Thursday, November 17, 2011

Typical German?

We always end up with a couple of clichés when trying to describe what is typical of a nation. This becomes really dangerous when we start talking about national traits.

When I started my job at CERN 43 years ago I had a Norwegian boss who spoke German better than English mostly because during World War II the Nazis had deported him to Heidelberg. At the university they taught him German Physics, a 'science' that among other things rejected Einstein's theory of relativity because Albert was a Jew.

One day good old Johan, as we used to call him, told me: You are not a typical German, a multilayered remark. At that time I took it as a compliment for I had in mind all those films running on Swiss and French television at that time showing the dumb and ugly German. I also remembered a scene from a political cabaret where they played desperate Germans deprived of love from other nations ending in a bitter refrain: Nun liebt uns endlich, oder es knallt! (Love us at last or it will backfire).

A newspaper from Cologne, the Kölner Stadtanzeiger, asked a couple of young journalists what might be typically German. The US correspondent wrote that the question itself was typically German because Germans are always keen to know what other countries think about them whereas other nations could not care less how their neighbors regard them. On the other hand, the journalist of the Irish Times took a step further recommending to send this question into retirement because it will only lead to quarrels.

Whether the question leads to quarrels I do not know but the various answers given by those foreign correspondents were interesting. The American also wrote that Schadenfreunde is typical for Germans because they have a special word for it. He is possibly right. We even have a proverb about Schadenfreude: Wer den Schaden hat, braucht für den Spott nicht zu sorgen (Those having the damage needn't worry about any lack of mockery).

The Dutch guy found the wearing of bike helmets and the eating of thick slices of Schwarzbrot (coarse rye bread) as being typically German. He is utterly mistaken with respect to helmets on bikes. The situation is so disastrous that our Minister (State Secretary) of Transportation is considering an obligation (a typically German regulation frenzy?) to wear helmets when riding a bike.

As far as Schwarzbrot is concerned I have it for breakfast daily although in thin slices. This bread is healthy and tasty. Germans living in foreign countries usually take big supplies with them before crossing the border and later when they run out of it have it sent by air.

I love my Kraftklotz (Power log) for breakfast
According to the Italian correspondent Germans constantly think about money in particular about a coming inflation. Should we rather show the same relaxed attitude towards the rotten mammon like our southern neighbors? Inflation, we Germans have lived through twice in the last century whereas the Italians did not even notice theirs just adding another zero to their lira as time went by.

Do Germans as pedestrians really obey red traffic lights so the Italian journalist having lived here for a while now feels obliged to do the same at home? I must say, the guy did not extend his research to cyclists for then he might have noticed that in Freiburg they never observe any traffic rule including red lights.

The Mexican found out that Germans start any conversation by complaining about the weather. Could this be an atavistic heritage when more than 90% of Germany's population worked in agriculture or did you ever meet a farmer not complaining about the weather?

The Frenchman seriously asked: Are the French better Germans? in comparing the way how universities are run in both countries. In cool Germania students lead an anarchistic life compared to the high-school like teaching at French universities. He did not mention that as a result of the academic freedom in Germany nowhere in Europe students do spend a longer time with their alma mater. Sitting in selection boards at CERN I have seen French academics 24 years old competing with Germans aged 29, the first speaking French the second broken English. Guess what the outcome was.

For the Polish guy Germans are a strange mixture between good citizens and grumblers. Their deep rooted obedience toward authorities and love for law and order is paired with a growing self-awareness of their rights. They are standing there for their bonds even taking minor quarrels up to the highest court.

Last not least the Austrian girl still had not overcome the Habsburg inferiority complex towards the Prussians. Yes, it was the Prussians and not the Germans that beat the Austrians on several occasions in the past. The cliché of the Prussian officer with his switched-off brain and shouting has left its mark for posterity in Karl Kraus's drama Die letzten Tage der Menschheit (The last days of mankind). The trauma of dominant Prussia is still rooted in the heads of many Austrians. But then having lived in Germany for a couple of years she admitted: It is typical that a typical German trait does no longer exist.

Does this mean that we will eventually get rid of the typical German wearing Lederhosen? If this is typical at all, it is Bavarian not German.

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