Kategorie-Archiv: Germans

If Germans want to make love, they have to make a parade

A guide to understanding the Germans that uncovers their insecurities and gently dispels even the most ingrained prejudices.

Published: Xenophobe’s Guides on Jan 1, 2008

The population of the reunified Germans is 82.4 million compared with 5 million  Danes, 7.6 million Swiss, 8 million Austrians, 10 million Czechs, 10 million Bel-  gians, 15 million Dutch, 38 million Poles, 62 million British, 64 million French and  307 million Americans.  Germany is nearly three times as big as England, but could fit into France 1½  times. 

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. 
“Behind the façade lies a nation distinctly uncertain about where it is, where it  is going, even how it got there.” 
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 oddi-  ties 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. 

“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.” 
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 indus-  trial 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 ques-  tions, 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. 
“The Germans 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 some-  where 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, be-  came 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 re-  gional 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 Ger-  mans’ capacity to get things done without bribing anyone, but regard them as ut-  terly lacking in style. 
“The Swiss see the Germans as being basically on the right lines, but needing  to try a little harder.” 
  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 be-  tween 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 unre-  quited 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 dis-  like 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. 
“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 Mediter-  ranean 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 an-  other 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. 
“Inside every German there is a touch of the wild-haired Beethoven grappling  against impossible odds to express the inexpressible.” 
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 pret-  ty 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. 

Special relationships 

“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 Ger-  mans) 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. 
“Cementing two nations together doesn’t come cheap… Two decades on, some  of the shine has come off the reunification.” 
Needless to say, the work of the Treuhand created suspicion among eastern Ger-  mans, 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 sec-  ond 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 Ger-  man 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?   
“The Germans long to be understood and liked by others, yet secretly take  pride that this can never be.”   
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 be-  ing 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. 
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 writ-  ten application first.   
“On the whole Germans would prefer to forgo a clever invention than admit  that creativity is a random and chaotic process.”
    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.   
“Ordnung ‘Order’ doesn’t just mean tidiness, but correctness, properness,  appropriateness and a host of other good things.”
    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 light-  weight and unreliable.   
The Germans pride themselves on their efficiency, organization, discipline, clean-  liness 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. 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.”
    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 contin-  gent. 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. 
“It is axiomatic in Germany that everything needs sorting before you can  achieve anything.”
    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 obses-  sive 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 ex-  tremes have been sorted into a phenomenological phylum of the lunatic fringe, a  nomenclatural subdivision few wish to be associated with.   
“For a German, doubt and anxiety expand and ramify the more you ponder  them.”
    Predictably, in their immaculate garden lurks a serpent: doubt. As a nation, the Ger-  mans are racked with doubt and fight constantly to keep chaos at bay. Being Ger-  man, 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 ruth-  less efficiency in appropriating the best spots on the world’s beaches.   
“Secretly, the Germans believe it takes a superior intelligence to realize just 

how dangerous life really is.”   
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.  Having gained their beachheads, the Germans will immediately start digging in,  constructing fortifications. You can always tell the beaches under German occu-  pation: huge sandcastles cover the area, one per family, each several feet high,  elaborately decorated with seashells and decaying starfish, crowned by flags.   
“Unlike everyone else, the Germans prefer to be inside their sandcastles, which  then serve to mark out their territory.” 
  Unlike everyone else, the Germans prefer to be inside their sandcastles, which  then serve to mark out their territory – define their particular space. Often these  structures are so tightly packed together there is no room left to walk between  them. In extreme cases non-Germans may find themselves sitting on bare rock, the  Germans having excavated every grain of available sand for their Fortress Beach  Towel.   
Dream inspired 
The Germans enjoy escaping into fantasies whenever reality becomes too unpleasant. Failures and defeats require a metaphysical back-up system; they love to  dream. The German equivalent of John Bull and Uncle Sam is sleepy-headed  Michel, a name derived from Germany’s patron saint, St. Michael. The poet Hein-  rich Heine summed up this propensity:   
The Frenchmen and Russians possess the land, 
The British possess the sea, 
But we have over the airy realm of dreams 
Command indisputably.   
On occasion, the German fondness for escapism – their need for a spiritual  essence – can make them seem otherworldly and impractical. Goethe noted wist-  fully, ‘While we Germans torment ourselves with solving philosophical questions,  the English with their practical intelligence laugh at us and conquer the world.’    The ideal 
“Perfectionism is a prime German characteristic which benefits their auto  industry, but can be a trial at parties.”
    ‘Nobody is perfect, but we are working on it’, said Baron von Richthofen optimistically. Perfectionism is a prime German characteristic which benefits their auto 

industry, but can be a trial at parties. Compromise and settling for what is good  enough is not good enough. Strictly speaking, only the epitome, the best, the ideal  will do.  Furthermore, there is no doubt in the German mind that the ideal, or rather, the  Ideal, exists and is out there somewhere in the ether. Naturally, here on earth, we  can never achieve the Ideal, only a pale imitation of it. Plato may have been a  Greek, but he thought like a German.  So it is not surprising that many Germans relate to ideas more than to people.  As Goethe put it, ‘The Experience is always a parody of the Idea’. Ideas are beautiful  and don’t let you down; people are unpredictable and do. Clashes between ideas  and reality are inevitable, and Germans are quite resigned to this. It is part of what  makes life tragic.   
“Many Germans relate to ideas more than to people. Ideas are beautiful and  don’t let you down; people are unpredictable and do.”
    This is reflected in German literature and legend. Many German heroes fail be-  cause they measure their ideals against the imperfection of their nature and that of  the world. Lamenting this sad state of affairs is a German preoccupation. Making  the best of a bad lot and taking the rough with the smooth are more or less alien  concepts to the German mind. 

Beliefs & Values   

The Germans prize Bildung, meaning education and culture. Showing off what  you’ve read and what you know is not boasting. It is a way of participating in the  nation’s cultural life and taking pride in it.  Modesty in regard to education will not be interpreted by them as hiding your  light under a bushel, but as an admission of ignorance. If you’ve got it, flaunt it.   
“The Germans have unequalled enthusiasm for their cultural heritage.”
    Germans have unequalled enthusiasm for their cultural heritage. For many Eng-  lish people, culture is what the advantaged do in their spare time, and the idea of  reading Shakespeare or Samuel Johnson for fun is rather remote. For the average  German this isn’t so. Not to have read the whole of Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason  would surprise them (how could you allow yourself to miss out?), and they will  have read Goethe and Schiller and Shakespeare with passionate, if uncritical, inter-  est.    Religion 
“It was part of Luther’s teaching that one’s spiritual duties included obedience  to worldly authority.” 
The Lutheran Church has had the greatest influence in shaping German attitudes.  Luther’s translation of the Bible shaped the modern German language, and it was  part of his teaching that one’s spiritual duties included obedience to worldly  authority. In keeping with the Protestant work ethic, there is no very deep conflict  between material wellbeing and one’s prospects in the afterlife.  In Germany Protestants are in a slight majority (since reunification, which  brought many East German Protestants into the fold). Broadly, the north is Protes-  tant while the south is Catholic. The Catholic area coincidentally corresponds  with  the area under Roman occupation 2,000 years ago.  Relations between the Churches are very good, with the spirit of ecumenicalism  smiling benignly on all manifestations of religious life.   
“The Germans have the best record in Europe for famine relief and Third World  aid.”
    Churches are extremely well funded, the vast majority of the Germans gladly  paying their church tax even if most of them seldom turn up at services. This ac-  counts for the presence of so many Mercedes in clerical garages, but also funds  enormous amounts of welfare work.  At home, church money supports hospitals, kindergartens, old people’s homes  and schools. Abroad, money is channelled into famine relief and Third World aid.  The Germans have the best record in Europe on this score. Their preference is for 

steady, organized generosity rather than compassion binges of the Band Aid sort.    Class  Germany does not have a class system any more. The old distinctive class differ-  ences have been levelled out since World War II. Nowadays nearly everybody be-  longs to the same class, which by English stratification could be roughly described  as upper-lower-middle-middle class.  A small but significant number of German aristocrats does exist, but they keep  very much to themselves, hiding their wealth, land and influence with an  un-German-like lack of show, many even sending their children to English board-  ing schools.  Not every ‘von’ denotes aristocracy; that of the so-called ‘vegetable nobles’ only  means ‘from’, as in ‘from the village of’. German aristocratic titles correspond to  the British ones in name only. Unlike the British tradition of leaving the title just to  the eldest son, aristocrats in Germany pass on the parental title to all children.   
“Not every ‘von’ denotes aristocracy; that of the so-called ‘vegetable nobles’  only means ‘from’.”
    As Germany used to consist of about 300 independent states, each with its own  upper class, noble names have always been plentiful. Inter-marriages with commoners can spread the name across all class barriers, especially since after a 

divorce the commoner is entitled not only to keep the title, but to pass it on to fu-  ture spouses and children as well, who will also… etc. This accounts for the aston-  ishing abundance of titles in Germany today. It is all part of a crafty scheme de-  vised by the State to bring about such an inflation of nobility (at least in name) that  eventually titles will become so common, they will be meaningless.    Wealth and success 
“The consensus is that anyone who has earned it and can afford it deserves the  best.”
    On the whole, the Germans are not ostentatious in displaying their wealth. On the  other hand, massive gold jewellery makes a nice display and is ever so reassuring  to have around. They appreciate quality, and are happy to pay for it. They are well  dressed, well shod, drive solid cars, live in double-glazed and centrally-heated  homes equipped with lots of reliable gadgetry.  In Germany money tends to act as a social leveller. Living standards are high  and the consensus is that anyone who has earned it and can afford it deserves the  best.    Being green  The Germans worry about the environment. It’s a preoccupation that is founded on  real concern. Industrial pollution is a major problem, much of it coming 

