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European champions

Kampfner has written a scrupulously researched yet not uncritical tribute to postwar Germany

This article is taken from the November issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering three issue for just £5.


Why The Germans Do It Better, by John Kampfner Atlantic, £16.99

Notes from a Grown-Up Country”, the sub-title of this affectionate, scrupulously researched yet not uncritical tribute to postwar Germany, is clearly intended to be provocative, and two cheers for that. There are still British people (not “Brits”, please, Herr Kampfner, it suggests self-abasement) who have not adjusted to the fact that Germany is the leading nation in Europe, or that modern Germans, having come to terms with the monstrous inheritance bequeathed by previous generations, are healthier, wealthier and better educated than those who supposedly “won” the last conflict.

Walk around Munich for an hour, and try to consider how Manchester, self-styled capital of the so-called “northern powerhouse”, measures up. Sitting in one of the many agreeable restaurants by the Marienkirche, eating sausages from Nuremberg, and drinking beer from breweries which coopered their first barrels 700 years ago, one can only ponder how much we have lost.

Munich wears three hats, as a regional, national and international city, abundantly blessed not only in food and drink but also music, art, theatre, opera, commerce, urban development and, it goes without saying, football. Bayern Munich, anointed this year as champions of Europe for the sixth time, have supplied the national team with three of the four German captains who have held aloft the World Cup. In football, as in so many other disciplines, they knock us for six. Thank heavens they never took up cricket.

There is a quality of life in these cities which makes our own settlements look very grubby

For Munich, read Hamburg, Cologne or Stuttgart. There is a quality of life in these cities which makes our own settlements, and many of the people who live in them, look very grubby indeed. A Bavarian couple, encountered in Derbyshire last year, were clear what surprised them most about England, a country they had enjoyed visiting for many years: “The canned food and the tins of beer which shoppers put in their trolleys, and the number of young girls pushing prams.”

When Germans talk of freedom, wrote A.J.P. Taylor, they really mean the freedom to be German. It’s a witty observation, and rooted in centuries of conflict. Germany, a nation-state established in 1871, was always the problem child of Europe, desperate for the affection of France, her neighbour, and England, the land she admired most, mainly for reasons of political stability and a maturity born out of the common law and of institutions, honed by time, which worked if not for all, then for most.

How the wheel has turned. Germans, many of whom are instinctively Anglophile, now watch in horror as the land known for an absence of ideology appears to be trapped in a fog of mutual incomprehension. Goethe thought that every nation needed 50,000 Germans to prosper, a claim it has not always been easy to support. It’s not that difficult now.

Kampfner, with his journalistic experience of Germany before and after the epochal year of 1989, is a good guide to the reconstruction since “Stunde Null” in 1945. What a half-century it was. The economic miracle, the radical reaction in the Sixties against the sins of the fathers, the Cold War diplomacy of Willi Brandt and Helmut Schmidt, reunification with the Ossis and finally, for the assumed greater good of the European Union, the sacrifice of the mighty D-mark, which symbolised postwar German achievement.

Could anybody else have transformed a nation as they have done, and changed the way the world looks at them?

The Marshall Plan of 1948 was crucial to the restoration of a nation on its knees. American money, and Allied support, was essential. But, as Kampfner asks repeatedly, could any other people have responded as the Germans did? That first World Cup triumph, in 1954, was a significant moment in Germany’s postwar cultural history. The economic victories followed, buttressed by a new political dispensation which prized co-operation above tribal loyalties. From Konrad Adenauer, the Catholic Rhinelander, to Angela “Mutti” Merkel, the daughter of a Lutheran minister from Brandenburg, Germany has been led by chancellors of exceptional character and realism. No nation, Kampfner suggests without stating it overtly, has been better served.

At the heart of the reconstruction is a fact the author does not state outright, though again he might. Germany had an educated middle class. Out of the rubble emerged thousands of doctors, lawyers, teachers and architects. There were also mechanics, engineers and car designers. The postwar miracle was economic and human. Despite the humiliations of 1919 and 1945 the people had not surrendered their spirit. They were all in it together. Profits were ploughed back into businesses, for long-term benefits. The social aspects of life were emphasised. Citizens are expected to join clubs and associations. It is a civic duty.

They’re not perfect. Germans may be great quaffers of beer but the idea of “the round” is unknown

In 1914 Germany was the most civilised nation in Europe. When the floods cleared after the deluge it resumed its status because, in this land of forests and inwardness, kultur has always been a defining characteristic. Every German city, from Lubeck to Freiburg, has its own orchestra, art gallery, theatre and, as often as not, its own opera house. These things are not incidental. They are considered to be indispensable attributes of regional and national identity.

This is also a federal nation. While Berlin catches the eye as the largest and most cosmopolitan city, all major German conurbations play a significant role. There is an equality that balances the nation, though it is undeniable that parts of the east, yoked for four decades to the carthorse of state socialism, have struggled.

“Wherever I am,” said Thomas Mann, “is Germany.” He might have been speaking for all those young Germans, liberated from the past, who constitute the most outward-looking constituency in Europe. “An extraordinary success story”, Kampfner calls the last 75 years of German history, without exaggeration or false sentiment.

They’re not perfect. The obsession with mutual co-operation, which has done so much to dignify their political life, can translate into pettiness in personal affairs. Germans may be great quaffers of beer but the idea of “the round” is unknown. It’s a small price to pay. Could anybody else have transformed a nation as they have done, and changed the way the world looks at them? One looks in vain for a convincing rebuttal. This is a most remarkable people, and a thoroughly adult nation.

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