Important topics in a nutshell. Thirty-eight tips for understanding Germany and the Germans.
The German military has about 180,000 active troops. Armed deployments must be approved by parliament. Rare exceptions such as immediate defense needs allow for deployment without a Bundestag vote. A battle-weary West Germany cautiously built its new army in the aftermath of two losing World Wars in the first half of the 20th century. The army was formally established in 1955, six years after the founding of the Federal Republic of Germany – and with much contention. During the Cold War, the sole purpose of the West’s army was national defense. In the 1990s, a united Germany sent its military abroad on peacekeeping missions, generally in cooperation with NATO, of which Germany is a member.
As a matter of principle, Germany grants asylum to people who are politically, religiously or ethnically persecuted. Applications are subject to a thorough verification process. Officials will deny asylum to those who they determine do not meet the standards. Applicants must then leave the country within a specified time period.
Germany is a land of associations, with the number quintupling over the past 40 years – to about 600,000 now registered nationwide. However, the rate of membership has not: In 1990 62 percent of citizens belonged to a club, by 2000 that number had dropped to 53 percent, and in 2014 only about 44 percent held membership in an association. Germans are especially fond of sports clubs, with about one in five holding membership in one. However, there are also associations dedicated to hobbies and interests, music and singing, gardening and animal-breeding, and bowling.
The camp in occupied Poland was one of seven extermination sites used by Germany during the reign of Adolf Hitler. Nearly 1 million Jews were murdered at Auschwitz compound from 1940 to 1945, in addition to tens of thousands of Poles, Roma, Soviet prisoners of war and others, for a total of 1.1 million people. The Soviet Red Army liberated Auschwitz on January 27, 1945, a date that has become known as International Holocaust Remembrance Day. The Nazis killed more than 11 million people during the Holocaust, including 6 million Jews, but also Roma, LGBT people, political opponents, Slavs and people with disabilities.
The German Carl Benz is known as the inventor of the modern automobile. And the automobile industry is an essential branch of the national economy. German cars are internationally renowned. In 2014, about 44 million cars were registered in Germany. Two out of every three adults is an automobile owner in a country that drives on the right-hand side of the road.
Bread is considered a basic element of Germany’s food pyramid, and there is a large variety of it. German bakeries often offer shelf after shelf of bread, with different grains and grain combinations and several methods of baking. Southern Germans enjoy “bread time,” a meal between meals made up of bread, butter, cheese and/or sausage – often washed down with a liter of beer.
As winter makes its exit, the Rhineland and parts of southern Germany suit up for Carnival. It’s an exuberant binge before Lent, the 40-day Catholic fasting period ahead of Easter. In the main celebration cities of Cologne, Dusseldorf and Mainz, Carnival features several days of street festivals beginning on the last Thursday before Lent and ending on Ash Wednesday. Millions put on costumes over the course of the week.
About 60 percent of Germans consider themselves Christian – the bulk of them members of the official Catholic or Protestant churches. However, Germany is officially secular and religion is considered a private affair. Still, Christianity pervades Germany, with most holidays having a biblical basis. Several “other” religions have also found a home in Germany, which is home to about nearly 4.5 million Muslims, or up to 5.5 percent of the population; another 1 percent comprises a combined 270,000 Buddhists, 200,000 Jews, 120,000 Hindus, 60,000 Yazidi, 5,000 to 10,000 Sikhs and 6,000 Bahai.
Germany is a land of clocks. They’re all over the streetscape – from the towers of churches to the watches on so many wrists. Punctuality is a virtue, and tardiness is extremely uncivil. Keeping appointments is obligatory. One should inform the other party if one cannot.
Enacted on May 23, 1949, Germany’s Basic Law sets forth the rights officially enjoyed by the country’s citizens. It was written with the abuses of Nazism in mind, as well as the failures of the interwar Weimar Republic. The constitution foremost emphasizes human dignity for citizens: the right to free personal development, individual freedom, life and physical integrity. In theory, these rights are a citizen’s first defenses against state transgressions. The constitution also emphasizes binary gender equality and forbids discrimination on religious, political or most other grounds. The Constitutional Court in Karlsruhe decides on constitutional matters.
Germany is a country rich in culture, with long traditions of theater, opera, museums, publishing and festivals. Officially, culture is a matter handled by individual states. The federal government only holds sway over a few cultural institutions.
