Google Blogoscoped

Sunday, October 3, 2004


“All the more enigmatic are the Germans. From the start they have spent their lives pondering their problems, each one occupied with his own and many with those of their fellow countrymen. Have they found an answer?”
– On the German National Character (First published in Deutsches Adelsblatt, XLII, 1924)

“The character of Germany and the Germans is a riddle. I have seen no convincing solution of it by any Englishman, and hardly any confident attempt at a solution which did not speak the uncontrolled language of passion. There is the same difficulty with the lower animals; our description of them tends to be a description of nothing but our own loves and hates.”
– Walter Raleigh, England and the War

“A German is capable of great things, but it is improbable that he will do them.”
– Friedrich Nietzsche, “Morgenröte” (1881)

They say write about what you know. I know about Germans. Of course I do, because I am German. Today, on the 3rd of October (the Day of German Reunification), I present typical character traits you will find in many or all of us – for better or worse.

Obsession with Nazi History

Germans are obsessed with the historical events surrounding World War II, and the evil crooks who helped leading this country (and others) into its doom – the Nazis. Of all the Nazis, the most evil and mad must be Adolf Hitler, who therefore gets the most attention.

Consequently every second night there is a documentary on TV, usually around 1 hour covering dark facets from 60 years ago. Hitler’s friends, Hitler’s women, Hitler’s plans and Hitler’s art. Currently the most watched movie in cinemas around the country (“Der Untergang”, with Bruno Ganz) is about Hitler.

At school, it was interesting to see the years 1933-1945 getting more attention than all other years surrounding them added up together. World War I got a lot of coverage as well in lessons, but mostly because it was a good explanation of why people later on started following Hitler. (After World War I, initiated and lost by Germany, Germans had to pay their debts, which apparently led to a lot of frustration. Which is one reason why after World War II, the Allied Forces did not try to suppress the country quite as much. Another reason, of course, is that West-Germany made for a good military and political base against upcoming Russian powers.)

With all the deserved focus these crooked actions receive, the oft-asked questions “Just how could all this happen?” still isn’t satisfactorily answered. I guess people are just plain evil and sadist at times, and that arrogance can turn into brutal madness quickly, especially when you consider the mob factor. This is not to forget the fact the idea of racial superiority was making its ways around the whole globe (not just Germany, or Europe) in the early decades of the 20th century. But Germans have their ways about taking things to the extreme, and unfortunately, they were bitter and knowledgeable enough to organize it, too.

Radically Unpatriotic

In Germany, people wouldn’t consider themselves patriots. Actually, if you would say “I’m proud to be German”, you’d be considered a neo-Nazi. The political correct thing to say is somewhere along the lines of “I value our poets, like Goethe and Schiller, but I can’t say I’m proud of this country, or love it, especially not considering its historical guilt”. And yes, Germans do feel guilty. In Germany, the only time to hold up a German flag in public, without looking like a Nazi, is during football games.

Other countries have their share of guilt as well (the Americans for killing of large parts of the natives and then taking slaves from Africa, many European nations for colonizing great parts of the world without asking for permission, the Chinese for the massacre on Tiananmen Square and their continued suppression of freedom of speech, the Japanese for attacking the Chinese, the Soviet Union for killing of too many people under Joseph Stalin, and so on).

In fact it’s hard to think of any country which holds some power and material superiority over other countries which nevertheless doesn’t do evil things once in a while. Germans, of course, topped all other’s evil when it comes to sheer grandeur of their murder.

Some argue Germans today have found a new radicalism; they are not allowed to feel radically superior, so they want to feel radically unpatriotic. It’s true in Germany you will get extra-points if you point out how much better other countries are compared to Germany. This self-afflicted pain does seem to satisfy a masochist desire which I don’t believe to be alive in many other countries.

All for the better, one might think; however, a pendulum often swings back to a radically different position. And there is a movement of neo-Nazis, especially in East-Germany. The radical right-wing, neo-Nazi-like NPD party received 9.2% of the votes in one state recently. They openly admit to paroles like “Send Away the Foreign People”, an opinion which usually is only told by drunk Germans (I heard it being shouted just yesterday, and I’m in South-West of Germany, which reminded me that the problem can surface everywhere).

Bad Service

I don’t really know if Germany’s the only nation with really, really bad service in places like restaurants, shops, the bakery, and so on. Fact is you will often feel slightly embarrassed just asking for something because of it.

Once when I was shopping for a digital watch (my old one was broken, so I saved some money for a new one), I entered a shop and let the clerk hand me a Casio watch. These digital watches happen to have a variety of buttons, one of which I pressed, upon which the clerk told me “Don’t push the buttons, you will break it.” Of course I left the shop and bought my watch at another place – I certainly didn’t want to own a watch which would break at the push of a button!