downstream in the Rhine, a river so full of chemicals that someone once managed  to develop a photograph in water taken from it.  The state of many of western Germany’s rivers is something of an own goal. Be-  fore reunification they exported most of their toxic wastes to East Germany, where  a great deal was dumped unceremoniously into the nearest river, only to flow back  into West Germany.   
“Forests, even if seldom visited, exert a powerful influence on the Germans…  Their crisis is a crisis for the German spirit.”
    But what made the Germans really sit up and take notice was Waldsterben, the  dying of the forests. The discovery that the economic miracle was killing their  beloved forests gave the Germans a jolt they have yet to recover from. Forests,  even if seldom visited, exert a powerful influence on the Germans. They are re-  garded as the natural habitat which most shaped the German soul. It was from the  forests that they emerged to rampage across Europe and lay waste to Rome 2,000  years ago and it is to the forest that they return (in spirit at least) when modern life  overwhelms them with its horrors and demands.  Even today, around 30% of the land is covered with woodlands, and entering  them gives the Germans a thrill of danger missing from their ordered urban life.  The German forests are primordial and awesome. Their crisis is a crisis for the  German spirit. 
The Germans are keen recyclers. There is no shortage of opportunity to sift their  green bottles from their brown, their plastic from paper. At supermarkets, people  can discard the packaging and leave it behind altogether. Manufacturers of white  goods (fridges, ovens) nowadays make efforts to see that the parts and materials  they use can be recovered and recycled.  Green concern and the commercialism that surrounds it leads to some absurd  situations. For instance, demand for recycled paper is so great that the mills have  to pulp perfectly good new paper to make it. The Germans don’t mind this kind of  imperfection in the system. Recycling is a beautiful idea, and that’s what really  counts. 


The family

“The Germans don’t mind imperfection in the system. Recycling is a beautiful idea, and that’s what really counts.”

The Germans are family orientated, though not conspicuously more so than their neighbours. The family is the ideal, the focus for Treue (loyalty), but divorce rates are high, as couples succumb to the ubiquitous stresses of modern life.

German society as a whole is not well disposed towards children. In public your dog will usually get a warmer welcome than your offspring. Children are regarded as noisy and disruptive, liable to interfere with other people’s right to quiet and Ordnung. Some of this may be explained by the fact that as more Germans live in flats than houses, noise and disturbance can be more problematic. Yet in the home, family life is warm, affectionate and gemütlich (cosy).

For the Germans, the concept of cosiness is much more than comfort. It is interwoven with the idea of Heimat – the cosy heart and hearth of home and family, the safeguard against Angst and homesickness, the warm and orderly shelter in a cold and chaotic world.


The Germans do not care for public displays of eccentricity. This need surprise no-one in a country where neighbours have been known to complain about the irregular way others peg their washing out on the line (and have even rearranged it in a more pleasing symmetry).

“The Germans do not care for public displays of eccentricity. Fitting in is a virtue, standing out an offence.”

Fitting in is a virtue, standing out an offence. As a foreigner, should you don a Union Jack waistcoat and kiss-me-quick hat and pedal around on a tricycle bedecked in pennants, the Germans will assume that you are bonkers but will smile indulgently. Similar behaviour in another German will have them tutting furiously, looking up the number of the asylum, and worrying about the effect on property values.

The elderly

The Germans only really come into their own after retirement, at which point they discover within themselves reserves of conservatism and a passion for Ordnung they had never dreamed of in their crazy youth.

“To the senior citizen life is a perpetual round of vigilantly seeking out infractions of rules and regulations and pointing them out to the miscreants.”

To the average German senior citizen (and that is the only kind there is), life is a perpetual round of vigilantly seeking out infractions of rules and regulations, and helpfully (and loudly) pointing them out to the miscreants concerned. In Germany, the autumn of life is the most ernsthaft time of all, and you will never see a senior citizen smile or laugh in a public place (though they may permit themselves a wry chuckle in the privacy of their homes).

Other Germans treat the elderly with the deference and respect due them and eagerly anticipate taking their place among this élite.


Unlike America or, to a lesser extent, Britain, Germany is not a melting pot where peoples from diverse cultures are thrown together to make the best and worst of it. Remarkably few people immigrate, in the true meaning of the word, to make their permanent home in Germany and to take up citizenship. Foreign workers in Germany all intend to go ‘home’ eventually, even if they stay for decades. They live in a sort of mental and cultural limbo, not wanting to carve out a place for themselves in German society, and not really expected to. Their rootlessness is caught in the German word that originally described them, Gastarbeiter, guest-worker, which has been replaced by the more politically correct ‘Menschen mit Migrationshintergrund (people with migration backgrounds), or simply, ‘migrants’.

“Young Germans are passionate about supporting minority rights and wanting a multi-cultural society.”

German treatment of minorities will always be scrutinised by the outside world. Encouragingly, the majority of young Germans are passionate about supporting minority rights and wanting a multi-cultural society. The guests were invited, they do the jobs that Germans don’t want, they have brought a degree of internationalism to a parochial society and have worked wonders for German health, by bringing urgently needed relief from the national diet of unremitting stodge.

The Migranten are predominantly Muslim so, unlike the ‘Gastarbeiter’, this term no longer includes the Italians, Spanish or Greeks, who are now regarded  as fellow EU-Citizens, and Mediterraneans (good from a food point of view, but worryingly laid back on the Ordnung front). The largest group is that of the three million Turkish people, some now in their second and third generations in Germany. These groups have created a whole new social stratum, with distinctive youth cultures and their own German dialect, ‘Kanakisch’, expressing characteristic lifestyles and attitudes on mainstream television and in magazines.

“The Ossie guards who used to be employed to keep people in, have had to be reassigned to patrol the borders to keep people out.”

The Migranten are envied by many who would like to join their ranks. Countless numbers from the poorer and more oppressed parts of the world clamour to be allowed to live and work in Germany. The Ossie guards who used to be employed to keep people in, have had to be re-assigned to patrol the borders to keep people out. As a joke has it:

‘Why do the Germans envy the Chinese?’

‘Because they still have their Wall.’


Saying anything rude (or even mildly critical) to a German about his dog is more than your life is worth. All dogs are beautiful, and the world is their litter tray. Those Germans who do not own a dog are strange (and could even be eccentric). Those who own a cat are certainly Communists and may be cut dead in the street. If the man next door acquires a budgerigar or hamster, any self-respecting German will think about moving house (and perhaps going to another town altogether).


German manners are somewhat on the robust side. Don’t expect an apology if somebody knocks into you on the pavement; what you’ll get is a withering look for having had the selfishness and inconsideration to get in the way.

“The withering look is a German speciality which you can observe children practising even in Kindergarten.”

The withering look, a German speciality which you can observe children practising even in Kindergarten, is frequently accompanied by a muttered remark questioning the state of your mental well-being. It is a German quirk that these remarks are always couched in the nation’s formal form of address, ‘Sie’, never in the informal ‘du’.

Even when he or she has elbowed you out of the way, trodden on your feet, glared at you and is calling you a moron without the sense of a dead dachshund, a German will always address you as ‘Sie’. It would be unforgivably rude to do otherwise.

Right to wrong

You may on occasion be pulled up short by German bluntness and directness. The Germans are constitutionally unable to admit to being in the wrong or having made a mistake.

“With their unshakable conviction that there is a right answer to everything, they have difficulty with shades of opinion.”

With their unshakable conviction that there is a right answer to everything, they have difficulty with shades of opinion. They will unhesitatingly express their disagreement in terms of your being wrong. Not, “I don’t think you’re right about that”, but “That is false!”

If they don’t like something, expect to be told so in no uncertain terms. Sparing other people’s feelings is quite unnecessary since feelings are a private matter and have no business in public. While the British will engage in a form of agile verbal sparring, the Germans expect you to state your wishes clearly and directly, to use language at its face value. The Germans say what they mean and mean what they say:

“Do you know what time it is?”

“Yes, I do.”


The Germans are not great ones for queuing. At bus stops they won’t entertain the idea on principle. It doesn’t make the bus go any faster, and it doesn’t help you get a seat, since that is down to the efficient use of elbows and withering looks.

In supermarkets they will queue, but grudgingly and only because there isn’t any choice. In other shops, it is a matter of fine judgement. Queue-jumping might cause unpleasantness if the person you’re planning to displace is in a hurry, or pushing a pram, or over 60, but otherwise it’s open season.

“You must shake hands on meeting, on parting, on arriving, on leaving, on agreeing something and on agreeing to disagree.”

This rather chaotic approach seems out of keeping with the demands of Ordnung. And so it is. It appears that because shops and bus stops occupy an ambiguous position in the public/private divide, they are felt to present opportunities for free expression of the self. But in the works canteen, the queue will have military precision.



The Germans will shake hands at the drop of a hat. Hand-shaking is an unavoidable fact of life, and you will do well to reconcile yourself to pumping the flesh on all occasions. You must shake hands on meeting, on parting, on arriving, on leaving, on agreeing something, and on agreeing to disagree.

The Germans believe in the firm handshake which, done properly, should dislocate at least half a dozen of the smaller bones. It is considered a sign of friendliness to hold the hand for an extended period. If someone is crushing your hand in a vice-like grip and won’t let go even as stars dance before your eyes and you feel your life-blood ebb, this simply means that they like you.

“The accidental and unplanned is something no German likes or feels comfortable with.”

