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Published: September 1990
Reprinted: 1991

The question of what is German and what isn’t arose a couple of times this summer within the German language community. ECHO GERMANICA made an effort to find out what people perceive to be German.

Questions such as:
What comes to mind when I ask you: ‘What is German?’ or ‘What is typically German?’" were asked here in Canada and in Germany. We didn’t ask just Germans but also a cross section of Canadians of various backgrounds as well as foreigners to Germany, but living and working in the Federal Republic of Germany.

One of the first answers came to us by way of an ethnic joke:

"One German is a learned man above all (über alles).
Two Germans are an argument society.
Three Germans are an army, they always march."

Not to leave out the other German language groups, I was informed that:

"One Austrian is a gourmet.
Two Austrians are a wine party.
Three Austrians can’t be, there is always a foreigner among them."

The Swiss were described as follows:

"One Swiss is a confederate.
Two Swiss are a banking secret.
Three Swiss are a band of watch smugglers."

This tongue in cheek evaluation exists about every country, our source said. The first crack about one or a German could be, like the remarks about one or an Austrian and Swiss, just a reasonable truth, since Germany has had a high standard of education. But the choice of words "über alles" (above all) is definitely a pun on the German National Anthem and therefore much more ridiculing than the remarks about the two others. The lines on "two" or "three" of either of them contain a form of criticism which is only absent in the references to the Austrians. This could mean that the series of ‘who is like what’ hails possibly from Austria. The other to me described countries didn’t fare as well as the Austrians either. The remarks were succinctly pungent and critical. The writer might have been a gourmet, particularly partial to icing sugar and in the habit of sprinkling it over everything that isn’t remotely up to par in his or her own vicinity, as to camouflage any possible negative point, redirecting attention to something else. Of course, this cannot be substantiated and is only offered as a speculative thought.

It is interesting that most Canadians asked in our survey thought in terms of food and drink. German food is cold weather food, heavy like sauerkraut, sausages and pork roasts, strongly flavoured, ideally suited for Canada’s long winters. German beer and wine were also a quick answer, most often described as much better than American or Canadian products.

Among very well read and educated Canadian people German contributors in the arts were first answers to the questions. And each time their faces lit up and great admiration was expressed. German and Austrian composers were on the top of their lists of favourites. Paintings, architecture and industrial design were described as a definite "forte" as well as German philosophers.

When asked what personal traits are typical in their experience of dealings with people of the German language group, most individuals said immediately that they are aware of the clichés, that are pushed through various media about Germans, but didn’t find them to be true in their own encounters. Interesting was that they had a few of their own in regards to Austrians and Swiss people, due to the fact, that they didn’t have as many friends or acquaintances in those quarters that they were aware of.

Germans are described as very friendly and polite, but never too much so, always believable in their emotions. Qualities of reliability (keeping of promises and following through even if it gets difficult), great hospitality (in their homes and bigger group activities) as well as a great joy in celebrating with others were predominantly mentioned.

Some individuals even noticed that the Germans, Austrians and Swiss don’t seem to "milk" the system as much as some other groups.

Austrians were described as setting great store in manners and refinements. Austrian foods were very much appreciated, particularly the sweet varieties. Austrian music and costumes were also well remembered. The Swiss were hailed for their business sense and no nonsense approach, while being extremely service oriented, but always with a smile.

The most common remark in regards to all three of the German groups made were generous and fair.

The viewpoint of Canadian individuals towards anything German, whether here or abroad, is indeed a positive one.

The viewpoint of people within the language group shows a shift in perceptions. The opinions about ones own people come from within and are much more critical towards their own groups as well as the way they want to be visible to the rest of Canada.

An example of that would be the recent celebrations in connection with the linking of Toronto and Frankfurt/Main as twin cities. A public event took place on Nathan Phillips Square to commemorate the occasion. The German National Tourist Board, the private and the business sector pulled together to throw a great party.

Invited was a very famous jazz-band from Frankfurt: the Barrelhouse Jazz band. They had represented the Federal Republic of Germany at similar occasions in many countries, 49 to be precise, Canada being No. 50. The friendly and unifying spirit of Dixieland music played by a topnotch German band was "not German" in the opinion of many attending Germans. It was felt that folk music would have been more à propos. The general public enjoyed the music tremendously. They probably never stopped to think for a minute whether or not this was German. Other journalists told me that they were impressed with the quality of the band. Folk music was presented on tape during the band’s intermissions.

Outside of that a lot of other German elements were present, such as beer, gingerbread hearts and Struwwelpeter, a storybook figure of Frankfurt origin.

For the post war generations in Germany Dixieland jazz is as familiar as a German folk song, as is a great many other foreign fare. A trip to Germany and further surveying confirmed that.

