Obama in Buchenwald

(Aired on NPR Newscasts, 06June2009)

After making a speech in Egypt, President Barack Obama flew through Germany for a visit to Buchenwald, a former concentration camp. Tony Ganzer reports on the German reaction to the visit.

Mr. Obama’s visit to Buchenwald dominated media coverage in the country, as reports praise Mr. Obama’s visit as a step in a new direction for European-US relations.

Major newspapers in Munich and Hamburg praised Mr. Obama’s 2-hour visit to Buchenwald, saying the US focus is now not entirely on the war on terror.  Commentators said Mr. Obama has a unique opportunity to apply lessons learned in the past to events of today.  German magazine Der Spiegel called Mr. Obama’s visit to Buchenwald more than just an appointment, but rather a personal chance to learn and remember.

The President in spending the day in Normandy, France as part of a D-Day commemoration.

For NPR News, I’m Tony Ganzer in Berlin.

A “Fourth” Away from “Home”

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Editor’s note: Here are some past thoughts about living a Fourth away from home, from 4July2009. A new post will be coming soon.

Regular readers of AnthonyGanzer.com may be surprised by this, given my frequent jaunts to Europe over the last few years, but this is my first “Fourth of July” not on American soil.  The “Fourth” has taken its hits as a holiday just as others have.  Christmas was adorned with Santa and commercialism, Easter with rabbits and biologically inaccurate eggs, and the “Fourth” has its customary PBS concert specials and sales on charcoal briquettes–the things on which freedom was built, of course.  And who can forget the elaborate fireworks displays, and toddlers running around with “harmless” sparklers in the front yard.

But even those subtle remembrances to our country’s founding are absent here in Germany, though a faint sense of patriotism still wafts in the air.

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Vacations and floods

Dresden castle

There was a time when journalists played the part of an “ambulance chaser;” ink-stained scoop-hunters would rush to see which building burned; what criminal was nabbed; what neighborhood was afflicted.  With technology, newsrooms could selectively send reporters out depending on what seemed most newsworthy on the scanner.  I have never been on such a beat where I had to be so on the spot for news.  Much of public radio reporting’s strength is in its analysis, and ability to pull back from the news frenzy.  Rushing to report is often how mistakes are made, yet time is often of the essence.

Even if I am not often covering the breaking news, I still follow it, even when I am on vacation.  On a recent trip to Germany my troupe decided for a quick trip to Dresden, a lovely city in Germany’s East.  We happened to arrive in early June just as storms were ripping through Central Europe.  I turned on MDR, central German public television, in our hotel room before a planned walk to the River Elbe near the Altstadt (old town.)  The Elbe was flooding then, but not as bad as other rivers.  Dresden was affected, as were Leipzig and Passau, Prague, and many small villages between.  Dresden was affected but not terribly, according to the news.  We had just arrived, and a steady stream of emergency vehicles rushed outside our hotel window; a convoy of five German Red Cross vans sped back and forth.

There was only one thing for a vacationing reporter with family to do in such a situation: go for a walk and see what’s happening.

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In Basel, public transit is trying hard to be tri-national

Basel is located in the Dreiländereck, or three-nation corner, where Germany, France and Switzerland come together. While other regions have cross-border transport systems, Basel has had to juggle three sets of bureaucracy, financing, and personalities. And while the system has had success, there are still challenges. WRS’s Tony Ganzer reports.

Older style trams hum along Basel’s century-old transport network just as one would expect in a Swiss city. But unlike other cities, trams, buses, and trains here have to traverse international divides.

“Basel absolutely depends on a functioning tri-national public transport system because the city of Basel sits right on the border, so there is no other way than as to overcome these boundaries,” says Hans-Peter Wessels, a member of Basel City’s cantonal executive.

He says historically cross-border tram lines were much better than today, with good-running lines to Alsace and Germany before World War 2. But the in an ever-more connected age, countries are slowly creating a new kind of integrated system.

basel-dreilaendereck-sign

“The borders in Europe, even though Switzerland is not a member of the EU, are thank God losing importance. So the soft issues so to speak are not so much as issue anymore,” Wessels says. “The most difficult aspects are the synchronization of the planning actually. The financing systems are completely different in the three countries.”

dreilaendereck-basel

There has been success in the countries working together for transport issues, Wessels says: a bus service to Germany is operated half the time by Germans and half by the Swiss, for example, and a tram project from the heart of Basel to the French city of St. Louis is planned.

