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Why the Germans confuse me

Stereotypes are good. They give you a starting point which can then be adjusted as more facts become available.

Most national stereotypes are easy enough. Americans? Enthusiastic Brits. Irish? Drunken Brits. French? Charming, friendly, cultured, unless, that is, you’re dealing with some arm of the government. Italians? Emotional incontinents, no sense of civic responsibility. But the Germans? Well, we all know what we’re thinking. And we all know it’s not true. Don’t we?

But what do we replace it with? Well, they’re officious. Are they perhaps then officious Brits? Not really. While there are superficial similarities in terms of language and religion pretty soon it all starts to break down. In many respects Britain and Germany are exact opposites of one another.

Take cars. The Germans can churn out reliable, cutting-edge cars like no one else. The British can’t. In fact the British are so bad at it they need the Germans to churn out their Rolls-Royces, Aston Martins and Minis. But while the British dominate motor sport the Germans can’t make a Formula 1 car to save their lives. Or, at least, haven’t been able to since, ahem, the 1930s. Nowadays, they need us to do it for them.

Take music. While the Germans were pioneers of classical music they are hopeless at rock.

Take association football. British clubs are streets ahead of German clubs but on the national level Germany has outperformed England in every World Cup since 1966 (and most of the ones before, incidentally).

Take libertarianism. Has Britain produced anyone like a Mises or a Hayek? [Yes, I know they’re Austrians but for the sake of simplicity I’m lumping them in with the Germans.]

From time to time I ask friends and acquaintances about this. One suggested that the Germans were great at taking first principles to their logical conclusions and bad at asking whether the first principles were correct or not. Another said something similar in that the Germans “take everything to extremes.”

This certainly helps to explain some of Germany’s oddities like unrestricted sections of the autobahn and that case of mutually-agreed cannibalism a few years ago. Whether they explain some of the other oddities, I am not quite sure. Is there a logic to classical music?

56 comments to Why the Germans confuse me

  • British clubs are streets ahead of German clubs

    I think Bayern Munich supporters would contest that. The top clubs in Europe seem to be whoever occupies the top four places in England, Real Madrid, Barcelona, AC Milan, the next club or two in Italy, and Bayern Munich, roughly.

  • Joe Blow

    Take music. While the Germans were pioneers of classical music they are hopeless at rock.

    Err… You haven’t seen Rammstein play live then I take it.

  • Robert

    I think you are unfair when you describe the Brits as drunk. We are that, of course, but I think the word that best describes the British is truculent. Sometimes this is expressed as acts of individual brilliance, sometime eccentricity, sometimes it descends into drunken yobbery. But always (and still, despite what some in this parish sometimes say) us Brits have a healthy disregard for large scale conformity.

    Thats why we can dominate motor sport, but can’t mass produce cars. Its why we can dominate in pop music and fashion, but not classical music. Its why English football clubs are so powerful but the national team is always less than the sum of its parts. Its why we acquired an empire “in a fit of absent mindedness”, and its why, despite subjugating a quarter of the world’s population we abolished slavery. Its why we love irony. Its why, in May 1940, when all reason said we should seek terms, we fought on. Its also – and inseperably – a drunken yob sticking two fingers up to a policeman, then vomiting on the pavement.

    The Germans are, as you say, the opposite. Polite, formal, very decent people. I don’t think they take things to extremes more than anyone else. But they do like order, and place less emphasis on individual expression, which is why their companies are generally better run than ours, and why they are richer than us.

  • VftS

    Steppenwolf

  • Rock? Dunno, don’t care about rock but I listen to a great deal of excellent modern German music.

  • Lone Ranger

    German’s hopeless at rock music? Please don’t tell John Kay of Steppenwolf (“Born to Be Wild,” “Magic Carpet Ride”) or the Scorpions.

  • Richard

    “The Germans are, as you say, the opposite. Polite, formal, very decent people”

    How does this differ from traditional British politeness and reserve? In my experience the suburban middle classes at least are very polite and well-behaved.

  • Perry, do tell about this excellent modern German music.

    Steppenwolf would appear to be more North American than anything else.

    Would The Scorpions get into a Top 100 of the most significant rock acts? I doubt it.

