Mirror, mirror

Cool Germania?

A Woman Waving To Brandenburg Gate
Cool! Now all I need is an affordable place to live. Source: DigitalVision/Getty Images

Clearly, Germany used to suffer from a major shortage of coolness, an image the Economist magazine thought worthy of correcting in its current edition. Its latest cover story is “Cool Germany,” reinforcing a positive image of our country around the world. Nothing wrong with that, of course. Who wouldn’t want to be chilled out in a hyper-complex and geopolitically uncertain world? Especially three days after the American-led attack on Syria.

But the Economist’s story can also be read as dangerous flattery. Today, Tony Blair’s “Cool Britannia” is going through a Brexit disaster. What was once “Cool Japan” is searching for a new role, caught between an emergent China and an erratic American president. Yesterday’s cool can become uncool all too quickly.

It has been a long time since Germany was regarded as a chilled-out nation. But a makeover has been underway ever since the Germans hosted soccer’s World Cup in 2006, generating a swell of self-confidence over their newly “normalized” country. The new image encompasses both patriotism and a new openness to the world. But overall, Germans are still regarded as earthy, stable and serious. That’s why they are envied, feared and, to some degree, mocked around the world.

Germans don't want to seem cool. They want a new brand of thoughtful politics to offer them a secure life.

Looking in from outside, many observers miss the fact that Berlin, the capital, is not typical of Germany as a whole. It’s no coincidence that in countries like Britain and France, the national capital is the economic powerhouse. But postwar Germany isn’t driven by a single center. The Allies cast the country federally, in political and economic terms, to prevent concentrations of power in any one city or region. Today, the economically strongest states are Bavaria and Baden-Württemberg in the south. Banks cluster in Frankfurt, the financial hub. What about Berlin?

Berlin is altogether a different beast: poor, but cool. At the same time, not a lot works there. The spectacularly botched construction of a new airport, decaying schools, and repeated acts of violence on Alexanderplatz, one of its central squares, are prime examples. Drawing conclusions about the entire country based on Berlin’s hothouse is always something of a gamble.

The Economist rightly points out that Germany has new fault lines, including the rise of the AfD, the unsolved refugee question, and the country’s reluctance to take responsibility in foreign affairs. The last issue was highlighted most recently in the Syria crisis. For this and other reasons, Angela Merkel will have read the Economist’s piece with mixed feelings. On the one hand, it speaks enthusiastically about Germany as a possible model for other countries. On the other, it suggests that Ms. Merkel is not the person to carry the success forward; instead, the British magazine imagines a German Emmanuel Macron taking over the chancellorship.

The French president wants to push through reforms at home, and has grand overseas ambitions. So far, he has been able to carry his voters with him. Whether Germans want the same things is quite another question, and if that means Angela Merkel is not the world’s most popular leader, then so be it. Germans are not quite ready to get rid of Ms. Merkel, even if her refugee policy polarizes opinion. In times of geopolitical upheaval, Germans don’t want to seem cool. They want a new brand of thoughtful politics to offer them a secure life.

There are parallels in the world of business. The new bosses of Deutsche Bank and Volkswagen both serve as archetypes of mature, solid managers. Neither Deutsche’s Christian Sewing nor VW’s Herbert Diess has designer stubble, or runs around wearing nerdy glasses. That makes them deeply uncool, but those symbols are unnecessary if you have confidence in your own strengths.

Crowds of people on a sunny day in a Berlin park.
Berlin's vibrant Mauerpark, where the Wall once divided the city. Source: Photodisc/Getty Images

In German politics, vice-chancellor Olaf Scholz, from the center-left Social Democrats, is emerging as a rival to Ms. Merkel. Mr. Scholz, who doubles as finance minister, has a dry, matter-of-fact way about him, not unlike the chancellor. Pomp and circumstance – so beloved by the British – is not, deep down, something the Germans want. They like their political leaders to live in modest houses, not in swanky villas or freaky lofts. A summer house in the country is OK, but that’s enough.

The richest Germans don’t like to show off their money. They are more likely to want to hide it, something true of the heirs to the Aldi discount-supermarket fortune, but also of many other billionaire business owners who have no desire to flaunt their wealth. Leave that to C-list celebrities on reality TV shows.

The Economist claims that Germany has grown more heterogeneous, and demands that Germans deal better with the resulting contradictions. But that very idea contradicts the applause that greeted interior minister Horst Seehofer’s recent comment that “Islam does not belong to Germany.”

Take a close look at almost any public opinion poll, and you’ll see that the Germans aren’t as cool as British observers seem to think, and not as resilient. Over the next few years, we’ll find out whether the Germans have become more tolerant. The middle class seems open to integration, a hot topic since Germany has taken in droves of refugees. But there are enough nationally-minded conservatives and voters worried about social exclusion for whom that policy may go too far.

All that is really not so cool, after all.

Thomas Sigmund is Handelsblatt bureau chief in Berlin, where he directs political coverage. Brían Hanrahan adapted this article into English for Handelsblatt Global. To contact the author: sigmund@handelsblatt.com

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