While the handshaking element of greeting people has been perfected to a fine if excruciating art, Germans are rather less adept at introductions. If you bump into an acquaintance who has a stranger in tow, don’t be surprised if you are not introduced. Your friend may well stop and enquire after your health and happiness, may even get deep into conversation with you. His companion will be left standing there inspecting his fingernails, polishing his spectacles and generally working his way through his repertoire of displacement activities as best he can. Your chum will ignore him with aplomb and appear not to be the least affected by his predicament.

Yet don’t be deceived. Behind the granite facade, your acquaintance will be suffering agonies of embarrassment and humiliation because he cannot think of a graceful or elegant way of bringing the stranger into the conversation. The root of the trouble here is that the situation is accidental and unplanned – something no German likes or feels comfortable with.

There is a telephonic equivalent of this failing. If your host takes a call while you are with him, he will never let his caller know that he has company. You must be prepared to settle back and wait while the interminable series of grunts and monosyllables which make up German telephoning runs its course. And don’t expect any word of apology or explanation when your host finally gets back to you. It will be quite beyond him. Do the decent thing and pretend that nothing happened: your host will be unendingly grateful to you.


Formal and informal: Sie-ing and du-ing

“The Germans will remain on ‘Sie’ terms with colleagues even after decades of sharing an office.”

The formal rules of etiquette are simple. When meeting someone for the first time, address them as ‘Sie’ and continue to do so until the informal ‘du’ becomes absolutely unavoidable (for example, while sharing the post-coital cigarette and enquiring politely about earth-movements, etc.). A general guideline is that when you move on to first-name terms, ‘du’ becomes appropriate.

Social context will offer guidance: in business, never deviate from the formal. The Germans will remain on ‘Sie’ terms with colleagues even after decades of sharing an office, and a boss calling his secretary by her first name will be universally suspected of having an affair with her. At radical student functions, informality may be the rule.

“German reluctance to move on to the informal level reflects how earnest a matter friendship is.”

German reluctance to move on to the informal level reflects how ernsthaft a matter friendship is. Some Germans accomplish the transition by stages. To begin with, you will of course be addressed as Herr or Frau X. Later, should you discover sporting or other interests in common, and perhaps a mutual acquaintance or two, you may be addressed by your full name: ‘So, Frank/Francine Jenkins, I am very pleased to see you once more…’ Finally, after many months or years, you will move to first-name terms, and ‘du’ will ensue. A variation on this, which should not cause alarm, is if you are called exclusively by your surname, ‘Ach Jenkins, my old Freund!’ It is essentially the same thing.

The strict separation of the public from the private provides a guarantee that in private the Germans are open and sincere. They may lack polite cushioning phrases, seeing them as a waste of language, and keep their distance from strangers and acquaintances much longer than the English, but when you cross the Hellespont of the ‘du’ it means that all reservations are gone and you have made a friend for life.


Leisure & Pleasure


Leisure is a bit of a problem for most Germans because by definition it consists of no-one telling you what to do or letting you know if you are doing it properly. In order to cope, the Germans do what they are best at: they make work out of it. Watching a German relax is exhausting, and you may need a day off to get over it.

“Watching a German relax is exhausting, and you may need a day off to get over it.”

You will never see a group of Germans simply lounging around the park catching the rays of a summer’s day. Leisure time is an Opportunity for Improvement, so on Monday mornings expect to hear detailed accounts of how the classes in Old Icelandic are going, or what went on at the Motormechanics for Mothers self-help workshop at the weekend.



The Germans love clubs. It is said that whenever three Germans come together they will find some reason to form one. If you see a group of Germans on a street corner, they are sure to be on a club outing of some sort. Clubs abound: there are well over 10,000 choral societies nationwide, and all other interests are represented in comparable numbers. Many clubs have deep historical roots, as with the rifle and hunting clubs. Some of these date from the Middle Ages, and are swathed in guild-like ritual and tradition.

Clubbiness reflects the German dislike of doing things by themselves. Part of this is that they love organizing things. Frequently, the fun of being in a club is more to organize an activity than actually to carry it out. Every German’s heart beats a little quicker at the thought of club business: committees, subcommittees, draft proposals, preliminary budget plans.

“Frequently, the fun of being in a club is more to organize an activity than actually to carry it out.”

They love the opportunities for establishing status and doing a bit of social climbing. What nicer than being elected Club Secretary, Treasurer, Vice-Chairman, Chairman. All this is done in a spirit of great seriousness, and with the utmost conscientiousness. And if once in a while you have to go on a country ramble or do rock climbing or whatever, well, it’s a price worth paying.

Clubbiness begins at a tender age. Since few schools organize sports, most of the facilities and training are available only through clubs. The habit is acquired early and lasts through life. It is by no means unheard of for someone to be buried with the insignia of their bowling or angling club, rather as certain football fanatics will name their hapless children after the entire team.

“Clubbiness is acquired early and lasts through life. It is by no means unheard of for someone to be buried with the insignia of their bowling or angling club.”

A uniquely German kind of club is the student fraternity which thrived in the second half of the 19th century. These are fundamentally drinking and duelling clubs but, being made up of typical males, everything is surrounded with all sorts of elaborate puff and ritual, including mottoes and monograms, coloured ribbons and initiation rites, and the singing of drinking songs. When a club member’s honour was slighted in any way, a duel would ensue. The object of these was not to kill or maim but to scar the face. The classic image of the German aristocrat with a monocle screwed into his heavily scarred face owes its existence to the preposterous goings-on in the student fraternities. Duels with sharp-bladed sabres are still fought as a test of courage.

One of the chief functions of clubs is to exclude others and offer identity and coherence to a group of people who otherwise may have little in common. A club also serves to lend a measure of dignity to whatever the members get up to. A lone Morris dancer may encounter laughter and ridicule, a group of 20 will meet with more respect.

A characteristically clubby phrase has it that ‘hier sind wir unter uns’ (here we are among ourselves), a signal that you may let your hair down and enjoy yourself.


Sport is the perfect excuse for working all day Saturday and Sunday. The Germans do not really see sport as a means of character-building. In a highly competitive society, sport is a popular way to improve and display one’s general fitness and performance in an organized fashion.

“Sport is the perfect excuse for working all day Saturday and Sunday.”

Every third German citizen belongs to a sports club. Football, also the main spectator sport, is a traditional passion, while tennis became an over-night success during the time of Boris and Steffi who were seen as national heroes and adored for their effortful superiority.


The Germans are as fond of sex as everyone else and remarkably tolerant of other people’s foibles and peculiarities. There is great openness about sex – in-depth discussions about its problematic nature are inevitable wherever you go and any sign of embarrassment will be taken as a symptom of psychological hang-ups.

“If you like your sex to be a mysterious smouldering ecstasy, choose the French. To the Germans it is more like an invigorating work-out.”

Seduction techniques leave something to be desired, and many Germans seem to rely on the age-old method of boring the pants off you. Once under way, expect full-blooded and vocal expressions of pleasure and delight (or disappointment), and don’t be taken aback by frank comparisons of technique, duration, etc.

However, if you like your sex to be a mysterious smouldering ecstasy, choose the French. To the Germans it is more like an invigorating work-out in the gym or, in extreme cases, minor surgery.


The Germans are obsessed with many things: it is a form of recreation among them. The state of their own health and that of society are favourite topics for dwelling on, at length. Both, they are convinced, are on the point of irreparable breakdown.

“No self-respecting German has confidence in anyone but an expert.”

Simply look at the front covers of the news weekly Der Spiegel for an update on the latest versions of these twin obsessions. ‘Is Impotence on the Increase?’, ‘What’s Going Wrong With Germany?’, ‘Death of the German Novel?’ are typical cover stories. Inside they will be dealt with in depth, with many an opinion by experts (no self-respecting German has confidence in anyone but an expert). After 10 to 15 pages of minute analysis these articles come to no very firm conclusion beyond the certainty that things will go downhill from here on.

You may come to feel that the Germans are constantly in a state of crisis, and you would be right. German life is a permanent emergency, teetering on the brink of the unthinkable. Crisis is its life’s blood.


A further obsession is their cars. The Germans love their cars more than almost anything. While the Italians reserve this kind of adoration for their children, Germans prefer to keep their children indoors, so the cars can play safely in the streets.

“Cars are not a matter of life and death for Germans, they are much more important than that.”

German cars are pampered, primped and squeaky clean. Only a real brute with no feeling at all (or a foreigner) would drive around in an unwashed car. Such a person could be sure of disapproving glances and withering looks wherever he went.

“Character traits and distinctive features mysteriously migrate to the person behind the wheel.”

Some Germans don’t just derive status from their cars, they take their whole sense of identity from them. Cars are not a matter of life and death for Germans, they are much more important than that. An Opel person is looked down on by a BMW person, while Porsche people may be suspected of being flashy fly-by-nights. Naturally, the stately, solid, dignified Mercedes rules the roost, carrying its costly cargoes of Herr Doktors and Herr Professors and Herr Direktors the length and breadth of the Republic. Without doubt your car says more about you than cash ever could, and can act a bit like a sign of the zodiac, embodying character traits and distinctive features which mysteriously migrate to the person behind the wheel.

Even great historical events are symbolized and encapsulated in car lore. The collapse of Communism will be forever linked in the German mind with the Trabants (universally known as Trabis), which came spewing through chinks in the Wall as fast as they opened up.

This sad little vehicle with its shapeless body perfectly represents the grey uniformity and undifferentiated social structures of the failed socialist state. No space, no status, and precious little Technik with which to get the ever-desirable Vorsprung.

