Germany's Image Problem

Article published on Dec. 2, 2003
community published
Article published on Dec. 2, 2003

This article has not been vetted by an editor at Paris HQ

From Lisbon to Vienna, Oslo to Rome, Germans are thought of as disciplined, cold, meticulous, beer-drinking, sausage-eating warmongers. Clichés and old grudges die hard. Yet those with the worst image of the Germans are perhaps the Germans themselves...

The search for national pride is one of the most delicate issues for the German people who - to this day - still carry the unbearable weight of responsibility for the Second World War. A vicious guilt complex eats away at the image they have of themselves: "When they are abroad, the Germans feel guilty around others because of their history," says Sven, 27, from Braunschweig in the west of Germany. Meanwhile Sandra, a French girl who has lived in the German capital for a year and a half, remarks how she "was amazed by an important ad campaign, which must have been really expensive, that was designed to tell young people to be proud to be German. It was as if it was something really difficult to do." But there are lots of young people who rebel against the inherited yoke of history, and against the 'Nazi' image which other Europeans continue to lump them with. "The war finished 60 years ago. Its such a shame that so many people still feel hatred towards us" laments Seraph, a young German, during a conversation.

But even besides this, in Europe Germans suffer an image problem in several other respects - as Marc, a French IT technician of Portuguese origin remarks: "My image of the Germans? Cold and harsh." "The ones who come to England on holiday do not seem especially friendly" comments Bella, 40, from London.

Germans - rich and reliable... but shy?

Of course it is precisely these values that have contributed to the German 'Wirtschaftswunder' which other countries dream of following. So, even though Berlin battles with structural economic difficulties, and fails to meet the Growth and Stability Pact criteria, the word 'German' continues to evoke images of wealth, big cars, and industrial know-how. Not to mention reliability: "When I told my landlord my nationality, he said to me 'That’s good, now I know you'll pay your rent regularly,'" says Sven, who has been living in France for several months. Sometimes the clichés work the other way too.

With regards to the new political generation, represented by Fischer, an old 'lefty', and Chancellor Schroeder, who wanted to clear out German's historic closet as soon as he got into power, they haven’t changed the German image for the wider European public. This is for the simple reason that they are relatively unknown outside their borders. It is the kind of indifference that surrounds a population who are no longer regarded as dangerous - but not exactly very interesting either. As Michael Meyer, an expert on Germany explains, "The Germans, afflicted with complexes created in history, are convinced of their negativity and inevitably question the way in which they are perceived. Its very different from the assuredness of English and French that almost comes across as arrogance." A little too much shyness is sometimes worth more than excessive pride. By being genuinely humble, the Germans will perhaps manage to change the negative image that their neighbours have of them. We can hope: young Europeans, born during the 'German economic miracle' and European construction, often have a more flattering impression than their elders. More open, less ignorant and more used to border-crossing and meeting young people from other countries, they will perhaps know how to get rid of this 'old fountain of mistrust and even lack of love which without a doubt is due to a dramatic absence of reciprocal association' that Michael Meyer talks about. Whatever the case, it is time to forget, on both sides, a history that we didn’t take part in, and about which no-one can change anything. Let us rather look to the future, towards an open Europe which brings the Germans out of their relative isolation.