But Jacques Mazars, regional director for France’s railways SNCF, says there are a number of complications in making a system work.

“Finance is always a problem, not specifically for this. There is technical problems—we have material only for our country, and Switzerland for Switzerland, Germany for Germany,” he says.

“It’s a challenge, that’s the most important point. And we have three countries with three different railway systems. We have light rail, heavy rail, S-Bahn, tramways…” says Patrick Leypoldt with the Basel agglomeration program, trying to coordinate the region’s transport issues.

“There are a lot of different systems, and you have to coordinate that, and we are quite good in that, but we can do it better,” he adds. “Money is a big point, yes, but to have a concept, a true national concept, I think in the first step is much more important, and it’s complicated, too.”

basel-border control-train station

Jürgen Lange is from German national railways Deutsche Bahn. He says from the German perspective Basel has been a success, though it is unique. The infrastructure is in Switzerland, but there are three countries participating, and there is a transport bottleneck here. He says the experience of rail networks here make him optimistic for the future.

Though he admits there are limitations. Deutsche Bahn has an important freight operation in Basel, which can’t be expanded much for lack of land.

“The primary concern is not money, it’s always a concern—money–but you have the same problem everywhere,” Wessels says. “And I really think it’s the political will which enables you to overcome boundaries. That’s the main issue.”

Wessels says a big issue to maintaining Basel’s transport success is coordinating the legal framework in each country. There have been successes in cross-border ticketing, but legal issues are more fundamental problems to be addressed.

In the meantime, the region is going one project at a time. In June, there are plans to link the tram rails for a new line from Basel into Germany.

On Lake Constance, ferry companies cooperate to stay afloat

In Switzerland’s north, Lake Constance is a massive border in and of itself, and the Austrian, German and Swiss communities around the lake thrive on tourism money. The intermingling of interests between the countries is so thorough that ferry companies have strengthened a tradition of cooperation to turn potential competitors into allies. WRS’s Tony Ganzer traveled to Konstanz, just into Germany, to learn more about economic cooperation at sea.

GANZER: Here at the port of Constance there are some people on the boardwalk here despite a bit of rain. This is one of the main hubs for the ferry companies out of the three countries of the Lake Constance region, these are Austria, Germany, and of course Switzerland. And in front of me at the pier is the ferry Austria, which is a big red and white boat with an Austrian flag off the back. But the ferry business has been operating for more than 150 years as a cooperative between the countries, trying to keep their ferry businesses afloat.

HANDREKE: “I feel it is a very special situation..there is one lake, and there are three countries.”

Constance-harbormaster

Jörg Handreke is the CEO of German shipping company BSB. He is also the former head of the VSU, the association of Swiss, German and Austrian ferry companies on Lake Constance.

HANDREKE: “On one hand side of course each of the three countries likes to have their own shipping offers. On the other hand tourists coming from outside they are seeing this lake as one lake. There is also a common interest of the three countries, and all the shipping companies in the three countries, to use this lake of Constance in a common way.”Constance-ferry statue

This cooperation can date back to a time when railway companies needed easier ways to coordinate cargo from one side of the lake to the other.

Now, the focus is on passengers. Handreke says tourists like to have one timetable, one leaflet, one place to see how to take the ferry from here to there.

HANDREKE: “We do not share everything. That means German harbors keep German, Swiss harbors keep Swiss. On the other hand we are sharing the common shipping lines. For instance, Bregenz—Austrian harbor—and Constance—German harbor—this link is served by both Austrian ships and German ships.”

Ferry companies divvy up the offering on a certain route. So depending on the agreements, ferry companies may split profits and kilometers sailed 50/50, or 80/20, or something similar.

Though currency concerns, namely the pressure on the Swiss Franc, have made the tri-national business a little more complicated for the Swiss ferry lines, the SBS.

HANDREKE: “The Swiss colleague if you think in an economical dimension then you have to take into consideration your costs and your income. The problem for our Swiss cooperation partner was, and still is, the costs are Swiss francs, and the intake money is more or less Euro and Swiss.”

Constance-from pier

HANDREKE: “You can’t be successful in tourism without thinking in the way cooperation, and tourism is always international. So to my feeling, our cooperation on the lake of Constance is pioneer.”

Jörg Handreke equates the shipping cooperation on Lake Constance to airline alliances, where companies work together instead of trying to defeat each other. And he is confident that his region will remain strong with tourists.

But as currency concerns show, the cooperation is not always without problems, and more adjustments may be needed to keep wind in the ferry companies sails.

Hamburg, Germany