Why the Germans do it Better – Notes from a Grown-Up Country by John Kampfner: Wisdom after the Fall

Clearly driven by disappointed rage over the Brexit decision, subsequent bungling of negotiations for a trade deal and incompetent handling of the coronavirus, the author may have over-egged the pudding of German superiority, which his German acquaintances seem to disclaim or at least play down, mindful of the Nazi past which has made them continually self-questioning and reluctant to praise their country. They retain compound nouns for “coming to terms with history”, “culture of remembrance” and “collective guilt”: no longstanding national day ceremonies, no pageantry.

Kampfner sets his analysis in the context of key factors: the post war reconstruction through competent leader Erhard’s “Economic Miracle” with the Basic Law to develop political consciousness and strengthen democracy; the visionary, ambitious, inevitably costly Unification which has raised living standards and reduced pollution in the East, but not without ongoing tensions; the recent absorption of a million refugees with the pragmatic justification of easing an acute labour shortage, but at the cost of triggering the rise of the right-wing anti-immigration AfD.

The author attributes Germany’s relative success to the intelligent way decisions are made reflecting the emotional maturity and solidity of Angela Merkel. From the 1980s Germany diverged from US and UK which opted for more deregulation and a get-rich-quick, “look after number one” culture. Instead, Germans place less reliance on individual acquisitiveness as indicated by their more restrictive shopping hours and a greater tendency to save, even if interest rates low, rather than speculate.

German society is based more on “a sense of mutual obligation, shared endeavour and the belief that people need rules to keep themselves in check”. There is a high degree of consensus in underlying values – commitment to a free market economy involving organised and responsible capitalism with a legal requirement for worker representation on company boards rather than conflict in the work place, and investment in skills and productivity of workers. Wealth produced by the market is redistributed to achieve social justice and reduce inequalities between regions. Small and medium-sized family owned enterprises spread round the country play a major role in creating employment and wealth. They are typified by social awareness and active support for local communities.

If this sounds too good to be true, there are weaknesses and flaws. The Deutsche Bank investment in sub-prime mortgages, and VW’s manipulation of tests on emissions to make diesel cars appear less polluting are well known. Yet I was surprised to learn of: Germany’s slow adoption of digital innovation and Artificial Intelligence; lack of investment in infrastructure resulting in rundown school buildings, crumbling road bridges, unreliable internet and trains that do not run on time – ironical in view of Germanic concern with punctuality; an airport designed to serve the unified Berlin has been delayed for years by a plethora of faults. Austerity measures after the 2008 financial crash meant that the states were starved of cash for vital investment while the central government had run up an embarrassing surplus by 2018.

Despite the growing strength of the Green Party and the good intentions to develop wind and solar power and close nuclear power stations by 2021 and coal-fired plants by 2038, external political considerations like concerns over the reliability of a gas pipe-line from Russia and strong counter lobbying from state-subsidised east German lignite mines may well prevent this.

Although many facts will inevitably date quite quickly, this is an informative and thought-provoking read. It seems we have something to learn from a society in which compromise, cooperation and redistribution to achieve justice are accepted for ethical and practical reasons rather than regarded as naïve extremism. On the other hand, the Germans were rather hard on the Greeks…….

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