and know motors, could do. He was the typical kid next door and allowed the fantasy that – had Lady Luck just tossed the dice a little differently – you or me could have done this as well. After all, every German man is secretly convinced that he too is an excellent driver. Not to deny, of course, that Unser Michael / our Michael is supremely talented, a consummate sportsman, and deserves every million he earns.

Unser Michael. For a particular segment of Germans, Schumacher became an embodiment of Everyman, a universal figure of identification. Even in the name the connection was there, the Deutscher Michel being a personified representation of ordinary Germanness, like John Bull or Joe Bloggs in the UK, or Joe Sixpack in the USA. All of this cannily encouraged by Weber’s comprehensive marketing and the fact that RTL, the most popular private TV channel in Germany and one whose strategy was to broadcast programmes for the “ordinary” German with a large dollop of naked tits, sensationalist reporting, Jerry Springer-like talk shows, and docu-soaps, had the franchise for Formula One. And it was this identification which turned Schumi into a figure of adulation; important enough to get millions of German men up before 6.00 a.m. on a Sunday morning to watch him race live in the Australian or Japanese Grand Prix. And win.

Such avatar phenomena are finite. Dylan gradually lost his after his controversial decision to go electric and Schumacher’s slowly faded after his (first) retirement in late 2006. The comeback was always going to be a risky business – of all such icons, Muhammad Ali was the only one who can be said to have managed it, and Ali was a special case because his retirement was forced at such a young age. And (dare I say it?) because his whole personality and character are exceptional in a way that Schumacher’s are not.

Of course, all this could just be pseudo-intellectual bullshit and Michael Schumacher may still really be the latest incarnation of Jesus Christ. Whatever, I still don’t like the lantern-jawed bastard!

Pictures retrieved from:

(Comments: I'll be away for the next few days and my internet presence may be sporadic, so don't worry if it takes some time for your comments to appear.)


  1. Not a race car enthusiast. If the names not Allison, Andretti or Earnhardt(German?) I don't even recognize it. I do admire success and if there's a good book on this fellar Schummacher it sounds like it would make an interesting read.

    Don't worry Bonnie, he's on his way.


  2. I'm not fond of most professional sport but I'm happy to read anything you care to write about. I bet you could write a fascinating discourse about the local telephone directory if you had a mind to do so.

  3. I've actually thought more about this essay than I thought I would, given the subject matter. I started thinking about how unusually diverse a nation the United States is and how there are as many attitudes toward automobiles as there are types of Americans.

    I took down some ideas and images and I hope to get back to it and turn it into a post. Thanks for the inspiration! In what you write, one just never knows what she will come away with...

    Oh, and I've never heard Bonny Tyler. I couldn't even really place the name. A blond Pat Benatar?

    Thanks, Francis. Always a pleasure here. :-)


Your comments are, of course, welcome. I've had to reinstall captchas recently as - like most other bloggers - I was being plagued by spambots.


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