A year ago I kicked off a series of posts that I called “my Germany mix”. The idea was and is to highlight just a few of my many, many articles on Germany that might be a bit more timeless than usual in journalism.
Last year’s post was about the Nazi past and the unique remembrance culture that Germany has built to cope with that legacy.
In this post, I’ve selected four pieces that illuminate different aspects of the German mentality today (thus also shedding some light on where certain stereotypes come from).
1) The notorious German problem with … humor
This article started as a spontaneous and almost frivolous blog post I wrote for our culture magazine, called 1843. Then, to my and my editors’s surprise, it went viral. Must have hit a nerve.
To me it comes down to a twin-pathology in German culture: a difficulty in grasping non-literal meanings and a compulsion to lecture other people. See for yourself.
2) Why you need to know about a particular thesis by Max Weber …
… this being his theory, which has become a classic of political science, of two types of ethic: Gesinnungsethik and Verantwortungsethik.
If those long Germanic words sound daunting, the piece (a “Charlemagne” column in The Economist) hopefully is not, and indeed could turn out to be quite fun.
3) Why you also need to know a whole lot about Martin Luther…
… for the monk who posted his 95 theses to the church door at Wittenberg exactly 500 years ago still shapes German ways of thinking in astonishing ways.
This is another “Charlemagne” column. Could be interesting especially to those of you from a different religious tradition, given that even the little differences go a long way to forming our minds.
4) And why you might also want to know about a German utopia: Heile Welt
This term means something like “wholesome world” or “idyll”, but it’s often used sardonically. In any case, postwar Germans for decades clung like their garden gnomes to a particular utopia in their minds. Now, buffeted by the nasty world outside, that Heile Welt is gone. What comes next?
This, too, was a “Charlemagne” column.
Still to come in this series:
- Angela Merkel
- the awful German language
9 thoughts on “My Germany Mix (II: mentality & culture)”
Are you sure this article is not about how a British newspaper sees the Germans?
Well, the newspaper is British but the author is German-American. I prefer to think of it as an “outsider-insider perspective”.
(PS: Check out what some OTHER British newspapers publish on the subject of Germany.)
The characteristics you draw attention to are all natural and human. There are a number of threads common to all the articles but the most significant is a desire to rationalise, a feature, indeed, of the articles themselves – a desire to explain historically, to justify morally, to identify cause and effect.
We all fail to see the funny side of things at times, reluctantly compromise our principles, seek security. These just are. They do not need difficult concepts or special words to explain them. Nor do they need to be imported into a morality or world view, Lutheran or not.
Order itself is sublimely natural. It’s how the world works, otherwise miracles would be unremarkable. All healthy animals groom themselves and their environment. Why order appears in Nature we do not know. A desire for order is not a uniquely German trait. Some of us are obsessed with order, others of us see it only as a means to an end.
We all tend to follow the crowd and simultaneously regard ourselves as special.
At one point you questionably call in Jung’s animus and anima (“Mum” and “Dad”) as special to Germans. Jung’s approach when comparing, say, the French and the Germans was more potent. Whilst the French appeared more emotional and intuitive, he maintained, in actuality they compensated for their predominant rationality. Hence the French pre-eminence in science and mathematics. Germans, on the other hand, are essentially emotional and intuitive and compensate in a forced logic – hence their pre-eminence in music and the arts.
Jung’s observations were incomplete, of course, for science, art, philosophy, are human achievements or activities, not national ones. His assessment, however, helps to show us why nations – and individuals – see themselves in a particular light.
A tendency to over-rationalise obscures the truth instead of illuminating it. It also hinders the instinct to laugh at ourselves.
In the matter of German humo(u)r, I wonder if the excessive literalness of Germans comes out of the structure of the German language, which, compared with French and English, is very direct. Hence Germans, when speaking English to native English-speakers, can often, unintentionally, come across to them (the native English-speakers) as blunt, or even rude.
Hence German (ie the language) may not be as nuanced as French or English, or not as subtle. Hence, German may not be as amenable to humo(u)r as English or French, since humo(u)r depends so much on nuance and subtlety (duh).
I’ve heard the language thesis, but I don’t buy it. That’s because I speak German and know individual Germans who, in German, speak with plenty of humor, irony, subtlety, etc. So the language doesn’t impede them. That’s really unfortunate, for the cause must lie elsewhere. 😦
Humour – as has been said many, many times – doesn’t travel well over national borders.
After reading your reply to my comment, I tapped into Google “why are Germans humourless”. Almost needless to say, mountains of stuff came up. Almost none of the explanations offered, mentioned the structure of the German language as a cause, contrary to my speculation.
Indeed, the consensus, as far as I could make out, is that German humourlessness is little more than a stereotype, and that Germans are simply more wary of showing their humour than are, say, Americans.
That Germans are not humourless accords with my own experience, for, long ago when in my twenties (late 1960s and early 1970s) I socialised with quite a few Germans of about my own age, whom I found generally to be fun-loving, and with a sense of humour I experienced as more subtle than the North American variety.
I’ll round this off with a link to some German jokes my Google search dug up (jokes you may well already know) that I find *deliciously subtle*.
“Gesinnungsethik and Verantwortungsethik”. Two examples as good as any, of German sesquipedalianism!!!
That Frau Merkel seems now – in the matter of the current “Fluchtlingspolitik” – to be leaning towards the “Verantwortungsethik”, shows she “knows on which side her bread is buttered”.
Humor is humor, no matter where you go. Life, itself, is absurd and if you don’t think it is, I have nothing but pity for you. Or, as I like to say, first they take away (or destroy) your dignity and then they kill you. Think doctors instead of “they.” We are miserable creatures, petty and helpless…I wonder why we think we are the top of the food chan; the truth is we really don’t taste very good.
Humor is humor, no matter where you are… or, as I like to say… first they take away your dignity and then they kill think “doctors” instead of “they.”