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JOHN KAMPFNER: Germany does do things better

The Brandenburg Gate illuminated during celebrations on the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall on November 9, 2014. (Photo by Sean Gallup/Getty Images) - Credit: Getty Images

Germans wince at the title of JOHN KAMPFNER’s new book on their ‘grown-up’ country. But, as he explains, it accurately captures the nation on which Europe’s future rests

In January 2021, Germany will be 150 years old. No country has caused so much harm in so little time. Half of modern Germany’s lifespan has been a tale of horror, war and dictatorship. The other half is a tale of atonement, stability and maturity. No country has achieved so much good in so little time.

Today, as much of the contemporary world succumbs to authoritarianism, as democracy is undermined from its heart by an out-of-control American president, a powerful China and a vengeful Russia, one country – Germany – stands as a bulwark for decency and stability.

This is the other German story. It will discomfort Britons still obsessed with Churchill and the Blitz spirit. It may also discomfort some Germans, who cannot bear to think of their country as a moral and political beacon.

Germany, for sure, faces dangers. The refugee influx has exacerbated cultural divides. Faith in established political parties is waning. Many, particularly in the former East, have turned to the simple slogans of the extremes. The economy has slowed, weighed down by an excessive focus on exports, particularly to China, an ageing population and worsening infrastructure. And that was before the pandemic.

So why the confidence, why the faith? The measure of a country is not the difficulties it faces, but how it surmounts them. On that test, contemporary Germany is a country to be envied. It has developed a maturity that few others can match. It has done so not because of a preordained disposition. It has learnt the hard way. Whenever I think of Germany’s many problems, I ask: which other nation could have absorbed a poor cousin with so little trauma? Which other nation would have allowed in more than a million of the world’s most destitute?

Coronavirus provided the ultimate test of leadership. Angela Merkel rose to the challenge. She told Germans in precise detail the sacrifices they would have to make and the emergency laws her government would have to impose – something that was extraordinarily sensitive in light of the country’s history. She told citizens what she, her ministers and scientists knew and what they didn’t. She never boasted.

Britain provided a case-study of how not to deal with a crisis. The bombast of Boris Johnson was in inverse proportion to his government’s competence. With a mixture of libertarianism and English exceptionalism, the prime minister declared that with good old-fashioned pluck, Britain would get through it.

The UK could not have found a leader less qualified to deal with a situation that required attention to detail. By May 2020, the UK was in the ignominious position of having the highest death toll in Europe.

This tragedy did not come in isolation. Some of the mistakes related to health policy. But the causes of the crisis were deeper than that. They were embedded in the fabric of the Britain’s politics. First came Brexit: Germans watched in horror as a country they admired for its pragmatism fell into pseudo-Churchillian self-delusion. So many of my conversations with Germans begin with the same question: ‘What has happened to you, my British friends?’

Conversely, Britain doesn’t know what it wants of the Germans. When the German economy struggles, as it did in the mid-1980s and mid-1990s, it is derided as the ‘sick man of Europe’, over-regulated and hidebound. When Deutschland AG corners global markets, it is ‘rapacious’. The British don’t want Germany to throw its weight around the world, yet they do want it to pull its weight.

My journey goes back vicariously to the 1930s. My Jewish father, Fred, fled Bratislava, his home town, as Hitler’s army was marching the other way into Czechoslovakia. His father and mother smuggled the three of them in train carriages and cars back across Germany and out. They were nearly caught several times but escaped by the skin of their teeth and by individual acts of kindness. Many of their extended family died in the concentration camps.

He made his life in England, via a 15-year stint in Singapore, where he met my mother, a nurse from Kent of solid Christian working-class stock, on the ward of the British army hospital. My childhood in London in the 1960s and 1970s contained the usual fare of war songs, jokes and TV shows at the expense of the ‘Krauts’.

It changed for me at the age of 15. I started to study the language and fell in love with it. I was exposed to Goethe, Brecht, Max Frisch – and Nina Hagen. In my early 20s, I jumped at the opportunity to work as a cub reporter in Bonn for Reuters. From there I was hired by the Telegraph to set up a bureau in East Berlin, becoming the paper’s first, and last, accredited correspondent to the GDR.