  • RRS

    P C -

    What are you driving at? Should we all go back and re-read what Isaiah Berlin has written of his studies?
    Are we to seek “understanding?” Or, make judgments?

  • Anglo-saxon pragmatic empiricism vs German idealism. I have heard it said that because Germany adopted the industrial revolution very late, it adopted an approach of catching up on theory rather than the more English way of tinkering.

    One sees the consequences when it comes to financial markets. Commentary in German newspapers will tend to be at a much higher intellectual level, but utterly confused about the underlying dynamics playing out.

    Financial market capitalism is upsetting to the German psyche because things don’t tend to develop according to academic theories of how they ought to. Whereas the English barrow boy type is (or was) in his element.

    I have also heard it argued that the reason for greater German docility towards the state was that they never had a somewhat foreign ruling class imposed, as we did in England post 1066.

  • manuel II paleologos

    Worth putting a quick plug in for Simon Winders’ book “Germania”, an immensely likeable wander around the country.
    It’s refreshing to read a travel book which is able to be amusing and passionate without the awkward irony that most writers feel obliged to add (there’s another British stereotype).
    Odd though to see someone who’s developed such a fond enthusiasm for the place without actually being a German speaker.

  • rantingkraut

    Updated stereotypes(Link) have been available for a while.

  • I have often thought of we English and our German cousins in Star Trek terms: Germans as Vulcans and we as the Romulans.

  • I think you are unfair when you describe the Brits as drunk. We are that, of course, but I think the word that best describes the British is truculent.

    Anyone who thinks the Germans are less drunk than the English should try being in the centre of Dusseldorf late on a Saturday night. The amount of beer consumed is truly staggering, even from the perspective of a Londoner. The Germans drink a lot. So do the English. However, the Germans don’t get truculent when they do.

    What Germans are not is particularly belligerent drunks. On the occasion I was in Dusseldorf late on a Saturday night, I was not staying in the centre of town, so I got the U-bahn (subway). Firstly, the U-bahn was still running at 2am, so that people who had been drinking in the centre of town could get home. Secondly, the platforms were well staffed, with police and transport workers in brightly coloured uniforms. These people were not there to keep the peace – the very drunk Germans were not being belligerent in any way – but for reasons of safety. Serious accidents can undoubtedly occur when you have a large crowd of very drunk people on a railway platform at 2am, and the people running Dusseldorf were clearly at great pains to make sure that this did not happen.

    Lots of conforming to stereotypes going on here, too, but mostly in a good way.

  • Odd though to see someone who’s developed such a fond enthusiasm for the place without actually being a German speaker.

    I’m not a German speaker either, but I also think Germany is a lovely country to visit. Charming, beautiful, full of culture, welcoming people, and compared to France or Italy or Scandinavia, quite inexpensive.

    On the other hand, whenever I go to bars in basements anywhere in Eastern and Central Europe, I suffer socially for my lack of knowledge of modern German techno, so if Perry or someone else would like to provide a quick course, that would be helpful.

  • Anon

    Joe Blow,

    “Take cars. The Germans can churn out reliable, cutting-edge cars like no one else. The British can’t. In fact the British are so bad at it they need the Germans to churn out their Rolls-Royces, Aston Martins and Minis. But while the British dominate motor sport the Germans can’t make a Formula 1 car to save their lives. Or, at least, haven’t been able to since, ahem, the 1930s. Nowadays, they need us to do it for them.”

    I’ll tell you what we’re utterly useless at in this country: middle-management. I’ve worked for a number of UK companies and I would say that less than 10% of the middle-managers I’ve worked for are genuinely up to the job. The rest are ignorant, half-witted, psychotic or lazy. I suspect the whole thing is about class – these people don’t want to be managers, they just want the title that elevates them from being “workers”.

    That’s why we can do things like F1 teams – they’re small enough that the boss knows everything that’s going on and bullshitters get found out quickly.

  • JohnB

    I have heard that people with inner sensitivity and perhaps some chaos need a very ordered environment in order to survive.
    Perhaps that applies to the Germans?

    As for modern music. Their electronic stuff was ground breaking and brilliant.
    From Stockhausen in the classical to Tangerine Dream’s Edgar Froese and Klaus Schultze and many, many others in electro-pop who led the world into other-world sounds at the beginning of the 1970s.

