What makes Germany and the Germans special?

Deutsche Welle
7 Min Read

British author Stephen Green has signed a book about German history that can be seen as a love declaration to the country’s culture. He tells DW why his “Dear Germany” serves as a role model for Europe and the world.DW: Your 2014 book, The Reluctant Meister: How Germany’s Past is Shaping its European Future, has a completely different title in its German translation: Dear Germany: Liebeserklärung an ein Land mit Vergangenheit (Dear Germany: a declaration of love to a country with a past). Why?

Stephen Green: The title was a result of a discussion with my German publisher, and I like it because it reflects some things that are important for me.

One is that Germany is indeed a country that I love and enjoy. I appreciate deeply all of the many aspects of its culture.

And “Ein Land mit Vergangenheit” [a land with a past] — that is clearly the case: German history still weighs heavily on the present.

In your view, what makes Germany and the Germans special?

First of all, you have a beautiful country. It is a country which I have spent much of my lifetime exploring. I’ve probably seen more parts of Germany than many Germans.

And secondly, it has a deep-rooted and fascinating culture, which expresses itself in the architecture, in the music, in the literature, in the philosophy, in ways of thinking about the world. In fact, I think there is no greater culture than the German one.

Your book primarily covers German history: You praise the country’s classical musicians, philosophers and writers. But are Germans still good role models today?

Yes, I think Germans are very important role models. One of the most striking things about modern Germany is the threefold miracle that has occurred since World War II. First, the economic success story, which is one aspect, I think, most people are familiar with.

Second, I think there’s a political miracle, too, which has not been properly celebrated. What has happened since 1949, when the Federal Republic of Germany began, is the emergence of one of the most deeply rooted and stable democracies on the entire planet. This was not necessarily predictable at the time, given the previous history of the Third Reich and before that the failed Weimar Republic.

And third, there is the way in which Germany has confronted the darkest aspects of its past. This did not happen over night; it took decades of painful soul-searching but it has been astonishingly thorough and remorseless.

I think that is a role model for humanity — and not just for the usual suspects (Japan, Russia) but for Britain with its long history in Ireland, or France with its Algerian past, for example.

If you had to specify, could you name three positive characteristics would you ascribe to Germans?

Three positive characteristics, let me think… let me put it this way, it’s not a direct answer to that question because I think there are many more than three positive characteristics in Germany: But I think what Germans are unique in is the deep commitment to getting things right. This shows up in the success of German industry and trade, it shows up in the way in which German philosophers have agonized about metaphysical and moral questions, it shows up in its culture, specifically in the music.

There is an intensity about the German approach to practical matters, to strategic matters and to big philosophical questions. It’s different from the attitude of the British or the French. And I do think that in the future of the European project, the country which is most likely to have a real deep and lasting commitment to European cohesion, is gong to be Germany. (I deeply regret the British decision to opt out — which is tragic for Britain, for Germany and for Europe in general.)

Now that we’ve covered the positive aspects, could you point out three negative attributes you see in Germany and Germans?

Well, I spent parts of my book exploring some of the characteristics of the German mood in the 19th century, which led up to the terrible events of the 20th century. At that time an almost unquestioning commitment to obedience, a sense of duty that was very deeply ingrained, the sense of victimhood resulting from earlier history — all this created a dangerous atmosphere towards the end of the 19th century.

But again, the remarkable story to me is how radically all that has changed. The Germany of now is utterly different. And this story of renewal, this story of resurrection really is one of the most extraordinary stories of any country in the world.

What is your vision for the future of Germany and its citizens?

Germany is a country with the strongest possible commitment to democracy. But of course there is no room for complacency.

The refugee crisis and Germany’s response to it has been a source of tension and stress. Yet Germany actually can hold its head high over the way that it handled that crisis. If I compare the German response in 2015 to that in my own country, which was shamefully mean and restrictive, I’m ashamed to be British.

Yes, the German response has produced what happened in Chemnitz. But the truth is that it was a generous human gesture in an hour of tragedy and need.

There have been times in history when Germany has shown the world a terrible version of leadership; but the leadership it has shown over refugees is an example to us all.

I hope Germany continues to have the courage to confront demons and to show a leadership based on generosity of spirit. This is what Europe needs — now more than ever.

If you’d like to find out more about German culture check out Meet the Germans on YouTube or at dw.com/MeettheGermans.

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