I saw the Wall come down; I saw a country unify at lightning pace. On one occasion, I met an unassuming political adviser in East Berlin. She and I sat and drank coffee in the Palast der Republik. I was struck by her poise, restraint and calm when all around was chaos. That was Angela Merkel. If only I had known…

To understand Germany and what it wants from the world, and for the world, you have to come to the beautiful border city of Aachen. I meander through the narrow streets. The road signs point you to the small town of Vaals in the Netherlands or Kelmis in Belgium, just a short cycle ride away.

It is a place of beauty, learning, science, culture and tragedy – the German and European story in microcosm. This was the front line where the Germans sent troops into Flanders at the start of the Great War and where American tanks crossed the Siegfried Line in October 1944. For a full six months before Hitler’s capitulation, this small sliver of Germany was under Allied control. The city became a test bed for post-war democratic reconstruction.

Aachen presents itself as the centre of Europe, the cradle of Western European culture. It is synonymous with Charlemagne, or Karl der Grosse, as the Germans call him, the Frankish king of the ninth century who brought most of Europe under his wing. In subsequent centuries many of Europe’s great warriors, leaders, thinkers and churchmen, from Otto the Great to Napoleon, drew on the Charlemagne name. They projected whatever they wanted onto him: benevolent monarch, holy defender, imperious conqueror. ‘Je suis Charlemagne,’ declared an invading Napoleon in 1806 as he surveyed his new domain. Hitler tried to appropriate him too.

In 1949, a local businessman proposed a prize to honour statesmen in service of Europe. He suggested to a reading group that he should found an international prize ‘for the most valuable contribution in the services of Western European understanding and work for the community, and in the services of humanity and world peace’. The following year, the city made its first Charlemagne award. In its restored Gothic town hall, a multilingual screen gives a brief biography of the winners of the prize. The roll call of Charlemagne laureates is a who’s who of the European project. The first decade included Jean Monnet and Robert Schuman, alongside Adenauer and Churchill. They were followed by Jacques Delors, Bill Clinton, Pope John Paul II and Va?clav Havel.

On the list are also Roy Jenkins, Ted Heath and Tony Blair. Those were the days when people dared to dream of a Europe with Britain playing a pivotal role.

From the town hall to the city museum, my last destination is the cathedral. The dean takes me to the coronation throne, made of marble said to have been transported from the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. Here 30 German kings were crowned. The magnificent building, with its famous octagon roof, has been rebuilt many times, after fire engulfed the city in 1656 and after Allied bombing during the Second World War.

It houses spoils from across Europe, from Byzantium to Ravenna in Northern Italy, an amalgam of the whole continent from east to west, the dean tells me. When we bid farewell, he offers this: ‘If St Peter’s in Rome belongs to the world, and Cologne cathedral is Germany’s, then Aachen is truly Europe’s home.’

As if on cue, just outside in one of the main squares, a group of men and women, young and old, with rucksacks, cycle helmets or baby holsters, hold hands and sing along to the European Union’s anthem – Beethoven’s Ode to Joy, blaring from a loudspeaker. They still invoke the spirit of Charlemagne and a united continent.

From Adenauer to de Gaulle, Macron to Merkel, French presidents and German chancellors have chosen this city to seal their reconciliation and renew their European vows. Europe was an attempt to solve the German question, once and for all. The plan, conceived by Monnet and presented by Schuman in 1950, proposed the creation of a European Coal and Steel Community. This begat the European Economic Community under the Treaty of Rome in 1957, the Single European Act of 1987 and the Maastricht Treaty of 1992.

The chances are that almost no Brits, outside the rarefied world of foreign policy, know much about these European milestones. By contrast, the EU is an integral part of the German syllabus. Students are taught at the start of high school about the four pillars – the Commission, Parliament, Council and Court. They have a fairly good idea of what is decided at national level and what powers are transferred to Brussels.

Germans, I have found, are generally not starry-eyed about Europe. They accept that all countries have legitimate, and sometimes divergent, national interests. They know they are still the object of suspicion. They know that their entire post-war reconstruction and rehabilitation is based on the notion of Europe, for which compromises on sovereignty are unavoidable.

