As happy as I am with my life in Germany, I would be lying if I said I hadn’t experienced the famous German arrogance. Indeed, in the decade or so I have spent here, my daily existence has been peppered with such encounters.
To some extent, being rendered practically invisible in bars and restaurants, and summarily snubbed and snapped at by staff at post offices, train stations and even shops, is regarded as part of life in Berlin – but could also be said to be part of the ‘German experience’, regardless of which part of the country you’re in.
The experience got me thinking recently, about how culturally specific arrogance really is? Even a cursory inspection of the phenomenon reveals it’s hardly an exclusively German trait – the British and French suffer the exact same stereotypes, to name just two.
And yet there do seem to be some culturally specific ways in which arrogance is employed here. In Britain, it often feels more class-based, or a throwback to the militaristic colonial era where telling others what to do was as natural as breathing. French aloofness is often portrayed as a chic fashionista looking someone snobbily up and down over their Louis Vuitton sunglasses, or a cartoonish waiter rolling his eyes at customers who can’t pronounce moules frites properly.
In Germany, it has very different associations, namely a certain robotic coldness and unapologetic bluntness that are also common national characterisations. In my experience at least, these also occur quite naturally, without any kind of dependency on social class; even regular Germans seem able to turn one’s soul to salt with a piercing, beady-eyed glare.
Needless to say there is some historical context to these stereotypes. Germany has been accused of having a superiority complex pretty much as long as it has existed as a nation – that is to say, since at least 1871, the year of German unification. A decade before that, Emanuel Geibel coined a pro-Empire phrase in his poem Deutschlands Beruf (“Germany’s task”): “Am deutschen Wesen soll die Welt genesen”, which translates as “the German spirit shall heal the world”.
In the context of the poem, and the time in which it was written, the line reads as an earnest reassurance of the emerging nation’s good intentions. However, it was subsequently stripped of context and used in a militaristic manner by Germany’s most notorious moustachioed megalomaniacs – Kaiser Wilhelm II and Hitler – who employed it to cynically promote Germany’s culture and values over all others under the guise of making the world a better place.
The jingoistic trumpeting of German values was, in fairness, easy to pull off at the end of the 19th century for a country that had produced Mozart and Marx, Hegel and Nietzsche, Schiller and Goethe (to name just a few), enjoyed one of the highest literacy rates in Europe and had made enormous progress in everything from industry to science. This quite spectacular evolution was, of course, halted and eventually destroyed precisely because the national overconfidence paved the way for two world wars and, eventually, the most murderous ethnocentrism the world has ever seen.
As any good psychologist will tell you, superiority complexes are borne from their opposite, and this has been the contrastive theory of many a postwar German cultural analyst, including former president of the FDR (1949-1959) Theodor Heuss, and German Holocaust historian and political scientist Götz Aly. Both have argued throughout their respective works that the Nazi’s race doctrine was in reality the product of (in Heuss’s words) an “astonishing inferiority complex.”
Postwar Germany, divided and decidedly humbled, was the diametric opposite of bellicose, sticking its head down and working hard on its Wirtschaftswunder (economic miracle) while remaining obligingly committed to the founding principles of the EU. But since reunification in 1990 there has been a gradual strengthening of national patriotism too. During the 2006 FIFA World Cup many Germans expressed discomfort at seeing German flags hanging casually from apartments and car windows. Since then, Germany has seen the rise of the AfD (Alternativ für Deutschland), the first staunchly nationalist party since the Second World War, while German hegemony within the European Union has attracted accusations of ‘moral imperialism’, as well as ‘hubris’, not least because of the country’s leading role in imposing austerity measures on other EU countries after the 2008 crisis, but also for its alleged intransigence during the painful Brexit negotiations.
No surprise then that in a 2013 survey by the Washington DC-based Pew Research Centre, Germans were viewed as the least compassionate. But, intriguingly, they were also voted as the most dependable, by Brits too, who also judged the French as the most obnoxious.
And therein lies the rub. If we want to buy into the stereotypes about German arrogance, we have to also set them against – or at least along with – the others: Germans as hard working, loyal, dependable, and fair. And perhaps we also ought to acknowledge another, related cliché: the penchant for Germans to take things too seriously. This distinct lack of levity, combined with a general disconnect with the nuanced elements of British humour (irony, understatement, exaggeration, wordplay), can often be misinterpreted as arrogance.
So too can the way Germans tend to feel comfortable in their own skins, and able to state their mind, which also differs from the British mindset and can seem somewhat supercilious. But it isn’t: it is simply a cultural difference. Ultimately, my own experience has taught me that we have many more similarities with Germans than differences – including occasional bursts of genuine pomposity.