A German disease?

17/05/2011

It is always hazardous and mostly plainly wrong to generalize about national characteristics. But as a friend of Germany and Germans I maintain, that there is something manifestly different about this nation. It overexpresses the vices and virtues of our culture to a remarkable degree.

After the moral and military implosion of the Nazi period (1933-1945), Germany gradually managed to reinvent itself. The country has become a respected member of the international community and the leading light of the European Union. Nevertheless Germany still suffers from an emotional malady, which goes beyond fascism and Nazism.

Anti-Semitism was, and still is widespread in the world. Yet no people expressed this phobia as viciously as the Germans. Modern technology too triggers allergic reactions in many places. Yet German public opinion is unique in its abject rejection of nuclear power or genetic engineering. Deep seated disquiet fans irrational emotion, which takes precedence over the cool calculation of risk and benefit.

As a relatively young nation, the Germans do not possess the self-confidence of the French or the English. Neither can they embrace the lighthearted joie de vivre of the Italians. The German Weltanschaung is deeply serious and rather pessimistic. That calls for strong convictions, lack of humor, diligence at work and a sizeable savings account.

Uncertainty and insecurity make the Germans even more uneasy than members of other nations. They are incurable romantics with a historical predilection for nature, ‘natural’ foods and ditto medicines. Their existential angst is relieved by wishful acceptance of grand simplifications with strong, emotional overtones. This can have fateful consequences. As Johann Wolfgang von Goethe famously remarked: “There is nothing more frightful than ignorance in action.”

What can we non-German Europeans do to amend the situation? Not much. But we can stop carping about German virtues and instead try to take in a lesson or two. And we should be more outspoken about the technophobia, which affects all Europe.

Facing relative and even absolute economic decline we cannot afford the luxury of self-righteous, technological prudishness. As for Germany we have reason to hope that the common European experience will bring emotional maturity. The same invocation goes for the other members of the European family. We all have to cope with our specific national hang-ups.