Brigitte Opel, Consultant for Intercultural Communication, Diversity & Inclusion
German culture is generally associated with punctuality and structured planning, with the objective to increase predictability and reduce various risks in life and in business. This is typical for a country in the well-oiled machine cluster that is classified by need for security and appreciation for status and clarity. These aspects have influenced the recent elections and the way Germans deal with Corona. This article explores the uniqueness of the German culture and explains the election campaigns as well as the acceptance of Corona vaccinations with the Hofstede dimensions of National Culture and the Mental Images.
In conclusion, the political campaigns and developments as well as the Corona vaccination process are very particular to Germany and the German culture.
Keywords: German culture, political stability, PhD plagiarism, natuurgeneeskunde, quality certificates, predictability and trust
It seems that during campaigns for national elections, the popular debates about national identity, heritage and culture revive and intensify. It is interesting to see how political opponents distinguish themselves by interpreting the same subject with different perspectives and different focus. While one party keeps mentioning the threat of diluting the basis of our national society that is based on heritage, another party points at the liberal history that enabled economic growth and global markets. This is happening in many countries around the world and it has intensified with an increase of migration flows in the last decade.
With the convergence of national politics towards a European compromise and the visible increase of immigrants due to unrest in the Middle East, the subject of integration has become a popular topic on various agenda’s: Is true integration and assimilation possible? What are the national values that we should share with the newly arrived neighbors? What are the traditions that should definitely not be abandoned? And which ones can we tolerate next to ours? In a nutshell: What is our culture and our identity? Do we share that unanimously within the borders of our country?
The clustering of cultural indicators by country goes back for centuries. One historic record is the ‘Völkertafel’, a classification of behaviors for each country that the emperor of Austria-Hungary ruled or interacted with (Engele, 2020). It seems innate that we refer to other people with reference to their nationality and stereotypical characteristics. Fortunately, there is also scientific evidence of cultural differences by nationality. The first model that is based on statistical evidence is the well-known Hofstede Model of National Culture. (Hofstede et al 2010)
When we apply the model to Germany and compare it to other countries, we notice that Germans seem to require security to minimize uncertainty, usually the uncertainties of the near future: “How can we make reliable plans for the next months?” and “How can we minimize the risk that our plans might fail?” in combination with the desire to impress with status and knowledge. The combination of the Hofstede cultural dimensions group Germany together with Austria and German-speaking Switzerland into the Well-Oiled Machine cluster (Wursten 2019). The countries in this cluster are characterized by a strong preference for structure and predictability – which in turn is enabled by information, expertise and thorough analysis. It comes as no surprise that many internationally recognized quality certificates – such as TÜV, GS and Dekra – have been invented in these countries that idolize stability and certainty. (Bundeswirtschaftsministerium 2022)
This observation leads us back to the election campaigns. Four years earlier, the Christian Democrats had a very simple campaign: Posters with the portrait of Angela Merkel with the slogan “You know me”. Implicitly, it stated ‘you know my style, you know my position and you know what to expect of me’. Such a slogan clearly appeals to the need for predictability and certainty of the German electorate (Maier 2014) it can be seen as the epitome of continuation to avoid disruption.
In the campaigns of 2021, one of the candidates positioned himself as the one whose political convictions most resemble those of Angela Merkel (Herden 2021). Oddly enough, that was not the candidate from her own party but the candidate from the competitor, Olaf Scholz from the Social Democrats. He led the ministry of finance under Merkel and was closely involved in the decisions on the path of her government. The candidate from Merkel’s own party, Armin Laschet, was head of a regional government until he ran for Chancellor. As he was not part of her government, he had to bridge the gap from regional to federal fame and credibility. His popularity dwindled when he was caught laughing during a visit to the flooded region around Ahrweiler (Schuller 2021). Many would say that humor is questionable in Germany to begin with. But what is more at stake is the sense of urgency and sincerity: If you are concerned and want to be taken seriously, you have to appear serious! It’s a simple rule that applies to business and politics in Germany alike. In this case, it doesn’t matter what he found so amusing, the fact that he fell out of his formal role made him lose the most promising position in the race for Chancellor. His popularity dropped by 20 % points over night.
