Germany’s digital aversion compounds dwindling reputation for efficiency

Report warns that resistance to modernisation is hindering country’s chances in this century

Germany trades on its worldwide reputation for efficiency, precision engineering and Vorsprung durch Technik. Ask anyone who lives in Germany, though, and you will hear a different story, of a country trapped in a late-20th-century Groundhog Day.

While the rest of Europe embraces online administration and smartphone payments, Germans queue in the cold for passports or frequent retailers still tilting, like analogue Don Quixotes, at credit cards.

Germany’s digital phobia reached a new low last week when the federal network agency – watchdog for energy supplies and telecommunications – issued a tender for a fax communication provider capable of processing “around 3,000-4,000 pages a month”.

At a time of war in Europe, the agency responsible for overseeing Germany’s communications and energy security is determined to keep the 1980s alive for at least five more years.


Just as the tender went viral, a new survey revealed that Germany’s digital transformation was in a worse state than even the pessimists feared.

Some 77 per cent of Germans agree their country’s future hinges on embracing digital transformation, according to the representative survey for the European Centre for Digital Competitiveness. But 96 per cent of respondents think Germany has fallen behind – up from 89 per cent in 2019 – and 68 per cent doubt their country can ever catch up.

In their minds, the fact that their country has fallen so far behind is the fault of politicians (74 per cent) and business leaders (67 per cent). But the survey reveals a reality that is more complicated: the same percentage of Germans (70 per cent) associate digitalisation with the future and with opportunities as with dangers and surveillance risks.

In stark language the report warns that the population’s digital ambivalence, perhaps linked to two dictatorships in the last century, is hindering Germany’s chances in this century.

So how should the German state make a digital leap forward, as its citizens demand, if the same citizens are as fearful of the risks of the digital era as they are enthused by the opportunities?

As often in such vexing matters, rather than blame themselves, many Germans like to blame Hitler. As one lawyer friend put it to me: “Without him we’d have no ‘human dignity is inviolable’ clause in our postwar constitution and no hypersensitivity to any kind of data collection.”

This hypersensitivity saw Germany’s highest court rule census-taking as unconstitutional in 1983. Four decades later, similar thinking colours modern German attitudes over online data processing and may motivate, at least in part, German fury over how Ireland regulates big tech firms such as Facebook and Instagram.

At this stage, Germany’s digital dysmorphia is so deeply rooted that nothing, it seems, can trigger change. Not a complaint from Germany’s civil servants’ association that government administration was “still very anti-digital”. Not even an October 2022 estimate that failure to allow digital patient files, meaning doctors often cannot see what medication patients are already taking, is killing about 70,000 Germans annually – 27 times fatalities more than road deaths.

Business managers have been scratching their heads for years over Germans’ allergy to all things digital. Some blame the ageing population, others a risk-averse business culture that rewards safety and stifles innovation.

“The reason Germany is the world’s export leader,” joked one manager at a recent panel discussion, “is because we are terrified of our own inventions and would prefer to get them out of the country.”

For former German politician Klaus von Dohnanyi, the country’s digital dysmorphia is rooted in the notorious phenomenon of German Angst: fear of making mistakes, fear of not getting something perfect the first time, fear of thinking too little about security.

“The deepest and most far-reaching version of this anxiety,” he added, “is to be found in Germany’s public administration, largely shaped by lawyers.”

Many agree with this diagnosis, and would like to break the chokehold of lawyers on Germany’s administration and legislative. Some point to Denmark, which includes psychologists and sociologists to ensure that laws are drafted to work for people – not the other way around.

For all these diagnoses, though, a general sense of helplessness lingers. Germany’s digital dysmorphia thrives, it seems, because the fast, imperfect and iterative nature of the online era is completely at odds with many Germans’ sense of self.