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Xenophobe's Guide to the Germans
By Stefan Zeidenitz, Ben Barkow
Xenophobe's GuidesCopyright © 2011 Oval Projects
All rights reserved.
Nationalism & Identity
Forewarned or Wurst case scenario
Traditionally viewed as a nation of square-jawed robots whose language sounds like something awful in the drains, whose cars out-perform all others and whose football team seldom loses, the Germans seem unassailable.
But behind the façade lies a nation distinctly uncertain about where it is, where it is going, even how it got there. Seeking refuge from the world's uncertainties, on the one hand they rely on order and system, the State and the European Central Bank; on the other they retreat into the Angst of the soul, psychoanalysis and high culture.
None of this anxiety should be mocked; humour is a quite separate category, to be viewed in a serious light. For the Germans, life is made up of two halves: the public and the private. The public sphere of jobs, officialdom, business and bureaucracy is radically different from the private one of family, friends, hobbies and holidays. What is fitting in the one is quite impossible in the other. In public, po-faced propriety is the order of the day. In private, Germans are as rich in oddities and quirks as any nation under the sun.
As a foreigner you will, almost by definition, encounter public Germany first, and may never see more. This explains something of their reputation abroad. All those sausages, all that beer. Not to mention expertise in banking. And organizing.
Now that German consolidation has become a reality, even non-xenophobes fear for the future. The Germans themselves are not so much fearful of foreigners as fearful of any foreign country getting a bad impression of them. German industrial and financial might causes the uneasy national conscience to stir. Are we becoming arrogant? Is our tolerance failing? Are we on the slippery slope that could lead back to the bad old days? There aren't any firm answers to these questions, but the Germans, Europe's neurotics, crave answers.
If experience has taught them one thing, it is that there is no future outside the community of nations. No other nation has a stronger sense of the importance of getting along with others. Tolerance is not only a virtue, it's a duty.
How others see them
The emotions which the Germans arouse in others oscillate between admiration and fear. They are thought of as efficient, self-obsessed, arrogant and domineering – altogether too good at finance and manufacturing.
To the British the Germans can seem lacking in the decencies of reserve and stiff upper lip. But they have always had a high regard for German cleverness and thoroughness, somehow imagining that of all Europeans, the Germans are most like themselves. This quaint illusion probably has its roots in the fact that so many Germans have occupied the British throne or been powers behind it. The fact is that the Germans are nothing like the British, couldn't be more different.
Take the most obvious example: British national identity was laid down somewhere around the time of the Roman invasion, and despite the occasional blip, hasn't really felt the need to question itself since. Germany, on the other hand, became a nation in the 1870s when it was effectively conquered from within by 'Iron' Chancellor Bismarck of Prussia. Most Germans still place more importance on regional loyalties, and these days will rank being German a poor third after being, say, Swabian first and European second.
The French regard the Germans with suspicion and a measure of loathing, and seek to contain them by chumming-up. The Italians are dumbfounded by the Germans' capacity to get things done without bribing anyone, but regard them as utterly lacking in style.
For the Austrians a good German is one who is far away – preferably across the Atlantic, or even further. While they recognize that there is a cultural affinity between Vienna and Berlin, there is no affinity at all with their immediate neighbours, the Bavarians.
The Swiss see the Germans as being basically on the right lines, but needing to try a little harder (after all, in Switzerland you may be fined for using the wrong colour plastic sack to put your rubbish in, while in Germany you are only fined for not using one).
How they see others
The Germans generally adore the British and have suffered in the past from unrequited love. Britain used to be the ultimate role model with its amazingly advanced political, social, industrial and technological achievements. The Germans regard the British as being very nice and mostly harmless. Almost German.
They admire Americans for their (un-German) easy-going pragmatism and dislike them for their (un-German) superficiality. For the Germans, the United States is the headmaster in the school of nations, and accorded due respect if not always affection. Germans are strong believers in authority. 'If you know how to obey then you too can be a master' runs the refrain.
With the Italians Germans have a close understanding because they have so much history in common. Through wars, invasion and other forms of tourism, a deep and lasting friendship has been established. Italian art treasures, food and beaches are thoroughly appreciated. There is also a connection arising from the fact that Italy and Germany both achieved nationhood in the 19th century, and are still not entirely sure that this was a good thing.
The French are admired for their sophisticated civilization, and pitied for their inferior culture. The French may have higher spirits, but the Germans have deeper souls. Despite this, Francophilia is widespread among Germans, especially those living close to the French border.
Like a wistful child looking over the garden fence, the Germans envy Mediterranean people for their more relaxed attitudes, cultural heritage and warm climate. But only when they are on holiday.
