In summer 2011, I was working at a small Berlin travel agency and facing a conundrum: my clients literally held tickets to nowhere. Their planes would be taking off shortly, but their destination – Berlin-Brandenburg Airport – would not be open to welcome them. Six summers have since come and gone, but each year the same news, almost gleeful at this point, trickles out of that massive construction site south of the capital: the project has gone billions over budget and is nowhere close to opening. So whatever happened to German efficiency?
If the overdue airport weren’t enough of a hint, I’ll let you in on a secret: German efficiency is a myth, with roots in religion, nationalism, enlightenment thought and a few major wars. It may have reached its pinnacle in the 20th Century, but since then it’s survived as a useful stand-in for everything that confuses the world about Germans – that in spite of a war that decimated them, a wall that divided them, a currency designed to weaken them and a financial crisis that could have ended them, they still seem to come out on top.
Just not where airports are concerned.
You may also be interested in:
– The German village that changed the war
– The country that can't choose a side
– What can Poland teach us about freedom?
Much like German humour, German efficiency (or the lack of it), is often a hot topic among visitors as they marvel at trains that follow their schedules to the minute, pristine autobahns where German-produced cars seem to drive at warp speed (while getting into statistically fewer accidents), and, perhaps every foreigner’s favourite gripe, citizens who wait for the walk signal before crossing the street – and admonish you if you don’t do the same.
Yet what they mistake for German efficiency is, in many instances, a German fondness for rules – a trait that leaves foreigners equally puzzled. While rule following may help in the seamless execution of everyday tasks, it doesn’t really make a difference when it comes to big, symbolic projects of national significance. Berlin culture mavens waiting for the long-extended renovation of the Staatsoper (State Opera House) would concur; so would those in Hamburg who saw costs balloon for their new philharmonic hall.
Sooner or later, however, talk of German efficiency always points to Prussia. Known for its militarism, nationalism and ruthless work ethic, the kingdom spanned centuries, and, at its 19th-Century peak, much of northern Germany and present-day Poland. Supposedly, while the humourless northerly Prussians were busy marching around, coaxing potatoes out of arid, infertile land, the Bavarians were happily swilling beer in warmer climes.
The gulf between the two was further widened by Prussia’s adoption of Lutheran Protestantism. It was Martin Luther who had imagined a new kind of German Christianity far from the Catholic confines of the Holy Roman Empire, and his writings further shaped the image of Germans as hard-working, law-abiding and authority supporting (by no coincidence, the same characteristics Hannah Arendt would observe during the Adolf Eichmann trials when she coined the term ‘banality of evil’ to explain how Germany could have allowed Nazism).
What is mistaken for German efficiency is, in many instances, a German fondness for rules
Prussia not only laid claim to these characteristics; it also helped them become national traits. Up until the mid-19th Century, Germany had been little more than a cluster of disparate kingdoms banding together once in a while for border disputes with the French or Slavs. Prussia changed all that when it fought off Napoleon III in the Franco-Prussian War (1870-71) and steered the country towards what begins to look like modern-day Germany.
In fact, according to James Hawes, author of The Shortest History of Germany (2017), it was this victory that really cemented the image of German efficiency. To the British in the early 19th Century, “Germany [was] this kind of backward country… Then suddenly, seemingly overnight, they crushed the French… the premier military power in Europe. It seemed like a kind of weird, black miracle at the time.”
Gone were the images of lush romantics and wine-drinking philosophers, of dark forests and rolling hills and lone travellers overlooking hazy vistas à la painter Caspar David Friedrich. All of Germany – or at least the most that ever had been – was now captive to militant Prussia, and all of Europe knew the Prussians were a people to watch out for.
All of Europe knew the Prussians were a people to watch out for
By the start of World War I, this was more than just a fear of the ‘other’, Hawes explained. “If you’re going to make the world safe for democracy… it’s handy to be able to say that your enemy is almost alien in its weirdness… its superhuman cunning.” WWI propaganda posters, some of which can be viewed at Berlin’s Deutsches Historisches Museum (DHM), upheld this myth, superimposing the face of the German Kaiser on a spider’s body, and generally promoting the image of Germans as all-knowing, all-seeing and omnipresent.
But why does this obsession with German efficiency still exist today, even though it should have rightfully been quashed by Allied victory in 1945? Markus Hesselmann, local editor at Tagesspiegel, has an idea, though he’s not too keen on admitting it: “In Britain… there is a very strange kind of fascination (I have to be very careful how I phrase this) of Nazi Germany. There is this wish to strip away all the bad things [about the Nazis] and leave only the things you respect…”
Members of the former Allied powers, the US and UK chief among them, like to marvel at how the Germans were hobbled by reparations after WWI yet still emerged to fight a second war – though those sanctions were partly responsible for that war. They like to believe the Wirtschaftswunder or ‘economic miracle’ of the 1950s and ‘60s was due to a ruthlessly efficient work ethic, ignoring just how much money was being pumped in to bolster West Germany against the Russians. As Hawes points out, the myth “has nothing to do with history and more to do with fantasy”. In making a myth of the Germans, we make a myth of ourselves.
Perhaps no-one knows this better than non-German Germans; those who have settled here from elsewhere and encountered stringent rules and unending bureaucracy in daily life, even as public works like Berlin’s airport languish.
In a delightfully ironic twist of fate, though, the much-maligned airport now offers guided tours. So, in addition to Berlin history museums like the DHM, brazen battle monuments like the Brandenburg Gate and the Victory Column, and the chilling Holocaust memorial, visitors can now add Germany’s latest folly to their itinerary.
In making a myth of the Germans, we make a myth of ourselves
According to Joseph Pearson, however, who explores German idiosyncrasies on his blog The Needle and in his upcoming book Berlin, the delayed airport shouldn’t be denigrated but celebrated precisely because it contradicts the long-held myth; a sign of history correcting its course.
When things like the airport don’t work out, “It humanises the Germans; it shows that they don’t fit easily into useful stereotypes that foreigners might have about them,” he told me, adding, “Nearly every example of German inefficiency makes me as happy as it does frustrated.”
Why We Are What We Are is a BBC Travel series examining the characteristics of a country and investigating whether they are true.
Join over three million BBC Travel fans by liking us on Facebook, or follow us on Twitter and Instagram.
If you liked this story, sign up for the weekly bbc.com features newsletter called "If You Only Read 6 Things This Week". A handpicked selection of stories from BBC Future, Earth, Culture, Capital and Travel, delivered to your inbox every Friday.