The shining

The German foot is very well shod. Not for them the dodgy trainer bought at a local market with flashing lights in the heel that looks ten years old in the second week of its active life. German feet bestride the pavements and office corridors in high quality, Dunlop-welted and very, very shiny leather. One of the ways they will spot you at once as being from the Ausland (literally, the Outland), is the pitifully scuffed and pitted state of your shoes.

“Real Germans turn the state of their foot coverings into an obsession. Whole websites are devoted to the subject.”

Germans polish their shoes frequently and with diligence. But (and you sort of knew this already, didn’t you?) that’s only half the story. Real Germans turn the state of their foot coverings into an obsession. Next time you’re cruising the internet, take a moment to investigate the topic of ‘Schuhpflege’ or shoe care. You will find whole websites devoted to the subject. These will explain at huge length why the way you’ve been cleaning your shoes all your life is completely hopeless and bound to lead you to social disaster.

Here, in a nutshell, is the right way to do it:

  • Remove the laces (and if they exhibit any sign of wear at all, discard them).
  • Wash the shoes inside and out, using soap, not detergent.
  • Leave them to dry, but not completely.
  • Wax them sparingly, using not ordinary shoe polish (which is catastrophic, containing as it does, white spirit, the very death of leather), but a special kind made with the finest organic turpentine, imported only from Switzerland at a price that will make your eyes water).
  • Leave the wax to dry, but not too much – about 20 minutes should do it.
  • Brush lightly, using a brush made from horsehair, if you’re cheap or – to do the job properly – goat hair (so what that it costs the price of two goats?).
  • Now you are ready to apply any special finish you might fancy, such as a mix of two colours of your expensive shoe polish, to achieve that old, worn-out leather look beloved of the English (who seem to manage it by simple neglect).
  • Brush, buff, brush, buff…
  • Finally, don’t forget to install your new laces, always assuming you remembered to buy some.

By the time you have indulged yourself in a proper German Schuhpflege experience, you will have used up the whole of your weekend, but the next time you’re out and about you’ll bask in the approving glances of the Germans.

If you want to take matters further, there are weeklong seminars you can go on to learn how to do the job really well.


Sense of Humour

The Germans take their humour very seriously. It is not a joking matter.

Harsh, astringent and satirical is their style. The cabarets of pre-war Berlin are famous. Their bite was ferocious: the nearest modern equivalent is the British Spitting Image, but this is playful by comparison. Classic German satire put the boot in and twisted the knife.

“The Germans take their humour very seriously. It is not a joking matter.”

Humour is used by the Germans to come to terms with life’s reverses and hardships. Most of them know that the best laid plans will probably collapse into ruin. This is all quite natural for, if a German maps out his morning or a weekend trip away and it all goes wrong, he will meet the disappointment with fortitude, a wry joke and the quiet satisfaction that he knows how this wicked old world works.

The Germans don’t view Sod’s Law as the occasional irritant in the way the British do. Rather, it is seen as an Iron Fact of Life to which all must yield. If more than three things go right consecutively in a German’s day it will occasion incredulous stares, astonished disbelief and fearful speculations about uncanny forces at work in the world.

“German humour tends to have a target. After all, you don’t throw a custard pie into your own face.”

The Germans’ humour does not translate very well. Most German jokes when translated into English are no funnier than the average till receipt. Learn a bit of German, and you’ll soon come to realize that there is a rich seam of humour running through German life. But their humour is largely a matter of context. There is a time and a place for being funny and for laughing. Ordnung decrees that humour is not the oil that makes the days run smoothly. You do not tell jokes to your boss (although levity with other colleagues may be all right at times), nor do you lard your sales pitch or lecture with witticisms. Irony is not a strong German suit and may easily be misunderstood as sarcasm and mockery.

German humour tends to have a target. After all, you don’t throw a custard pie into your own face. While they are happy to laugh at others, and especially the misfortunes of others (other Germans, that is), their faltering self-confidence doesn’t allow for self-ridicule.

They do not joke about foreigners; jokes about East Germans only began after reunification. The butt end of German humour centres on regional characteristics: the stiffness of the Prussians, the brash, easy-going nature of the Bavarians; the bovine East Friesians, the quickness of Berliners, the slyness of the Saxons. The Bavarians see jokes as a convenient way of taking revenge on their old archenemies, the Prussians. The Swabians don’t mind jokes about their thriftiness, but prefer to be economical with them. Hence:

A Prussian, a Bavarian and a Swabian are sitting together drinking beer. A fly falls into each one’s mug. The Prussian pours away his beer with the fly and orders a new beer. The Bavarian picks the fly out of his mug with his fingers and continues drinking. The Swabian picks out the fly and then forces it to spit out the beer it has drunk.

“To help you get a joke, Germans will gladly explain it to you.”

To help you get a joke, Germans will gladly explain it to you. If they are of an academic bent – or from Stuttgart – the finer points of the explanation will be repeated so that you cannot fail to appreciate it. For some Germans, humour is like a great painting, it must be planned, prepared for and built up in layers over a long period of time. For others, it is like the battered body of the Six Million Dollar Man; they have the technology and they will rebuild it so that it is better than nature made it. Either way, a joke or a shaggy dog story will be polished and honed, refined, revised, improved, reworked and bettered in every possible way – until it is absolutely perfect and quite incapable of raising a titter.

Part of the problem is that most Germans apply the rule that more equals better. If a passing quip makes you smile, then surely by making it longer the pleasure will be drawn out and increased. As a rule, if you are cornered by someone keen to give you a laugh, you must expect to miss lunch and most of that afternoon’s appointments. If you’re lucky you may get home in time for Nachbarn (Neighbours).

“Many Germans apply the rule more equals better. If a passing quip makes you smile, surely by making it longer the pleasure will be increased.”

Humour in Germany is also subject to an official timetable. A good example is the custom of the Karneval celebration which is particularly popular in the Rhineland. It starts officially at 11 minutes past 11 o’clock on November 11th (no insult to Remembrance Day is intended, it just happens that 11.11 is a very orderly numerical combination to the Germans, and order is also pivotal to emotional enjoyment).

Pageants, parties and performances continue for some months, all with the official obligation to be funny. To avoid disorder, strict rules have been set up to organize the merriment as efficiently as possible. During congregational speeches, which are endless concoctions of jokes, every joke is marked by an orchestral signal so that nobody will laugh at the wrong moment. Disorderly humour is not only nothing to laugh about, it is often not even recognized.


“Germans want value from their culture and art, and value means bulk.”   
German culture is for the most part earnest, and big. Not for them the slender vol-  ume of elegant stories beloved of the French. Nor do they like the wry observations  of village life or frail metaphysical puzzlings of the contemporary English novel.  Germans want value from their Kultur and Kunst (culture and art), and value means  bulk. No would-be cultural icon can get away with a small oeuvre. Just look at what  they’re up against: Collected Works of Goethe, 143 volumes – even workaday selec-  tions will weigh in at anywhere between 15-50 volumes; Collected Works of Niet-  zsche, 30 volumes at least; Wagner’s operas, two weeks’ listening if you don’t  break for meals or sleep; Heimat I, II and III, as long and convoluted as life itself.  It is perhaps because paintings can’t be long that the Germans have never really  gone in for this form of expression. But buildings are quite big, and you may expect  excellent architecture, old and contemporary.  The trick when confronted by all this massiveness is not to be intimidated.  Break off a manageable chunk. Suck it and see. You will be pleasantly surprised –  at times, astonished.  German culture in general and literature in particular is different from others in  two main ways: it is comparatively young, having only really got going during the  18th century, and it is highly self-conscious, with characters in plays even from the 

