More than 30 years must have passed since my first visit to Germany, and from that and many subsequent visits, one memory colours all the others: my late father asking ruefully, "who won the war, then?" He was no Alf Garnett Little Englander, by the way; this was a sentiment widely felt, if not articulated, by many educated people of his generation.
And they could all be forgiven for their view. Germany (West Germany, that is) appeared prosperous beyond anything that Sixties or Seventies Britain had to offer. Its city centres glistened with new buildings while Britain struggled to fill in the waste-sites left by German bombs. Its suburbs, from Munich in the south to Hanover in the north, looked like model villages, washed, brushed and unsullied by untidy life. Its telephones, its postal service, its schools, its health system, were all the envy of the world.
Sleek Mercedes and top-of-the-line Volkswagens roared along the motorways, arrogant, so it seemed, with Germany's resurgent power. The trains were clean, roomy and ran on time; the station restaurants, their tables set with sparkling crystal glasses and starched white napkins, provided lunch in style at a reasonable price. As for the shops and supermarkets – well, we Britons could only dream of such bounty: dozens of varieties of bread and salami jostled for attention; the frozen meat and fish compartments were crowded with vast chunks of salmon, steak and venison. Germany was rich, and had no inhibitions about showing it.
It did not take long for a visiting Briton to ask whether, if this was what total military and ideological defeat had brought, victory was such a good deal. You could intellectualise as much as you liked, citing the benefits of Marshall Plan money, the quality of administration in Britain's zone of occupation, and the advantages of starting from nothing, rather than indebtedness and a damaged, obsolete infrastructure. But the fact remained: Germans, West Germans, enjoyed living standards in almost every department of their lives that Britons could only envy, and that many resented.
So it is with some relief (and only a very little Schadenfreude – yes, honestly) that I return from my most recent stay in and around what is now the former West German capital, Bonn, with some... news. The gap between them and us that was still apparent a decade ago has more than closed, and those who argued way back when that Germany drew perverse benefits from having to start afresh may not have been entirely wrong.
The change has nothing to do with the move of the capital to Berlin. The city of Bonn is every bit as flourishing and well-kept as it was when the eyes of the world were upon it. It "sells" itself now, with evident success, as an academic and cultural centre, and a civilised place to live. Most of the federal government, along with the civil service and embassies, may have left town, but Bonn is far from languishing.
The Mercedes still storm down the motorways, the trains still run (mostly) on time, and the choice in Germany's bakeries and delicatessens is undiminished. Starbucks notwithstanding, Germans still make an excellent cup of coffee. But in many other respects, Europe's other "big powers" – notably France and Britain – have been quietly catching up. It is less that Germany is visibly in decline – although the amount of money sent "east" is apparent from the rough surfaces and limited lanes of motorways in the west – than that others have leapt ahead in areas, especially advanced technology, where Germany built its reputation.
Germans lag behind Britons and the French in the extent to which computers are used in everyday life. My German friends were among the last of my acquaintances to acquire a home computer and adopt e-mail as a means of communication. The banking system is less flexible and innovative than in Britain or France; credit cards are less current than in almost any other European country, which could make the switch to the euro in the New Year more burdensome for Germans than for many other Europeans.
My recent experience of the Rhineland also illustrated how little at least this part of Germany has been affected by "Europe", even though Germany was in at the start of the Common Market. Evidence of continental influence on Britain can now be observed everywhere in the realm of commerce: in food, drink, fashion, home décor. In Germany, traditions of eating, drinking and shopping remain very much intact, with the scattered addition of pizza cafés and Turkish take-aways. Meals are meat-based; sauces, heavy; wine and beer, German. The style of cafés, department stores and shopping hours has changed little in 30 years. In their headgear, footwear and pets (dachshunds and alsatians), Germans remain just as German as the French remain French.
The German health system avoids the waiting lists of Britain, but there is unacknowledged rationing of treatment at the margins. Public health awareness seems low, and pot bellies abound. Even Britons seem more aware of the risks of smoking, poor nutrition and lack of exercise (even if we do not necessarily act on that awareness). Last week, Germans mounted something of a national inquest when Germany came well below Britain in an OECD survey of education standards. The verdict: German education had not kept up with the times.
Most striking of all, however, is how inward-looking and self-absorbed Germany seems today, compared with Britain or France. Less than a month before the EU embarks on the most tangible stage of its economic union – the introduction of the euro – Germany seems less ready for the change than either France or Italy. Where France has taken on the euro as a national adventure, and Italy as a chance to shed a few noughts, Germany almost does not want to know. When I asked for the euro equivalent of a sum in marks, I was first asked why I needed to know and then told to wait while the receptionist (at an international hotel!) fetched her calculator. Service can be slow, sullen and inflexible (in the "rules is rules" manner). And the days when any German would respond to halting German in flawless English are at an end. The English is still flawless, but German the language of choice.
Perhaps Germany's preoccupation with itself reflects the after-shocks of unification. Or perhaps it is simply that the economic miracle is exhausted and Germany finds itself just another country – a land that has unwillingly found an empire but lost its role as a model European. Or perhaps, finally, the intellectual gloss of the Sixties and Seventies was correct: starting from scratch gave Germany an advantage in forcing it to modernise all at once. But what was modern 40 years ago, is now out of date; Germany allowed itself to take its eye off the ball.Reuse content