When I first visited Germany in 2000, I found myself associating almost everything I saw there with World War II. The ‘Fraktur‘ calligraphy on the shop signs and German language recalled memories of war movies I’d seen and historical fiction I’d read that was set in that time. As an American raised in the US, this shouldn’t be much of a surprise. That’s what the human mind does–it makes associations with personal experiences of the past. Much of the modern American sense of self is shaped by what happened during this period of history, and I expect that many other Americans have similar experiences.
But there’s definitely more to Germany that an American or other non-European probably wouldn’t know about if they’d never visited. German culture is best understood within the entire context of German history and society, rather than just WWII history alone. Let me share a few lesser-known things I’ve learned about Germany as I’ve lived next to it for the past 13 years:
German music can be wonderful, or terrible, but it doesn’t make it far out of Germany when it’s sung in German (the one exception being 99 Luftballons by NENA in 1983). In Germany, there’s enough of a market to support German language music if it’s good, but some artists such as the world-famous Scorpions have opted to singing in English for greater reach. Other Germany musicians, such as Die Flippers or Alexander Marcus are high on the list of popularity in Germany, but outside of Germany would be seen as laughable. We were quite amused when we saw each of these performers on German television, but that experience drastically enlarged our understanding of German culture. David Hasselhof, who you may know as the lead actor from the hit TV series Baywatch and Knight Rider, has become an icon of German popular music. German music is multi-faceted, and has different styles that appeal to different sub-groups. Bach and Beethoven for the classical enthusiasts, jazz, rap, pop, and every other genre for others. For recent examples of good German pop (according to my taste), sung in German, try the modern artists Mark Forster & LEA or the lighthearted Wincent Weiss. It’ll broaden your perspective.
Germans are great readers, and Germany is the third largest language market for book sales after English and Chinese. Amazon expanded into Germany the same year they reached the UK, with other European countries following in future years. Germans love to read international books, which they often–but not always–translate into German. German translations exist for many of the English bestsellers, and publishers are known to encourage authors to choose German as the first foreign language of their books. Many great German books have been translated into English as well, some about World War II history, but many not, such as All Quiet on the Western Front, by Erich Maria Remarque.
In Germany, there’s a movement called ‘Wellness’ which focuses every effort into creating an experience that is healthy for mind and body. Many hotels, spas, and restaurants are designed to facilitate this service. One of our favourite wellness experiences has been our multiple visits to the Carolus Thermen wellness spa in Aachen, Germany. We also very much enjoyed the Jugendstilhotel Bellevue, in Traben-Trarbach, along the Mosel River, which is a fabulous German wellness hotel with art nouveau architecture, indoor pool and massage, and delicious gourmet dining with attention to health. Val and I spent a weekend there a few years ago and loved every minute of it.
Homeopathic medicine is also very big in Germany, with special attention played to plant extracts for their healing properties. Extracts from flowers and herbs such as calendula and arnica have medicinal purposes which many Germans use abundantly. Such German brands such as Bach Remedies and Schwabe are widely recognized as producers of high quality homeopathic medicines, and in Germany, they are household names. These examples demonstrate a focus on naturally-supported health that is a high priority in German culture.
Having experienced true Germany culture, one simply cannot mention German food without talking about bread. Bratwurst and Saurkraut are internationally-known German foods, but German bakeries are also legendary for their brochten, pretzels, black forest tarts, and cheesecakes. German bread loaves are generally much stiffer than their French counterparts, and much more likely to consist of whole grains. They commonly use seeds such as flax, sesame, or poppy as a crust or mixed in with the dough. When we moved to the Netherlands, within close proximity of both Germany and France, we found that German bread was commonly whole-grain, while French was always white. The Dutch use both equally. Most German homes have their own grain mill, with a large oven (larger than Dutch anyway) for baking. We travelled to Germany to buy our own German grain mill, which does its job beautifully.
Germans excel in the sciences, and cities such as Aachen, Hamburg and Stuttgart are known as world hotspots for engineering technology. Volkswagen, Mercedes, BMW have brought Germany international attention because of their high quality mechanics and design, just to name a few great German brands.
Another great example of German engineering was Johannes Gutenberg, who invented the printing press, revolutionizing book production back in the 1400s. This eventually gave rise to a world-altering flow of ideas which had a momentous impact on the world.
Other evidences of great German technology and design can be found in the architecture coming out of places like Aachen, with Charlemagne’s Cathedral; and Fussen, where King Ludwig’s illustrious Neuschwanstein Castle is located. The latter is rumoured to have been the inspiration for Disney’s Sleeping Beauty Castle. These places are reminders of Germany’s other history–the Holy Roman Empire and German Romanticism respectively–which have also molded Germany, and the rest of the world as a result, into what it is today.
One stereotype about German culture is its obsession with rules. The phrase “Ordnung muss sein,” (there must be order) has made deep roots in the German psyche. Hence a love of rule-making, rule-keeping, and not so much rule-breaking, are generally accepted by the world as part of the collective German spirit. This trait has both advantages and disadvantages: German homes, businesses, cities, and campsites are among the cleanest and most efficient in the world, but anyone not living up to societal expectations can expect to be firmly scolded or sanctioned. This has been the case with such things as recycling, noise control, and their strict rules for types and uses of face masks during the Corona period. This may prompt outsiders to see Germans as overly strict, but we all have to remember that rule following does have its advantages. You can read more about how this all came to be in an article by BBC Travel called “What Makes Germans So Orderly?”
We’ve been fortunate enough to have some Germans as close friends. They have been kind, interesting, social, well informed, and fun. They have an interesting perspective and are knowledgeable about a lot of useful things. We’ve benefitted from our association with them. Just as in other countries, Germans have many different faces. Though they share a nationality with characteristic values and perceptions, they also differ from each other. It’s inaccurate and unfair to believe that every German is the same. As with every culture, the more contact you have with German culture, the better understanding of it you’ll gain.