The Germans

Published in Gym Class Magazine n°10, November 2013. 

The word that Nicole Zepter keeps saying throughout our interview is “unaufgeregt”, which translates roughly to “unexcited”, “unagitated” or “pleasantly calm”. It’s the word she uses most to describe the magazine she launched last year, The Germans, and for which she serves both as publisher and editor-in-chief. But it could also describe her attitude. Nicole hardly gets to finish a sentence during our meeting at a café in Berlin’s Prenzlauer Berg, as she constantly has to prevent her small son, Otto, from falling off the bench, grabbing coffee cups or causing peril in some other way. Yet she seems completely unperturbed by the minor mayhem going on around her.

“The idea behind The Germans was to rethink society, to look at how society and things like work are changing,” she explains, as Otto expertly disassembles his pretzel. “I wasn’t happy with the status quo and I’m not satisfied with German media. There’s no corrective, they’ve lost their credibility. We wanted to do it better.”

There truly is no other magazine quite like The Germans out there at the moment, at least not in Germany. In its first two issues, it dealt with issues that are topical but not fleeting, and not particularly German: Why is Europe failing? Are the United States still a superpower? What is justice? How can we improve education systems? What will become of Syria? Do we still need the Church? Why is German TV so bad, or is it really?

Instead of approaching these questions through analysis, or by weighing different opinions against it each other, The Germans provides answers. It is a magazine not of reportage but of opinion. Writers and interviewees present their ideas of the truth, of what is going wrong, and why, and what can be done to change it. Several of the pieces in the magazine’s three sections (Opinion, Zeitgeist, Background) wouldn’t be out of place at a TED conference.

The Germans is opinionated, which is probably what Nicole meant when she spoke of the “corrective” she misses in other media. And I’ll admit, it’s refreshing. Possibly my favourite piece was an article about a young and promising Green Party politician who claims to stand for more open and transparent political tradition, yet when the author sent the quotes over for approval after the interview (a common practice in Germany) she substantially changed most of them. The piece, which labelled a “protocol of a failed portrait”, starts as an insight into political journalism and ends with a forceful and infuriated condemnation of a whole political culture, and I can’t think of another media outlet that would have run it in this form.

The Germans is also both artsy and intellectual, and therefore somewhat elitist. Nicole says that it’s modelled after New York magazine, but the fare is much heavier. The first issue tried to span big themes, highbrow art and very local stories, the latter mainly about a certain type of cool Berliner. The result was somewhat schizophrenic. Having ditched the local stories, the second issue feels more balanced and inclusive, but also much less New York magazine.

For logistical reasons, they also broke with Hubertus Design, the Zurich-based design studio that was responsible for the first issue, and switched to Bureau Mirko Borsche, the German apotheosis of highbrow hipsterdom. I don’t know whether the first two issues’ covers illustrate a break with the art’s provocative streak, or its continuation on Borsche’s terms. The first featured a naked man lying in a lake, eyes closed, a child playing on his chest and the tip of his penis protruding from the water (covered by a flap, of course – the magazine is sold at newsstands, after all). It was a soft image and it oozed relaxation. The second shows a woman sitting in a heavy black leather armchair, the hard look on her face exacerbated by the bright light of the floodlights. It’s aggressive and a bit unsettling, but also might not be out of place on 032c.

The Germans is something else, too: ambitious. “We don’t want to be an indie mag, we want to be relevant,” Nicole says. Therefore the aim to publish monthly instead of quarterly, the 30,000 circulation, the nationwide newsstand distribution. “I wanted to create a magazine that turns over stones,” Nicole adds. “We take our space with confidence.” Fittingly, the theme of the recently published third issue is “The End of Mediocrity”. (On a personal side note, I find it particularly impressive that Nicole has chosen this ambitious path while raising a small child as a single parent and writing a book.)

In a sense, The Germans is part of the “Slow Journalism” trend in publishing: a very conscious rejection of the speed, the competition, the click-baiting and the perceived sensationalism and lack of depth of internet-era journalism. Instead of imitating it, like some newsweeklies, it rejects it and embraces a mild atemporality and aloofness from current affairs instead instead.

But besides a need for slowness and calmness, maybe The Germans fulfils another contemporary desire: it provides answers. We Germans are a fearful people. At a time when we, despite our wealth and stable economy, feel an increasing angst about the complex world around us and grow ever more distrustful of our politicians’ and media’s understanding and truthful explanation of complex issues, The Germans paints a world that’s not necessarily prettier, but that has solutions. “We want to throw light on issues without causing a panic,” Nicole says. It may be just what the Germans need.