The poet, playwright, novelist, philosopher and amateur morphologist Johann Wolfgang von Goethe didn’t have many moments of self-doubt, but he was easily impressed by the English. “As young and 17-year-old as they may be when they turn up here,” he wrote to his friend Johann Eckermann in 1828, “they still never seem foreign or bashful in these German lands; on the contrary, their conduct and demeanour in our society is so full of confidence . . . it is as if they were in charge everywhere and owned every corner of the globe.”
Germany has always been more anglophile than the British dare to imagine, mainly because the British Isles have played an important role in every single one of Germany’s foundation myths. Goethe and Schiller’s “Germany of the mind”, the nation of thinkers and poets? Every child knows that without Shakespeare, it wouldn’t have happened (“Schakespär”, wrote Herder, was destined to “create us Germans”). Germany the football nation? Hard to imagine without the Fußball-Mutterland. Germany the industrial engine room of Europe? If you look closely enough, you’ll find that each of Germany’s three “economic miracles” carries a discreet British trademark.
In the 19th century, Carl Wilhelm Siemens and Alfried Krupp were eager students of Manchester-Kapitalismus before they became industrial pioneers (both men enthusiastically anglicised their names, to Charles William and Alfred). In the 1940s it was the British occupying forces who repaired the machines at Wolfsburg and opened the way for the rise of Volkswagen. Even if you believe those, like Angela Merkel, who argue that the country’s current success is mainly down to the supplyside reforms of Gerhard Schröder’s Agenda 2010 reforms, it is hard to ignore how many German politicians who now rail against the excess of “Anglo-Saxon banking” were ten years earlier calling for the need to emulate Britain’s liberal economy.
One curious feature of Anglo-German relations is how seldom that same attitude is mirrored in Britain. Usually every 20 years or so, there is a phase when British politicians and businessmen start whispering conspiratorially about “the German model” – but they tend to be just that: phases. Margaret Thatcher’s Centre for Policy Studies was founded in 1974 with the stated aim of looking at lessons that could be drawn from the success of the German economy, but ended up somewhere more Austrian. And at the TUC conference in September 1978 a motion was put forward to “adopt the German approach to industrial relations”; the defeat was so resounding that no one even bothered to count the votes.
Today, with British enthusiasm for the German social market model growing on the left, it’s relatively easy to eulogise the Mittelstand, rave about cheap renting in Berlin or rail against German austerity-mania. However, few have the patience to get their head around Germany’s complicated network of craft-based guilds, federal transfers and regional banks.
Yet many of the features that make Germany so successful were, in effect, installed by the British after the Second World War – be they the mandatory representation of workers on management panels, which has helped the country hold on to its industry during labour-market reforms, or the ponderous federal structure of government, which encourages long-term policy strategies over short-term fixes and has arguably made the country a more egalitarian (and happier) place than London-centric Britain. The sociologist Wolfgang Streeck calls these “constructive restraints”: paradoxically, they make Germany more dynamic by making it less flexible.
So the irony may be that the British managed to build a much better political economy from scratch abroad than they were able to grow over centuries in their own backyard – but then turned their back on the country and forgot all about it.
Interestingly, when it comes to the arts, Britain has found much easier to sustain an interest in the value of a mutual flow of influences. English Romanticism is an unasham - edly cross-cultural collaboration, born out of Wordsworth’s, Coleridge’s and the Shelleys’ travels through German forests. D H Lawrence ran off with a German wife whose “religious attitude to matters of the body” inspired Lady Chatterley’s Lover.
As for musical innovation, Germany came up with Kraftwerk and Can. In the early days of Joy Division the band’s frontman, Ian Curtis, made a ritual of playing Kraftwerk’s “Trans-Europe Express” over the PA before taking to the stage. It hints at just the right mix of cosmopolitan curiosity and barefaced jingoism: “That’s interesting. Let’s copy it and make it better.” British politicians may want to take note.
See also two further features from our special issue - "Why can't we be more like Germany?" - by clicking their titles below
“The lives of the dead hang like a nightmare on the minds of the living,” wrote Marx. His words apply to the relationship between Margaret Thatcher and the Labour Party. She defeated us in life and her ghost was not laid at her funeral. Thatcher’s inheritance still sets the parameters of political rationality and government policy today. She argued that Labour spent too much, taxed too much and borrowed too much. In terms of what used to be called “ideology”, she fused a theory of human nature (self-interested, patriotic) and history (an adventurous island people weighed down by taxes and regulation) with a theory of reason (markets distribute goods more efficiently than states). These added up to a political position that could both explain the causes of decline and give a clear orientation for action in the present. Thatcher had a narrative and a strategy, and she generated energy.