Sometimes, well-knowing I break agreed-upon rules, I ask for slight variations when I order something. At one time, I went to the bakery every morning before work and asked for a giant stuffed bread (German bread is really varied and tasty). It was really good, but just too much, and I could never finish it. So next time I was asking for just half of this giant bread. After my inquiry was refused, I told the lady that I would pay the same price, I just didn’t want to waste the food. She still told me: “It’s impossible, we only sell this complete.”

The hands-down worst service in Germany is in public institutions, like the foreign department (or “alien office”, as it’s called). I remember I once forgot to bring a pencil, and all the pencils on the outside (where you are made to wait for hours, fighting for a place in the line because no tickets are drawn) were already ripped off of the table to where they were chained to. Of course, when I asked for a pen I got The Stare, which German officials in those places must be trained to give. You will get The Stare, along with some nasty words muttered in vaguely your direction, whenever you don’t know the rules of these places as good as the people making them up – the people who work there.

Organizing Everything

Bob Larson in his book Getting Along With the Germans writes: “In every German there’s a hidden policeman (including inside the policeman).”

Germans love to organize public life, and make up rules, whether these rules are needed often, rarely, or never.

If you take a stroll through the park and are nearing a public greenery, you will find warning signs alerting you of what you may and may not do here. For example in the park near my home in Stuttgart (a very romantic and beautiful park) there are signs in some places emphasizing “Ball playing forbidden.” (Bob Larson also writes Lenin concluded that you can’t start a revolution in Germany because there are too many signs reading “Keep off the Grass.”)

At any given time and place in Germany you will either see, or be made aware of by an official, whether you can do any of the following: sit down; smoke; play around; hang up posters; write on; make photos; park your car; enter; leave; speak.

Even on the internet this specific character trait of having to organize everything survives in places such as newsgroups – if you ever wonder what it’s like to be flamed for making a technical error when posting to usenet, visit a German newsgroup (the term “TOFU” originates here and means “Text oben, Fullquote unten,” [text on top, full quote below] referring to a frowned-upon style of quoting).

The only German place where you can do pretty much anything, and which Germany is famous for, is the Bavarian Oktoberfest in Munich, and the Autobahn with no speed limit – places which were probably invented to compensate for the rigorousness in other parts of German life.


If there’s one thing great in Germany, especially for tourists (and it can’t be the German weather, which is impossibly bad), then it’s castles.

Germany has some of the best castles, towers, domes and chateaus in the whole world. Partly because Germany has a really rich and long history, and partly, I guess, because we don’t destroy our castles if they grow old and shabby, but renovate them instead. Germans are better at keeping and organizing things than at simply forgetting, which a few of the previous points should have shown.

Closed on Sundays

If you are a single, working citizen (like I once was – now I’m just working), you will have a hard time going shopping. That’s because the typical working hours are from 9 - 6 pm (18:00), and by the time you are home all shops are already closed.

There is a strong regulation of when shops are supposed to be open, and when not. This is intended to protect the clerks from working over-hours. Or at least, that’s how it’s commonly explained. I don’t really know if there is any truth to this... but I do know this makes it hard to go shopping.

On Saturdays, shops are opened until the early afternoon (or sometimes, in recent years, until the evening hours). On Sundays, everything is closed. Really, everything – except for shops at gas stations and railroad stations. They charge two to three times as much for items out of their limited collection, but if you are desperate you will pay.

Well, things are slowly changing. Often, shops are closed until 8pm (20:00), not 6:30pm (18:30). Some cities also initiate shopping nights – that’s right, everybody will actually be around at 3 am doing groceries. For fun and freedom – and possibly, because there wasn’t any other time to do it.

Born Tourists

Most Germans, about twice a year, are tourists (or “neo colonialists”, as some call it).

As much as you can spot American tourists because (at least that’s how the clichees go) they like to do “Europe in 4 days”, and Japanese because they always carry cameras, you can spot German tourists in other countries because they complain it’s not like Germany.

As hard as it may be to believe this (after all, why visit another country if you want to feel like home), it’s true. For this reason, you will find German menus in many non-German countries, to better server the German tourist. Especially in parts of Spain (like the island of Mallorca, Germany’s number one vacation spot). I even found this to be true in countries as far away as Thailand (admittedly, in a touristic part of Thailand).

If there’s nothing German about the place, the German tourist might not smile at all, talk a lot in German, and possibly complain in arrogant voice to whoever is around to hear it.

One could rightfully say Germans don’t want to get to know another country, they just want good weather for a change. (Did I mention Germany is the place with the worst weather?)