The German name for Germany, home to 80 million people and the most populous member of the European Union. The country was divided into the eastern German Democratic Republic and western Federal Republic for four decades following World War II. Reunification on October 3, 1990, integrated the former East Germany into the Federal Republic. Germany has 16 states, each with their own governing bodies for education, culture and police. The country boasts Europe’s largest economy. As a founding member of the EU, Germany helped bring about the euro.
Compulsory for all children aged 6 and older, education is very important in Germany. A basic education generally consists of 10 years of schooling, which, along with books and other learning and teaching materials, is funded by the state. Higher education is also generally funded. One may apply for university or career training after at least 12 years of basic education. Particular to Germany is a system that places students with a company for on-the-job training in addition to studies to prepare for a career.
In Germany, which appointed its first female chancellor in 2005, men and women have equal rights and all forms of discrimination are officially forbidden. Authorities and aid organizations are at the ready to help those who experience domestic violence. Many cities have emergency shelters for women who have experienced abuse.
The European Union is the only body of its type in the world, with 28 member states ceding a portion of their sovereignty to a supranational authority. With 500 million inhabitants, the European Union is the world’s largest common market. However, the EU is more than an economic body: It has the important function of maintaining peace in Europe, which experienced continentwide war twice in a 30-year period in the early 20th century.
Germany won the 2014 World Cup – and three before that: 1954, 1974 and 1990. Soccer – as it is known in the US – is the national sport. About 7 million children, youths and adults are registered with the German Football Association (DFB) as active players, making it the world’s largest sport authority. The most successful German soccer team is Bayern Munich, which has won 25 national championships and five Champions League titles. With more than 250,000 members, the Bayern Munich fan club is the world’s second largest.
Although Germany is very densely populated, 32 percent of the country is covered in forest. With 42 percent of their land covered by woods, the states of Hessen and Rhineland-Palatinate have the most forest. Such green spaces are very important to Germany’s lumber industry – and also to the country’s spiritual life. Forests were a frequent theme in 19th-century Romanticism, painted both as a tribute to nature, but also as a form of worship. In addition to lumber, forests provide a place for rest and relaxation.
Freedom is the prevailing spirit in Germany. State paternalism and constraints are frowned upon and tolerance is preached. It’s a country where some people can remember the lessons of the repression under National Socialism or the former German Democratic Republic. Since the 1960s and ’70s, various student and liberation movements led by feminists and LGBT people have fought to keep such repressive regimes from repeating themselves.
The Holocaust was the mass murder of about 6 million Jews and 5 million other people by Nazi Germany between 1940 and 1945, primarily in seven industrialized extermination camps, most of which were located outside of traditionally national borders in Central Europe. Germany additionally ran about 1,000 concentration camps within its borders and the territories it controlled. The most notorious of these was the Auschwitz extermination compound.
Homeland is an oft-romanticized vision of one’s place of origin, upbringing or identity. It is often closely tied to regions: the Rhineland, Central German Uplands, coast or mountains, for examples.
Germans have a general social acceptance of LGBT people, and most forms of discrimination are officially forbidden. Registered partnerships offer most benefits of marriage.
For years, German leaders had spoken out against the idea of the country as a land of migrants. This stance was especially apparent in the use of the term “guest worker,” which was long used to describe the South Europeans who began coming to Germany in the 1960s for officially temporary industrial sector jobs. As a result, the country has become a de facto land of migrants, though not in the same sense that the United States or Canada is. Businesses seeking skilled workers have long advocated for more immigration, and the social security payments made by foreign employees have helped allay strains on the country’s aging population.
Whether self-employed or contracted, all workers in Germany are meant to contribute income tax, which is generally automatically withheld from wages by the authorities. Rent and investment income are also subject to tax. Tax evasion is severely punished.
Over the decades, people from many parts of the world have migrated to Germany. To avoid the emergence of “parallel societies,” Germany has created an integration regime, offering courses in language, national values, politics, economics, land and people. Civil societies and associations also play an important role in integration. The federal government has an integration commissioner and several states have a minister dedicated to integration.
Germany has enshrined the separation of powers, giving judges maximum independence. Judicial security is highly valued and protected, and courts also critically examine the actions of authorities. Should circumstances require, citizens can also appeal judicial decisions to higher courts.
