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Why the Germans Do It Better: Notes From a Grown‑Up Country
by John Kampfner
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One of the most famous advertising slogans in history was conceived in 1971 and sold Audi cars for decades afterwards. “Vorsprung durch Technik” means “progress through technology”, but much of the world came to translate it as “Germany works”.
The veteran foreign correspondent John Kampfner draws upon 40 years’ experience of the country for this excellent and provocative book. It is a British hypocrisy that we abuse and caricature Germany, yet buy its products by the tonne. He suggests that among reasons for the Germans’ success, and our relative failure, is British arrogance, alongside their counterintuitive humility. The architect David Chipperfield, who has worked there for years, says: “Germans articulate anxieties we should all have.”
Although Germans face many problems, Kampfner remains optimistic about their future because of their relentless self-questioning rooted in embarrassment about the past. They have much to be proud of, yet few can bring themselves to praise their own country. He quotes the American columnist George Will, who wrote recently that “today’s Germany is the best Germany the world has seen”.
This is not a bedside book that Nigel Farage, or indeed Boris Johnson, will cherish. The author suggests that Britain should learn from Germany’s example because his own country is “trapped by a moribund political system and delusions of grandeur”.
Yet it is no hagiography. It catalogues many things that have gone wrong, symbolised by the new Berlin airport, which was about to stage a 2012 grand opening when safety officials rang the alarm and discovered half a million faults. These are still being put right while baggage carousels rotate, indicator boards flicker and trains run into the station — without a passenger in sight. It is an epic failure of public sector management.
Regional banks, hailed as a source of German industrial strength, have run into trouble. VW became a symbol of corporate crime when it was found to have falsified its car emission statistics. Germany flinches from a responsible role on the international stage, though it had the sense to stay out of America’s recent wars. The country’s infrastructure is ailing, its urban air quality poor, its recent economic performance has been patchy.
And yet, Germany’s vast underlying strength dwarfs all this. Kampfner argues that worker representation on company boards is a success story, reflected in a productivity much greater than Britain’s despite shorter working hours. There is real community spirit, participation and togetherness, reflected in social clubs and voluntary fire brigades. German universities are outstanding. The impoverished East’s absorption has been a great success, even if problems persist.
Germans take pride in their huge spending on culture. In 2015 David Cameron stayed with Angela Merkel, who enthused about opera productions and galleries she had visited, and asked the prime minister for his London recommendations. Appearing embarrassed, he explained that opera-going, being considered elitist, did not play well with British voters. He watched a lot of TV, he said.
A significant passage of the book is devoted to Merkel, the most formidable European statesman of the 21st century. Henry Kissinger once asked: “If I want to talk to Europe, who do I call?” — and the answer was never a British prime minister. Germany is the continent’s standard-bearer, and until the coming of Donald Trump, who has repeatedly insulted Merkel, its chancellor was viewed as an enthusiastic Atlanticist.
Conspicuous in this remarkable woman is her preternatural calm. She retains total control of her impulses, even when Vladimir Putin unleashed his labrador on her in the malicious knowledge that she loathes dogs. She was never deluded about the sheer nastiness that Putin’s Russia represents, but is realistic about the need to coexist with it.
The pedestal of “Mutti”, as many Germans know Merkel, was rocked by her 2015 decision to admit a million Middle Eastern migrants and refugees, but her superb handling of the Covid-19 crisis has restored her standing with her people. Kampfner writes: “She told citizens what she, her ministers and scientists knew, and what they didn’t. She never blagged. She never boasted. Most of the decisions she was forced to take went against everything modern Germany stood for.”
Yet because she is a real leader, she led — and her nation followed. This has been her finest hour. She will soon quit power, leaving a void at Germany’s summit. However, there are grounds for hope that a worthy successor will emerge, simply because her country has produced so many remarkable statesmen since 1945: Adenauer, Brandt, Schröder, Kohl — all big figures, love or loathe them.
The author delivers a ringing peroration: “Half of modern Germany’s lifespan [since 1871] has been a tale of horror, war and dictatorship. The other half is a remarkable tale of atonement, stability and maturity. No country has achieved so much good in so little time.” As much of the world succumbs to authoritarianism, and the standing of the United States as democracy’s foremost pillar is at risk, “Germany stands as a bulwark for decency”.
This is a passionate, timely book. Only a few things are missing. Berlin is great, a European cultural mecca as our own Neil MacGregor testifies, but many German cities are dull, trending to ugly. Much as I admire modern Germany and its people, it would be the last place in Europe in which I would choose to live. Britain remains lighter, prettier, more fun. Yet it should be possible for us to cherish our own country while displaying much more respect for its stable, reliable, supremely effective neighbour.
Kampfner writes: “Germany is Europe’s best hope in this era of nationalism, anti-Enlightenment and fear.” It has learnt lessons of history that we have not, many of which have nothing to do with wars.
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