5th Week in Berlin (On German National Character)

The topic of discussion of three days of this week centred around the national character of the Germans, and some interesting but important conclusions were made, or at least suggested, that probably surprised many of us.

When asked to describe a typical image of the German character, what do people think of? On one of the classes we were asked to choose from a large group of adjectives certain ones that correspond with our image of German characters in our mind, and thereafter to talk with one other and explain why we chose certain words (as a speaking exercise). Perhaps not surprisingly, the most students I talked to chose many of the words that I also chose, such as “disciplined”, “serious”, “diligent”, “routine-oriented”, “punctual”. Indeed, the notion that the Germans are traditionally obsessed with discipline, rules, and precision is common worldwide. More importantly, this notion is also very true and historically grounded.

The formation of a national character has to do with not only biological factors, but more importantly, with historical ones. In the case of Germany, the historical condition of the people and the formation of the modern German nation play an important role in shaping the German mentality. In contrary to the medieval France, England Sweden or Russia, that continually developed into established monarchies grounded in firmly feudal societies, the German empire “Kaiserreich” remained a loose confederate with individual states under the sovereignty of local electorates instead of an overriding monarchy. The loose structure of the German land proved to be a special weakness during the time of religious wars of the 16th and 17th century, conflicts within the German-speaking realm between protestant and catholic sovereignties were also common. Another consequence of the loose structure of the German society was the lack of a prominent privileged social class, as existed in France or Britain. The German society has been primarily a society of the middle class with a high degree of social and professional mobility that is accessible to everyone.

The above-mentioned historical factors would have led to a national character that is completely opposite to what we think of the German character. Yet how comes the “rules-obsessed”, “authority-obeying” German tendency? According to the Netherlandish sociologist Geert Hofstede, the historically loose structure of the German society led to a tendency of “Uncertainty Avoidance” (Unsicherheitsvermeidung), that paradoxically explained the German predilection for anything planned, organised, governed and their obsession with orderliness. All these tendencies developed out of the intention to prevent uncertainty under an extremely insecure society. This German character was further strengthened after WWII, as political correctness, national righteousness and moral tightness were the centre of discussions. Moreover, the highly developed automobile industry in Germany made “Made in German” a world-recognised label for good quality, and a highly respected image of the German industry.

However, some of my personal experiences seem to be contrary of the above-mentioned German character. I was at first very surprised at how often the buses in Berlin are not on time, and if that may be due to the changeable traffic situations, many Germans simply disprove the public notion of the national character as too stereotypical. Many say that Germans nowadays are simply not as upstanding, punctual or conscientious in personal life as one often thinks. It also seems that there is a large body of young people who can’t help but to break out from the confines of traditional German virtues. Our instructor told us of his story of his youth: when he and his sister were driving home and they finished eating the hamburger in the car, he told his sister, “This time let’s do something totally crazy: let’s simply throw the packages out of the window.” And they did it. (That’s important.)

Till today, I have not understood what’s going on in the national mentality of the Germans. Some say that the Germans loosened their hold on virtues such as “punctuality” and “discipline” because these are secondary virtues, and they now put more effort into “primary” virtues such as personhood and business morality. But I don’t see the necessity of losing “secondary virtues” for the sake of “primary virtues”. And I wonder, why not have both?

However, it is also important to recognise that this deviation from traditional German virtues in personal life does not apply to everyone and necessarily to the work place. Many sectors of industries in Germany have a higher degree of professionalism than their counterparts in other countries. In my conversation with the manager of Steinway Berlin, I recounted on my experience with the German-made Steinway pianos (I practice at the Steinway studio every afternoon), that sound and feel better than the Steinways I played in the USA, and I was told that is because piano-making is a specific profession in Germany and the individual piano makers are professionalised and have to train for 10 years to acquire mastership of piano making in order to work in the Steinway factory in Hamburg. This lengthy process of professionalization of piano makers do not exist in most piano manufacturers in the world.

Perhaps this high degree of professionalism is still typically German and explains the high quality of German products. It might be safe to say that the traditional German virtues are still at work at higher societies and business situations, yet probably more German nowadays choose to live with a double standard – making a larger distinction between public sphere and private life. Yet German mentality might well be more complicated, and must take more years for me to thoroughly fathom.

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