In order to avoid having to make a decision as to which of the recommended books I should read for this first book assignment, I went to an English bookstore and purchased the first one — and only one — I found from the list for Berlin. This led me to The Germans by Gordon A. Craig. When I looked at the year of publication I was surprised to see that it was originally published in 1983, six years before the fall of the Berlin Wall. Craig’s assessment of Germany as a people was conducted during a time of instability and uncertainty in Berlin’s history without the knowledge that in less than a decade, the city and the country as a whole would enter a new period of immense change. While the book was written more than 30 years ago, many of the nuances of Germans that Craig points out then are still present now. However, they might be difficult to pick up on if you are not looking for them or are not spending an extended period of time in Germany. While not necessarily tackling the act of traveling, The Germans provides insight that enhances my understanding of Berlin. After spending more than a month here, I am able to contextualize Craig’s thoughts on the past and apply them to my experiences abroad.
In his opening line, Craig includes a quote from Goethe that sets the tone for the book: “‘The Germans…make everything difficult, both for themselves and for everyone else.’” Craig goes on to suggest that “perhaps that is why there has always been a German problem and why foreigners have periodically confessed their inability to understand German behavior, to say nothing of German philosophy and the German language” (15). This disconnect described between native Germans and the many people who visit the country is humorous to me. It alludes to the reserved attitude of Berliners and Germans in general — they tend to keep to themselves and often seem standoffish. In addition, they speak a difficult language with ease and they all share a variety of behaviors that take a lot of time to fully understand and adapt. In terms of behaviors, this passage calls to mind some that I observe every day. For example, Germans are not afraid to openly stare at you. They will assess you from across a restaurant, on the train, on the street — wherever they deem fit. In addition, they are taken aback if you ask them how they are doing, especially if you are merely in line at the grocery store. Germans will take that question literally and tell you the specifics of their day if you ask how they are. Learning which patterns of behavior recur everyday has been a significant and interesting aspect of my travels — and something that Craig likely picked up on during his own exploration of the country.
After providing a brief, yet explorative, history of Germany, Craig discusses the generational divide between people who grew up in the GDR, people who reached maturity in the 60s and 70s, and people who lived through and remember World War II well. This century of rapid change, degradation, and development has left different generations of Germans with very different perspectives on life and Germany as a whole, leading to different movements focused around environmentalism, anti-nuclear arguments, and more. The effects of these mindsets are recognizable today, even to those who travel to Germany for a short time. For example, the environmental movement has instilled itself into daily life in Berlin, a city that has countless green spaces, urban gardens, parks, and sustainable architecture. The rebellious mindset that stems from these student movements in the 60s and 70s has infiltrated the lives of all Berliners.
So while Craig is by no means a travel writer, his observations of and interactions with the German culture and German people provide a lens through which to approach my own experiences in Berlin. Germans are the way they are because of a rich history of both violence and unity. History has truly shaped this country and I am lucky to have the opportunity to immerse myself in Berlin culture of learning from the past and experimenting with the possibilities of the future.