    They understand passion (the real stuff) better than Brits who seem to be more concerned with status.

  • Alisa

    Anon, maybe it has to do with the idea that Brits are not good at large hierarchies?

    I think that Robert has the right idea. Also, as much as Brits are known for their general politeness, it probably has different origins and reasons than the German variety.

  • Perry, do tell about this excellent modern German music.

    Darkwave/Electronica/EBM… which is what I listen to 80% of the time, is pretty much owned by German artists that you have probably never heard of :-)

  • Congratulations on this provocatively interesting post. Congratulations especially on the first two sentences.

    Was I the friend who said that “the Germans were great at taking first principles to their logical conclusions and bad at asking whether the first principles were correct or not”? I certainly do think along such lines, as in: this is the prejudice I have about the Germans that I start from.

    The book (the Germans do love books, don’t they?) that most exemplifies this for me is Mein Kampf, which is actually more logical and less of a rant than you might think, or that’s how I remember it when I read it a few decades ago. What struck me was how logical it was. The axiom was nationalism, in the sense of each national group being attached to a bit of territory. The Jews made a nonsense of this axiom (then even more than now), yet could not be ignored, ergo … Rather than doubt the axiom, Hitler lead Germany into a abyss. And Germany followed.

    If I like the axioms, on the other hand … What, I wonder, is Murray Rothbard’s immediate ancestry? German Jewish, I’m guessing. But where were his parents raised?

    In general, the huge contribution made by Germans to the USA and its achievements is very interesting. It always amuses me that during WW2 one of their biggest industrialists (ships) was called Kaiser, and their senior army commander was called Eisenhower. Later, NATO’s army was bossed by an American called Lemnitzer, I seem to recall.

    Proposition: America at its best combines the best of Anglo-Saxonism with the best of Germanism. America at its worst … you finish it.

  • Stonyground

    Kraftwork were hugely influential, do they count as rockers? Well maybe just.

    I wonder why the Brits only make cars successfully in foreign owned factories? We do seem to have rediscovered how to make motorcycles again, I gather that the Germans are quite keen on them.

  • On the music thing, might it be that once the broad outlines of a particular sort of music are established, then the Germans pile in and do it brilliantly. But only after they have painstakingly worked out what it is.

    Did Germans actually pioneer classical music? My take is, they grabbed it from the Italians (and the French), and made it a world-beater. The jargon of classical music is Italian.

    Also, the Anglos have faded in rock and roll, having lead the way when it got started, as has been explained. The same pattern. The others just find their way into it, whatever “it” is. Then the Germans pile in and get it organised, and very very good. In a few years, will the Brits get bored with F1, and will the Germans then make the best racing cars also, for regular people to race each other, when driving a car on regular roads has become illegal?

    In general, the phrases “implicit knowledge” and “explicit knowledge” say a lot about the differences between Anglos and Germans, I think.

  • By the way, I’m listening to an Austrian Premier League footballer called Paul Scharner, who plays for West Bromwich Albion, choosing his favourite bits of classical music, on Radio 3, right now. They are now discussing the same sort of stuff as we are. Why have the Germans (and Austrians) been so very good at that kind of music … etc.?

  • Strongly agree about the middle management thing here in England. I remember when the Japanese set up their first big car factory in England, in the North East I think it was. It’ll never work, said the English car people. English workers are shit. No, it worked fine. English workers were fine. They had merely been badly managed. It was those “English car people” (i.e. the people who ran the failed English car industry) who were shit.

  • Hmm

    Wh00ps, I like the Star Trek analogy. But who are the Ferrengi ?

  • Tom Perkins

    @manuel II paleologos

    All I can say is that between the beer, the sausage, and the food (schwein rouladen, mmm), I like Germany, and I haven’t been there yet.

    ‘Course I can say the same about Italy and France.

    British food I have sampled, in it’s original venue. It had it’s downs and ups.

