When I first saw this book laid out on the spotlighted tables of Waterstones it stood out to me, not just because of its fairly striking yellow spine, but because of its seemingly sensationalist title – Why the Germans do it better. Unlike my title for this post, Kampfner went with something bold, brave and emotive. Emotive both for Germans, I imagine, and people of other nationalities alike, though for different reasons. For Germans, it strikes me as a line that I hadn’t heard many utter. Germany has such a complicated past that’s been dominated with blame of both world war’s. To be honest, I think I’ve seen little literature that has written of modern Germany and its current politics but there is tonnes of pop culture on World War Two, the psychology of Hitler, the dangers of nationalism and how Germany became the country that so many hated because of the bloodshed. So for Germans the title might supply shock and a little pride that for many has been missing. For those of Nationalities impacted by the destruction of that time perhaps the reaction to the title is more one of outrage, shock or disbelief. How can a country we went to war with, that caused so much death, that were responsible for the Holocaust do it better?
With the German elections held recently, and Angela Merkel stepping down after 17 years, I had begun to get interested about this country of which I had only been taught about a very small although very significant part. I had also begun learning German on Duolingo a month or so before (isn’t it obsessive trying to reach higher in the score board?) and I was, and still am, really enjoying the language (can we have more compound nouns in English please? Though Fünfhundertfünfundfünfzig … come on!) Stumbling across this book further caught that interest. A British, with German heritage, journalist saying that the germans do it better was intriguing. Not least to find out what ‘it’ more specifically implied. It’s a sensationalist title but it clearly works to get copies off the shelf, at least in my case.
It’s also a Sunday Times Bestseller so obviously the subject matter and the title has intrigued many people like myself. With other books to read for my degree, I haven’t managed to get through the book as much as i’d like so I’m only about 20% of the way in but its already so fascinating I thought i’d share my initial thoughts, a bit like a reading log.
The front cover is full of Shutterstock images of the more positive ideas we have about Germany, from a Volkswagen Beetle and machinery to Frankfurters and beer. The book does, as the Financial Times states, ‘celebrate Germany’s strengths and achievements’ but it also draws on its turbulent history and isn’t an exuberant fan letter to the country. Kampfner places Germany and the way that its leaders have handled modern political issues in comparison to others. So far, I feel that the message of the book is more about the advantages of caution, democratic order and unification – it feels like a book interested in positioning Germany within ints global context and in turn Britain’s too. Indeed some of the initial thoughts Kampfner shares are about the similarities between Germany and Britain, particularly England, and their places historically, culturally and geopolitically. Kampfner reframes the war, drawing on other speeches, to present a freed country rather than a defeated one; to suggest that rather than putting the blame on a whole nation and its people it should be put onto the individuals responsible. However, the shame surrounding German nationalism is also what Kampfner points to as the momentum for the country’s modern success, he writes, ‘what gives me cause for hope is their [the Germans’] self-questioning, their almost morbid re-stoking of memory’. It’s precisely because they won’t let themselves forget, because of an anxiety that history might repeat itself and because of their caution that Germany is ‘grown-up’ and does it (politics?) better than other countries.
I still have another five chapters to go so perhaps this argument might change, but so far I’m finding this train of thought, this concept of the psychology of a postwar society influencing a political approach fascinating. Too often our educations are nation focused; the history not placed within its geographical position, geography not placed in its historical one and so many of our school-educated views are limited to the potential learning from others might be. Of course as a book aimed at a British audience British politics is also prominent, especially current political moments like Brexit and Boris Johnson’s handling of the COVID pandemic. It’s so current it feels like you’re having a debate with a friend. But this discussion of current affairs is also very journalistic so these ideas are still changing and are somewhat biased because of that. Otherwise, so far its enjoyable and compelling to read and feels very well researched and I look forward to continuing Kampfner’s journey into modern German politics.