Germany Uber Alles

Germany is riding high again. It is overwhelmingly dominant in Europe in a way it hasn’t been, arguably, since a brief period in World War II in 1940. It just won the football World Cup. Angela Merkel, the German Chancellor, is probably the most recognized European leader in the world today. She’s easily the most powerful. Everyone cites German frugality, precision, industriousness and efficiency.

Roaming the world these days one is struck by the praise, sometimes tinged with envy or feigned contempt, for Teutonic discipline and work ethic. The Germans can’t do anything wrong. What is the success of their success? Genes? Sauerkraut? Hops beer?

My favourite explanation derives from Italian journalist Luigi Barzini. In his book The Europeans, in the chapter on Germans, he argues that Germans are successful not because of some innate, core value system but because such a core does not exist. The Germans change, and change dramatically. That’s their secret sauce. The are, he said, “the Mutable Germans.”

Barzini points out that in the 19th century, French diarists like Madame de Stael and Italian thinkers like Machiavellli wrote about Germans as simple, earnest but lacking the steely resolve of a people of destiny. Their soldiers, said de Stael, “fear fatigue or bad weather, […] resolutions are slow, despondency is easy.” She said German “imagination”, a “predominant quality” among them, makes them fearful of danger. Machiavelli similarly dismissed them as “loving their rough life and liberty and do not want to go to war.”

Yet by 1870, these same Germans had become a disciplined military force, industrial powerhouse and united monarchy that went on to beat most of Europe into submission, twice over. Then Germany embarked on a path of militarism and nationalism that was to bring it to its knees.

And then Germany reinvented itself once again. It become a “civilian power” with one of the most efficient manufacturing sectors in the world and merged it with a determined pacificist, post-military social fabric. Today’s Germany would be unrecognizable by past generations of Germany. As Barzini noted, this was because of “one puzzling quality, the people’s adaptability, their blotting paper capacity at all times to absorb and improve alien conceptions.”

I would argue something similar exists with the Japanese, a people prone to slip into a nearly catatonic cultural phase — unmoving, unchanging and isolated. But when they have to change, they do so dramatically and comprehensively. Look at the Meiji restoration and the speed with which it turned the country upside-down and inside-out.

So there is the German secret. It’s a degree of pragmatism and recognition that if things don’t work, then they must be fixed that other societies would find heard to emulate.

Copyright © 2014 the Hindustan Times

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