The only people to whom the Germans concede unquestioned superiority of Teutonic virtues are the Swiss. No German would argue their supremacy in the fields of order, punctuality, diligence, cleanliness and thoroughness. They haven't been to war with the Swiss.
How they see themselves
Generally speaking, the Germans regard themselves as modest, rather ordinary sort of people. Give them a beer, a Wurst, a bit of Gemütlichkeit (cosiness) and another German with whom to argue politics or bemoan the stress of life, and they will be content. They are not greedy, do not expect something for nothing, and pay their bills on time. Simple, honest Volk.
They like to see themselves as romantic – not in a Mediterranean flowery-compliments-and-bottom-pinching way, but in the stormy genius mode. Inside every German there is a touch of the wild-haired Beethoven striding through forests and weeping over a mountain sunset, grappling against impossible odds to express the inexpressible. This is the Great German Soul, prominent display of which is essential whenever Art, Feeling and Truth are under discussion. After all, if the Germans did not actually invent the Romantic Movement (though they are pretty sure they did), they at least kitted it out with a lot of appropriately fraught and complicated philosophy.
They value themselves as diligent, thorough, orderly, reliable and methodical. They also see themselves as profoundly well educated. Contrary to popular belief, the Germans do not know everything, they just know everything better.
Before the 1990s all West Germans were passionately keen on the idea of the two Germanys coming together again. How, they asked themselves and each other, can we find fulfilment as a nation while the great German Geist (spirit) is divided by a concrete wall?
All were agreed that reunification was a historical necessity. The same sort of consensus never existed drüben (over there), where people generally coveted the consumer durables but had their doubts about life in a society without ideological commitments. Now that unification is a fact, West Germans have their doubts, too.
All Wessies (former West Germans) know that all Ossies (former East Germans) are idle and complaining. All Ossies know that all Wessies are cynical and deceitful. It was ever so.
Cementing two nations together doesn't come cheap, especially when one of them (in estate agent terminology) 'needs attention' and has many 'period details' and 'original features'. In order to cope, the Germans set up The Trust Authority (Treuhand), which instantly became the world's largest employer, with 9,000 companies, nearly two million hectares of farm land and two million hectares of forest under its control. Its job was to privatize as much as it could, and shut down the rest.
Needless to say, the work of the Treuhand created suspicion among eastern Germans, who felt that their economic assets were being sold at knock-down prices, while they were treated as second-class citizens. Tension between the two kinds of Germans remains tangible, with some people now wondering whether reunification was such a historical necessity after all, and whether the Wall had not been the backbone of the great German Geist, only the politicians had been too stupid to realize it.
Two decades on, some of the shine has come off the reunification. To many in the West, Eastern Germany seems a bottomless pit swallowing their Euros. At the same time, some in the eastern part feel that stagnation is now the gross national product and that, far from being in a state of transition, theirs has become a second class country for good.
Ever since the Change, Germans have suffered Angst like never before, and the soul-searching has taken on epic proportions. The effect has been to deepen German commitment to the ideals of the European Community still further; it offers a stable context for the turmoil within. Secretly some wish they had never embarked on this adventure and yearn for the old days, when life seemed simple and you knew who your enemies were.
How they would like others to see them
The Germans long to be understood and liked by others, yet secretly take pride that this can never be. After all, how can outsiders understand such a complex, deep, sensitive people? What can they know of the German struggle for identity or the tortured German spirit searching for release?
They would like to be respected for their devotion to truth and honesty. They are surprised that this is sometimes taken as tactlessness, or worse. After all, if I know you to be in error, surely it is my duty to correct you? Surely the Truth is more important than pretending to like your ghastly shirt or sports coat? Foreigners just cannot seem to appreciate this.
Dismissing German introspection as navel-gazing is taken as proof of shallowness. Complaints about German rudeness show misunderstanding. The Germans console themselves with the thought that devotion to higher causes and being true to the demands of the inner self are bound to rub a few people up the wrong way. It is sad, but quite unalterable. A good German wears his Weltschmerz (world-pain) on his sleeve and doesn't really mind being misunderstood.CHAPTER 2
The importance of being Ernsthaft
In Germany, life is serious, and so is everything else. Outside Berlin, even humour is no laughing matter, and if you want to tell a joke you may want to submit a written application first.
The Germans strongly disapprove of the irrelevant, the flippant, the accidental. Serendipity is not a word in their language. The reason for this is that such things are not ernsthaft, serious. It is hardly conceivable (and certainly not desirable) that a good idea might arise by chance or come from somebody lacking the proper qualifications. On the whole Germans would prefer to forgo a clever invention than admit that creativity is a random and chaotic process.
