What comes to your mind when you think of Germany? I bet it is Hitler giving a Nazi-style salute to his precision-marching soldiers or something related to the horrors of World War II. The global community is still aghast at the atrocities inflicted by the Nazis upon their fellow human beings during their nightmarish reign from the 1930s to the end of World War II. The brutal rule of the Communists that followed, during the Cold War (1945-1989), is also part of the German heritage but pales in comparison that of the Nazi era. It is a difficult and momentous period in Germany’s history to move forward from. But move forward is what the people of Germany seem intent on doing.
I experienced a brief glimpse of Germany today on my two-week trip to the country in the summer of 2013, sponsored by the Transatlantic Outreach Program (TOPs). As I was preparing for the trip I thought about what I might learn on the adventure. What would I discover in my travels and in my brief encounter with the German people? Would I be able to bring back anything significant to share with my fellow educators and students today? What was Germany doing today that would help to erase the self-inflicted scars of the horrors they wrought upon millions of people in the past? As the two-week experience unfolded, I was pleased to find many positive things taking place in Germany today, changes that are contributing to make the world a better place.
It is difficult–if not impossible–to accurately portray what 80 million Germans are thinking about the world today. The following are my impressions, based on my observations, and not meant to represent a definitive survey. To me, a few phrases capture Germany today: learning from the past, future-oriented, compassionate toward all humanity, hard-working and efficient, and world-minded.
First, Germans seemed to deeply reflect upon the atrocities of their forefathers. They seem to grasp the complex events and undercurrents of history that contributed to the rise of Hitler and the carnage that followed. It seems many Germans have disavowed the nationalistic fervor that fueled the rise of German nationalistic exceptionalism and notions of racial superiority. They appear to be more concerned and proud of their participation in the European Union than their own country. They talk candidly about the Nazi past and say they have learned from their mistakes. If the number of memorials to the victims of Nazi atrocities is any indication of their new spirit of compassion and cooperation, I believe they have taken the lessons learned from the past to heart.
Second, the German people seemed genuinely concerned about the future and were willing to undertake expensive and labor-intensive programs to help fashion a more sustainable society. Germany is the leading producer of wind turbines and solar power technology in the world, as evidenced in the number of wind turbines dotting the rural landscape. On our tour, we heard stories from city planners who were charged with weather-proofing old buildings with the latest in thermal windows and insulation. The massive renovation of decrepit East German buildings was a sign that they were walking their talk as far as conserving energy is concerned. They are also intent on securing a safe and healthy food supply for their citizens. They have outlawed GMO grains and meat from the U.S. because of their unknown health consequences. Organic, local, and vegetarian food options are readily available and frequently talked about as an important alternative to commercial, industrial agriculture.
Third, the German people seem genuinely concerned about their fellow human beings. For example, when I asked a program presenter about the social safety net benefits, what Americans would consider to be very generous, he responded that Germans are a compassionate people and would not be comfortable with allowing their fellow citizens to experience undue hardships. The German people have a sense of responsibility for each other. When asked his opinion about the level of violence in American films, one professor responded that most Germans felt it was “uncivilized.” “Germans,” he said, “have experienced incivility and violence in the past and we do not want any more of it.”
Fourth, the Germany economy is thriving. They have the 4th largest economy in the world despite the fact that they rank 16th in population. They are also the third largest exporter in the world. Even though they are relatively poor in natural resources, the country is a world leader in high value-added engineering products such as automobiles, machinery, metals, and chemicals. Frankfort ranks as the financial capital of Germany. One of stops on the TOPs tour was a visit to the Deutsche Bank, ranked as one of the largest investment banks in the world. The German people are extremely hard-working and efficient. If cleanliness is next to Godliness according to an old adage, then Germans would say punctuality is next to Godliness. It seemed everything and everyone minded the clock and time was not wasted. This efficiency and hard-work carried over into the work force that appeared to like to work, no matter how physically demanding or intellectually challenging. Work is a way of life for the Germans and this ethic is reflected in high quality products and services.
Fifth, Germans seem to have a sense of world-mindedness. By this I mean that Germans have a sense of their place in the world and are knowledgeable about the world around them. They don’t seem to have a sense that they are superior to others around the world, but they have an obligation to be a participant, but not necessarily a leader, in world affairs. Perhaps, the wounds of the Nazi past are still too painful to assume a world leadership stance.
These are just five of the many positive impression that I took away with me from Germany. Please watch for more blog postings on Germany as I explore their economy and other parts of their society.
Here is a link to the Transatlantic Outreach Program and follow links to apply for an all expense two week trip to Germany for k-12 educators. http://www.goethe.de/ins/us/lp/prj/top/enindex.htm