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John Kampfner on Why (and How) the Germans Do It Better

Posted on 31st May 2021 by Mark Skinner

Taking a mature and intelligent - yet nonetheless highly entertaining and witty - look at the nation that Britain struggles so hard to compliment, John Kampfner's Why the Germans Do It Better analyses the reasons for modern Germany's resolute championing of democracy. In this exclusive piece, Kampfner explains why he felt compelled to write a book which redressed the balance of crude stereotyping and puerile Little England sniping.   

The responses were almost identical. ‘You can’t say that,’ they would exclaim with a shriek or awkward laugh. They were an eclectic mix of people I’d known for decades and people I’d just met: prominent politicians, CEOs of multinationals, artists, volunteers helping refugees, old mates and ordinary folk met at random. All these Germans I spoke to on my journey recoiled at the thesis and the title of the book.

The more passionately they objected, the more determined I became. Look around your local bookshop and how many books do you see about Germany that are not about the two world wars?

Those with longer memories struggle to accept the notion of Germany as a moral and political beacon. The idea will discomfort those still obsessed with Churchill and the Blitz spirit. Even now Britain doesn’t quite seem to know what it wants of Germany. When its economy struggles, as it did in the mid-eighties and mid-nineties, it is derided as the ‘sick man of Europe’, over-regulated and hidebound. When Deutschland AG corners global markets, it is over-weaning and rapacious. The British don’t want Germany to throw its weight around the world, yet they do want it to pull its weight.

Then came the pandemic. Throughout 2020, as Britain floundered, as its death rate became one of the highest in the world, government ministers bridled when they were asked: “why can’t you do it more like the Germans?”

In 2021, as the UK rolled out its successful vaccination and the European Union struggled, those same ministers struggled to contain their satisfaction. Much of the media went into instant “told you so” mode over Brexit. Who needs solidarity when you can be nimble? Might Boris Johnson emerge the “victor”, some wondered? Might he “get away with” whatever criticisms a public inquiry on the pandemic might throw at him. After all, hadn’t his team scored the winning goal in the final minute of the game? A health emergency reduced to sport, to the language of victory. Germans would not, could not, do that.

Half of modern Germany’s lifespan has been a tale of horror, war and dictatorship. The other half is a remarkable tale of atonement, stability and maturity. As much of the contemporary world succumbs to authoritarianism and populism, Germany stands as a bulwark for decency and stability. This is the story I wish to tell.

Unlike Russia and France, with their military symbols, the US with the story of its founding fathers, or the UK, with its Rule Britannia teaching of history and Dad’s Army war obsessions, Germany has nothing else to fall back on. That is why it cares so passionately about process, about getting it right, not playing fast and loose. Germany has few positive reference points from history. That is why it refuses to look back. That is why it sees every challenge to democracy as an existential threat. That is why I, like many who have a complicated relationship with the country, so fulsomely admire the seriousness with which it has set about its task since 1945.

What do the Germans do better, and what lessons do they actually have to teach, or rather have they learnt? In posing these questions, I hope to spark a different kind of debate about the country, not to suggest superiority but to redress the balance of recent history. Germany’s constitution is strong; political debate is more grown-up; economic performance has for much of the post-war era been unrivalled. Look back to the Berlin Wall and reunification in 1989/90, and to the refugee crisis of 2015. Which other nation could have absorbed a poor cousin with so little trauma? Which other nation would have allowed in more than a million of the world’s most destitute.

The Merkel era draws to an end, a general election beckons: will the next generation of leaders be up to the task? A government led by the Greens would mark an extraordinary moment, a very German moment. There is much to worry about. Radical action will be demanded to combat the climate emergency. The economy has slowed, weighed down by risk aversion, a failure to embrace digital transformation, an ageing population and worsening infrastructure. The refugee influx has exacerbated the cultural divide. Many, particularly in the East, have turned to the simple slogans of the extremes. At a time when Europe and the democratic world desperately needs leadership, Germany has been reluctant to meet its foreign-policy responsibilities.

Yet what gives me cause for hope is the self-questioning, the almost morbid re-stoking of memory. Germans cannot bring themselves to praise their country. This refusal to see good is hardwired. And yet, particularly when compared with the alternatives on offer in Europe and beyond, they have much to be proud of. More hubristic countries like my own would be wise to learn from it.

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