19th century stepping out of the framework of the drama to complain to the author  or argue points with members of the audience. It arose in response to a powerful  sense of inferiority that there was no body of specifically German art, and a creep-  ing Angst that other nations might regard the Germans as philistine.   
“Goethe put the Germans up there with the best of them, where they have ever  longed to be.”
    The man who changed all this, and who dominates German culture like a colos-  sus, is Goethe. Almost single-handedly he gave Germany a literature to be proud  of, comparable with anything the French, the English or the Italians can offer. He  put the Germans up there with the best of them, where they have ever longed to be.  He seemed to contain the entire German Seele (soul) within him, and for this he is  cherished, loved, adored.  Ponderous German scholarship has almost hidden him from view. This is a  shame, because there never was a livelier, more fascinating writer. He brims and  fizzes and bursts with energy and ideas. His intellect soars with the exuberance of  a champagne cork in flight. He contributed new and extraordinary things in poetry,  novels, drama, travel writing, autobiography. With something to say about every-  thing, his ideas range from the dazzling to the downright daft.  In his youth, Goethe was a star without parallel, the Michael Jackson of his day.  When he dressed a character in his first novel in blue and yellow and had him commit suicide for unrequited love, Europe’s youth donned blue and yellow and  penned tragic farewells. In old age he was the grandest of old men, and all his  conversations were taken down verbatim. Hardly a day of his life is unaccounted  for, hour by hour (i.e. ‘Goethe: The Missing Twenty Minutes’).   
“It is not recommended that you come to German literature looking for a happy  ending. You won’t find one.”
    Goethe is the German Shakespeare, and Shakespeare, too, is a sort of honorary  German thanks to the classic translation of his works by A.W. Schlegel and L.  Tieck. ‘Sein oder nicht sein’ (To be or not to be) echoes around many a packed  house, and lots of Germans think of Shakespeare as a German who simply lived in  the wrong place.  On the whole, it is not recommended that you come to German literature look-  ing for a happy ending. You won’t find one. Happy endings are not seelenhaft, or  soulful, and certainly not serious. German art is introspective, brooding, self-  obsessed: in a word, German. The message is more important than the medium;  heavily indigestible (but brilliant) ideas. The core is what matters, not the outward  shell.   
“The Germans need a small, restricted, clearly defined area of chaos to offset  their sense of order. The cinema offers it.”
The Germans love philosophy every bit as much as they love literature. Dichter  und Denker runs the phrase, meaning Poets and Thinkers, cultural heroes both. The  philosophers to crib quotes from include Fichte, Hegel, Kant, Leibniz, Nietzsche,  and Schopenhauer – heavy-weights besides which French or English philosophers  can only be awarded a contemptuous sneer.  The 1950s and ’60s saw an outpouring of plays and novels chronicling the Angst  Germans felt in relation to their unresolved past and in the face of the material suc-  cess, but spiritual emptiness, of contemporary society. Political themes also came  to the fore, with some of the best writing coming from East Germany.  The Germans need a small, restricted, clearly defined area of chaos to offset  their sense of order. The cinema offers it. After the work of directors like Fritz Lang  and Leni Riefenstahl, the emergence of a new and radical cinema rather startled  everyone. Fassbinder, Herzog, Schlöndorf, Margarethe von Trotta, Wim Wenders  and others have produced a series of extraordinary, bleak, bizarre and intense films  which deal with German themes, or wider ones, in a uniquely German way. They  might be tough to sit through, but they pass the test of being ernsthaft with flying  colours.    Intelligence is an intelligence test  For the Germans, what you read equals how smart you are. Turn up on the train  with the latest Jeffrey Archer and you’ll find out pretty quickly what being ridiculed  feels like. Germans don’t read for pleasure; they read in order to be intelligent – or  at least seem to be so. That’s why German novels are sold by the kilo. Pick up the  German edition of something familiar and reassuring by, say, Raymond Chandler,  and you’ll be in for a shock. It will be printed in minuscule type densely packed on  the page and conveying the visual impression that this is an academic treatise.   
“German readers are happiest when they know that every penny spent on a  book has bought them an hour’s worth of hard, self-improving labour.”
    German readers are happiest when they know that every penny spent on a book  has bought them an hour’s worth of hard, self-improving labour. Novels or philo-  sophical tracts which are impenetrable jungles of verbiage that no amount of re-  reading will untangle represent outstanding value for money because nobody see-  ing you read this type of thing could possibly doubt that you must be very brainy  indeed. Well-spaced lines and big friendly margins are banished as offensive indi-  cators of being lightweight.  You can get around this ghastly fact of life to some extent by reading foreign  literature in translation. Flaunt something extremely slender yet profoundly mar-  ginal – in English or French or, better still Russian or Japanese – and German  admiration will know no bounds. They will assume that if you’re reading thin books  it must be because you’ve already polished off all the fat ones, and if you’re reading  foreign books you must have exhausted all the German ones. 

TV news programmes and documentaries are long, painstakingly thorough, and  wearyingly stuffed with politically balanced expert analysis. Continuity announcers  are inhumanly silken-voiced and slick. You will be continually addressed as ‘Ladies  and Gentlemen’ and ‘Honoured Viewers’, and the evening will pass with a series of  chiming noises and strange pauses during which nothing happens.   
“Programming for children is among the best in Europe, so adult taste for old-  fashioned items is a surprise.”
    Programming for children is among the best in Europe, so adult taste for old-  fashioned items is a surprise. There are times when you simply cannot escape the  welter of black and white minstrels, barber shop singers, and pseudo glamorous  circus-style big band shows.  German television has always been responsive to the needs and wishes of the  young. Even in the early 1970s, German youth had access to far superior popular  music shows, where they could see and hear not just banal chart favourites, but  cult ‘underground’ acts like the Grateful Dead, Velvet Underground and the other  exotic oddities of the era. Perhaps this is because any manifestation of culture, no  matter how awful, might turn out to be ‘important’, in which case to have ignored it  would be mortifying. Better cover it, just in case. 

Conversation & Gestures

‘Small talk’ is an expression which has no direct equivalent in German. People would be mortified at the suggestion that any utterance they make is less than portentous.

“Germans prefer their informal exchanges to concentrate on worthwhile and serious matters.”

The English compulsion for discussing the weather is looked on with wry compassion. Germans prefer their informal exchanges of opinion to concentrate on more worthwhile and serious matters – like the enormous strain they are under, the terrible pressure of work, their appalling hardships, the manifold symptoms of their stressed condition, doomsday and other uplifting topics. Other popular themes are holidays and how much you need one, how much you had to work last week, why you really need a holiday now, why you have to work even harder this week and how to interpret holidays and work in terms of Planck’s quantum theory, Hegel’s idea of the absolute or the new tax reform – topics which should be approached with the utmost circumspection lest you are suspected of being sarcastic or trivial.

“A polite ‘How are you?’ is likely to be answered with a comprehensive, head-to-toe survey.”

A polite ‘How are you?’ is likely to be answered with a comprehensive, head-to-toe survey, taking in all the bodily systems and missing none of the major organs. If you don’t want to know, you’d do well not to ask.



The Germans dearly love to swear and curse, and have any number of explosive epithets with which to do it. Bodily functions are graphically referred to whenever anything goes wrong. Scheisse (shit) is used so frequently and by so many people that many Germans are not even aware that it is a swear word. If you call a lady a Dose (literally a can), she will slap your face, while no gentleman will tolerate having his Schwanz (literally tail) referred to in public.

The consequences of verbally insulting another person can be severe. Should mutilation or disablement result from an accident or crime the victim receives small financial compensation, but hefty fines result from publicly questioning somebody’s intelligence, such as pointing at your forehead – the derogatory gesture popular with motorists that suggests someone has taken leave of their senses.

The middle finger raised is equivalent to the English ‘V’ sign. Three fingers extended to form a ‘W’ used by neo-Nazis is strictly prohibited (as is any Nazi symbol, the salute or the swastika – even on a toy model of a Messerschmitt). The gesture most frequently displayed is the raised index finger. In every German there lurks a lecturer, longing to get out.


Eating & Drinking

German food has a poor reputation, being held to consist of fat and carbohydrates and very little else. It has been said that to the French the quality of food matters, to the Germans the quantity, while the English are concerned with nothing but table manners.

“Overdoing it is a German habit, and not only where food is concerned.”

The Germans do not scoff constantly, but once their eating gains momentum it’s hard to stop. Overdoing it is a German habit, and not only where food is concerned.

Part of the German reputation for greed stems from the fact that before, during and immediately after the Second World War food was scarce and poverty was rife, so that meals were monotonous and small. As food returned to the shops and cash to the wallets, the Germans embarked on an orgy-gorgy of epic proportions. This became known as the Fresswelle, a tidal wave of face-filling over-indulgence which produced the quadruple chinned generation which constitutes the very stereotype of the German physique.

“The Germans have an old saying: ‘One cannot live on bread alone, there must be sausage and ham as well.”’

Eventually the Germans came to terms with the coronary consequences of their less than delicate eating habits. Where once they ate about three times as many potatoes as the British, they now eat twice as much health-giving fruit and fibre-rich veg. Today, the label ‘light’ is a sure-fire sales booster as the younger Germans determine to avoid ending up like their barrel-shaped elders. There are even ‘light’ mineral waters boasting less carbon dioxide.

One preference remains unchanged. Germans eat more pork than any other European country, 4½ million tons of it a year, or the equivalent of 5½ ounces of pork per person per day. The Germans have an old saying: ‘One cannot live on bread alone, there must be sausage and ham as well.’

The German breakfast will feature orange juice, fresh coffee (not instant, danke schön), a choice of bread with a selection of jams for the sweet-toothed and hams, salamis and cheeses for those requiring something a touch more substantial. German bread comes in all shapes and sizes, and in a good many colours, too. In fact, about 200 different kinds of bread are available, and the Germans are very partial to wholemeal (no health fad, this, they have always liked it that way). From rye bread to Pumpernickel, Schwarzbrot (black bread) to pretzels, German bread is a meal in itself.

“Mid morning, the Germans like to snack so that they don’t expire before lunch.”

Mid morning, the Germans like to snack so that they don’t expire before lunch which is the most substantial cooked meal of the day. Mid afternoon requires you to stop what you’re doing (unless you’re at work) and go in search of Kaffee und Kuchen – ‘coffee and cake’. The cakes will be elaborate affairs layered with fruit, cream, chocolate, cream, sponge and perhaps a little more fruit. Extra cream is served as a matter of course.

Supper* is called Abendbrot, indicating that bread and cold cuts are again the order of the day, although cooked meals are common, too. Then before bedtime you may like to eat a little something just to keep night starvation at bay. Of all the worries you may have about Germany, the fear of going hungry has the least foundation.



“Beer is not so much a way of life, more the be-all and end-all of it.”

One in three of the world’s breweries are in Germany. This alone should tell you what the Germans think about beer. Not so much a way of life, more the be-all and end-all of it. Small, local breweries manage to survive and thrive not just in ones and twos but in droves. Beer has a traditional association with monasteries, where much of it used to be brewed. It has been classed as a basic food, and even prescribed as medicinal.

One reason German beer is of such high quality is the German Beer Purity Regulation, laid down in 1516 and unaltered since, which states that only water, hops, malt and yeast may go into beer. The only time the majority of Germans expressed serious doubts about being in the European Community was when the Eurocrats tried to tell them that this law had to go in the interests of regulatory ‘harmonisation’. The Eurocrats soon backed down. So, while some 4,000 brands of pure German beer are offered, all imports have to be specially labelled to warn of their impure and contaminated state.

