Change in Germany

John Kornblum, former US Ambassador in Berlin, knows a thing or two about Germany from his forty years’ acquaintance with the country.

In a nation traumatized by violent upheavals, voters seem to demand an emotional insurance policy before accepting change. This insurance must promise that new methods will not undermine the social and economic stability, which is so important to their special postwar sense of self.

New ideas must be sold as not really changing anything. Change must be seen as a method of strengthening stability, not as a new way of doing things. German politicians have become adept at making new ideas sound like old ones. In the words of Konrad Adenauer: ?No experiments.?

A current example of this phenomenon is the tone of political and economic writing in Germany. With a few notable exceptions, authors focus on the inevitability of collapse. Germany?s economy is destined to decline, the Chinese will rule the world, and America is finished as a great power.

There are few grand visions for a new future. Instead, readers are warned that if they do not move quickly, their comfortable world will collapse around them. Motivation is negative rather than positive.

However strange this discussion may sound to outsiders, it seems to be serving an important purpose within Germany. Belief in the old stability is wearing away. As 2004 comes to an end, the most important question is not whether there is going to be change, but how it will come and which direction it will take.

The whole essay is here. I think the part about undertaking significant change while maintaining the whole time that nothing is changing is particularly accurate.

When I was doing more transatlantic bridge-building, I used a sports metaphor.

America’s national game has clearly changed over time. Baseball reflects the rural past, with rules uninfluenced by the clock and the emphasis on individual duels, pitcher-batter, runner-fielder, and so on. Then came football, with its near-industrial approach: time management, extremely specialized roles, carefully choreographed processes. Now the game is basketball, an information age sport with smaller teams, fusions of roles, the mix of planning and improvisation and, of course, global superstars from Michael Jordan to Yao Ming.

Europe has always played soccer and probably always will. But just because it’s the same game with a round ball that lasts 90 minutes, doesn’t mean that it’s the same game at all. Broadly speaking, it’s possible to discern a rural approach (English football), an industrial approach (German, or perhaps more accurately Dutch, “total football”), and now the globalized game, probably best symbolized in Europe by the French team in World Cup 1998.

The lesson for Americans aiming to understand Europe applies here to anyone wanting to figure out a bit more about Germany: Just because the game is apparently the same doesn’t mean that the game is the same.

This entry was posted in A Fistful Of Euros, Germany and tagged , , , , , by Doug Merrill. Bookmark the permalink.

About Doug Merrill

Freelance journalist based in Tbilisi, following stints in Atlanta, Budapest, Munich, Warsaw and Washington. Worked for a German think tank, discovered it was incompatible with repaying US student loans. Spent two years in financial markets. Bicycled from Vilnius to Tallinn. Climbed highest mountains in two Alpine countries (the easy ones, though). American center-left, with strong yellow dog tendencies. Arrived in the Caucasus two weeks before its latest war.

6 thoughts on “Change in Germany

  1. “Germany?s economy is destined to decline, the Chinese will rule the world, and America is finished as a great power”

    None of which strike me as being particularly unreasonable views. The first is after all hardly an unknown theme for certain American figures.

  2. America?s national game has clearly changed over time.

    I hate to quibble, but by all indications, the sport that appeals to most American’s regardless of race and class, is football, not basketball. I’m assuming that’s what you mean by ‘America’s national game’.

    Ponder what you will the implications of that but I think your analogies are off. Basketball is a distant 2nd(or 3rd depending) in terms of popularity with football.

  3. Well, yes, the idea that changes in Germany often have to be sold as non-changes has some real historical support. The Euro, for instance, was sold to a lot of folks as the Deutschmark with prettier bills.

    Otherwise, the essay really is quite a mixed bag. German dependence on the US is overestimated. There is certainly evidence of a real generation gap in Germany between those who remember the long post-war boom and those who don’t, but that is a trans-European phenomenon. That Germany is slow to change is in part a consequence of the history of rapid change in Germany: it often hasn’t gone well. German “grand visions” have been an awfully mixed bag.

    Saying that “[t]he public?s capability for critical analysis is clouded by its continued acceptance of the deadening slogans of consensus politics” comes awfully close to advocating undemocratic governance, especially when “Germany must change” is itself an increasingly deadening slogan. “[T]he German public was much quicker to identify with the popular movement in Ukraine than was the government.” But governments are supposed to be hesitant to intervene in foreign nations’ domestic affairs.

    But this effusive advocacy of some unspecified “change” is what is really annoying. “Germany must change” seems to be a codeword for exactly what Kornblum is saying isn’t enough: “Thus, it is too simple to claim that Germany has been ruined by social welfarism. Or that loosening work rules and lowering taxes will solve most of the problems. Or that Europe would be a world power if it could just learn to speak with one voice. Or that if only President Bush hadn?t been re-elected, German-American relations would again be harmonious.”

    Instead, he tries to psychoanalyse a nation: “More important is to understand the psychological difficulty Germany is experiencing in moving from a traumatized past to a modern, self-confident future.” This lends itself to very Lakovian analysis: Germany viewed as a traumatised person with progress associated with healing. It is a terribly patronising conception that will do little to advance German “self-confidence.”

  4. I’d agree with Cornelius that basketball is not America’s national game. Maybe (a big maybe) it was that when Michael Jordan was at his peak, but my impression is that it’s been on a big descent since.

    I’d disagree to the extent that I think baseball is still the national sport. It has been joined but not superseded by football, because the two are complimentary (one played in the winter, one in the summer).

  5. Thank you, Scott, for putting my sentiments into better words than I ever could. It is my experience, that even Americans, such as Kornblum, who have spent time in Germany, don’t quite get the German take on things. There seems to be an ever-widening gulf between what Germans see as the patronizing American view and their own vision for their country. Ironically, I believe the Germans have been doing more in the last 50 years to advance a balanced view (with admittedly mixed results) of world and local politics, while the American vision is going rapidly backwards. I have lived 20 years or more in each country and it is becoming clear to me that places are being reversed. Frightening realization, to say the least.

  6. ftr stippng wy ll th sprs nlss, Sctt Mrtns’ cmmnt snds mr lk th mtt f Md Mgzn’s lfrd E. Nmnn: “Wht M Wrr!”

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