BOOK REVIEW

“Why the Germans Do It Better” by John Kampfner

Notes From a Grown Up Country

Front and back covers of “Why the Germans Do it Better”
Front and back covers of “Why the Germans Do it Better” – Copyright © Atlantic Books

The Author

John Kampfner is a British journalist, whose father was a Jew from Bratislava. His father’s family fled Czechoslovakia in 1938 and made their lives in England. Many of the extended family who remained died in the death camps. After the war his father married John’s mother, a nurse from Kent.

John grew up in London. During his childhood in the 1960s and 1970s he experienced the usual British hostile and stereotype attitudes towards Germany and the Second World War. During his writing career he has covered Germany as a journalist in Berlin, both East and West. He was a journalist for the Daily Telegraph in East Berlin when the Wall fell in 1989, and later in Moscow when Communism collapsed.

John’s Career As a Writer

As a dual national he is well placed to write about modern Germany, its relationship with Britain and its position in the modern world. He has written a clear, perceptive analysis of the attitudes of the two countries towards each other. He is  proud of the economic recovery of Germany since the war and is full of praise for the American and British officials who helped bring this about. Even more he praises their efforts in producing the “Grundgesetz” (Basic Law), which was adopted in 1949 and became the German constitution. It has proved a resilient yet flexible document, incorporating features from other constitutions.

Germany’s constitution and political recovery benefitted from having outstanding democratic leaders between the 1950s and today. These were people such as Erhardt, Adenauer, Brandt, Kohl and Merkel. The Basic Law reflected the need and wish for Germany to start afresh after the traumas of Nazi rule and the War. This time was known as “Stunde Nul” or Zero Hour, when Germany reshaped itself to become a democratic and cultivated society. 

Germany’s Respect For the UK

John emphasises the respect and affection Germans had for Britain before Brexit, our culture, our stable politics, our history and society. However he calls the present British political system moribund. And he deplores our delusions of grandeur, as demonstrated during the past six years during the Brexit saga. He is deeply critical of Johnson’s behaviour before and after the Referendum.

He makes the reader wish that Britain could have its own Zero Hour. We need the chance to reshape many of its defective political and social drawbacks. But (obviously) without the profound traumas suffered by Germany to produce Stunde Nul. Kampfner highlights the defects of our unclear and flexible constitution, our First Past the Post electoral system, our confrontational rather than consensual politics and our nostalgia for past greatness.

How the Germans Do It Better

Kampfner shows in several ways how the Germans do it better than other countries, particularly Britain. He considers that

  • Germany’s political stability is a major achievement starting in 1945 from terrible origins,
  • its commercial and economic strengths are enormous advantages for the western alliance,
  • the atonement made by modern Germany for Nazi crimes and policies showed what a mature democracy Germany has become in only a few years.
  • Merkel’s welcome to refugees from the Middle East was something which many countries could not have contemplated.
  • He acknowledges that the Alternative for Germany party (“AfD”), a right-wing party, against more refugees being allowed into Germany, has grown rapidly and needs watching. 

A New Germany

Germany, both before the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and after, encouraged the nations of Eastern Europe to understand its new post-war nature. This included acceptance of post-war frontiers, acknowledgement of its war crimes and attractive terms of trade arrangements. Over time these made Eastern European countries soften their hostility towards Germany and contributed to the undermining of the Soviet bloc. 

Germany’s refusal in 2003 to support the USA’s war on Iraq showed confidence and maturity in following an independent line on foreign policy. By contrast Blair’s government supported the USA’s policy and showed its reluctance to support a policy backed by many members of the EU.

Required Reading

John Kampfner’s book should ideally become required reading for all MP’s and peers, Civil Servants and school teachers. For too long our opinions of Germany have been moulded by newspaper owners and film makers.

We should respect a Germany which has shown the world what successes a twisted, ravaged country can achieve, given the right support.


Why the Germans do it better: Notes from a Grown-Up Country by John Kampfner