Loving USA

One could argue West Germany in the last 50 or so years was brought up to serve as American colony. (Certainly better than starting yet another war.) Germans adore everything coming from “across the ocean”, and are quick to adopt fashion, food, drinks, language, movie, and music styles if they originate in the USA.

The German language at this moment is undergoing a drastic change towards Americanization – that is, more and more English makes its way into the German language. This includes vocabulary, spacing, rules for using comma, and apostrophes.

At least in this respect, however, Germany’s not on a lonely stand. American movies, music, fashion and everything are also by now the de facto way of life for many other countries. You know you’re out of civilization when you can’t see a McDonald’s (there may still be Coca-Cola – let’s face it, you didn’t leave the planet).

German Words in Other Languages

It can be revealing to look at which words from a certain language are adopted into other languages. Because if there wasn’t a better way to say it in your mother tongue, surely the other country’s culture must have a specific character which makes it easier for them to say it.

From French, we use phrases like “déjà vu” (having seen this), “et voila” (there we see it), “voyeur” (one who likes to see), and “au revoir” (see you again). Interestingly, all of these four examples are derived from the same verb “voir”, to see. (On a completely unrelated side note, French also say “le petite mort” – the little death – referring to the sensation of orgasm.)

German words often found in English texts are (if you wonder about pronunciation, you can listen to the audio file [WAV] where I speak them in the order they appear here):

These are too many words here to find one common theme. But often, German words used as foreign words express feelings of grandeur, deep thoughts, and war. This may be partly due to Germany’s role in history.


Germans like to drink.

Germans also like to eat, but they don’t make such a big fuzz about it. Other countries are better known for their local dishes. Germans, on the other hand, are known for their beer.

When Germans drink, they drink in groups, and they drink a lot. Statistically, a German will drink around 130 liters of beer a year, choosing from over 5,000 different types. Germans are also good at organizing the festivities that go along with the drinking. And in Germany, you don’t have to be 18 (or, gasp, 21) years of age to drink, either. You are allowed to buy alcohol at the age of 16, and mostly, you won’t have a problem getting it earlier.

Is it that bad?

If I’m painting a dramatically dark picture of Germany, let me add not all is lost. First of, as I don’t believe character inherits through blood (but instead through tradition, language, weather and location), every German can change or put away some of the character traits; either by living in another country for a while, or by keeping an open mind. So what is described here are general tendencies connected to our culture, most of which every individual can manage to escape. Also, there are some positive things to note about Germans.

A German friend (once you have one – this may take “a bag of salt to eat”, as we say) should make for a relatively loyal, truthful friend (this may simply be a matter of definition, and to a German, “Freund” [friend] means a lot). If you make an appointment with a German, he will often show up at the exact time. Even German trains, which among Germans are known to be terribly late (did I mention Germans like to complain?), often arrive within minutes of their schedule. Germany is very clean, and you won’t find a lot of litter in cities. Germany’s well-fare is better than in other places. As opposed to common belief, Germans do have humor (often a very dry and sarcastic one), and usually don’t wear Lederhosen. Germans tend to read books, newspapers and magazines a lot so you will often find something head-heavy interesting to talk about; note I’m explicitly not talking about times in which a) they are arrogant, b) they are drunk or c) it’s Sunday.


To clear up potential misunderstandings I already saw surfacing in comments to this post, I would like to add that I do not pass judgment on most things reported here, nor do I have answers, nor do I want to push alternatives.

I mostly actually only report on what I can see in Germany. Jonas M. Luster accurately replied that even Germans are just a collection of individual people; my desire with this article however was to group common characteristics, which do point at standards set and accepted by society at whole (e.g. how well-accepted saying “I love my country” is in Germany, versus in other countries, for historical reasons; or how timely, on average, public transportation is, which always needs organization on a higher level than the individual, person-level; or how much attention Nazi crimes get on TV – deservedly so, as I said – across channels, aimed at larger audiences... sure, it’s just a million separate people in front of their individual TV sets, but this creates what we call Zeitgeist, or general, broader tendencies).

Of course, trying to characterize a nation such as Germany touches many very sensitive issues – after all, Germans were once committing one of the world’s most terrible mass murders. Again, if I would have definite answers to the points raised, I would give them. Alas, all I can do is put this into the open and inform others who may not know about it, especially those outside of Germany.

Recalling Memories

“Probably my generation will be the first one where our children and grandchildren will Google us to recall memories after our death.”
– John Baeyens, We are all museums (, 02, October 2004


Blog  |  Forum     more >> Archive | Feed | Google's blogs | About


This site unofficially covers Google™ and more with some rights reserved. Join our forum!