Minding our own business – An Irishman’s Diary on what the Germans can teach us about celebrity and privacy

Kraftwerk co-founder Florian Schneider died as he lived: in a glow of praise for his work and a haze of obscurity around his person.

With collaborator Ralf Hütter, he was one of the most influential musicians of the modern era.

In the 1970s they embraced the emerging potential of machines to create music that – behind the clever licks, layers and mix – created a real emotional connection with the listener.

Their synthesiser music got them so far ahead through engineering that, these days, there are two kinds of pop musicians: those who realise their debt to Kraftwerk, and those who don’t.


There was something classically Kraftwerk about Schneider’s death: by the time the world found out he was gone he had already been buried. Or was he cremated? The details of Florian Schneider’s death are as vague as those of life because he decided it was none of our business.

It's a pleasingly old-school approach to fame, and one that is alive and well in Germany.

The origins of this particular species lie in the Albrecht brothers, Theo and Karl, who became post-war billionaires with the Albrecht Discount chain known today as Aldi. They never gave interviews and, on their deaths in 2010 and 2014 respectively, most of the the few photos of them that existed in the public domain were decades old.

Once I called the number listed for their press office and reached a woman who answered “Nein” to every question I had. At the end of the call I asked her if her job description was to answer the phone and say “Nein”. She said “Ja” and hung up.

Keeping alive that Aldi spirit is Chancellor Angela Merkel. It's 30 years since she was plucked from obscurity to become a token woman/easterner in Helmut Kohl's post-unification cabinet. After that helping hand she climbed to the top of German and world politics – and has stayed there on her terms.

After 15 years in power, we have no idea of her private life besides her love of potato soup and Wagner music.

Her surname derives from her first husband, Ulrich Merkel. He has never given any interviews and no one knows what Ulrich Merkel looks like. Before he had his name removed from the phone book, I called him up to ask for an interview. Like the Aldi press office, he said "Nein" and hung up.

Early in her political career Angela Merkel realised that denying the media access to her personal life – not even the staged personal lives favoured by other leaders – did her no harm.

Quite the opposite: by keeping her distance, it may have prevented voters tiring of her.

By consistently refusing outside demands for access, people eventually stopped asking, then forgot they asked and, finally, lost the prurient interest that prompted the request itself.

Amid praise of how Germany managed Covid-19, it has a lesson for others, too, with an approach to fame and celebrity that, in recent years, seemed increasingly anachronistic given the last decades’ shifts in news and media.

First: cable/satellite television rolling news channels replaced traditional daily news cycles with a 24-hour hole needing to be filled hourly with something, anything.

Second: reality television created a self-populating new platform of low-cost television.

By subsidising fees with the promise of fame, the once exclusive enclosure labelled “celebrity” – someone worth celebrating – turned into a heaving mass of people with no clear talent beyond remaining in the public eye.

Recent years saw the internet and social media catalysed these trends to a frenetic pace but now – just as the pandemic shakes up how we live, and even die – Covid-19 has catalysed the crisis of celebrity.

From wives-and-girlfriends, to wannabes-who-never-were, social media users are now swamped with "content" from a dead-eyed army of nobodies whose need of fans – for clicks, and thus revenue – exceeds how much their fans want them. That need-want gap, combined with having nothing to do in lockdown, has exposed how, in general, they can do nothing. As Gertrude Stein once put it, there's no there there.

Like the lycra gear favoured by Tour de France cyclists, fame and celebrity are a privilege, not a right. Like steroid-using cyclists, you can get ahead by selling body and soul to mask your lack of talent. But, in the long run, you crash.

A passionate cycler, Florian Schneider decided early in his career that, if his music was good enough, it would find its audience regardless of whether he sold himself as part of the package.

It took the world a few years to catch up with the German’s music; perhaps the post-Covid-19 world will be quicker catching up with the German approach to fame.