Germany’s proficient handling of coronavirus has made it the envy of much of Europe. Its consensual political culture, decentralised government, well-funded public services and mighty industrial base have all gained new lustre during the pandemic. Angela Merkel’s dispassion — decried as ponderousness, even complacency — has served the country well during a medical emergency. In April, a social media clip of the German chancellor’s pedagogical explanation of the meaning of the viral reproduction number became an instant hit. So John Kampfner’s book Why the Germans Do it Better is both well-timed and well-aimed.
Kampfner, a former foreign correspondent as well as a one-time editor at the New Statesman magazine, delivers a paean to postwar Germany and its extraordinary success. “It has established a new paradigm for stability that equivalent countries, such as the US, France and my own, the UK, are for different reasons struggling to achieve.” This he attributes to Germany’s “emotional maturity and solidity” born from the traumas of its 20th-century history, which contrasts favourably with the “make-it-up-as-you-go-along hubris of those in other countries who think they know better, but do not”. Unlike France or Britain, Germany cannot take refuge in past glories.
Langsam aber sicher. Slow but sure. It should be Merkel’s motto. But Kampfner contends that a “punctilious, deliberative approach” has been essential to Germany’s deft handling of four key points in its postwar history: economic reconstruction and the entrenching of democracy in a 1949 basic law or constitution; the protest movements of 1968; the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989; and the migrant crisis of 2015.
Kampfner constructs his book around these moments thematically rather than sequentially. It is highly readable and well-informed. He has a good feel for the country, having first worked there in Bonn in the late 1980s. He mixes historical sweep with vivid reporting to celebrate Germany’s strengths and achievements: its social market economy rooted in “co-determination” (workers on company boards) and niche manufacturing; its highbrow elite; a neighbourly spirit that puts community before profit.
Kampfner is objective enough to acknowledge Germany’s shortcomings. A country that invented the environmentalist movement has become dependent on dirty brown coal and the internal combustion engine. The monumental achievement of reunification has left a simmering resentment among easterners towards westerners. Centrist grand coalition politics has spawned an ugly nationalist hard-right. Berlin has been painfully slow to take a more assertive global role, leaving its neighbours to fear its inaction more than its power. Kampfner addresses all of these with understanding and verve rather than particularly fresh insight. He misses an opportunity to drill into, for an English-speaking audience, some of the features of German public life that have done so much to shape its decision-making at home and abroad, such as its federal system or its obsession with law at the expense of economics.
Nor is there much consideration about the effects of German political choices on the rest of the EU. There are many in southern Europe who would say that a decade of misguided austerity at Germany’s behest caused avoidable hardship and a populist backlash. Germany’s resistance to integration has undermined the eurozone. Merkel has accommodated Viktor Orban, Hungary’s authoritarian leader. She held the line on EU sanctions against Russia while increasing Germany’s dependency on Russian gas. Europe’s weakness towards a more aggressive China owes much to Germany’s determination to prioritise its commercial interests.
Kampfner’s repeated comparisons of contemporary Germany with a bombastic Boris Johnson or a Britain still obsessed with its wartime glories become a little grating, even if they are necessary for his polemical thread. But it is undeniable that Germany has had a string of big-hitting chancellors — Adenauer, Brandt, Kohl, Schröder — with momentous achievements to their name.
What will be Merkel’s? Her time in office ends in little over a year. Kampfner’s book serves as an early attempt to assess her legacy. Her Wir schaffen das (“we can handle it”) welcome to hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees five years ago will be remembered as an uncharacteristically audacious act of leadership which changed German society forever. The Merkel era is one of prosperity and decency. But it is also a period of missed opportunities to prepare for the digital economy and a more hostile world. Germany’s prowess in exporting to China now looks like a vulnerability. Kampfner’s assessment could soon look rather rose-tinted.
But his broader conclusion about German exceptionalism is surely right. Even with Merkel gone, “Germany is Europe’s best hope in this era of nationalism, anti-enlightenment and fear”, because “it knows what happens when countries fail to learn the lessons of history”.
Why the Germans Do it Better: Notes from a Grown-Up Country, by John Kampfner, Atlantic, RRP£16.99, 320 pages
Ben Hall is the FT’s Europe editor
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