Just a few days later, he stumbled over an obstacle that has been fatal to a number of promising German politicians: plagiarism. In a book that he published to describe the challenges and benefits of migration and integration, there were a few passages that were not attributed to the original author (Die Zeit 2021). Laschet apologized and offered to initiate thorough checks of the entire book but the damage to his reputation was done.
Years earlier, Karl-Theodor von Guttenberg made the headlines when a scholar found that he had copied several pages of his PhD thesis from a newspaper article. He had to resign from his position as Minister of National Defense and was never again mentioned as a possible successor for Angela Merkel. His case opened the floodgates: several other politicians had to resign in the face of plagiarism in their PhD thesis. (Jürgens 2011)
These cases of scandal and uproar are unique to Germany. As we have established earlier, the culture of the well-oiled machine countries is characterized by a high level of Uncertainty Avoidance and importance of status. They have learned to deal with uncertainty by consulting scientists, scholars and experts. The knowledge and expertise of their guidance give us a feeling of security. The title of a professor, a doctor or a PhD are quick proof that the person has accumulated and processed considerable knowledge. In the eye of the observer, such a person has a clear advantage in credibility and impact, especially when there’s a position of influence and power at stake. The academic title yields status to its bearer, so it’s not surprising that many German politicians carry such a title. (Gerstenberg 2011). However, if the title proves to be fake, then the credibility and status crumbles – not just for the academic achievement but for the person and the public career. It seems that plagiarism in PhD documents will in no other country in the world make a politician resign (Olterberg 2021). Yet, that is also proof of two other aspects of the well-oiled machine culture: The politicians are subject to the same rules as everybody else, their political status does not come with immunity (low Power Distance). And with their resignation they take individual responsibility (high Individualism).
After reading these accounts of deceit in German public life and political scene, you could draw the conclusion that Germans are easily fooled. When they see a quality seal or an academic title, they might automatically believe it. It is true that Germans build trust based on predictability and reliability.
But that would be a wrong conclusion. As a matter of fact, many Germans trust what they can touch: cash money, paper documents, written proof etc. They trust the process that leads to a PhD title or to a quality certificate and therefore they trust the label itself.
In Europe, they are often ridiculed for the low level of digitalization. The ease of virtual document exchange has not succeeded in sending an army of fax machines in German offices into retirement. Last summer, I couldn’t pay a taxi-ride with credit card and on my recent trip, I saw most people (all ages!) with paper tickets, despite the availability of online booking, timetable & tickets. A nation of readers, the country boasts of the highest percentage of population purchasing printed books – and one of the lowest in digital publications (Richter 2021). The books are not for presentation purposes. Germans actually read a lot, they cherish the inspiration and the knowledge they get from books. Often, they refer to books and newspaper articles in conversations, in presentations and in debates. Discussions with an intellectual tint are considered fruitful if all parties learned something in the process.
The effect of such an exchange of expert information is visible in the public debates about the Corona virus and the measures to protect the population. It seemed that different factions of scientists presented facts and figures that supported their own position but contradicted the position of the other side. The discussions with well-built arguments and sound reasoning seemed endless, leaving the biggest part of the population confused. People tried to identify a thread of information that made most sense to them. That created not just two main streams – those who considered it a mere flu versus those who predicted a fatal pandemic – but an immense variety of opinions across the playing field.
Health topics in general are a topic of interest in Germany, people are very concerned about their general physical state. Visits to the doctor are quite regular (Germany ranks in the top 3 in Europe – Michas 2021) and patients are used to full explanations of what the doctor finds. In that way, everybody builds a certain medical expertise throughout their life and their illnesses, complete with interesting bits of knowledge from the monthly pharmacy magazine. This knowledge is shared with acquaintances and passed down through generations. That means that new insights have to be matched with traditional knowledge. It’s important to know that there is a close link between nature and health in the minds of Germans. It’s no news that they are infatuated with their forests, the mountainous landscapes of their Heimat. The famous Grimm fairy tales all take place in or near a forest, the Nibelungen hero Siegfried killed the dragon in an oak forest and the romantic writers wrote hymns to nature and seasons (Festerling 2021). Recipes for herbal teas and mixtures that can provide relief for pain and injuries are passed down as ‘grandmother’s remedy’. They have proven to work over centuries and are easy to find in every garden. Herbal and alternative medicine is wide-spread, homeopathic medicines are just as common as physiotherapy. As a result, many people think that if they live in a healthy way and obey the general distancing rules, they won’t catch the new illness. Therefore, the level of vaccination is comparably low for a country that cherishes facts, expertise and intellectual deduction (van Verschuer 2021). In parallel, the vaccination level in Süd-Tirol (the German-speaking region of the country) is the lowest in all of Italy (D’Haens 2021) so aspects of the culture seem to cross country-borders.