Because life is ernsthaft, the Germans go by the rules. Schiller wrote, 'obedience is the first duty', and no German has ever doubted it. This fits with their sense of order and duty. Germans hate breaking rules, which can make life difficult because, as a rule, everything not expressly permitted is prohibited. If you are allowed to smoke or walk on the grass, a sign will inform you of this.
In professional life, devotion to earnestness means that you cannot give up accountancy or computer engineering in mid-life and switch to butterfly farming or aromatherapy. Any such change of heart would cause you to be dismissed as lightweight and unreliable.
The Germans pride themselves on their efficiency, organization, discipline, cleanliness and punctuality. These are all manifestations of Ordnung 'Order' which doesn't just mean tidiness, but correctness, properness, appropriateness and a host of other good things. No phrase warms the heart of a German like 'alles in Ordnung', meaning everything is all right, everything is as it should be. The natural consequence, which no German escapes, is 'Ordnung muss sein' , Order Must Be.
Germans like things that work. This is fundamental. A car or a washing machine which breaks down six months after purchase is not a nuisance, it's a breach of the social contract. They are mystified when they go abroad and see grimy buildings, littered streets, unwashed cars. On the platforms of the London underground they wile away the hours between trains puzzling about why the crazy English put up with it and don't organize things properly. Even their language is unreliable and full of tricks, with people called 'Fanshaw' who spell their names Featherstonehaugh, and towns called Slough – which unaccountably rhymes with 'plough' and not with 'through' (which would make it Sloo) or 'enough' (Sluff).
In Germany, they manage these things better. Words may be long and guttural, but there are no tricks to pronunciation – what you see is what you get. The streets are clean, the houses painted, the litter in the bins. Ordnung.
Getting it sorted
If you offer a German a piece of advice like 'Leave well enough alone' or 'If it ain't broke, don't fix it', they will assume you are British, or in need of psychotherapeutic aid.
It is axiomatic in Germany that everything needs sorting before you can achieve anything: the good needs to be sifted from the bad, the necessary from the contingent. What is yours must be clearly separated from what is mine; the public must be demarcated to prevent it getting confused with the private, the true must at all costs be distinguished from the false. Reliable definitions must be drawn up regarding what is masculine and what feminine (not to mention the characteristic German complication of the neuter). It goes on and on.
Only when everything is comprehensively compartmentalised can anything truly be said to be in Ordnung. This is the famous categorical imperative – ordered by Kant because he couldn't stand the undifferentiated hotchpotch of the world. Kant was determined, as no German had been before, to divide everything into distinct categories. He was notorious for driving his friends round the bend with his obsessive splitting of everything into smaller and smaller groups or classifications. In his library each volume formed a unique class which had to be kept in isolation in case any of the others contaminated its taxonomic distinctness.
The modern German does not go to such extremes, but only because such extremes have been sorted into a phenomenological phylum of the lunatic fringe, a nomenclatural subdivision few wish to be associated with.
Predictably, in their immaculate garden lurks a serpent: doubt. As a nation, the Germans are racked with doubt and fight constantly to keep chaos at bay. Being German, they cannot brush their doubts aside or put off worrying in favour of a pint and a laugh. Not for them the touching British faith that it 'will be all right on the night', that it 'all comes out in the wash'.
For a German, doubt and anxiety expand and ramify the more you ponder them. They are astonished that things haven't gone to pot already, and are pretty certain that they soon will.
Germany is, after all, the Land of Angst.
This leads to a certain reluctance to undertake anything. One 19th-century visitor to Germany remarked: '... they find obstacles to all; you hear "it is impossible" a hundred times ... when action is necessary, the Germans know not how to struggle with difficulties.'
The Germans are aware of this, but see their anxiety as proportional to their intellectual capabilities. Angst is responsible for their desire that everything be regulated, controlled, checked, checked again, supervised, insured, examined, documented. Secretly, they believe it takes a superior intelligence to realize just how dangerous life really is.
Life's a beach
The German craving for security is nowhere more evident than during holidays at the seaside. Here they have earned for themselves global notoriety for their ruthless efficiency in appropriating the best spots on the world's beaches.
No matter how early you struggle to get to the beach, the Germans will be there before you. Quite how they manage it remains a mystery, given that they can be seen carousing in the bars and tavernas until the small hours along with everyone else.
Excerpted from Xenophobe's Guide to the Germans by Stefan Zeidenitz, Ben Barkow. Copyright © 2011 Oval Projects. Excerpted by permission of Xenophobe's Guides.
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