No need to mention the war

A comparison of the post-war history of Germany and the UK is revealing. And embarrassing if you are British. Germany has gone from being a pariah state with a wrecked economy to a model of democracy with a successful economy, whereas Britain … Why is this? John Kampfner provides a compelling explanation in ‘Why the Germans do it better: Notes from a grown-up country’ (pub. Atlantic Books, 312 pp.; £16.99).

German Flag – Source: Christian Wiediger

Kampfner follows several interwoven strands. Firstly, the Germans have slowly come to terms with their history and can look to the future. A speech by President von Weizsäcker in 1985 marked a turning point when he said that ‘May 8th [1945, when the Nazis unconditionally surrendered] was a day of liberation’. Germans do tend to bring up the question of war guilt unprompted, less to dwell on the past, important though that is, but more to check that the lessons have been learnt.

Then there is the fact that Germany functions well as a community, thanks in part to its effective institutions, with a stable Federal government and far-reaching, meaningful devolution to its constituent parts. After the war the fledgling Federal Republic adopted the Grundgesetz (or ‘Basic Law’): an example of how to write a constitution. German society is based on a sense of mutual obligation, shared endeavour and a belief that a rules-based order is benign. Why does the UK continue to burden itself with its embarrassingly atrophied political structures?

“Our Basic Law” – Source: Ministry of the Interior Germany

One thing that Germany benefits from is long-termism – partly as a result of having Proportional Representation (PR), a decent electoral system that encourages stability. There has only been one total change of government in Germany since the war, but seven in the UK. The UK suffers from short–termism; grab what you can before the next roll of the electoral dice.

Thirdly, the key to Germany’s continued prosperity – the Wirtschaftswunder (the economic miracle) – is the principle of the social market economy: firms exist to make money for their shareholders. Fair enough, but they also exist for the benefit of the workers, and the concept of co-determination – workers having parity on boards of directors – is enshrined in law. ‘What is most inspirational about the German economy’, Kampfner says, ‘is not the policies it has pursued, but the consensus of values on which the economy is based’. There is broad support for the principles underlying higher taxation and the role of the state – that you are paying not just for your own benefit, and that of your family, but for the needs of society at large.

Helmut Kohl was German chancellor when the Berlin wall fell (unintentionally fulfilling Marx’s prediction of the ‘withering away of the state’) and the process of German reunification began. It has not all been plain sailing and it rapidly became clear that this was essentially a takeover. I was in Weimar at the time of East Germany’s first genuinely free Volkskammer election in March 1990. I interviewed a range of politicians and was struck by how alarmingly naïve they were: undoubtedly decent people but with no clue about practical politics. I also felt that the East German government should have held out for a massive national bribe before agreeing to reunification. The GDR was extremely poor with almost nothing in the shops (try buying anything after 8 a.m.) and dreadful infrastructure, with road surfaces reminiscent of Romania or Cheltenham. Even today, living standards in the East are just below 80% of the West (but nevertheless higher than in a number of regions of the UK).

Fifthly, there is the educational system. Around half of German school leavers go into vocational training. We may think it fanciful that people go to college to learn how to be waiters and waitresses, for example, but it makes them good at their jobs and gives them a feeling of self worth. And they actually know things: such as stages in the development of the EU. The chances are that almost no Brits know much about these European milestones. By contrast, the EU is an integral part of the German syllabus.  Schools everywhere find time for classes on Europe and the European Union. And ‘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.’

Connected with this is the level of public debate: measured, mature and well-informed. There is no equivalent of the absurd Question Time on BBC. The media exist to provide balance. Even the popular Bild-Zeitung comes nowhere near out gutter press.

In foreign policy Germany has learnt to become assertive (nota bene not ‘aggressive’), now participating in a more extensive network of collaborative military relationships than any other European country and is widely respected internationally. Kissinger famously asked: If I want to talk to Europe, who do I call? From George Bush I to Obama the answer was invariably ‘Germany’. The so-called “special relationship’ is a meaningless but cheap way of keeping the Brits quiet.

Kohl was succeeded by his protégée Angela Merkel and, as Kampfner says, much of contemporary Germany’s resilience has been defined by her. He (quite rightly) makes no attempt to portray her as heroic or a superwoman, just someone who once said: ‘I don’t think about my role in history. I do my job’. In fact, there have been times when she has seemed to dither. But she emerged as a moral force at the time of the crisis when thousands of migrants were flooding into Europe. She noted simply that Germany had a duty to help them.

Yet, as in the UK, the existence of migrants has been instrumentalised by the Far Right as a means of giving voice to their frustration at the economic situation, particularly in the former East – where there are very few migrants. Commenting on the early demonstrations by Pegida, the weekly Die Zeit noted that ‘if anyone in Dresden has ever seen a woman in a headscarf it’s a granny from the Sorb minority’.

Turning to the present, the author notes that ‘Britain provided a case-study of how not to deal with a crisis [Coronavirus] … All in all, the UK could not have alighted upon a leader less qualified to deal with a situation that required methodical attention to detail’. In the UK the Blitz Spirit was invoked to ‘defeat’ COVID-19. But the more the pandemic continued and the more the nostalgia grew, the more it became apparent that the 1939-45 era was the last time the UK had experienced social solidarity on a national scale. Would it now come back? ‘A generation of political leaders had exacerbated economic divides in Britain, selling short a people whose yearning for community is not so very different from those in other countries’.

At the start of the crisis Germany was better prepared than most countries, due mainly to its long-term planning. Germany’s system was also more resilient to shocks, Kampfner points out.  A comparison of health service data is revealing. The ratio of hospital beds, for example. Germany has 8.2 per 1,000 population; the UK has a lamentable 2.7, ‘thanks in part to chronic under-funding and short-term planning’, and doctors: Germany has 13.1 per 1,000 inhabitants; the UK has 8.2.

Kampfner concludes: ‘Values that the Anglo-Saxon world peremptorily dismissed as old-fashioned – such as family, responsibility and the role of the state – have not had to be rehabilitated in Germany at the start of the third decade of the twenty-first century. They simply hadn’t gone away’. No wonder he calls Germany  a ‘grown-up country’.

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars. Buy, don’t borrow, and lend to your cheapskate friends.