Kampfner’s guide to a grown up country is less focused on the economy than most British looks at Germany. His Germany is not so much the land of Vorsprung durch Technik, as a gentle, intellectual, cultured, often progressive place, a society of clubs and societies, of social cooperation, and a social conservatism. One of the richest aspects of this book is that it makes clear that new Germany did not arise naturally out of the year zero that was 1945. For two decades and more little stirred, with much of the past kept under wraps by the exigencies of the cold war. Other countries played their part – when Hanns Martin Schleyer was kidnapped and murdered by the Baader Meinhof group, the British press presented him as just another German businessman, but the perpetrators had got him precisely because he was an ex-Nazi. However, Germany came to terms with nazism through these internal challenges from the left, and with remarkable effect.
Kampfner’s repeated comparisons of contemporary Germany with a bombastic Boris Johnson or a Britain still obsessed with its wartime glories become a little grating, even if they are necessary for his polemical thread. But it is undeniable that Germany has had a string of big-hitting chancellors — Adenauer, Brandt, Kohl, Schröder — with momentous achievements to their name.
Kampfner roams widely in Germany and has a reporter’s ear for the telling anecdote. He knows his history too, having first served as a foreign correspondent in East Berlin before the fall of the Wall. He cites four post-war achievements for modern Germany: rehabilitation and economic recovery, seeing off Baader-Meinhof terrorism; reunification and the two trillion euro absorption of the former communist east, and Merkel’s grand gesture welcoming more than one million refugees in 2015. He might have added the creation of a humane bureaucracy — an unthinkable prospect after the depredations of Nazism and the corruption of the German state.
Books about the contemporary state of a country are hard to pull off. They need to capture the sweep of recent history and sundry quirks of culture, while weaving in their author’s passions, aversions and contacts. Add to this the publisher’s requirements that anything currently written about Britain’s relations with Europe is framed polemically and the result is a title such as Why the Germans Do it Better: Notes from a Grown-Up Country. John Kampfner’s polemic treads the accompanying line between curiosity and sententiousness. It taps smartly into the hunch that Germany has got a lot of things right that Britain has not, not least in the recent response to Covid-19.
Asking why the Germans do it better raises the question of why they do it differently in the first place. They arrived at the rebirth of a civilised society via the hard route, proof of one of William Blake’s famous ‘Proverbs of Hell’: ‘The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom.’ And a hellish price was paid for their acquisition of wisdom. Let each country decide for itself what price it will pay to reform obsolescent national customs and march through the gates of progress to its own tune.
Early in the book, Kampfner reflects on the excellence of the German post-war constitution (drawn up, he concedes, by the British) as a basis for the social cohesion to which he also attributes the nation’s superiority – a cohesion that is now less than it once was, not least because of Merkel’s heavy-handedness. (Kampfner acknowledges the rise of the populist AfD, but stops short of admitting that it might have something to do with Merkel’s more radical ideas, implemented without reference to the German public.)
Of our constitution, the author says that “Britain makes it up as it goes along”. But making it up we go along – having an unwritten constitution we amend by Acts of Parliament passed by our democratically elected representatives – is one of the luxuries our less turbulent history gives us, and nothing to be ashamed of.
Notes from a Grown-Up Country is the acerbic sub-title. And, indeed, the book is almost as much a lament on the state of contemporary, growth-stunted Britain as it is a paean to Germany. When he approves of Germany’s way of doing something, he is usually, directly or implicitly, drawing an unflattering parallel with his home country. He contrasts Germany’s willingness to confront the Nazi past with Britain’s inability to reckon with the darker pages of its own history. Germany’s generosity to migrants in 2015 is juxtaposed with Britain’s current hostility towards outsiders. For German self-denigration, read British hubris.
This is not a bedside book that Nigel Farage, or indeed Boris Johnson, will cherish. The author suggests that Britain should learn from Germany’s example because his own country is “trapped by a moribund political system and delusions of grandeur”. Yet it is no hagiography. It catalogues many things that have gone wrong, symbolised by the new Berlin airport, which was about to stage a 2012 grand opening when safety officials rang the alarm and discovered half a million faults. These are still being put right while baggage carousels rotate, indicator boards flicker and trains run into the station — without a passenger in sight. It is an epic failure of public sector management.
Kampfner spends nearly as much time scrupulously undermining his thesis as he does substantiating it, and the book is all the better for it. Some of the case for the defence is familiar: a largely stable political system with a premium on good administration; a formidable manufacturing sector guided by long-term investment horizons and powered by the Mittelstand of small and medium-size family enterprises; a calm and on the whole effective response to Covid-19 that has left Germany with 111 deaths per million inhabitants, compared with the UK’s 622. But there are more exotic items too.