“In Germany wine drinkers and beer drinkers are one and the same; there is no either–or.”

Beer is always served cold with a generous layer of foam. Such an orderly head can require up to eight minutes to be poured and is not recommended for thirsty drinkers in a hurry. The most popular beer is ‘Pils’, which is also the number one export in contrast to ‘Export’ beer which is hardly ever sent outside the country, and ‘Alt’ (old) beer which is drunk as young as possible.

German wines are excellent and, unlike the Californians who more often choose French over their own, are deeply appreciated by the Germans (although the French turn up their noses at them). In Germany, wine drinkers and beer drinkers are one and the same; there is no either–or.

Despite, or because of, being such a boozy lot, there is no toleration of drunkenness on the roads. Limits are lower than elsewhere, and penalties stiffer. Eat, drink and be merry – but take a taxi home.

*You may be surprised at the early hour (from 6.00–7.30 p.m.) at which Germans eat. No dinner at eight for them, let alone the Mediterranean habit of sleeping all afternoon and eating at midnight. Germans want to get it over with: they’ve got work to do.


Customs & Tradition

The Germans value customs and follow them assiduously. They love traditions and have plenty of them though the majority are of local rather than national origin. Most are a more or less elaborate ritual preparation for the consumption of enormous amounts of beer.

Many customs and traditions are linked with the ubiquitous clubs. Rifle clubs, Trachtenvereine (clubs for the wearing of local traditional costumes), pigeon fanciers clubs, all have their festivals which may typically consist of beer drinking, a religious ceremony, beer drinking, a parade, beer drinking, and be rounded off nicely with a glass or two of beer.

“Most traditions are a more or less elaborate ritual preparation for the consumption of enormous amounts of beer.”

For the ceremony of Richtfest (roof-topping), which marks the completion of the roof timbers before the slates are laid down, a party is given by the house-owners for their friends and neighbours, and the builders. Much beer is consumed. Finally, a be-ribboned wreath or small tree is fixed to the summit of the roof, to let everyone know that the work is going well and that the owners have done the right thing.

Harvest time and the business of wine-making and brewing bring festivals to celebrate nature’s bounty. The greatest of these, the Munich Beer Festival, Oktoberfest, is famous the world over. Over 16 days, locals and visitors down enough pints to keep a small country going all year, and make a serious dent in the chicken population. To keep them in the mood, there is much jovial arm-linking and singing of boomps-a-daisy  German songs while swaying to and fro hoping not to fall over just yet. If you have ever longed to dress up in Lederhosen and tunic or dirndl and frilly bodice, and bob about in a tide of large bosoms and bellies, the Oktoberfest is for you.

“If you have ever longed to dress up and bob about in a tide of large bosoms and bellies, the Oktoberfest is for you.”

The majority of customs and traditions are linked to the Christian calendar. Notable are the celebrations before Lent. These have their origin in ancient fertility ceremonies for welcoming the returning spring, and retain their pagan character. They usually feature some variation on the carnival Prince, Princess and Peasant (always men, even the Princess) who are the presiding spirits of Tollität, or madness.

Ascension Day (Himmelfahrt) was traditionally celebrated by the men going off together on elaborate outings to the countryside, to picnic, tell tall stories and imbibe a few. The women stayed at home, enjoyed the unwonted peace and quiet and doubtless celebrated with a drop or two themselves.

During the Tolle Tage, ‘Crazy Days’, of Karneval, Ordnung goes out of the window and the entire ethos of German workaday life is turned upside down. But on Ash Wednesday, everyone is back at work in a very ernsthaft mood indeed, ready to knuckle under for another year.



Christmas is the main focus for tradition and custom, and is every German’s favourite time of year. The British Christmas is a pale and thin imitation, which owes what little Gemütlichkeit it has to the efforts of Prince Albert to bring a little cheer to the benighted country he was married into.

“Traditional carp is generally held to be so unpalatable that most people opt for roast turkey, goose, venison or sausages instead.”

Advent is marked by decorating the front door with a wreath. Indoors the children are given an Advent calendar, so they can enjoy the count-down by opening a little door each day to see some Christmassy picture or find a sweet. On the mantelpiece or dining table, another wreath is placed which has four candles on it for lighting on the Sundays; first one, then two and so on until all four are lit the Sunday before the big day.

In the run-up to Christmas, most towns have a Christmas market in the town square or outside its main church. Here you can find all manner of cheap and cheerful trinkets for sale as well as spiced cakes, punch and seasonal sweet treats, plus a funfair and Christmas carols played by musicians in the church spire or some other conspicuous place.

St. Nikolaus Day is celebrated on December 6, a sort of dry-run for Christmas. Children are required to put a shoe outside their bedroom door the night before, which is then filled with goodies while they sleep – provided their behaviour during the year has merited it.

The distribution of presents is a rather formal event on Christmas Eve. Children are banished from the house (or at least kept out of the living room) in the afternoon while the tree is set up and decorated. Tradition requires a dinner of carp, but this is generally held to be so unpalatable that most people opt for roast turkey, goose, venison or sausages instead.


Health & Hygiene

Virtually all Germans have health problems, and if they don’t, there must be something wrong with them. Most of what ails them is stress related. No nation was ever more stressed (strapaziert), but this is understandable. After all, running Europe can take it out of you.

“Virtually all Germans have health problems, and if they don’t there must be something wrong with them.”

The delicacy of the German constitution has long been recognized, and smoothly running systems have long been in place to bolster it and keep it going. In the 1880s Bismarck set up a national health insurance scheme because he worried that the workers might get strapaziert by the demands of flourishing industrialisation. Today the national health insurance underpins a vast and wonderful network of doctors, hospitals, specialists and spas.

Like the French, the Germans devote enormous resources to the treatment of an illness which doesn’t exist, in this case the notorious Kreislaufstörung, meaning disruption of the circulation. While the rest of us go to meet our maker when our circulation stops, the Germans routinely recover from it and go on to lead useful and productive lives. Once they are good at it, the Germans can have a Kreislaufstörung as often as twice a month without it seriously impairing their social life.

“The Germans can have a ‘disruption of the circulation’ as often as twice a month without it seriously imparing their social lives.”

Treatment for this frightening disease varies. It has been shown to respond positively to three weeks on a Greek beach, and the prognosis isn’t too bad if you take plenty of pills and potions. (It doesn’t really matter what pills and potions, the secret lies in ostentatiously stopping work and lining up an awesome array of small brown bottles on your desk before swallowing six of everything and sighing copiously.) Only one instance of someone actually dying because of Kreislaufstörung is recorded, a sad case of a young man whose pill-taking regime was so complicated that the schedule simply left no time for taking meals.

If Kreislaufstörung is an ailment which properly belongs in the realm of ideas, the main health worry for the Germans in the real world is the condition of their hearts. For the generation who took part in the Fresswelle this was with very good reason. The veins and arteries of these lumbering, wobbling colossi were choked and begging for mercy. Thrombosis was an ever-present threat. However, for their jogging-suited, water-sipping successors, concern for the heart is less warranted and has taken on a hundred shades of metaphysical Angst.

“Germans are passionately fond of every form of tonic and pep-me-up. They never doubt the good it is doing them.”

Germans are passionately fond of every form of tonic and pep-me-up. They will swallow every conceivable kind of plant extract and animal gland, and will never doubt the good it is doing them, provided only that they have paid enough for it and that it tastes vile. It’s all they ask.

Because all Germans pay around 13-14% of their income into health insurance, German doctors are very pleased with life, and drive some of the newest and shiniest Mercedes on the roads. Dentists are so highly paid their main problem consists of finding sufficient deductible ways of spending to offset against their taxes.

In addition to six weeks’ paid holiday, the Germans are entitled to a staggering six weeks’ paid sick leave per year; and if you can fool them into it, the medical insurance companies will stump up for a further 78 weeks over a 3-year period. All this costs a fortune – social security spending swallows about a third of Germany’s gigantic GNP, and cutbacks are taking place, cautiously. Everybody in the government knows that it is safer to steal a lioness’s cub than to come between a German and his medication.



A uniquely German institution is the spa cure. It is conclusive proof of earnestness and Seelenhaftigkeit (soulfulness) to recognize the need to repair body and mind, and shoot off to one of these spas at the State’s expense at the first sign of a sniffle or an in-growing toenail. Once there you will wallow in special curative muds and drink unspeakably foul waters, in between taking moderate exercise (i.e. walking to the cake shop and back) and playing the time-honoured game of How Much Schnapps Can I Sneak Before Herr Doktor Notices.

“It is safer to steal a lioness’s cub than to come between a German and his medication.”

A curiosity of the regulations governing being sent on a Kur (cure) is that you are expressly forbidden to take your husband or wife, on the grounds, presumably, that you need rest and recuperation, not to be nagged or to have to submit to Unreasonable Demands. In Baden-Baden, where the wealthy take their cure, the mixed sauna acts rather like a butcher’s display, allowing you to inspect your bit of rump steak thoroughly before buying. The consequence is known as the ‘Spa Romance’, from which patients and divorce lawyers both derive much solace.

“An unwashed German is a contradiction in terms, like a faithful Frenchman or a good English café.”

Many older lavatories in Germany have a curious ledge in the bowl. This puzzles and distresses many foreigners. What is it there for? The answer is the extraordinary curiosity of the Germans concerning everything to do with their health, and the fact that, should you spot some abnormality, it could provide the key to any number of weeks off work and a bit of slap and tickle at the Kur. Simple, really.



To the Germans, hygiene is the basic requirement of life and the absolute starting point of Ordnung. An unwashed German is a contradiction in terms, like a faithful Frenchman or a good English café.