As we explore the uniqueness of the German culture, we find that the characteristics of the well-oiled machine country manifests itself in so many facets that we recognize about the country and its people: the secure planning that responds to the need for predictability, the clarity of status that is told by a label or a title, the connectedness with Nature that we find in all the classic stories told and sung. Combined, it has resulted in situations in public life, politics as well as healthcare that might puzzle us until we understand the cultural background.
BundesWirschaftsMinisterium “Conformity Assessment and Accreditation” (2022): https://www.bmwi.de/Redaktion/EN/Textsammlungen/conformity-assessment-and-accreditation.html
D’Haens Heleen in NOS Journaal 20:00 (14.01.2021) https://www.npostart.nl/nos-journaal/14-01-2022/POW_05158584
Die Zeit „Armin Laschet räumt nach Plagiatsvorwurf Fehler ein“ (30.7.2021) https://www.zeit.de/politik/deutschland/2021-07/armin-laschet-plagiatsvorwuerfe-buch-die-aufsteigerrepublik-kanzlerkandidat-bundestagswahl
Engele Robert: Sterirische Völkertafel, Bad Ausseer Kammerhofmuseum (11.1.2020) https://austria-forum.org/af/Wissenssammlungen/Damals_in_der_Steiermark/Die_steirische_Völkertafel
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Gerstenberg Ralph: Deutschlandfunk Kultur “Plakate und Slogans im Wahlkampf“ (6.9.2021) https://www.deutschlandfunkkultur.de/plakate-und-slogans-im-wahlkampf-die-werbeschlacht-um-die-100.html
Herden Tim in mdr „Kanzler Olaf Scholz = Angela Merkel minus Raute?“ (4.12.2021) https://www.mdr.de/nachrichten/deutschland/politik/unter-der-lupe-olaf-scholz-kanzler-merkel100.html#Sie
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Jürgens Hanco, Duitsland Instituut Amsterdam „Plagiaataffaire Guttenberg sensatie voor academici“ (3.3.2011) https://duitslandinstituut.nl/artikel/259/plagiaataffaire-guttenberg-sensatie-voor-academici
Maier Anja in taz “Die Menschen wollen Ruhe” (19.12.2014) https://taz.de/Merkels-Wahlkampfmanager/!5026121/
Oltermann, Philip in The Guardian „German politicians suffer higher degree from plagiarism than from sex scandals” (22.5.2021) https://www.theguardian.com/world/2021/may/22/german-politicians-suffer-higher-degree-of-embarrassment-from-plagiarism-than-from-sex-scandals
Michas Frédéric on Statista “number of doctor visits per capita by country in 2019” (14.12.2021) https://www.statista.com/statistics/236589/number-of-doctor-visits-per-capita-by-country/
Richter Felix on Statista „E-Books still no Match for Printed Books” (9.8.2021) https://www.statista.com/chart/24709/e-book-and-printed-book-penetration/
Schuller Konrad in FAZ „Laschet und die Flut; Das Lachen des Landesvaters“ (25.7.2021) https://www.faz.net/aktuell/politik/inland/laschet-und-die-flut-das-lachen-des-landesvaters-17451199.html
van Verschuer Nynke in NRC “Heilpraktiker en vaccinatiegrad” (26.11.2021) https://www.nrc.nl/nieuws/2021/11/26/veel-duitsers-verkiezen-alternatieve-geneeswijzen-boven-coronavaccin-a4066986
Wursten Huib. The 7 Mental Images of National Culture Leading and managing in a globalized world Amazon (2019) ISBN-10: 1687633347 ISBN-13: 978-1687633347