It’s been more than two years since my last visit to Germany, my native land. This time I traveled home at the height of the Eurozone crisis. I returned to California just before Christmas filled with pride in my compatriots.
Don’t get me wrong. I am not particularly proud of the fact that Germany is now the leading power in Europe. She has been thrust into this role much against her instincts and desires. It had been far too cozy to be prosperous, financially stable and the world’s leading exporter for decades, leaving the unpleasant chores of global direction to others, notably the victors of World War II.
Moreover, I am in no position to say whether or not Germany’s positions in the current global predicament are wise. But then nobody’s sapience seems to be reliable in the present situation, not even the sapience of Princeton-based Nobel laureates and other economic sages who keep telling the Germans to be less productive and more spendthrift, in other words, act against their better judgment and experience, supposedly for the common European good.
No, what made me proud was the discovery that Germans simply refused to reciprocate the hateful slurs of British tabloids whose “journalists” seem to have learned their craft by reading the polemics of Joseph Goebbels, Hitler’s propaganda minister.
There exists no equivalent in today’s German language for ethnic smears such as “krauts” and “huns” (for Germans), “frogs” (for the French), “wops” (for Italians) and “wogs” (for anybody hailing from territories east of Dover) that are common currency in British mass-circulation dailies, sometimes in the news pages and regularly in their blogs.
Over the years, the Germans have learned to laugh off these symptoms of the steady decline of England’s media standards that has been accelerating steadily ever since union folly and publishers’ greed have laid barren Fleet Street, that once spectacular bastion of the Angelo-Saxon journalism, which was my professional home for a while nearly half a century ago.
Nobody I talked to in Germany seemed to take offense when columnist Simon Heffer warned in the Daily Mail newspaper of “Germany’s economic colonization of Europe” and opined in a different article, “Where Hitler failed by military means to conquer Europe, modern Germans are succeeding through trade and financial discipline. Welcome to the Fourth Reich.”
Why do the Germans not care? “Well, the English have always been a little absonderlich; that’s why we love them so,” said Michael Rutz, the former editor in chief of a leading German weekly; the agreeable word, absonderlich, is usually translated as “strange” or “bizarre,” but actually has a more charming and subtle connotation.
The other day I discussed the benign reaction of Germans to British and other hatemongering with the editor of a highbrow political journal published in Washington. He said: “The difference is that the Germans still read.” This is true. Germany is less affected by media atrophy than most comparable Western nations. If a German does not know what’s going in in the world, it is his own fault because every major city has at least one but usually several local papers covering regional, national and international affairs, and, equally importantly, cultural events and thought, and then of course there exist national dailies and weeklies of superb quality.
The owner of a newsstand in Munich’s central railway station recently an editor friend of mine that his shop keeps an astounding average of 3,200 papers and periodicals on display.
Because of this Germans are in a better position to put international events in a proper perspective. Of course they did read that Eleftheria, the Athens daily, twice ran an image of Chancellor Angela Merkel in a storm trooper’s uniform on its front page. But they also read that thousands of Greek professionals are busily studying German to find jobs in Germany, where they are well received.
I was stunned to find that even modestly educated Germans seem to bear no malice against Greeks whose country they now have to bail out. Nearly 310,000 Greek immigrants live and work in Germany, and their number is rising. They make good, hard-working citizens, run wonderful restaurants, usually speak German well and delight the natives with their good humor.
In a 250-year old Cologne inn named “Em Kölsche Boor,” Pericles, a Greek waiter serving me a sturdy fare of broad beans and smoked bacon, regaled our table with this joke pertaining to his motherland’s economic predicament: By happenstance, three housepainters showed up at the same time at the portal of paradise, an Armenian, a German and a Greek.
Saint Peter told them, “This is a fantastic coincidence. The Pearly Gate needs a new paint job. Let me have your quotes.” The Armenian told him he would do it for €600. The German asked for €900. The Greek took Saint Peter aside and said, “€3,000.”
“Three thousand! Are you nuts,” Peter cried. The Greek smiled, “Think of it,” he said, “You’ll get €1,000, I’ll get €1,000. We give €400 to the German to keep his mouth shut, and the Armenian will do the work for €600.” The guests howled with laughter. It was fun to have Greeks in Germany.
I had come to Cologne on a 200 mph train from Paris where the general mood seemed morose. The railway unions had voted for one of their perennial Yuletide strikes intended to spoil the Christmas joy of the rest of the population; thankfully, though, this immense nuisance was eventually averted. Some Paris maîtres-penseurs, intellectuals and journalists of the most irritating sort, raised the specter of a new wave of “Germanophobie,” in response to Germany’s increasing power.
The Germans I questioned about this laughed it off, and rightly so. This alleged “Germanophobie” was a chimera in the minds of people utterly out of touch with this season’s dangerous realities. Down in southwestern France, where I have a home, I meet for my regular Saturday morning tipple with the mayors and councilmen of the surrounding villages. Their view of Germany was quite different.
“Tell your Chancellor to stand fast,” they urged me, “she must remain tough. We admire the Germans’ hard work and fiscal responsibility. If only we had followed their example years ago!”
These were not isolated voices. According to some polls, more than 70 percent of the French citizens feel that way, and this is also expressed in most of the blogs in the online editions of France’s national newspapers.
Of course the crisis might eventually catch with the Germans, whose unemployment rate is currently at a record low, and whose industry is booming due to massive demands from around the world for German products. But when I boarded my flight to California at Frankfurt Airport, a left behind smiling, contented compatriots preparing for a joyous Christmas and bearing good will against their less fortunate neighbors.
And this observation made me very proud to be a German.
Uwe Siemon-Netto, the former religious affairs editor of United Press International has been an international journalist for 55 years, covering North America, Vietnam, the Middle East and Europe for German publications. Dr. Siemon-Netto currently directs Center for Lutheran Theology and Public Life in Irvine, California.