The view from Britain: Germany and the Germans

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    Business Spotlight 3/2021
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    Von Professor Peter Franklin

    Spitfire; spitfirewichtiges britisches Jagdflugzeug des Zweiten Weltkrieges; HitzkopfHände hoch! and Achtung: Spitfire! These were the first words of German I ever read, in war comics and W. E. Johns’s “Biggles” books in the mid-1960s, when I was about ten years old. I also remember borrowing books from the library in my home town in Britain that described the real-life derring-doWagemut, Heldentatderring-do of British soldiers escaping from “dastardlyheimtückisch, niederträchtigdastardly” Germans.

    Such stories helped to shape a view — fortunately, not mine — of Germany and the Germans held by a generation that hadn’t even been born by the time the Second World War ended. They were reminders of former glories and unconscious attempts to to perpetuate sth.etw. aufrechterhaltenperpetuate the belief in British “exceptionalism” — the belief that Britain was in some way extraordinary and, indeed, superior to other countries.

    At the time, this belief was being seriously questioned by the feeling, not only in the UK, that Britain had won the war but lost the peace, both economically and politically. There was no Wirtschaftswunder in Britain; on the contrary, food rationing continued until 1954. Britain, according to former US Secretary of State (US)Außenminister(in)Secretary of State Dean Acheson in 1962, had lost an empire but not yet found a role.

    Hände hoch! and Achtung: Spitfire! These were the first words of German I ever read

    Troubled and difficult

    fast-forward toetwa: spülen wir nun schnell vor zu...Fast-forward to the turn of the century, and negotiations were taking place connected with the takeover by a German company of a British counterpartPendantcounterpart. I was told by someone involved that the negotiations took place — at the arrangement of the British side — in an airport’s conference room named after Royal Air Force war heroes. The British participants entered the room before dawnMorgengrauendawn and placed towels over the chairs they wished to occupy.

    A few years later, in 2003, the cross-cultural psychologists Stefan Schmid and Alexander Thomas published their long-selleranhaltender Verkaufsschlager, Longsellerlong-seller book Beruflich in Großbritannien. They found that one of the central Kulturstandards guiding the behaviour of the British was still a negative, war-motivated Deutschlandstereotyp. This stereotype saw Germans as being untrustworthy, humourless and arrogant. 

    Does this explain the typically troubled and difficult — at least from the British point of view — Anglo-German relationship still evident in work settings today? What has remained of this sorrykläglichsorry British process of attempting to to mend sth.etw. reparieren; hier: heilenmend its damaged self-esteemSelbstwertgefühlself-esteem by a collective revellingSchwelgenrevelling in past successes?

    Doing it better

    Not much — or, at least, the process has changed only in nature — if the enormous success of British author and journalist John Kampfner’s recent award-winning book on Britain and Germany is if sb./sth. is anything to go bynach jmdm./etw. zu urteilenanything to go by

    Why the Germans Do it Better: Notes from a Grown-up Country is a finely told history of Germany from the post-war years to the corona crisis of 2020. The account is made all the more convincing by the author’s obvious first-hand familiarity with the country and his affectionZuneigung, Sympathieaffection for it. And the book is an only slightly rose-tinteddurch die rosarote Brille betrachtetrose-tinted panegyricLobrede, -schriftpanegyric to the achievements of Germany since the end of the war. 

    My judgement is that, for the majority of Brits, the after-effects of the lost peace no longer result in discriminatory remarks and behaviour towards Germany and the Germans. They are not the “dastardly” Germans of my war comics. There are, of course, exceptions. For example, responding to criticism in 2019 of Brexit by Tom Enders, then Airbus boss, Conservative MP (member of parliament)Abgeordnete(r)MP Mark Francois, told the BBC: “If he thinks because he runs a big company, he can to bully sb.jmdm. drangsalieren, schikanierenbully British MPs on how to vote, he’s going to be sorelyschmerzlich, zutiefstsorely mistaken. … My father, Reginald Francois, was a D-Day veteran. He never to submit to sth.sich etw. beugen, unterwerfensubmitted to bullying by any German and neither will his son.”

    Admiration and envy

    Such attitudes, I think, mainly belong to the past. Rather, the title of Kampfner’s book describes one of the two factors contributing to the continuing difficulties in Anglo-German interactions: the Germans really do “do it better”. The British recognize this ability to produce better high-tech products, better motor cars and better politicians, who the world takes seriously. And, of course, Germany has handled corona better, with a death rate per 100,000 around half that of Britain. 

    The British admire this German ability to do it better, sometimes secretly — there are plenty of clandestineheimlichclandestine Germany-lovers in Britain — occasionally openly. But the drawbackKehrseitedrawback is that this admiration is to be tinged with sth.einen Anflug von etw. habentinged, sometimes to be saturated with etw. gesättigt sein; hier: von etw. erfüllt seinsaturated, with envyNeidenvy. Modern Germany, if not the Germans themselves, is everything the Brits would like to be. It is the evidence that they won the peace, and confirmation, if not of their exceptionalism, at least of their ability to play in the political and economic to play in the premier leaguein der ersten Liga spielenpremier league.

    German Kulturstandards include task-orientation, a valuing of structures and rules, and a direct communication style

    Very direct

    And so we come to the second factor that to dog sth.etw. (ständig) verfolgen; hier: plagendogs Anglo-German interaction: the clash in Kulturstandards. Thanks to the indirectness of the British and their emotional reserve in communicating with strangers, this admiration and this envy may not be obvious to Germans in particular. They may not take in the signs that could to prompt sb. to do sth.jmdm. veranlassen, etw. zu tunprompt them to adapt their behaviour and make their communication style more appropriateangemessenappropriate (see my column in Business Spotlight 1/2021). 

    The German no-nonsense, “task-oriented” approach to cooperation and getting things done, and the accompanying directness of communication — “Very direct, even for a German” was a comment I heard recently from a Brit — can appear to the British as self-enhancementSelbstüberschätzungself-enhancement, even arrogance. 
    “Not only do they do it better,” think the Brits, “they have the to have the brass nerve to do sth. (UK)die Frechheit besitzen, etw. zu tunbrass nerve to let people know that they believe they do it better.” Not a recipeRezeptrecipe for successful Anglo-German communication.


    The cross-cultural psychologist Alexander Thomas to coin sth.etw. prägencoined the term Kulturstandards to describe a key concept in an approach to culture-comparative research. He defined the term in his 1996 book Psychologie interkulturellen Handelns as “all kinds of to perceive sth.etw. wahrnehmenperceiving, thinking, evaluating and acting that are regarded by the majority of the members of a particular culture personally for themselves and for others as normal, axiomaticunanzweifelbar; hier: selbstverständlichaxiomatic, typical and binding” (translation by Peter Franklin). 

    According to German cross-culturalinterkulturellcross-cultural psychologist Sylvia Schroll-Machl, German Kulturstandards include task-orientation, a valuing of structures and rules, and a direct communication style. Among British Kulturstandards (from a German point of view), Thomas mentions self-discipline, pragmatism and indirectness. Practically unknown outside Austria, Germany and Switzerland, Thomas’s work is criticized for to imply sth.etw. beinhalten, besagenimplying that the values, norms and behaviours in country cultures are unchanging and not subject to the influence of individuals and other cultures.

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