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Lessons from our German Cousins

I first heard about the book I referenced last week, ‘A Woman in Berlin’, in John Kampfner’s entertaining contrast between Britain and Germany called ‘Why the Germans Do it Better (Notes from a Grown-Up Country)’, which is not quite the overwhelming eulogy you might expect from the title, but which nevertheless makes it very clear that we would do well in this country to show a little more humility at times and learn important lessons about how things can be done rather better than we do them.

Kampfner starts by making the point that Germany turned 150 years old in January 2021, but its people barely marked the milestone.  He says that Germany from the time of Bismarck to Hitler is synonymous with militarism, war, the Holocaust and division, making the stark point that no country has caused so much harm in so little time.

However, the author juxtaposes the point that two nearby anniversaries tell a different history.  In November 2019, millions celebrated thirty years since the Berlin Wall came down and, in October 2020, three decades had also passed since reunification.  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.  No country has achieved so much good in so little time.

I can highly recommend what follows in the book, with Kampfner providing a broad and eclectic mix of facts, figures and anecdotes to tell the story of a country he so obviously respects, but which he is nevertheless prepared to call out where necessary.  As the blurb on the back cover says, ‘This is one of the best English-language introductions in recent years to modern Germany and its politics.’

Setting the context for ‘A Woman in Berlin’, he recalls that in the first six months of 1945, more than 100,000 women and girls in Berlin, and over 1.5 million elsewhere in Germany between the ages of ten and eighty, were raped by Soviet soldiers.  They did not talk about it.  There was no counselling.  They just carried on as best they could.  The attitude was just to dust yourself down and get on with the rebuilding of the country.  Nobody, in any case, was interested abroad, seeing what happened as the legitimate spoils of war; the Germans were getting their just deserts, were they not?

Kampfner goes on to suggest that the book that arguably most changed the mould to allow Germans to discuss their history more openly was W.G. Sebald’s ‘On the Natural History of Destruction’, published in German and English on either side of the millennium.  The Bavarian-born author and historian, who had settled in Britain, wrote a series of essays through which he discussed the vexed issue of coming to terms with history. 

W.G. Sebald may well be the best author you have never heard of, and he is someone to whom I will return in a later blog, because I am only just coming to terms with him myself.  In the book referenced here, his most outspoken chapter was about the Allied bombing which flattened scores of cities in the final year of the war.  He reminded readers of the statistics: up to 700,000 civilians, including about 75,000 children, burnt or choked to death; 1 million tonnes of bombs on 131 cities and towns; 31 cubic metres of rubble for every inhabitant of Cologne; 6,865 corpses burnt on pyres by the SS in Dresden, flames leaping 2,000 metres into the sky over Hamburg.

Sebald wrote: ‘The sense of unparalleled national humiliation felt by millions [of Germans] in the last years of the war had never really found verbal expression, and those directly affected by the experience neither shared it with each other nor passed it on to the next generation.’  The Irish writer John Banville described the book as ‘a quietly spoken but fierce protest at the mendacity and moral evasiveness of our time’.

The publication of ‘Why the Germans do it Better’ coincided with the beginning of the end of the Angela Merkel era, and she features heavily in much of what is written.  Alongside the more obvious political analysis, there are some nice personal moments.  For example, Kampfner describes how, in an interview in 2004, shortly before becoming chancellor, Merkel was asked what emotions Germany aroused in her.  She replied, ‘I am thinking of the quality of our windows.  No other country can build such airtight and beautiful ones.’  This is about more than buildings.  It is a metaphor for constructing a country, a society, where reliability is the most prized asset. 

Such sentiments would seem to be backed up by my recollection of hearing an interview with a professional footballer who had joined a British club from a German team.  The interviewer asked him what differences he had noticed between Germany and England.  He thought for a moment and said, ‘Well, in Germany, when you call out a repairman to mend something in your house, the man only has to make one visit.  In England, someone always seems to have to come back again to finish the job.’

With politics, as with homes, Germans are apparently baffled by Britain’s make-do-and-mend gentlemen-amateur political culture – so they must be having a field day just now.  They liken Britain to a stately home – overgrown gardens, creaking floorboards, crooked beams and sash windows that never quite close properly; beautiful in places, but quirky.

The weekly newspaper Die Zeit even used the subject to have a rare swipe at someone they all seem to adore: ‘Even the Queen could do with a cheaper energy bill.  It costs 3.6 million Euros to keep Buckingham Palace warm, making it the least energy-efficient building in London.  Her majesty is no different from the majority of English homeowners in this respect: they don’t have money for repairs, their houses are in bad shape, and the heat that the boilers pump into them escapes through old masonry and simply glazed sash windows.

To Germans, Britain’s Houses of Parliament building, with its leaky pipes, Victorian toilets, fire hazards and rat-infested floorboards, darkens the soul.  Billions of pounds have been spent trying to restore it, with much more to come.  With its absurd quirks, its flunkies in ridiculous outfits, it removes parliamentarians from the lived experience of voters and elevates tradition over pragmatism.  Sadly, it is more synonymous with the pantomime leering and jeering of set-piece interactions in the chamber, rather than the earnest and more collaborative work that MPs would like to be associated with, and surely need to be in the future, if we are to address the challenges facing us effectively.

I would certainly recommend this book if you are looking for something intelligent and thought-provoking to read over half term, with enough humour and common sense to make it enjoyable as well as worthwhile.  When history is written from a longer-term perspective, the relationship between Britain and Germany will come to be seen as one of the great failures of the twentieth century.  We have so much in common that we should be firm allies and partners, but our fixations with the struggles of war, the attempts to dominate our various European neighbours and the obsession with the football World Cup (from us, not them), have allowed a genuine opportunity to slip through our collective fingers – with significant consequences for all of us, I fear.

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