Why the Germans Do it Better: Notes from a Grown-Up Country by John Kampfner - review by Thomas Kielinger

Thomas Kielinger

Mutti Knows Best

Why the Germans Do it Better: Notes from a Grown-Up Country


Atlantic 320pp £16.99

I was resolved to socially distance myself from yet another book about grown-up Germany and her exemplary achievements. Stephen Green’s Reluctant Meister from five years ago still reverberated in my memory as perhaps one paean too many. Don’t get me wrong: I am not belittling the tremendous progress Germans made after 1945, rebuilding from rack and ruin a country that was little more than a heap of rubble, physical and moral. In fact, I grew up with a sense of wonder at how quickly Germany regained its sense of purpose and enthusiasm for the democratic pursuit. By the time of reunification in 1990, I was convinced that Germany had experienced a complete cleansing of her former self: it was almost unrecognisable, a far cry from the embodiment of national hubris. Liberty and justice for all and the pride that goes with the renascence of such values were the burden of my song.

When, in May 1990, I was invited by the Royal United Services Institute to give a talk on soon-to-be united Germany, I waxed lyrical about the transformation of Germany’s national persona. In those days, the American film Honey, I Shrunk the Kids was all the rage, telling the story of a scientist who experiments in his laboratory with his two young children, whom he inadvertently shrinks to midget size. I used it as a metaphor for what I wanted to get across. This is about the size of Germany’s national ego, I avowed – the smallest you’ve ever seen in history! Rather than getting all worried about a new German assertiveness, you will soon have reason to bewail her reluctance to commit to multilateral endeavours to keep the peace in troubled areas of the globe. Afterwards, a number of military officers told me how completely mistaken I was about my own country: ‘Trust us, we know better,’ they said. One of them actually asked how much I was being paid by the Bonn government for spreading such blatant disinformation.

Well, those were the days of Margaret Thatcher’s Chequers seminar about the nature of the German beast, of Conor Cruise O’Brien’s article in The Times about the dangers of a ‘Fourth Reich’, and much angst besides. While in 1990 it was customary to shiver slightly at a newly enlarged Germany, thirty years later, John Kampfner can be sure that almost nobody in Britain doubts that the Germans ‘do it better’. Such is the perspective of a conflicted John Bull.

In spite of my early reservations, this turns out to be a revelation of a book, with insights based on painstaking research and evidence gleaned from months crisscrossing the country. As a summary of how Germany ticks at this turbulent time, Kampfner’s analysis is simply peerless. He covers the spectrum of German life, from politics to the arts, with assured mastery, taking in the highs and lows of a country still struggling to become one in mind and memory after the long years of having been divided. He is no newcomer to his subject, either: having been the last Daily Telegraph correspondent in the GDR and witnessing the fall of the Berlin Wall first-hand, he can write with authority on the then and now.

What makes his book a particularly convincing read is his countless interviews with real Germans from all strata of society and the anecdotal education he underwent while meeting them. Upon hearing, to his disbelief, that half of German school leavers go into vocational training, and that even a shop assistant can be required to undergo training that might last three years, he turns to Andreas Schleicher, a global guru on comparative education, to learn the truth. Schleicher tells him that people who work in bakeries are often invited to take advanced maths in the evenings. ‘It’s not such a terrible idea,’ he says. ‘Learning for your current job is only part of the task. The German approach puts you on a path; it looks at your long-term career trajectory.’ In the UK, by contrast, ‘only 5 per cent of the labour force have higher skills than what’s required for their present job. That is a huge threat to productivity.’ Elsewhere, two entrepreneurs from the town of Mönchengladbach enlighten the author about how socially aware German bosses are, with a strong sense of local loyalty. ‘When I think of selling my company, I get stomach cramps’, says one, the owner of a firm that runs sushi counters at supermarkets. ‘You wouldn’t be respected by your neighbours’, the other interjects. No wonder, Kampfner concludes after imbibing such lessons, that ‘all but two of the German Bundesliga clubs are majority-owned by their fans. The idea of selling to any old Russian or Emirate oligarch would be seen as a betrayal.’

These interviews help to explain the deeply rooted ‘consensual culture’ of contemporary Germany, its love of slogging processes and of ‘getting it right’, characteristics epitomised by Angela Merkel. His chapter on the Merkel phenomenon is a tour de force. Her rise is ‘one of the more unlikely political stories of the early twenty-first century’. It’s ‘not easy to demonize a country which has been led for a decade and a half by a sturdy scientist from a nondescript small town,’ he avers. By tracing the German admiration of ‘reliability and prudence, as personified through Merkel’, he provides a fascinating analysis of the national psyche.

By no means, however, do the Germans do everything better, we are relieved to hear: ‘As ever with Germany, the strengths and weaknesses are stark, and the flip side of each other.’ Germany’s much-vaunted economic miracle? Not everything you see is gold, Kampfner reminds us. Looking ahead, the country needs to be, among other things, more tech-savvy and digitally innovative, and prepared to reform its financial services. The irksome question of why Germany, with its obvious potential as an ‘influencer’ in the modern world, does not commit to more forthrightness in leadership can be explained by what Kampfner calls ‘the comfort blanket’ approach. By emphasising stability over everything else, Merkel has entrenched the postwar habit of risk avoidance. Is German political culture, as Kampfner writes, ‘set up as a shock absorber’? Maybe. And yet, when in 2015 Merkel suddenly opened the German border, without consulting the EU, to a million immigrants, she created one of the biggest shocks in Germany’s postwar history.

The truth of this book’s title statement is shown in what Kampfner has to say about industrial relations and how Germans have outperformed comparable countries in economic prowess. Read the fifth chapter, ‘The Wonder’, and you can stop wondering about the secret of Germany’s success. The pivotal role of the Mittelstand (small- to medium-sized firms), the thoroughness of apprentice training, the philosophy of long-termism, Mitbestimmung (representation of the workforce on company boards): most of this is simply unthinkable to a true-blue British capitalist. When Theresa May, after the election of 2017, briefly flirted with some kind of German-like worker participation in company decisions, the idea was branded as unadulterated socialism and ditched as soon as it had reared its German head.

As an explanation of how Germany functions in 2020, Kampfner’s book is a triumph of insight and lucidity. But it also, inadvertently, exposes the limits of cross-fertilisation between countries and the deeply anchored differences of mentalities and historical preconditions. Could Westminster ever abjure its adversarial theatrics and convert to the idea of a grand coalition – the sharing of governing responsibility between the two main parties, which has latterly become the backbone of Germany’s uneasy yet stable political culture? How about a written constitution, the love and pride of Germany since 1949? Or a proportional electoral system, treating all votes cast as a true mirror of the volonté générale?

Asking why the Germans do it better raises the question of why they do it differently in the first place. They arrived at the rebirth of a civilised society via the hard route, proof of one of William Blake’s famous ‘Proverbs of Hell’: ‘The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom.’ And a hellish price was paid for their acquisition of wisdom. Let each country decide for itself what price it will pay to reform obsolescent national customs and march through the gates of progress to its own tune.

Sign Up to our newsletter

Receive free articles, highlights from the archive, news, details of prizes, and much more.

RLF - March

Follow Literary Review on Twitter