The problem of Britain in Europe goes beyond policy, beyond EU-speak about sovereignty or subsidiarity. It goes to the heart of the lived experience. The most striking cultural difference is the approach to language. Whereas Britain is mired in monolingual mediocrity, its reference points extending to the US and not much further, most Germans are taught two foreign languages at school. Perhaps as a result, I am always struck by a cultural curiosity that is truly international.

The irony is that the one partner the Germans have probably most aligned with in policy terms is the UK. As a result, the pain surrounding the UK’s departure from the EU is real, but they have already moved on.

At a British-German dinner in Berlin in 2019, the justice minister at the time, Katarina Barley, gave this painful prediction: ‘Even if we agree with you in the future, we will always be more distant, because family comes first – and you are no longer family.’ She should know, being half British. Her father’s side comes from Brexit-supporting Lincolnshire.

Within weeks of Brexit taking place, Barley’s warning seemed to come true. British diplomats and others saw how quickly they were shut out of important discussions – or relegated to an afterthought.

The most important relationship for the success of the European project, on which most depends, is the one between Germany and France. Underpinning this relationship of mutual dependency, and the centrality of Europe, is the E?lyse?e Treaty, now 60 years old.

With a troublesome and distant America, and with the UK now out of the loop, Germany needs France as never before. Tensions between leaders are not new, but whenever required, the countries have come together at crucial moments. Schmidt and Giscard d’Estaing did so in the late 1970s over the global monetary crisis; Kohl and Mitterrand on reunification; Schro?der and Chirac over Iraq.

Germany needs a united Europe, not just for trade but for its sense of purpose. As Merkel herself noted wistfully: ‘I see the European Union as our life insurance. Germany is far too small to exert geo-political influence on its own.’ Germany will have to ensure that, whatever the squalls of Brexit and the populist right, the EU will survive. At the same time, America’s withdrawal from Europe will not end with Trump.

With the credibility of the US and UK undermined, Germany has found itself in the deeply uncomfortable position of being the standard-bearer for liberal democracy.

Germany remained the protected child far longer than it should have been. That is over. It still spends too much time engaged in introspection. In the 30 years since reunification, everyone has chewed over the mistakes. Was it all done too quickly? Were the Wessis arrogant and insensitive? Why were the one or two better aspects of East German life, not least the more emancipated role of women, not absorbed into the new country? These are legitimate questions. Yet I defy anyone to name another country that could have done what Germany did with so little damage.

Then came the refugee crisis of 2015. Merkel was slow to appreciate what was happening. Yet her eventual response was remarkable. Germany opened its doors to a human stream not seen in Europe since the end of the war. She paid a big price politically. Social wounds were reopened. The AfD surged. But the decision was right, and it was good.

What else, the chancellor would say as the criticism mounted, was a German supposed to do? Build camps? Compare that with Britain sending naval ships to intimidate a few motley boats of refugees off its coast.

As the Merkel era comes to an end, Germany faces a greater test than any equivalent country. It depends for its identity on the democratic post-war settlement, on the rule of law. Unlike Russia and France, with their military symbols, the US with the story of its founding fathers, or the UK, with its Rule Britannia obsessions, Germany has nothing to fall back on. That is why it cares so passionately about process, about getting it right, not playing fast and loose.

My year-long road trip has not made me starry-eyed or blind to the country’s faults. The Germans I interviewed for my book, from prominent politicians and CEOs of multinationals, to artists, volunteers helping refugees, old friends and ordinary folk met at random, all recoiled at the thesis and the title of the book, Why the Germans Do it Better: Notes from a Grown-Up Country. Without a single exception. ‘You can’t say that,’ they would exclaim with a shriek or awkward laugh. They then embarked on a long list of things that the country gets wrong.

Everywhere they look, Germans feel anxious. They see all that they hold dear being threatened. They see a world in which democracy is openly mocked by populists and strongmen – from Trump to Putin, from Turkey’s Erdogan to Brazil’s Bolsonaro. They, like everyone, see the climate emergency before their eyes. Covid has forced people around the world to reassess their priorities and to look again at the role of the state and society.

Germans’ refusal to see good close to home is hardwired. Yet, particularly when compared with the alternatives on offer, they have much to be proud of. More hubristic countries like Johnson’s Britain, sinking under the weight of governmental incompetence, would be wise to learn from it.

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