In a German bathroom cabinet you will find a dazzling array of preparations and pieces of precision engineering for maintaining the human form in pristine condition. Dental hygiene takes pride of place. Only the very poorest of Germans will have one toothbrush, the remainder boast whole banks of them, with mirrors on sticks and high-speed water jets for persecuting every last molecule of plaque.

There is also the delicate issue of men’s lavatorial habits. In the interests of hygiene, an increasing number of German men have become a Sitzpinkler, i.e they ‘sprinkle’ sitting down. It’s considered considerate.


The apothecary

On the whole, you will find German shops formal and a bit stuffy (the cheaper kinds of department stores that resemble a poorly organized jumble sale are an exception).

“If you’re feeling frail, a visit to the apothecary will be balm to the soul.”

The German-style chemist shop is the apothecary, a mysterious place where there is virtually nothing on display beyond perhaps some dentifrice or manicure equipment. Behind the spotless counter is the spotless white-coated apothecary, as ernsthaft an individual as you’ll meet anywhere, to whom you tell your woes and who, after some pretty close questioning, produces the sought-after box or bottle. Many of these shops are venerable and old, wood panelled and lined with marvellous glass or ceramic jars. They are a trifle intimidating with their sombre medicinal atmosphere, but if you’re feeling frail, a visit to the Apotheke will be balm to the soul.



The Germans appreciate a system. There’s nothing quite like having a system, if  you ask a German. Systems make the world go round.  Take their motorway system. Germany’s autobahns came into existence because  Hitler wanted to avoid his tanks and armoured vehicles getting stuck in traffic. He  also had an unemployment problem to solve. It seemed a good idea at the time,  and proved its worth as a peacetime amenity. Getting around was easy and quick.  Since then, getting around has become harder but that is due to the volume of traf-  fic, not the roads.   


“On the autobahn no speed limit applies. This freedom from restraint  represents an important liberty in an otherwise red-taped society.”

    German law decrees that on the autobahn no speed limit applies, although there  is a politely ‘recommended’ limit of 80 miles per hour to which only first-time visi-  tors pay any attention. To the Germans this unexpected freedom from restraint  represents an important niche of liberty in an otherwise red-taped society. The free-  dom of the open road, the opportunity for self-expression by slamming down the  accelerator and leaving the rest standing, is cherished. You can see the gleam in  their eyes, and stuck fast in the sweltering tail-backs which characterise so many  German roads around the big cities, you will have plenty of time to do so. 


“By law, cars must even be furnished with a pair of surgical gloves.”
    The Germans have some unique regulations governing filter lights. The only way  of coping is never to place yourself at the head of any queue of traffic; then you can  just do what other drivers do, safe in the knowledge that none of them is likely to  bend, let alone break, any of the myriad codes of the road. (By law, cars must even  be furnished with a pair of surgical gloves.)  If, as a visitor, by some misfortune you find yourself first in line at the lights,  your best bet is to abandon your car there and then; it will be infinitely better than  facing up to the barrage of hoots and roars of those behind you.    Public transport  The alternative is to go by bus or tram or train – every one of them a model system  of efficiency and cleanliness. The trains are fast and punctual, partly because sta-  tions are sensibly placed in the centre of towns and cities. The intercity services are  known as IC, and the new intercity express service ICE is very fast, and features  luxuries like fax machines, telephones and video.  In many of the cities confusion awaits you at the tube station. Do you take the  ‘U’ Bahn or the ‘S’ Bahn? The ‘U’ Bahn goes underground while the ‘S’ Bahn goes  overground. Except of course when it’s the other way around. For maximum conve-  nience, the ‘S’ Bahn seems to stop at most of the places where the ‘U’ Bahn does  (though not the other way around, the ‘S’ Bahn reaching the parts other Bahns  can’t).   
“The ‘U’ Bahn goes underground while the ‘S’ Bahn goes overground. Except  of course when it’s the other way around.”
    On certain stretches your ‘S’ Bahn ticket will cover you for travelling on the ‘U’  Bahn. On other stretches, it won’t. Similarly, you may be covered for some bus  routes and may even be able to take advantage of the excellent though dwindling  tram service. But then again you may not.  Don’t look for signs to explain it to you, there aren’t any. Don’t bother asking  the ticket salesman even if there is one, the explanation will only baffle you more.  Play it safe and buy whichever ticket includes everything – the extra expense is well  worth it. Otherwise, walk.   
The German education system is not concerned with character-building or instilling moral fibre. Instead the aim is to load you with qualifications which will earn  you respect and promotion in the market place.  Education for the Germans starts late and finishes even later. Nursery school is  optional, primary school starts at the age of six, and the average student finishes  university in his or her late twenties. 
“Degrees are coveted. Still more desirable is a doctorate. Being entitled to style  yourself ‘Doktor’ lends power to your elbow in every sphere.”
    At ten years old the brighter pupils go to a Gymnasium (which is not for training  the body but for training the mind) leading to university. The rest (some 60%) go  to other secondary schools which are likely to take them towards an apprenticeship  – a highly formalised three years in a shop, bank or whatever, including weekly  theoretical training in a State-run vocational school. For many this leads directly in-  to a career. Achieving the German Abitur (the final examination) automatically  guarantees a place at university in almost any subject you like. If your average isn’t  good enough you may have to wait a few years, but rejection is not on the cards.   
Every German you encounter professionally will be thoroughly trained and qual-  ified. Degrees are coveted. An academic degree is prestigious and must be promi-  nently displayed. Still more desirable is a doctorate. Being entitled to style yourself  ‘Doktor’ lends power to your elbow in every sphere, be it business, finance, the  law, even medicine. It is not thought in the least odd to call somebody ‘Dr. Dr.’ if  they have two doctorates, and good manners require you to.   
“It is not thought in the least odd to call somebody ‘Dr. Dr.’ if they have two  doctorates, and good manners require you to.” 
Top of the tree and most prized is the professorship. If you come up against  someone called Herr Professor you know you are dealing with a true heavyweight.  Professorships are usually hard to come by, requiring a lengthy, complicated thesis  and giving weekly lectures (sometimes without pay) while waiting for a profes-  sorship which may never turn up. Academic titles can of course be acquired with  less effort by buying them, and this is regularly done by ambitious people in a hur-  ry. Pretty much any title is available for a price if you know where to go (most com-  monly a third world country), and this form of aggrandisement is not illegal.    Money matters  Most Europeans find it hard to feel sorry for Germans who are depressed over the  current economic gloom. After all, what constitutes hard times in post-war Germany would strike many as a boom-time bonanza. Nevertheless, many, if not  most, Germans will lament how suffering under the yoke of the economic conver-  gence  criteria is the Beginning of the End or the End of Everything (according to  whether you are talking to an optimist or a pessimist). They are quite unable to see  belt-tightening today as an investment for prosperity tomorrow. As always, they are  cursed with being able to penetrate deeper into the meaning of events than anyone  else, and so are wreathed in Wagnerian apprehensions of the Götterdämmerung  kind.   
“Germans are cursed with being able to penetrate deeper into the meaning of 

events than anyone else.”
    To the Germans money represents security. Fear of losing their beloved Mark  prompted them to question the value of European unification. Obviously sacrifices  would have to be made, but preferably not on the financial front. Twice in the 20th  century, after the First and the Second World Wars, Germany was hit by deval-  uation. Inflation reached astronomical proportions in the early 1920s. The majority  lost all their savings. Even today, inflation is seen as the ultimate economic chaos,  something to be restricted at all costs. The shock of it still lingers in the German  soul.  Banks therefore play an even bigger part in business life than elsewhere. A sys-  tem of ‘universal’ banking means that the banks own everything the government  has not already got its hands on. In Frankfurt, the European Central Bank rules  supreme, following in the footsteps of the Bundesbank. The Deutschmark may be  dead but the Euro is looked to for a glorious German future, dominating everything  in sight and running (not ruining, as some have maintained) the entire European  economy. 


Germany is not only the Land of Angst, it is also the Land of the Land – ‘country’ (what other countries would call a ‘state’). Before reunification, there were 10 Länder (11 if you include Berlin). The NBLs (New Federal Lands) make it 15 (16).

Each Land is a politically separate region, with powers and responsibilities laid down by the Constitution, and each is represented in Berlin, in a rather ambassadorial manner, competing with the others to secure its interest at Federal level.

Federal Government is in charge of things like foreign policy, defence, taxes and telecommunications, while the Länder call the shots in the matter of education, policing, broadcasting and local government. Federal and Land governments go halves in splitting tax revenues, although by law no Land is allowed to become significantly richer (or poorer) than another. If they do, they have to hand it over.

The Bundestag is the highest law-making body. It elects the Chancellor (equivalent to the Prime Minister) who is the leader of the party with the largest number of seats, and safeguards democracy by allowing minority groups the right to demand information and ask for committees of enquiry into any funny business.

“No Land is allowed to become significantly richer (or poorer) than another. If they do, they have to hand it over.”

The Bundesrat, the upper house, is made up entirely of Land representatives, so the Länder can make their presence felt by influencing Federal legislation in the Bundestag, the lower house. For some legislation, agreement of the Bundesrat is necessary, for some not. Where it is not, the upper house can object to proposed laws, and even take matters to a conference committee where both Houses are represented and a compromise can be hammered out.

German Law is Land-based, with the exception of five supreme courts and the federal constitutional court, which exists to ensure that all legislation is compatible with the Basic Law which was set up at the same time as the Republic itself.

The President of the Republic is an elected figurehead, who may serve for a maximum of two five-year terms.

