UK: Complete guide to an old enemy - the germans.

UK: Complete guide to an old enemy - the germans. - The Germans: who are they now?

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Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

The Germans: who are they now?

By Alan Watson. Thames Methuen; 386pp; £17.99. Review by Tim Beaumont.

The Cold War is over, and the spoils have as usual gone to the visitors. Checkpoint Charlie has been moved bodily to the Smithsonian Museum, where we can relive those anxious hours as George Smiley and Bernard Samson (or was it Alec Guinness and Michael Caine?) wait for their agents to come in from the cold. The Berlin Wall is down and Germany is united.

What better moment to write one of those books destined to become indispensable reading for anyone who needs to understand a country and its inhabitants? And it's clear that anyone who is Anyone in the Western world is bound to have close contact with the Germans.

This must be that book. So make sure your office has a copy to lend to the next man you send out there, or to your directors before the next board meeting convened to moan about German competition. Written by a distinguished broadcaster on financial affairs, who trained as an historian and married a German wife, it is not only informative but highly readable.

The chapters give a selection of answers of the single query of the title "The Germans: who are they now?" The historical answer, the geographical, the cultural, economic and political answers, and finally the answers of their neighbours and of the Germans themselves.

The historical chapter reminds us, among other things, that Germany has been a nation state only since 1870, and that it has spent 45 of these last 122 years split down the middle. The geographical chapter, with its analyses of the different Lander, will probably be the most informative for those readers who have the same kind of superficial knowledge of the country as does your reviewer. But it is the economics chapter which will presumably attract most attention from readers of Management Today.

And rightly so. All the way through the book we are reminded of the immense influence of major economic affairs on the country's history. It was the collapse of Wall Street, and the subsequent cutting off of American loan payments to Germany, which - more than anything else - led to Hitler's rise. (Embedded in the German subconscious is the archetypal legend of Faust, who sold his soul to the Devil; in the Nazi period Germany was to live that legend through). It was the bankruptcy of the Russian empire's economy which was finally to reunite the two Germanies.

In an important 30 pages in the middle of the book Alan Watson identifies the various factors which led to the economic recovery of West Germany, and which are likely to lead to the economic recovery of East Germany. They are the existence of a framework of law which makes sense, and which the Germans are psychologically geared to accept; the industrial relations which are a product of that law; the universal apprenticeship schemes; the system of continuous product improvement by the whole workforce (as opposed to occasional wrenching changes produced by a specialist department); the responsibility of the powerful banks as opposed to the irresponsibility of a powerful Stock Exchange; and the stability of a political system which discourages small political parties and yet encourages coalitions.

There is nothing here that is news to us, but the mere recital of these factors is an interesting challenge to a country, which, as it lists them, can not find one which applies to itself.

To the extent that Britain is mentioned in these pages, we do not come out of them too badly. Our guilt for the massive destruction of German cities (on a totally different scale from anything that has happened here since the Black Death) is barely indicated by a horrifying map peppered with the statistics of devastated cities, showing which were over 75% destroyed and which only over 50% destroyed. On the credit side we give Germany its trade union system. And it was Ernie Bevin who engineered the vital merging of the British and American zones of occupation, which a lesser man might well have resisted, but which proved to be the first step towards reunification.

The problems which loom on the horizon are not neglected, although what is probably the most lethal timebomb - the abandonment of Prussia to Poland - is slightly skated over. But this is an optimistic book, and the British reader can only lean back at the end and murmur, as he looks at the Europe of which he is himself a committed part, "Heil, unser Fuhrer."

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