Not so long ago my wife and brother-in-law, whose parents were born in the Weimar Republic, had their German nationality restored. They were presented with brooches with the entwined flags of Germany and the United Kingdom. My young son, who also got joint-German nationality, was presented with Haribos to mark the occasion. The correctness, thoughtfulness and modesty of the ceremony were moving. The scene could have been taken from John Kampfner’s rich guide to modern Germany, so well does it illustrate his theme of a country that does things well, and has come to terms with its history.
Kampfner’s fine Why the Germans Do It Better stands in a long line of appreciative British studies of Germany. For many Edwardians, the Wilhelmine Reich had the better army, the more serious universities and science, the more ruthless industrialists, and was altogether a more advanced nation. They were wrong about that – it is only over the last 50 years that Germany has been ahead, and never more so than today. But those Edwardian theses were the raw material for generations of declinist histories that got the Anglo-German comparison wrong – explaining differences that didn’t exist with explanations that didn’t work.
That now long busted declinism still has its adherents in commentary on Britain, where its false assumptions are seen as obvious truths. Kampfner is no declinist, and the things that he calls on us to admire are different from the things we associate with Kaiser Bill’s Germany, let alone Hitler’s. Nor is he saying we should all become like the Germans in order to get to the beach before them, or export to China as they do.
For the British readers this book is directed at, the implied contrasts are startling. German conservatism produced Angela Merkel, easily the most respected democratic leader in the world, while the English variety produced Boris Johnson. Instead of demonising refugees from the Middle East in the cause of Brexit, Germany welcomed a million from Syria. When the depredations of Covid-19 struck, Germany tested and traced and kept its people relatively safe; England got a world-beating tally of preventable deaths.
Kampfner tells us that in an interview shortly before becoming chancellor, Angela Merkel was asked what Germany meant to her. She replied: “I am thinking of airtight windows. No other country can build such airtight and beautiful windows.” German windows are indeed something to be proud of. This telling detail speaks to the reality that Germany is richer than the UK. This requires a little more spelling out than Kampfner gives it. Its income per head is substantially higher. It is a far larger global player: it has more than 6% of the world’s manufacturing, compared with 2% for the UK. As an exporter it is also in a different class from the “world-beating”, “global Britain”.
That economic success has not involved anything like the leave-it-to-capitalism ideology that has left so much of the UK decaying. Germany is a land of globally important small and medium firms, as well as the national corporate giants the UK no longer has, such as Volkswagen of Wolfsburg or BASF of Ludwigshafen. .
Germany has had some deindustrialisation, particularly in the old German Democratic Republic, which had a transition to capitalism more brutal in terms of industry destroyed and jobs lost than British industry in the Thatcher years. Yet, as Kampfner notes, despite continued criticism in Germany of the lack of progress in levelling up, trillions of euros were spent and the GDP per capita of the east is now 80% of that of the west. That is, incidentally, a smaller difference than there is between the GDP per capita of the English north (which has about the same population as the former East Germany) and the rest of England. Large parts of England and Wales and Northern Ireland now have a GDP per capita lower than the old East Germany.
Kampfner’s Germany doesn’t do everything right. It has its scandals such as the new Berlin airport which cannot yet be used, and the unfinished and over-budget Stuttgart railway station. The train system no longer runs on time as it once did, one sign of a general neglect of infrastructure. Its environmentalism (it has a notably strong Green party) is tarnished by keeping coal-burning power stations going. It did not cover itself in glory when, through the EU and other agencies, it bailed out its banks and crashed the economies of Greece and others. Its deep conservatism means Germany has remarkably low rates of employment of women with children, in contrast to the old GDR.
Kampfner’s guide to a grown up country is less focused on the economy than most British looks at Germany. His Germany is not so much the land of Vorsprung durch Technik, as a gentle, intellectual, cultured, often progressive place, a society of clubs and societies, of social cooperation, and a social conservatism. One of the richest aspects of this book is that it makes clear that new Germany did not arise naturally out of the year zero that was 1945. For two decades and more little stirred, with much of the past kept under wraps by the exigencies of the cold war. Other countries played their part – when Hanns Martin Schleyer was kidnapped and murdered by the Baader Meinhof group, the British press presented him as just another German businessman, but the perpetrators had got him precisely because he was an ex-Nazi. However, Germany came to terms with nazism through these internal challenges from the left, and with remarkable effect.
In this light, Britain does look bad and sad. It is true that in some parts of the British media, a fantasy history of the second world war sits like a stagnant smog, revelling in cartoonish anti-Germanism barely fit for boys’ comics of the 1950s. The sad reality is that Brexiters have deliberately undermined British self-understanding and understanding of the world, to make Brexit possible.
Kampfner is right to ask us to imagine a Britain with more honest politicians, a more serious press, a more mature understanding of its place in the world, more industry, smaller regional disparities and indeed better windows. Yet, apart from the windows, Britain surely once had all these things. For one of the lessons of this book is not just that things are different in different places, but that they change over time, and things don’t necessarily get better.
But Brexiter Britain is not Britain, not even England. The younger generations in particular are not stuck in fantasy pasts. Many know Europe, and perhaps even Germany, and that there is a Britain more intertwined with and similar to Germany than might be immediately obvious.