German lessons

EPA/Julien Warnand

Impressionistic, subjective snapshots of complex societies are best avoided. And yet when you actually get the chance to live somewhere – even briefly – like most forms of temptation it is difficult to resist. Extrapolation and generalisation have their merits. When the country in question is Germany – currently Europe’s very own hegemonic power – even a snapshot can be revealingly, especially when filtered through the consciousness of an ageing former Englishman.

To say that there’s a bit of historical baggage to overcome for baby boomers as far as Germany is concerned, especially English ones, would be putting it mildly. I spent my childhood reading what were known as war comics, in which plucky Tommies ultimately triumphed over despicable Jerries, but not before the latter reminded us of why they had to be defeated in the first place.

The first German words I ever learned were consequently Achtung! (always with an exclamation mark), and Jawohl mein Oberleutnant (OK Lieutenant) – usually said just before the Germans did something dreadful to our lads. Sadly my grasp of German has not expanded significantly in the intervening half century. Much to my chagrin, my efforts to speak German at the local supermarket are generally responded to in slightly condescending, but generally excellent English.

The supermarket also illustrates one less attractive and rather surprising aspect of German life: fully a quarter of the store is given over to the sale of alcohol, often at ridiculously low prices. Sadly, I have become the proverbial two-pot screamer in later life, but even the more seasoned dipsomaniac could get completely hammered for less than ten euros. For an admirer of much German public policy, this came as a sobering revelation.

The results are predictable and painfully evident. Street drinking and drunkenness is surprisingly common, even in a bourgeois university town like – otherwise enchanting – Freiburg.

Significantly, not all of the offenders are locals. For better or worse, many of the street drinkers and beggars have plainly arrived recently from other parts of the world. Every few meters in the centre of town someone asks for money. Even the best-intentioned Samaritan soon has to discriminate and/or cross over to the other side.

The serious point about all this is that at some level it’s a manifestation of the tidal waves of legal and illegal migrants that are flooding into Western Europe from Eastern Europe and Africa in search of a better life. Perhaps life in Germany is better for the new arrivals, but it is hard to think that the locals are thrilled by the impact of the newcomers, or that their presence in such highly visible, disruptive numbers will not ultimately test the bounds of tolerance and charity.

For obvious historical reasons, few countries are more sensitive about the way they treat foreigners and the less fortunate than Germany. To its great credit, Germany has had a comparatively generous attitude toward immigration.

In many ways, Germany is a model of a thoroughly modern, well-organised democracy that seems fairly relaxed about its place in the world. This presents a striking contrast to the UK, which is currently agonising about its identity, its relationship with Europe and the immigration policies that are so central to the European project.

When the current generation of Germans visit the UK they must wonder quite how they managed to lose the war. Or then again, they may not. The continuing obsession with the second world war that is such a feature of British life simply doesn’t seem to be an issue here.

Similarly, in another noteworthy contrast, unlike Japan – the other Axis power that amazed the world with its economic renaissance – Germany really seems to have put the past behind it.

However, Germany and Japan do have one thing in common that merits emphasis. By rejecting militarism and emphasising economic development, they both rose to become the dominant economic powers of their respective regions. Germany’s more liberal attitude to immigration may also have offset the demographic problems that appear to have undermined the Japanese miracle.

Be that as it may, the big – slightly optimism-inducing point – that bears endlessly repeating is this: military expenditure is not vital to economic development, nor does it determine the influence a country can have in international affairs. On the contrary, both Germany and Japan are significant despite not having some of the conventional trappings of great powers that so many commentators consider essential.

No doubt many will object to my decidedly non-academic approach to these issues, but it’s worth remembering a final lesson from Germany: this is the country that effectively brought about the end of the Cold War, an event that none of the experts saw coming for all their academic rigour. Counting and categorising the drunks and beggars may not tell us much, but it tells us something.