When one walks through the centre of a large city in Germany and has a look around, it is very hard to determine what is German. The picture is mixed and varied. There are many people in the streets, and even though most of them look Caucasian, it is apparent that quite a few of them are not German. In fact, the clothing suggests quite an international congregation. Younger people dress predominantly in jeans and something very casual. Often it is only the cobblestone paved streets that determine the fact that these youths are not in North America because they display their love of things American openly.

That seems to be brought about by the way the products are marketed. Posters in English, products with ‘made in the USA’ are hot items. On Television, almost all the commercials have an English musical sound track, even though the product is a detergent or deodorant, while only the narratives are in the German language.

The North American marketing system has totally taken over and left an imprint on the culture.

The newer generations were hard pressed to come up with something typically German outside of beer and coffee drinking, a love for dancing and celebrating and going on vacation outside of Germany. The older generation spontaneously said: folk music, regional costumes, dialects! The response is similar here and abroad among the older generation.

But that, of course, doesn’t create a whole picture, it just gives an indication. The foreigners living and working in Germany think of their hosts as industrious, clean people that like to join clubs and associations for like-minded activities. It is in fact true that Germany has the largest amount of registered associations per capita in the world. They range from Mardi Gras to sports to anything that people can do and support together.

If the mass media television is any reflection of what is typically German than a neutral observer would have to say that Germans like their entertainment to a large degree imported. The same has been argued for German-Canadians in general right here. Entrepreneurs that bring German artist to Canada for the German language community are highly successful, especially if, let’s say, the performer delivers his/her material in German. Otherwise there will be a controversy, as has occurred.

Local talent from our own ranks have to make it on their own in the general Canadian cultural landscape and often have a hard time. But the tides are shifting. A loosely knitted group of artists and their friends is forming in Toronto to support their efforts. German language people of course enjoy a large variety of other art forms, such as the Canadian Opera Company, concert series, theatre etc. Those are the blessings of being bilingual.

In Germany it is similar. While the older generation might be watching homemade soaps like "Schwarzwald Klinik", "Ein Herz für Tiere (A heart for animals)" and another about the life of a doctor in a smaller countryside community, everybody loves the good old favourites of North American shows, that are being offered in abundance: "Dennis the menace", "Jake and the Fatman", "Dallas", "Miami Vice", "The Cosby Show", "Star Trek", "Magnum P.I." and many more. All parade weekly or daily across the screen.

In variety programs is always a strong offering of foreign fair, mainly in English.

Besides continuously available debates on politics - right now there is more to talk about than ever before - on one channel or another, there are a lot of films, American, Canadian, French, English, - you name it - and some German films. Of course, Germany has also its own version made for TV of Miami Vice: "Schimansky" reigns supreme in the hodge podge of the "Ruhrgebiet", a heavily industrialized area of Germany. Country and Western songs are very popular, even in the German language, a carbon copy of North America. Even the German singers anglicized their names, like Jonny Hill. This makes it even more difficult to decide what is truly German.

In all the surveys done in Germany, there was only a small element of very young people that said negative things about their own countrymen, like:

A garden dwarf (Gartenzwerg) in every meticulously pruned front yard,
a small checkered narrow and stubborn viewpoint,
too much showing off.

But these were young people, still living with their parents and off their money, which they detest, yet take and live more than comfortably with, while still in school. They certainly don’t have to take a job to help out.

Perhaps they also listened too much to the comments of late everywhere in the media from England, where a now resigned British minister called Germans arrogant and aggressive.

It is quite clear, that the opinions on what is truly German differ between politicians and individuals of all walks of life, here and abroad. Noticeable was that most people asked made an effort to respond sincerely and thoughtfully rather than just spitting out something prefabricated that was mass marketed by the media. Perhaps this review will help to prompt readers to take a fresh look at how they look at their fellow man, regardless of background. There is nothing like the present to forge a better future. And that is a viewpoint that also was found: Let’s take this opportunity to make things better!

There will always be elements of dissent that is not peculiar to Germany or Germans anywhere. But there is a rotten apple in every basket. The secret lies in separating that one before it can affect others. And that should probably start at home, everybody’s home, lest we loose the ability to see the forest for all those trees.

So what is German?

It depends obviously on the eye of the beholder. I came away from this exercise thinking that Germans are quite diversified and for the most willing to take a good look at what is needed and wanted all around themselves.

Lederhosen, dirndl dress, sausage and sauerkraut are definitely a pleasant familiar part in the picture, but far from the only truth. Germans are no longer just perceived in clichés and therefore don’t have to hide behind them either.

The people of Germany are very well integrated into the global village idea without having lost those elements that make their culture distinct form others.

About Germans in Canada it has been said that they are more German than the Germans. That was meant as a compliment by visiting groups to Canada.

On the other hand, I have been called Canadian in Germany. I guess the gap is narrowing. And why not? I gladly take the best of everything.

Sybille Forster-Rentmeister