"We the people of the United States" vs "To the German people": Why America and Germany Are So Different

We think of Germans as being organized. Efficient. Orderly. Alles en ordnung translating as “all is in order” should be the motto of Germany. That phrase is both the most important question and the answer. All is in order? Yes, all is in order. Good.

When I was in Berlin in March of 2007 doing final research on my novel, An Honorable German, I got so irritated with the German obsession for order that I started jaywalking. Germans do not jaywalk. They line up and wait for the walk sign at the intersection. Even if there is no traffic, they wait until the ‘walk’ sign flashes and gives them permission to cross the street. They sure as hell don’t dart between moving cars in the middle of the street like I did. Those of you who aren’t Americans probably think I’m a jerk for doing that but watching Germans line up to wait for the ‘walk’ sign to flash in a street empty of traffic is like watching sheep. Just cross the damn street. But that isn’t the German way.

Compare New York and Berlin. On the surface, New York City appears as if chaos and riot are about to erupt at any moment. But they aren’t and they don’t. That’s one of the reasons New York fascinates so many. Once you know the culture of the city, you realize it’s orderly in its own way. Lots of places in America are like that which is one of things I like about the US. Too much order is stifling. Berlin, or the former West Berlin, has order. Lots of order. The police don’t enforce it. The Germans enforce it on themselves as individuals. (The former ‘East Berlin’ is orderly but it’s dirty and it smells like a sewer so it seems disorderly compared to West Berlin.)

I think this same attitude prevails in the German government, being a reflection of the beliefs of the German people. The EU and the United States need Germany to assume a strong leadership role in Europe. But the Germans won’t do it. They are waiting for someone to give them permission. Who should that be? The United States? We gave our permission a long time ago. What annoys me and so many other Americans is how pacifist the Germans are. I’m not talking about Iraq or Afghanistan specifically. I’m just talking in general. Germans can afford to have this attitude because deep down they know that the United States will protect them.

They should be ashamed of that attitude. Why should we always carry the burden? Why is Germany so afraid to stand up, be a strong leader, and have a strong and well equipped military to go along with it? Germany hardly has a strong military. The German army is badly trained and equipped. Read about the debates on this issue in Der Spiegel. Sort of a surprise to read that the German Army doesn’t know what it’s doing. The navy knows what they are doing but the German Navy is half the size of the US Coast Guard! Germans feel that should they have a strong military, they will lose control of themselves and attack everyone. I doubt it. They learned their lesson the last time.

We Americans are weary of protecting you, Germany. You can protect yourselves and the rest of Europe as well. You fought two shooting wars for the dominance of Europe and lost. Then you fought the economic war and won. But now that you finally have the prize, you don’t want it anymore. Too bad. You’ve got it. You can’t stand in the wings anymore. You need to come center stage and bring your panzers, your landsers, and your weapons. Achtung!

[Click through to see the Reichstag at Full Resolution]

I think the major difference between Germany and America can be summed up this way – above the entrance to the Reichstag in Berlin are the words: Dem Deutschen Volke translating as “To the German People”. The meaning is very clear. The Prussian monarchy gave the people of Germany an elected parliament, that is, gave them the beginnings of a modern democratic state. The German people didn’t create it, the monarch had it within his power to give democracy to the people and he did.

Contrast this with the preamble to the US Constitution:

We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

No one gave democracy to America. We created it. We the people….establish this constitution….

Perhaps the strangest thing I noticed on my visit a few years back, was that for a country as health conscious as Germany, everyone smokes. It’s weird and it’s annoying as hell. Although things in Germany can drive me nuts, I have always found the Germans I dealt with to be polite, helpful, even friendly in a German way. Now, I’m a friendly and polite person and that has something to do with it but I like the Germans. It’s just some of their culture I don’t like.

[Reichstag image courtesy of Wikimedia.]

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Charles McCain

Charles McCain is a Washington DC based freelance journalist and novelist. He is the author of "An Honorable German," a World War Two naval epic. You can read more of his work on his website: http://charlesmccain.com/

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