(Published in Grail World 2/1997)
On August 23, 1887, the British Parliament passed a law requiring all goods imported into Great Britain to indicate the country of origin either on the goods themselves or on the packaging.
This early “consumer protection law” was mainly directed against Germany, which was able to increase its exports tremendously in the last decades of the 19th century; and not only to England and other European countries, but also to the Far East, which Great Britain regarded as its traditional market.
England - the leading industrial nation
England had gained a considerable lead in technology and industry in the 18th and 19th centuries. Technological pioneers such as James Watt (1736 - 1819) and far-sighted economists such as Adam Smith (1723 - 1790) had laid the foundations in theory and practice on which English factories and English economic and financial policy became a model for the rest of the world could develop. Anyone who wanted to get to know the latest technology and advanced industries in the 19th century had to travel to England.
There are enough examples of such travelers. The Swabian engineer, writer and poet Max Eyth (1836-1906) was unable to find a job that matched his qualifications despite first-class training with leading engineering scientists at the Stuttgart Polytechnic in Germany. He sought his fortune in England and eventually traveled around the world in the service of an English agricultural machinery manufacturer.
Friedrich Engels (1820 - 1895), the son of a factory owner from Engelskirchen not far from Cologne, was supposed to study the most modern of the modern in the textile industry in England. The unpleasant side effects of this industrial pioneering period - today ostracized as "Manchester capitalism" - deterred him so much that he and Karl Marx (1818 - 1883) co-wrote the "Communist Manifesto" and one of the founding fathers of the socialist movement. Because the “first industrial revolution” often developed chaotically, uncontrolled and without taking sufficient account of the social upheavals it triggered. -
Germany, the then still poor and torn country, had little to counter the economic achievements of the world's leading British. In the first half of the 19th century, German industry was still in the early stages of development. Only individual, mostly smaller factories were built, which could only keep up with the exemplary English quality goods in exceptional cases. For example, it was a sensation that was not expected by anyone that Alfred Krupp received the highest award at the first world exhibition in 1851 for casting large pieces of steel.
The founding of the Second German Empire in 1871 did not change much of the lag in German industry. It was not until the upswing of the “founding years” towards the end of the 19th century that German industry experienced its first major boom, which was not only used to expand production, but also to achieve profound quality improvements.
Germany is catching up
The British law, perceived as discriminatory in Germany, became an incentive for German industry. German products wanted to measure themselves against the best products in the world and, if possible, be better than the competition.
We all know what was finally achieved: Scientists, chemists and engineers trained at German universities succeeded in bringing the old German craft pride into industrial production and in creating a globally recognized seal of quality from what was originally intended as a devaluation.
Since then, “Made in Germany” has been regarded as the ultimate seal of value and quality, it has become the epitome of German hard work and German proficiency. Last but not least, Germany, which was largely destroyed after the Second World War, owes its economic rise - often associated with Ludwig Erhard (1897-1977) as an "economic miracle" - also to the nimbus of the world-famous "Made in Germany".
After almost a century of the best and most successful brand of all time - Made in Germany - under which Germany rose to become the world's largest export nation, we are almost ashamed to throw this symbol of quality overboard without thinking too much about what we are losing with it. An unavoidable development in today's global environment? Or the expression of short-sighted management decisions that overlook long-term economic interests due to the sheer economic pressures of the moment?
One can hear quite unabashedly from German automobile factories: “Today our quality standard is called 'Made by Mercedes (or BMW etc.)'” Or one speaks of “German engineering”.
Anyone who buys a German car today can no longer expect their new vehicle to consist largely of German parts or at least be made in Germany. “Global sourcing” or “outsourcing” *) is the name of the new catchphrase: Raw materials, preliminary products, entire assemblies are procured anywhere in the world; Whoever fulfills the specifications of the corporations is allowed to deliver, provided that they can offer them cheaply. Steel from India, tires from Korea, engines from Hungary - almost everything can be found in the products of big German names. Entire factories are being relocated to low-wage countries, and there is hardly any talk of German quality work and German reliability. The lead over other, not infrequently exotic countries has shrunk, and often enough you have to hear that others - especially in Asia - work harder, have lower demands, hardly party sick and are no less reliable.
However, there are also increasing recalls of defective devices or devices with production errors, which must not only be the result of a growing sense of responsibility on the part of manufacturers and stricter product liability laws.
The end of an era
The era of “Made in Germany” is apparently coming to an inexorable end, and the Germans don't even notice it.
The once much-vaunted German skilled worker is suddenly no longer in demand; he becomes unemployed in a row and no longer understands the world.
Technical know-how and economic knowledge are available worldwide, and international capital flows to where the highest returns are expected. Even the once proverbial “German virtues” (hard work, reliability, thrift) are supposed to be found more often in East Asia than in Old Germany.
So is the “third industrial revolution” initiated by microelectronics and the information age on the way to devour its children (the classic industrialized countries)? Are more and more developing countries becoming competitive industrialized countries? Are hundreds of millions of cheap workers destroying the prosperity of "rich countries"?
It is too early to answer these questions. However, Germany and Europe will not be spared a rethinking, reorientation. Because the “third industrial revolution” is not unlike the “first industrial revolution”: namely, unguided, sometimes chaotic and perhaps quite unexpectedly in a direction that no one knows yet.
Accordingly, it is difficult to make predictions, and the recipes offered by politics, business and trade unions are usually better suited to the current interests of the respective social group than to the challenges of the 21st century.
*) Global sourcing = development of supply sources worldwide. Outsourcing = reduction of the vertical range of manufacture by relocating as many production processes as possible to the supplier. For example, instead of working with a few thousand, the automotive industry is striving to work with fewer than a hundred suppliers who each deliver complete assemblies.