"Der Spiegel" is Germany's foremost newsweekly magazine and Henry M. Broder is one of the magazine's best-known and most controversial writers - very critical of Germans and of German political correctness. Because he is also Jewish, he gets a lot of anti-Semitic e-mails, which he proudly posts on his website.
|By Henryk M. Broder.|
February 7, 2007
The Germans: frightened, hairy-legged Swede-lovers
Why are the Germans always so worried about losing their souls? Americans drive BMWs and read Grimms' Fairy Tales to their kids without breaking into a panic, why can't Germans eat a hamburger without worrying about their identity? "Planet Germany" by Eric T. Hansen is a handy little exploration of Germany's soul.
A lot of people don't like Germany, and nine out of ten of them are Germans. They will go out of their way to slander anything even vaguely "typical German." More than anything else, we hate our own so-called secondary virtues: discipline, punctuality, cleanliness.
Then there are those Germans who love Germany so much, everything else can go to hell. In truth, the Germans of the former kind have a lot in common with the Germans of the later type. Neither of them can answer the basic question: What is German? In the end they settle for a compromise, like "Germans like a good pork roast," but again and again their thoughts return to the question: Who are we? What are we? And of course: Why? For both of them, all it takes to send their endorphins into a frenzy is for their team to win the Soccer Champion's League, and all it takes to send them crawling back into their doghouse is when their team loses.
Then there's the third kind: Non-Germans who specialize in explaining to Germans what it means to be German. Michael Moore did it very successfully for a while, Alfred Grosser does it again and again. "Stop worrying and have a little pride," they say, "It was German thinkers who invented the computer, a German invented the thermos jug and the expanding wall plug, a German chancellor warned us all about getting into an adventure in Iraq. Carry it with pride, this German head of ours!"
Flirting with Bratwurst
At first glance, that might appear to be Eric T. Hansen's message, the way he stands there on the inside flap of his book, the German colors wrapped around his neck, lasciviously eyeing a Frankfurter. Who poses for photos like that? Not the sensitive Woody Allen, not the elegant Philip Roth or the introverted Bob Dylan. Hansen stands there like a missionary, feet firmly planted on the ground, and - surprise! - that's what he is. A Mormon, he was originally sent to Germany on a mission by his church. But instead of saving souls for the kingdom of heaven, he saved himself, left the Church of the Latter-Day Saints, moved to Berlin and became a journalist.
The difference between a missionary and a journalist might be as great as common sense suggests: Both need the gift of observation and the talent to reduce a complex story to its core message. Hansen has both. On his expedition to the "Heimat of Hawaii-Toast" - the subtitle of his book "Planet Germany" - he gets to know a young German girl who tells him about her experiences in the USA as an exchange student. Ignoring the heartfelt recommendations of her guest family, she didn't shave her legs, suffering instead the taunting of her fellow students for the whole year. "Why didn't you just shave your legs?," Hansen asks. "If I had done that, I would no longer have been myself," answers the young woman.
From this casual remark as his starting point, Hansen undertakes a comparative analysis of the German soul. Why are Germans so afraid they will lose their identities just by eating too many hamburgers while Americans happily drive BMWs, read the Grimm's Fairy Tales to their kids and eat sushi every day without ever worrying about their souls. In order to test the excessively popular theory of the "McDonaldization" of Germany, he sets out one day on foot and counts within a short distance "78 opportunities to eat," 33 of which offer Turkish food, 29 German, eight Asian, five Italian, two Greek, one Persian and - one American. Whereupon he traces fast food in Germany back to the Thüringen bratwurst of 1613 and concludes: "McDonald's didn't change Germany's dining culture. On the contrary, the hamburger occupies a modest niche in a German fast food landscape that has been around for a long time. There is no such thing as McDonaldization, but there is such a thing as McDonald's-phobia."
Germany is already a colony of Sweden
That is the Hansen method: Instead of puffing himself up, he lets the air out of others, tears down that the things we take for granted and with a broad grin offers us a punch line that is not only surprising but convincing. While the Germans rail against Americanization, they have long since been colonized by Sweden. They buy furniture and clothes at IKEA and H&M, they read Henning Mankell, they watch Swedish pornos, drive Volvos and copy the Swedish social model. Nothing makes the difference in mentality between Germans and Americans clearer, says Hansen, as their answers to the question: Is success in life determined mainly by factors we have no control over? While thirty-two percent of Americans agree with that position, in Germany 68 percent agree. "I'm willing to bet, if they posed this question of serfs in the Middle Ages, the percentage would be about the same."
An equally absurd example of the "German soul," says Hansen, is when the musicians association "Musiker in eigener Sache" demanded of politicians that they introduce a legal minimum quota for "German-produced music" played on the radio. In response, parliament "happily" requested that broadcasters play more German music "voluntarily." They might as well have written a letter to Santa Claus and asked for a White Christmas.
"The fact that it was natural for German pop musicians to assign responsibility for the success of their careers to the German state" was "weird enough;" that the state took the whole thing seriously, "can only mean one thing: It doesn't see itself as a state, it sees itself a father substitute." The communist terrorist group RAF dreamed of a "state that would regulate society so much that no injustice could occur;" Americans dream of a state that "regulates society so little that it doesn't become the cause of injustice."
Too many Nazis or not enough?
Sensitive types might interpret all this as "German-bashing." That's not quite right. Hansen likes the Germans, if for no other reason than that they are different from Americans, whom he also likes, even though he knows them a little bit longer. What makes Germans German is the broad spectrum of feelings about their own history, this mixture of aggression, naivete and bewilderment. "If Hitler had taken the time to page through the Old Testament, he would have known that you don't push around the Jews without suffering the consequences," Hansen writes with subtle irony, and goes a step further a few pages later: "The Germans are sure that something has gone wrong in this country, but they can't figure out whether it's because there are too many Nazis or not enough."
These are sentences that may well inspire some readers to aggression, naivete and bewilderment. "What does he mean by that?" It's simple: Just what he says. Hansen drifts tentatively into German-bashing only when it comes to the things of German daily life - the political talk shows in TV that argue every possible subject to death, the "middle-class fantasy world" on display in the (popular weekly mystery series) "Tatort," "where every crime is explainable and solved by a good man with a heart of gold and a deep soul," not to mention German comedies like "Goodbye Lenin." It's true, or course: "German reality is more radical: An entire country constantly trying to convince itself that it lives in an idyllic fantasy world." On the other hand, what Hansen finds impressive is the fact that there are 6177 museums here, not only the Deutsche Museum in Munich and the Zeughaus in Berlin, but also the Wood Worm Museum in Quedlinburg, run by the owner of a local pest control company. The man has a weakness for worms. He also experiments with termites, though there are no termites in Germany. Not yet, anyway. But climate change won't stop at the borders: "We'll have termites soon enough."
And that's a good example of the kind of practical and forward-thinking attitude you can find in Germany everyday.
Online text here.
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