Book Review: Why The Germans Do It Better // John Kampfner

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John Kampfner’s Why The Germans Do It Better is an engaging account of German history, culture and national identity. Though wide-ranging in its subject matter, the book’s chief ambition is for other countries, namely the UK, to understand the complexities of a growing and vibrant Germany increasing in importance on the world stage.

While publishers usually seek a provocative subtitle from their authors, Kampfner cuts to the chase with a bold claim of German superiority in the book’s title. From the outset, the book may appear a drum-banging testament to the country’s ingenuity. In reality, however, Kampfner’s reflections on the Germany of the past and present are more thoughtful in their approach and reticent in their conclusions. 

Undoubtedly, the Germans interviewed over the course of the book refute the title’s claim. “All recoiled at the thesis and the title of this book” Kampfner writes, “Without a single exception.”

Divided into chapters thematically rather than chronologically, the book examines a variety of aspects of German society. From the success of Angela Merkel’s near-16 year reign characterised by cautious, gradual politics, to the consequences of Germany’s reunification at break-neck speed at the end of the 20th century. Each section incorporates politics, history, economics and Kampfner’s first-hand experiences both in researching for the book and living in Germany and the German Democratic Republic. Kampfner’s engaging, unpretentious prose methodically tackles each topic by distilling the complexities of each of these areas. Flair is not the author’s style and, in a fashion the Germans would surely be proud of, dispassionately surveys and passes judgement on German society and its contrast with Britain.

The result is a selection of compelling and detailed arguments which, although often flailing a little too quickly between topics, provide a thoughtful examination of what the Germans do wrong and why what they get right is so useful. The patent seriousness of Kampfner’s work is hugely engaging without being thrilling. However, the simplicity of Kampfner’s writing style allows the reader to quickly understand and digest the ambitious extent of his study of Germany, and is ultimately a highly enjoyable read.

There are doubtless a variety of lessons to be learned from Germany’s unique political consensus and structure, and rarely an occasion so timely to do so. As Kampfner notes, the Merkel era is nearing its end, with her administration has earned deserved praised for a robust handling of the coronavirus. Meanwhile, the country is taking on an increasingly pivotal role as the largest economy and driving political force in the EU after years of steady economic growth. Germany has, Kampfner writes, “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.”

However, he argues that the country’s success is not the product of or paralleled by a self-satisfied or vainglorious national image. Rather, Kampfner illustrates a Germany that has for years struggled to come to terms with its dark past and consciously avoided the prevalence of tub-thumping nationalism. This, he contests, is the basis of the nation’s effective slow and steady approach embodied by Merkel, who, when asked what made her proud about Germany answered simply “No country can build such airtight and beautiful windows.”

Though it is certainly true that Germany’s economic growth has occurred disproportionately in the west since reunification – the book notes that, in contrast with the dominance of many European capitals, Germany would be worth 0.2% more in GDP without Berlin  – there exists a palpable social conscience to look out for and assist all in society, which is lacking among Germany’s neighbours. Indeed, trillions of euros have been poured into the east to stimulate economic growth, helping to foster cities such as Leipzig in becoming attractive to investors and young Germans seeking lower living costs.

The thrust of Why The Germans Do It Better is less concerned with economics, however, as it is with social and cultural attitudes. Kampfner drives home the argument that Germany’s key benefit is its existence as a cooperative society that prizes culture and social balance above national identity and individualism. 

While Kampfner’s incisive book may not lay out a case for copying all that the Germans do, it certainly provides a highly readable and invaluable insight into a complex and fascinating nation from which much can be learned.

Words by Alastair Lockhart

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