Born in 1930, Helmut Kohl was chancellor from 1982 to 1998. Having served during the fall of the Berlin Wall on November 9, 1989, he is best known as the “Chancellor of Unity,” bringing the country back together after four decades of East-West estrangement. Passionate about the EU, Kohl also helped bring about the euro, the currency now used in 19 of 28 member states.
Born in the German Democratic Republic in 1954 and educated as a physicist, Angela Merkel assumed the chancellorship in 2005. She had led the Christian Democrats since 2000. An East German Protestant, Merkel easily took charge of the West German conservatives, introducing several changes, such as an end to compulsory military or public service and unplugging the nuclear energy sector.
Germany came about in a way very different from European nations such as the United Kingdom, France or Spain. The first German state was declared in 1871, under Reich Chancellor Otto von Bismarck – as testified to by hundreds of monuments to the man across the young country. In the centuries leading up to Bismarck’s declaration, Germans lived in several smaller states controlled by various local dynasties. And, of course, not eight decades into its existence, the country was divided again, until 1989, into East Germany and the Federal Republic, only to reunite in 1990.
Named after co-inventor Nicolaus August Otto and patented in 1877, the Ottomotor is the first two- or four-stroke combustion engine. The German invention is now found under the hood of several million cars worldwide, as well as in millions of motorcycles.
After World War II, Germany spent four decades divided on Cold War lines: in the west, the capitalist Federal Republic, a member of NATO, and in the east the Soviet-influenced German Democratic Republic, a Warsaw Pact member. With people leaving the East in droves by 1961, authorities built a wall to keep them in. The German Democratic Republic ordered soldiers to shoot anyone trying to flee over the highly militarized border between the two countries. Eight hundred and seventy-two people were shot. The German Democratic Republic opened the border on November 9, 1989. On October 3, 1990, East and West reunited to form the complete Federal Republic of Germany. Since then, October 3 has been a national holiday.
Spankings and other forms of corporal punishment of children rarely come up in everyday conversation – they are no longer allowed. Germany used to permit a certain level of corporal punishment, but officials have since determined that children have a right to a violence-free upbringing. Partners are also forbidden from abusing one another, and corporal punishment is not allowed in schools, youth correctional facilities or the military.
According to Article 21 of the constitution, Germany’s parties “participate in the formation of the political will of the people.” By law, “their internal organization must conform to democratic principles.” With about half a million members each, Germany’s two biggest political parties are the Christian Democrats and Social Democrats. Bavaria’s Christian Social Union has about 140,000 members. The Left, Greens and Free Democrats have about 60,000 members each. Any group of citizens can found a party at any time. They have to follow the constitution, form it according to democratic rules, put forth a program and charter – and, of course, have members.
Germans are fond of being known for their efficiency – something often referred to by foreigners, as well, by way of both praise and stereotype. Both inside and outside the country, for decades the label “Made in Germany” has been taken as an endorsement of a product’s reliability, value and longevity.
State of law (rule of law)
By law, state power is officially kept in check in Germany. Laws – especially the Basic Law – are intended to ensure freedom in particular. The constitution has the special function of ensuring human dignity, freedom, justice and the security of rights. In practical terms, this means that the official decisions of all types of authorities can be appealed to independent courts.
According to Webster, xenophobia means “fear or hatred” of foreigners. In Germany, xenophobia manifests in verbal, physical and political attacks on people from elsewhere – often against refugees. By the end of October 2015, Germany’s Federal Criminal Office had registered more than 460 xenophobic attacks, more than twice as many as in the same period in 2014.
Yoga is a form of physical and spiritual exercise that originated in India and has its roots in the Hindu religion. Still considered an “exotic” form of exercise in the 1960s and ’70s, yoga has since become quite common. Nearly every city offers an assortment of courses for many types of yoga, each with its different emphases – on physical fitness, flexibility, spiritual exercise or some combination of those.
A word that needs no translation – largely because it has been taken up as is by English and so many other languages – zeitgeist refers to the spirit of the times, be it cultural, political or social. It’s rarely used in the negative, and to keep the good times going, more than a few bars abroad have named themselves that. It’s also rarely used in the present, so don’t look too hard for the zeitgeist: You might just be missing the moment.
Title image by: Jim Sher