  • lucklucky

    Inevitable to post the link to the “mapping” stereotypes.

    http://alphadesigner.com/mapping-stereotypes/

  • Schrodinger's Dog

    A bit-off topic, but I’d agree absolutely with Anon (11:21am). Most of the British middle managers I’ve met were idiots, who likely got their positions on the principle of Buggins’ turn and tended to blame their failures on the workers. This probably explains why, with rare exceptions, quality control was never a British strength. (To anyone who doubts this, I’d say two words: British Leyland.) Getting something right, and then doing it repeatedly really takes a high level of skill, something at which the Germans – coming back on-topic – seem to excel.

  • I used to work in a factory making car parts and being duly diligent, i soon found that I could QC check 100% of the components in the time the machine was running, in stead of the 50% check i was asked to perform. The result? I was told off for “making too much scrap” they would have been happier if the faulty components I DIDN’T check had carried on down the production line.
    British middle managers are indeed shit.

  • RW

    An interesting view is that the German mentality is influenced by the fact that in German you must always the verb at the end of the sentence put. This gives more structured thinking than English?

    On the other hand a German joke is no laughing matter.

  • Johnathan Pearce

    Excellent post and comments. Another area is the German ability to develop certain scientific things very quickly, often in appalling conditions. I still think what Von Braun achieved was amazing, even if you take into account the fact that, until 1945, he worked for an evil regime.

    Another issue is royalty. The Brit and the German monarchies were, of course, closely related.

  • Donavon Pfeiffer Jr

    Not so good at rock?

    The Scorpions, Warlock (and rock siren Doro Pesch), Rammstein, UFO (Teutonic Metal Guitar God Michael Schenker) and Accept just off the top of my, admittedly, well banged head.

  • pete

    What’s a ‘cutting edge’ car?

    Are they any faster in rush hour traffic jams?

  • James

    Having worked with many Germans for a number of years, one of the things that has always struck me about them is their ruthless professionalism. As far they’re concerned, work is to be done in the correct form – with stringent adherence to company rules and with as little dissent from your superior’s wishes as possible.

    They’re also very good at separating play from work. Office banter isn’t really their speciality. Again, perhaps this is all for the good, and a national characteristic that explains why Germany is the largest economy in Europe. But it can get a little grating at times.

  • My understanding is that many features that are now regarded as standard such as ABS, air bags, power steering etc were first introduced on German cars.

  • TDK

    A post that says no good German Rock AND uses the word Autobahn. No irony intended I guess?

  • Laird

    If you’re talking about German music, who can forget Dschinghis Kahn? It doesn’t get any better than this!

  • Brian Micklethwaite: Bill Boeing, German in his not very distant past. Ernie Gann’s book “The Black Watch” about the U2 and SR71 pilots mentions that when he saw the squadron roster he wondered if this was the Luftwaffe.
    Same when B17s and B24s were getting shot down over Germany.

  • 'Nuke' Gray

    I am sure that as soon as someone writes the definitive rulebook on what you are allowed to do in Rock and Roll, then the conscientious Germans will start their own bands.

  • MajikMonkee

    “Take music. While the Germans were pioneers of classical music they are hopeless at rock”

    Er Krautrock (along with dub reggae and blues) was probably one of the most important movements of the last century

  • llamas

    The Brits are absolutely brilliant at producing the first working example, absolutely lousy at repeating.

    Read Alex Henshaw-White’s account of his work as a test-acceptance pilot for Supermarine during WW2, testing Spitfires off the production line. Every one a hand-built shop queen, tinkered into spec. Now contrast that with accounts of B24 production at Willow Run, where Ford’s industrial engineers churned the things out like can-openers, all exactly the same and all exactly to spec.

    British Leyland didn’t design bad cars (for the time and place) – they just couldn’t shed the traditions of their founders for tinkering their way to success with one car, instead of applying rigid requirements and specifications and then conforming to them – which is what you need to build a million cars. When the management allows this sort of thing, you can’t really blame the workers for doing as they are led to do.

    Another issue already touched on is that British attitudes to management (of technical things) are completely different than German attitudes. The middle managers at BMW and Mercedes are all Herr Doktor, technical men who have risen to positions of technical leadership and who are always co-equal (if not superior) in the heirarchy to their finance and marketing peers. By contrast, in the UK, the ranks of management seem to be heavily populated with those who couldn’t hack it in the technical ranks – or who fled as quickly as possible to the supposedly-greener pastures of management. There’s a culture/status element as well – German technical people command great respect, even in the ranks of management. In the UK, coming from a technical background is still seen as being rather infra-dig.

    llater,

    llamas

  • The Brits are absolutely brilliant at producing the first working example, absolutely lousy at repeating.

