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There’s No Joy in Deutschland
An article by Bruce Gatenby

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Gerald: “You think people should just do as they like.” Rupert: “I think they always do. But I should like them to like the purely individual thing in themselves, which makes them act in singleness. And they only like to do the collective thing.”
–D. H. Lawrence, Women in Love


Winter nights bring the cold, the searchlight sweep of street lights through wind-blown tree branches, branches glazed in snow. This is the kind of cold that radiates through window glass like the hard kiss-off of a heartless lover. A German cold, low-horizoned, holocaust-frozen, reducing everything to ice and bones.

The wind stirs restlessness, the desire for movement, the reminder that while your heart may never know where it belongs, this is not your place.

That was made more than clear to your ancestors 65 years ago. Why come here?

No one moves to Germany for the weather. We come here for the money. Along with the money comes a culturally-imposed, government-supported standard of living that turns out to be soul-killing. There is an enforced sense of middle-class life, of deadening ordinariness, the machine stamp of identical personalities and desires. Germans may produce the finest automobiles in the world, but people are not automobiles.

Germans were stunned recently by the results of the PISA educational exam, where they finished 21st in the world (behind the United States and Austria. Austria!). This caused a national crisis, with accusations of doof-ness from the German media. But anyone who works in education in Germany (and isn’t German) read those results as an accurate reflection of the national mission.

Here, mediocrity is the goal. The fascist flirtation with superiority that lead to what we American expats jokingly call “The Austrian Occupation” has been repressed, quashed, squelched and buried under the mask of the peace-loving, recycling, environmentally-friendly but socially-inept German.

A student of mine at the Universität asked me why America produces so many individuals, so many people who are able to achieve excellence. “Because the culture is geared toward that,” I replied. “But not everyone can be an individual of excellence, so America also produces a tremendous number of the underclass, both economically and educationally.”

Another student then asked if it was true that Americans thought they were better than everyone else. Well, er…yeah. Don’t Germans think they’re better than everyone else? “We’re not allowed to,” this tall, blonde, blue-eyed product of the German state mediocrity machine replied. “The middle is everything.”

From the land that produced Bach, Beethoven, Goethe, Kant, Hegel, Nietzsche and Thomas Mann–to this? Isn’t it ironic that Nietzsche, the great poet of the made self, the Machtgefühl of the individual, was German? Not really. Nietzsche considered himself to be Polish.


The Business English Culture Industry produces dozens of diversity texts explaining how Germans are different from the rest of Europeans and how we non-Germans must accept these differences in order to do business with them. Briefly summarized, this is the politically correct, pounded to pabulum version of the German character:

1. Germans are highly educated with a strong focus on learning foreign languages (read: English)

2. Germans have a good standard of middle class living. Quality of life is very important.

3. Germans have difficulties relocating.

4. Germans like hierarchy, structure and predictability.

5. Germans separate personal and professional life.

6. Germans don’t like change and have a low tolerance for outside influence.

7. Germans are polite and have little or no sense of humor, especially in a business setting.

I was cooking an Italian meal for my German girlfriend over the holidays when she asked me, “why do the Italians hate the Germans?” Caught up in the joys of pancetta, cipolla and aglio sizzling in olio d’oliva, I replied “schatzi, no one likes the Germans.”

Ooops. Make that ex-girlfriend.

So let’s cut through the diversity apologia and just say it: the Italians hate the Germans, the British hate the Germans, the French hate the Germans, the Dutch really hate the Germans (as do the Greeks) and Nietzsche’s brethren in Poland are none too fond of them, either. Most Americans still think the Third Reich is alive and well on German soil. How else would you explain the phenomenal success of Mel Brooks’ “The Producers” on Broadway, a musical which I guarantee you will NEVER be performed in Deutschland.

Although the thought of an actor dressed up like a gay Adolf Hitler belting out “I’m the German Ethel Merman, don’t ya know!!!” on a stage in Munich never fails to bring a smile to my face.

Yes, Germans have a high standard of living, if comfort, security and mental and emotional entropy constitute your idea of a high standard of living. Every single American woman I know married to a German complains incessantly about how boring life is with a man who pays more emotional attention to his Mercedes or BMW than to his Frau, and whose future focus is on Retirement and working in his garden.

I have German professionals in Business English classes who have worked together with their colleagues for years–and know absolutely nothing about each other. They do not speak of personal matters in German. But in English class it’s like they’ve slid onto Dr. Freud’s couch, confessing failed love affairs, personal tragedies, family conflicts and forgotten ambitions. They do not speak of personal matters in German because the culture will not allow it.

Since most Germans speak good-to-excellent English, I’m always surprised that they will spend personal time in an English class. Their firms may be paying for them to learn the latest business vocabulary but these people are literally starved for conversation. Small talk, teach us how to do small talk! These aren’t language courses, they’re Social Skills 101. And they are needed. I have an American friend who sings in a German choir–and after four months he still doesn’t know the names of the other people.

Which also helps explain why there’s hardly any interaction between the Germans and their Turkish “guest workers.” Germans and Turks live together the way whites and blacks lived together in the segregated American South. Interracial couples are extremely rare and interaction occurs only at the Kebab stand or when the cleaning woman comes. And the only real interaction between Germans and the American expat community is sexual, an arena where qualities such as passion, spontaneity, freedom and improvisation do come in handy.


As a Jew living in Deutschland, naturally my perspective is somewhat colored by recent historical occurrences. There were some 500,000 Jews living here pre-1933; there are still over 100,000 today. In the end, Hitler’s machine wasn’t that effective in the Heimat, except at eliminating any sense of self-reflective humor. Like Derek Zoolander, Germans have pretty much only one look: the Permanent Scowl.

I also see very little anti-Semitism here, but then again there’s also zero willingness among the people to speak about the Holocaust. The basic German attitude seems to be “that was the past, I wasn’t responsible for it, I refuse to feel responsible for it.” That’s nice, but you were responsible for it.

The German character has not changed, but it has been compacted and repressed into middle-class mediocrity. Germans are enthusiastic recyclers but recycling in Germany is a fantasy. We separate plastic, paper, food and glass bottles by color-and then it is all dumped into the same trash trucks and burned in refuse incinerators so efficient that garbage has to be imported from other countries to make them cost-efficient. When I pointed out the fiction of German recycling to another of my German girlfriends she said “but it’s a first step.” “A first step to what?” I replied, “self-delusion?”

On a recent weekend visit to the Anne Frank house in Amsterdam the stunned, shocked looks on the faces of the other visitors astonished me. People wept openly and expressed disgust. “Fucking Germans,” someone said. It is important for Germans to hear and understand this. Repression and denial will not change anything. The Faustian tragedy of Deutschland is that for 12 years they sold their collective souls to a devil named Adolf Hitler. There are no refunds in hell.

On the ICE train back from the Netherlands there was a fight between a German couple in the aisle. The young man hit, kicked and spat on his girlfriend, screaming in Deutsch over and over about “mein geld!” A black American seated near me leaned over and patted me on the shoulder. “Looks like we’re back in Germany,” he smiled.

Copyright © Bruce Gatenby 2002

This article may not be archived or distributed further without the author’s express permission. Please read the license.

This electronic version of There’s No Joy in Deutschland is published by The Richmond Review by arrangement with the author.

Bruce Gatenby is an expat American writer living in Germany. He holds a Ph.D. in English from the University of Arizona, which he has tried to give back on several occasions. He has written three novels, nine screenplays and is still searching for that big break. He can be reached at [email protected] and his home page is at


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