Self-critical confessions of a practising German


OPINION:The German identity is in its infancy. Far from being fixed in cliches of order, efficiency and excellence, it has only just begun to evolve

WE GERMANS don’t really exist. Yet. We have no real clue who we are as a people. But unfortunately we don’t even realise that. All we feel is this faint underlying national insecurity which we manage to veneer splendidly with the need and determination to be successful at all times.

This has made us one of the most important players in the world’s economy. Others can learn a lot from us about being successful. But sometimes I wish we could chill out more, have a sense of humour about ourselves, love ourselves and develop an identity we are actually happy with.

We Germans never refer to ourselves as “we Germans”. Instead, we will say “the Germans” as if talking about an entity that exists outside ourselves and that the speaker is not a part of. We distance ourselves from ourselves. I have lived in five countries by now and am surprised and happy that other people mostly say very positive things about “the Germans”.

But we won’t have that. When we Germans talk about “the Germans”, it is almost always critical, something we want to set ourselves apart from. Ask young Germans abroad about themselves and they’ll basically say: “Germany? Well, I’m from there, but I’m not a practising German!” Me too. Half my life I’ve run away from being German – now I realise that was the most German thing I could possibly do. If you ask us what we are really like, our answer is “not like that”.

I blame Tacitus for this. In his work Germania (98AD), the Roman historian talks of the Germans as a “pure, undiffused, and original” people whom he praises for their simplicity, fidelity, and prowess in war. The 19th-century German nationalists, who dreamed of a united Germany, loved his theories of one coherent German people rooted in antiquity, precisely because “Germany” throughout the centuries (until 1871) was a hopelessly fragmented and politically negligible mess.

Unfortunately though, Tacitus didn’t so much describe the Germans as invent them. Tacitus had never been to Germany and his negative description of “the Germans” had political intentions: to warn Rome of the strong, savage enemy to the north. He uses positive things – such as German decency, courage and prowess – to criticise Roman decadence and weakness. By drawing on third-party accounts of those who had been there, his version of Germania is the first agglomeration of German stereotypes.

At the same time, the many peoples Tacitus speaks of as Germans – Langobards, Saxons, Cheruscans etc – never dreamt of being one people. To them, something like “the Germans” simply did not exist. It took over 800 years before the German word deutsch (diutisc in its medieval version) even started meaning the inhabitants of a certain geographic area. It was a loose term for a loose collection of up to 314 tiny independent countries with different traditions and founding myths without even a proper common spoken language.

Mad as it sounds: German stereotypes existed centuries before German identity. Clichéd judgment came long before self-image. To this day we tend to define ourselves ex negativo instead of positively. Even our venerated King Frederick the Great, who turned Prussia into a large European power, primarily spoke French and sniffed at the perceived oxymoron of “German culture”.

Yet during all this time of political fragmentation and insecurity, a truly great German culture of literature, music, science and philosophy developed that has a pre-eminent place in the canon of human achievement. The feeling of cultural unity developed long before the idea of political or ethnic unity.

So why don’t we celebrate what’s wonderful about us and the things we love about our culture instead of defending ourselves against what we are not? Because culture is open and unbounded and unites all mankind instead of setting the boundaries needed for any clearly delimited “identity”.

Identity needs borders. For example, we Germans like to think that “nobody likes us”. Which is rubbish. But the thought creates a border and a coherent “us”. It is much more difficult to define your identity without an adversary you can set yourself apart from. Celebrating a positive patriotism that says “yes” to what you love instead of setting yourself apart from others is the challenge we are all facing in this new Europe of peace.

For us Germans it is even more of a challenge than for others. Fragmented most of the time and constantly changing, we never had much time to develop a positive common identity. Since 1990, Germany has been, for the first time, one united, democratic country with undisputed borders surrounded by friends. And Holland.

So we have yet to make an identity out of the things we have in common and the things we all love. It may not be easy to build national identity out of German bread, beer, white asparagus, football and opening beer bottles 100 different ways. But you have to start somewhere. We have to stop taking ourselves too seriously. We have to realise that we can’t have a clue yet who we are, because our journey has only begun. Once we manage that, we will be free to be wonderful.

For now, we have only one positive narrative we are happy to live up to: order, efficiency, diligence, being top of the class. Which is not half as much fun as the Irish narrative of “We just like to have good craic.”

To be fair, I think the rest of Europe prefers for us to stay serious and efficient, instead of having the craic and building a whacky surprise into your Mercedes airbag. But order and efficiency are hard. That’s why we travel to places like Italy: to take time off being German and, filled with guilty pleasure, glance into the abyss of chaos.

Order and efficiency become fun only when you get to be smug about them and assure yourself how crap things are elsewhere. Unfortunately we tend not to notice that while being “top of the class” and doing a great job for Europe earns us respect, it doesn’t endear us to others much.

And then we go and pine away again: “Why is it that nobody likes us?” And we have to stop this.

We have to develop a sense of humour about our beautiful, crazy, charming mishap of a country. You can truly love your country only if you can laugh at it. And I think we young Germans have started realising that. Instead of wanting to be right and top of the class, I hope we manage to ease up, start liking ourselves, and open up to everybody else. I used to think I hated Germany. Now I just want to hug it like a child and say: “We all love you, you little eejit. Now stop sulking, go outside, and play with the others.”

Paco Erhard (37) is a German comedian. He has toured his satirical show 5-Step Guide to Being German in Britain and Australia. He hopes to play in Ireland in 2013.

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