    I wouldn’t quite say that, actually. It is not so much repeating as it is mass producing. Formula One race cars are the example that has been brought up already, but Britain does highly complicated cottage industries very well. British architecture firms that design one off buildings – great. British engineering firms that design and build bridges in China, great. British car firm, crap. (But, as people have said, foreign firms have no difficulty building cars in Britain. The British workers are fine. It’s management).

  • llamas,
    Exactly! The snobbery British management shows towards those that know one end of a posidrive from another is stunning. And it all starts at university. Students of the farts and shitterature frequently hold such views as, “It’s all very clever but hardly creative”. Indeed the number of Brits who hold a complete inability to do basic maths like elementary algebra or trig as a badge of pride is staggering.

  • Giles

    One interesting argument about Germany’s pre-eminence in classical music is that they were one of the last countries to introduce copyright for composers. I did a blog post about it a while back.

  • Russ

    Agreed on German music — have been down the Klaus Schultze rabbit hole since I was an early teen, and never looked back. I’ve never had a head for remembering artist/band names, but what the Germans are doing puts a good 75-90% of the American music front to shame (though we still completely own at bluegrass, of course).

    May be a cultural/generational thing, being Texan — when I think Germans, I think musicians and businessmen. Not sure who’s better at middle-management among these three (though as numerous posts have pointed out, Brits are clearly and by far the worst). I find individual Brits to be brilliant, but most of them to be, contrary to the “truculent” theme, among the most conformity-bound people I have ever met. It doesn’t surprise me even vaguely that the socialist types are so strong there.
    I do think it’s a serious mistake to lump the Austrians and the Germans together, however.

  • What if Patrick had made a post saying. “I really don’t understand the French. Amongst other things, they are crap at popular music”. What he have received so much disagreement? Would he have received any disagreement?

  • ~FR

    Re: British middle-management- haven’t similar observations been made about British Army Officers since at least WWII?

  • Alisa

    He would have from me, Michael – I love French music, always have.

  • Alisa: What, more specifically, do you like? I’m curious, so that I can go listen to it.

  • rjsasko

    The Germans didn’t introduce ABS, power steering or airbags on passenger cars. Early 1970′s Chrysler, Ford, General Motors, and Nissan w/ ABS, GM 1973 select Cadillac, Buick, Oldsmobile models w/ airbags(at the time they would have been more profitable to sell the airbags and give away the cars at a$17,000/00 cost), and early 1950′s Chrysler w/ power steering.

  • Alisa

    Michael: nothing that could be possibly called ‘rock’ (I love rock, it’s just that I am not familiar with its French version, which I know exists). So what I’m talking about is French popular music from the 50s through, probably, 70s – names such as Brassens, Aznavour, Montand, Brel, Moustaki, Barbara, Adamo, etc.

  • Paul Marks

    Germans.

    People who are obsessed with reducing C02 emissions – yet also obsessed with closing down all nuclear power stations (perhaps they think there is going to be a massive earthquake and wall of sea water – in southern Germany).

    And people who are determined to be natural -yet refuse to breed (surely the most natural thing).

    These things are very hard to understand.

  • 'Nuke' Gray

    No wonder people have trouble with English!
    Englishman/Englishwoman.
    Frenchman/Frenchwoman.
    German/Gerwoman? AHHH! Spracken vous Esperanton?

  • Lisa

    Good gracious, what an ignorant and naive crap. But hey, never mind, I’ll not generalize that and claim that all British are idiots.

  • Thomas

    many interesting arguments here !

    As a German, i am very confused about the brit-managment-bashing. The general difference that i noticed in my career is that the Germans have extreme hard discussions about technical Problems of the products; the brits and americans instead are very focused on costs and profits. The most german companies believe in quality as the most selling-factor, not marketing.

    Very funy is also the fact of music here. A good example for modern music is, that krautrock was very influential – but the only good documentary was made by the BBC. If interested http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3B89-69icyc

    Greatings from Germany