You know the type. They’re smart, look the part and get admiring stares where ever they go. Yet when you try to tell them how much you like the way they do things, how they just carry things off with a certain admirable élan, they ask, “Who are you talking about?” It can feel a bit like this when it comes to Germany.
The country’s undoubtedly painful past has continued (as in some ways it should) to weigh on the nation, shaping attitudes and perspectives even for a generation born long after the fall of the Nazis. However, there are some quiet changes taking place. German contemporary culture, especially in the realm of art, knows its value and spreads a welcome German sensibility wherever it goes (its institutions have also been at the forefront of tackling the past and looking for a more interesting future – see our report on Haus der Kunst and its Nigerian-born director on page 103). Its diplomats are among the best in the world and they have played a skilful hand, maintaining friendships to their east with Poland, Russia and beyond, and westwards with France, the US and Brazil. And German has seen a renaissance as a second language linked to the resilience of the country’s economy. Even its army is liked.
But still, Germans hold back from appearing too bullish and sometimes (unless football is involved) seem unsure about getting too high on their German-ness. This is a mistake and a shame. The reality is that Germany is the powerhouse of Europe and its financial clout and generally wise governance deserves a louder voice. The Germans should be less cautious about spreading their economic or cultural vision: we could all benefit from things being more German these days.
Some of our Greek readers may disagree on this next point but the truth is that the Germans have held the euro together. Their business model has proved to be astute and robust. This is a country that still makes things people want and not just bmws (though make sure you meet bmw’s fresh designer on page 37, one of 12 modern Germans that reveal a country that’s more diverse than it gets credit for). German firms also dominate in everything from cranes to dog leads (see our Expo on page 191). And this is also a nation that values apprenticeships and supports its small and medium-sized enterprises: the Mittelstand.
Over the following pages we head to Brazil (page 49) and the US (page 97) to see how Germans impact on the wider world. We also find out why so many of the star stationery players (page 81) are from the region and how to build a house German-style (page 123).
These stories show a country that has a lot to teach the world. Who knows, maybe a few of our German readers will even see themselves afresh, too (when we spoke to one German journalist for this issue, his reaction was: “Are we interesting? I thought we were boring…”). It’s certainly time for that.
Germany: by numbers
Page turner: Germans still happily read actual books. About 2 per cent of book sales in the country are for ebooks; it’s about 30 per cent in the US. Book sales are helped by a lower sales tax rate: a mere 7 per cent compared to the normal 19 per cent elsewhere.
Not working overtime: Germans don’t work such long hours as you might think. The average German works 1,413 hours a year – that’s almost 400 hours less than wage earners in the US.
In the money: Germany’s economic reputation is backed by a long history (the tricky Weimar period notwithstanding): the world’s oldest savings bank was established in the appropriately named Oldenburg in 1786.
Shop till you drop: The largest department store in continental Europe is the KaDeWe in Berlin, with over 60,000 sq m of retail to be found.
Living space: Berlin is nearly nine times bigger than Paris and yet its population of 3.5 million is only a million or so larger – the German capital’s residents are spread out over a far larger area.
Soldiering on: German forces are currently in theatre in 10 countries across the world. That includes involvement as part of EU deployments in DR Congo and Bosnia Herzegovina as well as UN missions in South Sudan and Liberia (see p70 for more details).
Healthy climate: Germany’s green reputation (which has been further enhanced by its decision to close down all its nuclear-power stations by 2022) has long roots: the term “ecology” was first coined by the German zoologist Ernst Haeckel in 1866.
Sausage selection: There are eight main varieties of bratwurst, the majority of which originate from the eastern part of Germany that was once known as Franconia.
It all adds up: With a population of 81.7 million people, Germany is the largest country in the EU.
Good job: Germany’s unemployment rate is at a two-decade low of 6.8 per cent. If that sounds high, don’t forget that unemployment in East Germany was around 20 per cent at the time of reunification. In fact, the figure has never been lower since 1990; the construction and health sectors are among the strongest in terms of demand for labour.