Watching Mainz 05 in the Europa League next season won't be surprising. They've had an excellent season and deserve full well to have ended where they did in the table. Or Freiburg competing in Europe last season; in 2012-2013 they were a solid, dangerous team to play and earned their position beyond any doubt, even having a chance on the final matchday to beat Schalke and compete in the Champions League.
But, for a moment, take the view of an outsider to the league. SC Freiburg? FSV Mainz 05? There's no reason to have heard of these two teams before, really. For all Volker Finke did with SCF in the 1990's to essentially revolutionize German football and in a way invent what we now call Gegenpressing, the club has never made much noise in Europe or challenged for the Bundesliga crown. Thus, they're relative unknowns to those outside of Bundesliga circles.
The two cities (Freiburg and Mainz) each have total populations a bit above 200,000. Neither are centers of any sort of industry and neither have a massive footballing tradition. 20,000 or so to every match? Sure, why not, but that's as good as it will ever get for these teams; these are their glory years to date and they're on the last rung of the ladder before their hair begins to be flattened by the ceiling.
These are clubs that are interesting, entertaining, fun, but also clubs that have realistically nothing to contribute on a European scale. We saw what happened to Freiburg when they competed in Europe, and the same fate will certainly be had by Mainz unless an irresponsibly large sum is invested in the squad over the summer, further proving my point if anything.
As interesting as these stories are, are they really the best face Germany could be putting forth in European competitions? Are fans of German football really doomed to pick between Schalke, Leverkusen, Wolfsburg and Gladbach to fill out the final two places in the Champions League?
There is a huge opportunity, or at least there was, to have several massive clubs which all could compete at the level Bayern and Dortmund have over the years domestically and on a continental scale. Germany has the largest economy in Europe and the fourth-largest in the world. It has massive centers of industry like Frankfurt, Düsseldorf, Berlin and Nürnberg. None of those cities have a team who can stay in the first division for more than two or three seasons at a time.
London, Madrid, Manchester, Milan, Rome...these cities each have two or more top-class teams within them, with only London rivaling anywhere in Germany resource-wise, and Berlin is lucky to have a season with their biggest club in the Bundesliga. Frankfurt, the banking capital of Europe, has had a team finish in the top half of the table twice since the turn of the last century, while suffering relegation three times in that span.
As long as the current paradigm holds true, and this is proven by Bayern, Real Madrid and Manchester City this season, the success you have at the highest levels in a given season is almost always directly correlated to the amount of money put into your squad.
Of course, you can have wasteful spending that nets you nothing but a dumpster fire come April. Ask any team managed by Felix Magath. But, that doesn't disprove the fact that massive, massive investment is needed to compete seriously on the European stage.
Berlin alone has a population twice that of Hamburg and nearly three times that of Munich, and very often, the city doesn't have a team in the top-flight of German football. That makes no sense whatsoever in an institutional sense if you're the DFB and DFL, and anyone who was planning a league in Germany would absolutely ensure that would never be the case. Berlin could easily field two teams who should finish in the top-half of the table nearly every season.
The point is that these teams teetering and toddling between divisions will never get serious sponsorship money (which is the only easy way for squad or stadium investment within the current ownership structure) so long as there's doubt as to whether or not they'll be playing in the top division. And without that, the cycle continues and the clubs continually struggle to find solid footing domestically, with European glory nothing but an elusive pipe dream beyond a canvas of mediocre brushstrokes.
Is eliminating promotion/relegation the answer now? No, since the markets who are needed in the top league aren't all in there and probably won't be at once for a long time.
But if the planners of German football, and such a class certainly exists within the DFB and DFL, had a mandate to do it over again, the safe money would be on the answer being yes. Yes they would.