Why is Germany failing to export its cultural goods with the success of, say, its car, machine tool or optics industries?
“There’s one simple reason,” Wehn said. “[Former German chancellor Otto von] Bismarck didn’t believe in colonies.”
What Wehn means by that is that the 19th-century German chancellor, who presided over a vast and recently unified people, decided not to emulate Britain, Spain and France in their imperial land grabs. As a result, German never became a global language; English became the world’s most widely spoken tongue.
“The English language is dominant because of Hollywood and that helps British culture,” Wehn said.
In a recent survey by Monocle magazine, Britain was found to be the world’s leader in what’s called “soft power” — a country’s ability to make friends and influence people not through military might, but through culture, education, language and values.
“In short, the things that make people love us rather than fear us,” said John Worne, the British Council’s director of strategy.
By contrast, Germany is feared for its economic dominance. At the same time it seems culturally insular.
What a shame we do not get more German culture. After all, the British and Germans are, one World Cup and two World Wars notwithstanding, simpatico.
Germanophile 19th-century historian Thomas Carlyle wrote of Germany “speaking the same old Saxon tongue and thinking in the same old Saxon spirit with ourselves,” while British author George Orwell wrote that during World War I: “the English working class were in contact with foreigners to an extent that is rarely possible. The sole result was that they brought back a hatred of all Europeans, except the Germans, whose courage they admired.”
Norman Walter at the German embassy argues that the case for his homeland’s cultural nullity is weak.
“Well, we’re not exactly world champions — but we aren’t that bad either,” he said
Ingeniously, he quotes back at me a string of Guardian arts stories that seem to suggest German culture thrives here. Last year’s gig by heavy metal band Rammstein sold out within minutes and critic Dave Simpson’s five-star review described it as “the rock show of the year.”
Dance critic Judith Mackrell argued that Tanztheater Wuppertal’s London retrospective World Cities was “revelatory.”
Similarly, The Economist noted that “British enthusiasm for modern German culture is quietly growing” and that “a new breed of artists is changing British tastes in German culture.”
And today there is Kurt Schwitters at Tate Britain and Rosemarie Trockel at the Serpentine Gallery. Nobody even mentions the great German art on show at the Northern Renaissance exhibition at the Queen’s Gallery, but they should.
Visual art and music are the most readily exportable cultural products. Hardly any German literature makes it into the bestseller lists here.
In Germany now, the bestseller lists are dominated by Timur Vermes’ novel Er is wieder da (He’s back), which is about Hitler. The fuhrer awakes in Berlin in the summer of 2011, having fallen asleep in 1945. Hitler becomes a media celebrity, before entering politics where he campaigns against dog muck and speeding.