The system of Länder and central Bund is held in high regard throughout Germany, and Land politics are lively and of interest to most ordinary citizens. Many of the country’s brightest and wiliest politicians are to be found at Land level, and have no very pressing desire to get into the Federal scene.



Bureaucrat heaven.

Remorseless regulations, rigid rules, punitive, petty, pernicious, pernickety. A nation held together with red tape. Did you ever doubt it?


Crime & Punishment


It will come as no surprise that the Germans are keen on law and order. ‘There must be Order’ is the phrase on many a German’s lips. To ensure that ‘what must be’ is, the Germans are willing to sanction some fairly heavy-handed policing and some very strict laws.

“To ensure order, the Germans are willing to sanction some fairly heavy-handed policing and some very strict laws.”

Policing is the responsibility of the various regional authorities. If you decide to make a break for it after brutally dropping your sweet wrapper in the street, and succeed in getting as far as the regional border, your case will be formally handed over to the police in the next Land, who will take up the chase.

The Germans must always have their identity papers with them to avoid being arrested and locked up for up to six hours while someone goes to fetch them. If they move house, even one house further along the street, they must register their new address within a few days. No citizen can escape the long arm of the law for long.

“If you live in flats, don’t sing in the bath late at night, in fact, think twice about having a bath at all.”

German law can seem like a nightmare of pettiness and vindictiveness. One individual was fined because in remonstrating with a policeman he had used the word ‘Mensch’, equivalent to an American saying ‘Man’. No-one may imply that a policeman is a human being. Policemen are carefully vetted and if they show the tiniest sign of a sense of humour, they’re out.

Law and order apply in the home too. Laws concerning noise and disturbance are rigid and, by others’ standards, intrusive. Generally, all noise must cease after 10 p.m. If you live in flats, don’t sing in the bath late at night, in fact, think twice about having a bath at all, and as for flushing the lavatory… Care is needed in the sensitive matter of when you cut your lawn since doing it at weekends will probably get you into trouble, but not doing it at all will get you into worse.

The safest bet, as indicated earlier, is to assume that everything is forbidden and against the law unless you have documentary proof to the contrary (in contrast to France where everything is allowed, even if it is forbidden, and Russia where everything is forbidden, even if it is allowed).

“All Germans love to point out to you what you are doing wrong or what you are failing to do right.”

One of the more depressing aspects of German life is that all Germans love to point out to you what you are doing wrong or what you are failing to do right. Thinking of sneaking through a red light? Don’t do it. A hundred Germans will helpfully call out that This Is Not Allowed. Thinking of leaving the kids’ toys out on the front lawn? Don’t do it. The whole neighbourhood is itching to point out to you that This Is Not Allowed.

German rules and regulations have proliferated so much and involve such unlimited red tape, that the nation has had to introduce a de-bureaucratisation law to cope with them.



The majority of German companies are small to medium sized, old, and family owned. The relationship between boss and employees is close and friendly. The owner usually knows precisely what goes on at shop-floor level, having worked there himself at some time.

Industrial relations are remarkably stable. Bosses and unions don’t necessarily admire each other, but the need for co-operation and partnership is universally recognized. In German companies everybody from the chairman to the tea lady is called a Mitarbeiter or co-worker, and this is not mere rhetoric. Manual workers are probably earning comparable wages to management and enjoying the same conditions and benefits (not as a privilege but as a right). More importantly, both will regard themselves as social equals.

“Everybody from the chairman to the tea lady is called a Mitarbeiter or co-worker. Both will regard themselves as social equals.”

In business, seriousness and qualifications rule the day. Amateurs won’t get a look in, and specialists can get no job outside their area of expertise. If you’re a Doctor of Philosophy and can’t get a post in a university department, you will probably end up working in a semi-skilled position. Business won’t touch you with a barge pole.


The working day

At the office, punctuality is next to Godliness, although only the bosses are expected to be in early or to stay late. Most Germans knock off at 5 o’clock sharp. Working late is seen as an admission of inefficiency (which is Not Allowed), unless you choose the option to come late and leave later, or come early and leave earlier, which is known as ‘gliding time’.

Plenty of loud grunting and complaining lets everyone know that you are exerting yourself to the utmost in the cause of Gründlichkeit (thoroughness). Quiet efficiency will be unnoticed by your superiors and earn you withering looks from your colleagues.

“At work, ambition and competitiveness are the expected norm and their outward signs are intensity of effort.”

Ambition and competitiveness are the expected norm and their outward signs are intensity of effort and not sloping off every 20 minutes for a cigarette and a read of the newspaper. Performance, skill, achievement and workmanship are all highly valued. If you generate a mountain of paper and memos, you are clearly working hard and are good at your job.

In the old days, Germans seemed to live entirely for their work. Since finding out about foreign holidays and 101 things you can do in a tracksuit, they have become less dogged. This has led to much national anxiety and articles in Der Spiegel asking, ‘Are We Germans Becoming Lazy?’

Occasional after-hours jollies have to be put up with, but mixing socially with your workmates is fairly uncommon. Office ‘do’s’ are pretty formal events. You are not expected to get legless and grope the canteen staff.

German business meetings stick to the agenda so as not to waste time; they therefore need extensive agendas. Time is precious, time is money. It is not to be wasted frivolously – until someone finds the perfect opportunity to ‘profile’ himself and begins to hold forth on everything he knows.


Language & Ideas

In their hearts the Germans believe that no foreigner can speak German properly. (In fact, they believe that only people from their own region speak decent German. There is nothing more barbarous to a Berliner than the Bavarian version of the language. Bavarians heartily reciprocate this feeling.)

“German is a remarkably flexible language, and one in which new words are easy to make up.”

German is a remarkably flexible language, and one in which new words are easy to make up. You simply take two, three, or pretty well any number of existing ones, and stick them alltogetherabitlikethis. This doesn’t just make a nice new word, it introduces a whole new concept, perhaps explaining why the German psyche is so fearfully complicated. For instance, in a park the notice Astbruchgefahr registers in one swift glance that you are within the orbit of ‘branch-dropping-off-danger’.

An alternative to this is to take a string of words, chop out all the bits you don’t care for, and glue the remainder together. This is a popular way of coping with the names of government departments and so forth – hence Stasi from Staatssicherheitsdienst (the State Security Service of the GDR).

The German printed page is startling at first. The words are so long. A newspaper article may consist of just four or five words, yet take up two columns. The same is true of sentences and paragraphs. Look at a book by Thomas Mann. A thousand pages divided into half a dozen paragraphs.

“A newspaper article may consist of just four or five words, yet take up two columns.”

Unsurprisingly, the inventive German tongue has given rise to many ideas and notions contained in one word, which are unmatched in other languages. For example:


Realpolitik – The pursuit of political advantage or survival in a tough world, such as saying “No, really, it doesn’t hurt” after your hippo-like boss has trodden on your foot.


Schadenfreude – A joy-in-destruction sort of emotion which perfectly captures the surge of satisfaction you feel on hearing of another’s downfall. Other languages are very coy about honouring such a caddish feeling with a whole word of its own. Consequently, everybody uses the German one.


Weltschmerz – It’s a freezing February night, the central heating has packed up, your team is facing relegation, you’ve just been handed your redundancy notice and arrive home to find that the dog has been sick on the sofa. What you feel is Weltschmerz.


Frömmelei – The saccharine-coated piety typified by tele-evangelists who tell you that God urgently wants you to send them money, and who are subsequently found in bed with three people called Tammy (only two of whom are female). In relation to culture, it describes people who have never read Shakespeare, but refer to him reverently as ‘the Bard’.


Kleinkariert – This literally means having a pattern of small checks. Its proper use is for describing the sort of person who has gnomes outside their bungalow and has holidayed in Frinton for the last 25 years.


Zeitgeist – Nothing less than the Spirit of the Age, and the cue for no end of sighing and looking world-weary. An invaluable word to use whenever German cinema or the music of Stockhausen are under discussion.


Vergangenheitsbewältigung – The sum total of difficulties a nation encounters in struggling to come to terms with a dodgy past. Who but the Germans would have a word for it?


About the Author

Benjamin Nicholaus Oliver Xavier Barkow is a German of the old school. Born in Berlin in 1956, he spent his formative years lobbying to have a wall built through the city because he strongly disapproved of the way the Socialists pegged out their laundry.

With this achieved, he moved to Hamburg, but finding it such a well-ordered place, moved swiftly to London. What he found there has so appalled and fascinated him, he is unlikely ever to leave. After a tempestuous and Angst-ridden adolescence, he studied humanities (in the vain hope that some of it would rub off). For most of his adult life he freelanced as a researcher and writer. One published assignment was a history of the London Wiener Library. At the time, he had no idea that some years later he would find himself in charge of it.

Despite being a chronic sufferer of Kreislaufstörung, which no herbal remedy has yet cured, he soldiers on in the hope that one day he will understand why people don’t understand him; at which point he will take his Seele out of pawn, move to the mountains and begin work on his cherished project, Wagner, the Musical.


Stefan Zeidenitz is descended from an old German family of Anglophiles who sadly failed to catch the last Saxon long-boat to Britain by some fifteen hundred years.

He has compensated for missing the boat by immersing himself in Far Eastern studies and promoting Japanese culture in England, English culture in Germany and German culture in Japan. In consequence, his sense of direction is sometimes slightly distorted.

The effortless superiority he encountered while teaching at St. Paul’s School and Eton College has not yet superseded his Teutonic temperament. But he is working on it.



First published in eBook form
by Xenophobe’s® Guides, 2011

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Copyright © Oval Projects, 2011

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ePub ISBN: 9781908120427
Mobi ISBN: 9781908120434