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    The Views of Others

    The truth always lies in the eye of the beholder: here’s what Germans can learn about themselves from their neighbours’ perspective. Eckhard Fuhr (DIE WELT)

    The Goethe-Institut, which has been striving for 60 years now to spread worldwide the image of a good, democratic, cosmopolitan and culturally vibrant Germany, has just conducted a survey of 18 other European countries to find out how they see us. Those of us inured by all-too-daily familiarity to the charms of our own country should see how it looks through the prism of these highly sympathetic outside views.

    The Germany you’ll find there is not quite of this world. It is ruled by a regal couple: Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and Angela Merkel. For the vast majority, those are the “greatest Germans”. Mind and might at long last reconciled, yes, even wedded. These lofty consorts generally appear in the company of a shaggy-haired moustachioed genius by the name of Albert Einstein. Reformer Martin Luther is also among their immediate entourage. And they are flanked by Beethoven, Bach and Bismarck, Willy Brandt and Konrad Adenauer, who give the nation a face and a voice. Oh dear, then again Adolf Hitler’s there too, huddled up in a corner – which just goes to show one can be great in a sinister way too.

    In the enchanted forest of the German mind

    The Goethe-Institut also asked about the best German book, the best film, the most beautiful (note the slight difference in qualifier) piece of music and the most important German building. Goethe’s Faust, Günter Grass’s The Tin Drum and Grimm’s Fairy Tales – these are THE German books par excellence. Those who peruse them plunge deep into the enchanted forest of the German mind. On the musical score, a bunch of nines call the tune: Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony and Nena’s 99 Luftballons. And after that, you can hear the Moonlight Sonata, number three on the international hit list, wafting up, gentle and soothing, from the depths of the Romantic sensibility.

    So where exactly does one find this Germany of the resounding voices and soothing sounds? In Berlin. The city is the setting for three of the most widely-acclaimed German films: The Lives of Others, Good Bye, Lenin and Wings of Desire. Above all, however, Brandenburg Gate tops the list of the pre-eminent buildings, and the respondents regard the fall of the Berlin Wall as the most momentous event in German history, followed by World War II and the Reformation.

    Unloved sauerkraut

    But is there anything objectionable about Germany? The responses to the question “What do you dislike about Germany?” may well cause the German patriot a pang or two. It isn’t the traits commonly ascribed to the Germans, such as arrogance, pedantry or lack of spontaneity, that cut us to the quick. We can live with that.

    What is liable to cause an uproar is to see German cuisine crowning the inventory of aversions. In no other area has Germany unearthed or rediscovered stifled or submerged qualities so delightedly as in the domain of cookery. Just look at what the nation’s cooks nowadays do with sausages and aspics, cabbages and turnips – and with sauerkraut to boot! The German cuisine and its reputation are now worlds apart. For the Goethe-Institut, we may note in passing, this opens up a vast terrain that has clearly been woefully neglected heretofore.

    Karl Marx, Karl May and the German dowel

    If you compare the results from various countries, you’ll be amazed to find how little the image of Germany varies between France and Belarus, Great Britain and Latvia. Some exceptions are self-explanatory, such as the fact that, from the Greek perspective, Angela Merkel doesn’t rank first or second among the most important personages, but lags way behind – and even pops up on the “dislike” list. Incidentally, the Greeks also prove rather self-willed in being one of the only European nations to whom Karl Marx still means anything at all. Only with the Italians does Marx still figure prominently too, as number seven on their ranking of the foremost Germans.

    Small nations contribute many a surprising facet to the European image of Germany. Take Latvia, for instance. Notwithstanding all the revolutionary German inventions, from movable type and the automobile to the computer, one Latvian still hasn’t forgotten a minor technological revolution: the greatest German invention, he insists, is “without a doubt the dowel”.

    What the dowel is to Latvians, Karl May is to the Slovaks. He doesn’t make it into their top ten under most important personages or best books, to be sure, but when it comes to the silver screen the Winnetou adaptations by Harald Reinl with Lex Barker and Pierre Brice do come in third, after Good Bye, Lenin and The Lives of Others. It’s good to be reminded that, before new German cinema, German cinema did exist – and produced some pretty successful films at that.

    The views of others

    So we become reacquainted with and gain a renewed appreciation for our good old fatherland by viewing it from the congenial perspective of the outsider, the guest, the visitor. It’s probably safe to assume that those who agreed to take part in the Goethe-Institut’s poll are fundamentally more or less sympathetic to Germany, or at least take an above-average interest in the country. Anyway, what would be the point of asking how representative the survey is and how reliable its empirical findings are? Goethe is not out to do empirical social research. The survey and its results are, above all, a means of spurring discussion and providing food for thought about Germany – here on the home front, too. In the light of this survey, Germany’s nervous, high-strung, slightly touchy perception of itself can relax a little. Germany shines brighter than we Germans realize.

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    The foregoing is an abridged version of an article first published on 1 May 2011 in the WELT AM SONNTAG. Click here for the full story. 
    Translated by Eric Rosencrantz