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"Brady Lecture" 2019 with John Kampfner
Does Germany really do it better?

John Kampfner during his lecture at the Goethe-Institut London.
John Kampfner’s lecture full of insights and humour gave an idea of his book, provocatively titled “Why the Germans Do It Better. Notes from a Grown-up Country” (publication date: July 2020). | Photo: © Pau Ros / Goethe-Institut

While the US endures Trump administration chaos and the UK has been mired in Brexit for years on end, the political maturity of Germany stands in impressive contrast. Author John Kampfner opened the 2019 Brady Lecture at the London Goethe-Institut with this provocative argument.

By Marten Hahn

A title like "Why the Germans do it better“ is still sensitive more than 70 years after the second world war. John Kampfner is well aware of this and is quick to explain the title of his talk (which is soon to be followed by a book of the same name). "My German interviewees", he says "tend to fall off their chairs. Das können Sie doch nicht sagen! But the Brits usually say: I see what you mean.“ London Goethe-Institut director Katharina von Ruckteschell-Katte intervenes at this point to clarify that Kampfner was not invited "because of this title, but in spite of it".

Very few people in the UK know Germany as Kampfner does. He was a young British reporter in Bonn when Germany was still divided and was the last East-Berlin correspondent for the British Telegraph newspaper. He was present in 1989 when the wall came down. He has maintained the same attachment to the country as a chronicler of its later experience. As Kampfner sees it, the 150-year history of Germany is split into two parts. In the first, Germany represents two world wars, dictatorship and the horror of the Holocaust. In the second, it represents reconciliation, stability and maturity. It is this second history that he wants to talk about in his book "Why the Germans do it better“. The history of present-day Germany. For the purpose of this book, he travelled across Germany once more, speaking to politicians, businesspeople, technology experts, artists and many others.

The point is how problems are dealt with

Kampfner sings the praises of Germany’s virtues and successes. He talks about the Mittelstand and the country's functional trade unions. He praises the advantages of a decentralised system, noting that dozens of cities are equally important, rather than subordinate to a single metropolis. He is also excited by the lively cultural landscape, from the high-cultural tradition of operas and orchestras to the club scenes of Berlin and Leipzig. In addition to all this, he emphasises Germany’s consensus-based politics and its culture of remembrance.

Kampfner's praise for Germany is interlaced with repeated sideswipes at the UK. In contrast to Germany, he says, "we are trapped by an atrophied political system". Germany had help in the post-war years to write a constitution of which the country is still proud today. "Why", he asks, "did we not think of creating something similar back home?“ According to Kampfner, the UK forgot to modernise its own system.
Kampfner doesn’t deny that Germany also has problems. The sagging economy, the social fabric scarred by the refugee crisis, the ascendancy of the right-wing populist AfD party. On top of which the population is ageing and infrastructure is deteriorating, while Germany, almost never a trendsetter, came late and timidly to digitalisation.

So why the praise? In Kampfner's view the question is not whether problems exist but how a country deals with them. Germany has "developed a political maturity that few others can match“. It learned the importance of stability "the hard way“. The post-war Federal Republic had only eight Chancellors before Angela Merkel.

"Ordnung muss sein" *

[*"order must prevail"; emphasises ubiquity of same order at levels of household and state]

Kampfner sees the German love of rules and order as a kind of political identity. Germany had to start again after the 2nd world war. In contrast to Russian and French military symbolism, American reverence for the Founding Fathers, or the patriotic martial pride historically taught in Britain, Germany had nothing to fall back on other than the post-war democratic order itself. This, Kampfner argues, is why Germany "cares so passionately about process, about getting it right, not playing fast and loose“ in politics. 'Slowly but surely’ is the German motto. As Kampfner sees it, politics in Germany was not reality TV : "they leave that to us and to America".

Kampfner never ceases to bring his political analysis to life with anecdotes. He recalls his first coffee with Merkel, when she was still an advisor to Lothar de Maiziere. He tells us how the Chancellor caused Britain's then-prime minister David Cameron to stutter in a conversation about culture. And how Merkel once admonished Barack Obama that the problem of governing could not be solved by means of charisma.

Whenever the audience laughs aloud during Kampfner's talk, we are reminded that in one discipline at least, the Germans won't supplant the British any time soon. Let's call it "serious amusement", in which careful wit and substance are measured out with care to form a fully rounded evening.