It is an ambivalent image of Germany that Marcus S. Kleiner draws in his book "Germany 151. Portrait of a well-known country in 151 snapshots". Although the Germans are “always decided, they often find it difficult to make decisions. They love clarity, but live in an ambiguous way,” says Kleiner.
This applies to all areas of life – even on vacation. We spoke to the 48-year-old about this aspect. The author and communication scientist teaches at the SRH Berlin University of Applied Sciences and himself "prefers to travel to places with an intensive atmosphere".
WORLD: You portray Germany in 151 texts, which are arranged in alphabetical order - from A, such as grilling, nuclear power and Autobahn, to Z, such as censorship and candy cones. But you won't find Christmas under W, why?
Marcus S. Kleiner: You are right, I could have chosen Christmas to characterize Germany. But then why not write about other festivals that are important in Germany, such as the Jewish Festival of Lights Hanukkah or the Islamic Festival of Sacrifice?
It would be typically German to omit these festivals in the book in favor of Christmas and thus continue to view Germany in an interculturally ignorant manner. I didn't want that and didn't include any of the three festivals in the book.
WORLD: And why is the topic of celebration missing from your list?
Kleiner: There are different German celebration cultures, for example with regard to regional folk festivals, but not a particularly typical German celebration that characterizes our celebration behavior and distinguishes us, for example, from a British celebration behavior – which also does not exist.
In the book, the topic of festivals and celebrations is addressed indirectly in connection with carnival, funfair, Berghain or Oktoberfest. And here I am interested in how political partying in Germany can be when you look at Berghain, or how folksy at the Oktoberfest. The letter F stands for terms such as diligence and obedience.
WORLD: I'll open the chapter of obedience and read here: "In Germany we almost always follow the obligations imposed on us. When you’re abroad, the German likes to turn into a wild boar.” Are you thinking of partying at the Ballermann in Mallorca?
Kleiner: In Germany, too, the wild boar is let loose, but many Germans celebrate more uninhibitedly abroad, according to the motto: what happens on vacation, stays on vacation.
WORLD: Right at the beginning of your book, you emphasize that Germans often behave ambivalently. You even devote a separate chapter to ambivalence, i.e. the simultaneous experience of contradictory emotions, and explain why you “reduce neither Germany nor the Germans to a clear national or character core”.
And what about camping? After all, ten million Germans are camping or have a parcel on one of the more than 3000 campsites - isn't that enough for a clear character attribution?
Kleiner: I'm not interested in working out the ambivalence and ambiguity (ambiguousness, editor's note) in each individual chapter, rather I would like to make them recognizable as basic German characteristics through the entirety of the 151 terms.
Let's take, for example, the terms holiday world and camping, which also appear in my book; both stand for Germany, although they express opposites. Because German camping has little to do with the actual idea of travel, getting to know the world and broadening your own horizon.
Rather, the German love of camping shows that wherever they travel, Germans are looking for a constant representation of their own comfort and lifestyle. So look for a piece of Germany on every trip and take it with you.
WORLD: Are you saying that Germans camp differently than the Dutch or French?
Kid: I'm not a camper. In this respect, I cannot empirically tell you whether the German camping culture and mentality that I have described critically can also be found among the Dutch or French. However, travel behavior is always culturally determined and individually determined at the same time.
My thesis at this point is: the more countries you travel to, the more you lose the desire to take your homeland with you everywhere, if you think that term makes sense at all.
WORLD: As profound as you analyze the Germans and the country - isn't your book also a kind of user manual for travelers to Germany?
Kleiner: My book was written both for travelers to Germany and for Germans. However, especially for us Germans.
WORLD: Allotment gardens and the Reeperbahn, castles, Bayreuth and the romance of the forest – many things that stand for Germany speak to you, but readers will also miss many things. How did you go about choosing the topic?
Kleiner: On the one hand, I focused on topics that can be expected with a view to Germany and the Germans. On the other hand, I chose terms that have great cultural and political meaning for me, such as Kanak Sprak, Gendern, Energiewende, Earth Speakr, Hip-Hop, Wealth Waste, Woke and Kulturnation.
WORLD: Let's stay with the cultural nation, a term that means the bond between a group of people based on their language, their faith, their tradition. Apparently, this was also thought of in the Black Forest when the decision was made for the new “Wonderful Black Forest” image campaign. Does the theme appeal to you?
Kleiner: Not at all, it reminds me of Katja Ebstein’s old hit “Wonders are always coming back” from 1970. Travel advertising for Germany often paints a nostalgically glorified and traditionalist image of Germany, which, by the way, is rarely the case in the forms advertised has given.
I often lack creativity and above all realism. Not the tradition, but the present should be in the foreground. Above all, Germany travel advertising should not make the mistake of glorifying Germany in a mythical way.
The view of the present is always obscured by the nostalgic and, above all, distorted view of the past. And this view pleads for inclusion and exclusion at the same time, is not an invitation to the world to travel to Germany and get to know the Germans.
WORLD: Which region would you recommend to foreign friends to get to know German culture and the way of life?
Kleiner: Berlin as an intercultural metropolis, the Ruhr area as the heart of the republic and as a region of change. Bavaria as an example of the cultivation of tradition and German folklore. And Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania as a natural area and as an example of Germany growing together after reunification in 1990.
WORLD: It is probably inevitable that a book about Germany will take up clichés such as blonde, lederhosen and sauerkraut. However, I stumbled across the term coarseness. How did you come up with this attribution?
Kleiner: On many trips around the world, I have often been confronted with the assessment of us Germans as coarse and uncouth. Italians, on the other hand, are often praised for their elegance, French for their charm and Spaniards for their temperament, to name just three examples.
Elegance, charm and subtlety, on the other hand, are qualities that are rarely ascribed to Germans. On the contrary, we are often perceived as too direct, like the English, for example. Our humor as dirty, our appearance as down-to-earth, our demeanor as too bold and demanding.
The language sounds very harsh to many. Sitting together with a beer and sausage platter is an expression of our uncultured conviviality. If you let all of this sink in, the Germans only appear to be socially acceptable to a limited extent.
WORLD: Other nations also have a bad reputation. The Chinese government, for example, has written a kind of travel bible for its citizens and warns that Chinese should not spit on the streets abroad. What would you write in the register of German travelers?
Kleiner: Good manners are rarely German travel virtues. Modesty and respect for other cultures are not so often in the luggage. Only a few German travelers are aware of sustainable travel, the main thing is that you can get through it yourself.
Likewise, the interest in education often falls by the wayside because German travelers all too often look for their own things in the foreign, such as German cuisine or German standards of comfort. You see, in order to get educational experiences and gain experiences through travelling, you first need the willingness to get involved with the other and to let it into you in order to travel through the world with more open eyes and not always think: 'Where we are is in front.'
The new book by Marcus S. Kleiner "Germany 151. Portrait of a well-known country in 151 snapshots" has been published by Conbook Verlag, 320 pages, 24.95 euros.
This article was first published in December 2021.