It was another typical BC (Before Corona) Berlin winter day in 2017 – frosty grey, wrapped in a blanket of fog with just enough specks of light to guide our aircraft to safety as we landed into the Hauptstadt of Germany. Greeted by my smiling sister who was waiting beside a grumpy taxi driver, this was exactly the warmth I needed second to a freshly brewed cup of coffee. And for the next twenty-five minutes, as we made our way from Tegel (I miss this airport) to Friedrichshain, an immutable feeling of belonging washed over and my heart opened up to infinite possibilities. Within a week, the city’s frenetic energy and honest sense of self sealed my fate. I was addicted and finally plucked up the courage to call this country home in 2020.
Surely within 18 months, the initial euphoria of being an ex-pat would have settled especially after feeling the full force of German immigration bureaucracy, yet I remain deeply fascinated by the Deutsche menschen. Keep in mind, this country vastly transformed in the last century from being the centre of tensions between communism and democracy to the epicentre of influence across Europe and the industrial world, bringing to us Aldi, Mercedes, and BMW. Consumed with childlike curiosity yet remaining careful with adult perception, I have been inquisitively driven to understand the culture, values and underlying motivations of what makes the German people so intriguing and commendable.
They are fiercely private and ultra-discreet about their wealth
Germany has the 3rd highest number of billionaires in the world and is the richest country in Europe (2020) by total GDP but if you were to Google the private lives of these scions, you’d hardly find any personal details. In other countries of the Western world, business leaders are part of public life, and every major city seems to have a museum or university department named after a local socialite as trophies of unbridled capitalism. But the German way with money and life is to keep it quiet and so discreet that billionaires portray themselves as boring millionaires, while millionaires live ordinary lives preferring to take public transport with philanthropy often bound by watertight non-disclosure agreements.
Another famous incident with privacy was when Angela Merkel was photographed in her bathing suit on a family vacation, which to the Germans was an absolute breach of their Chancellor’s privacy. It caused so much outrage that the public jumped to her instant defence resulting in those images being revoked immediately. This is partly because frugality and modesty is a virtue, a matter of morality and not just of wise behaviour. And maybe, after the experience of Theo Albrecht (one of the Aldi brothers), privacy means you’re less likely to get kidnapped.
Here, Germany is not the country where young millionaires roar around in expensive cars because while they may make the Porsches and the BMWs, it’s for others to rev them up and post on Instagram.
They face their dark side of history
This is a tough topic because, during high school history lessons, we only learned about WW1, WW2 and the Holocaust from allies perspectives as part of the Commonwealth – in short, we received a sanitised version without truly understanding its generational impact. But when you walk through the streets of Berlin and many major German cities, the scars of war and trauma the Nazis inflicted are in plain sight, there is no hiding nor do they make excuses for what happened.
Then there’s the iconography: the Holocaust Memorial sits at the centre of a reunified Berlin. There are also the famous “stumbling stones” —small brass plaques placed throughout the city to mark where Jews and other victims of the Nazis last lived before they were deported.
Today, while the country isn’t free from racism and anti-Semitism, its culture and politics remain deeply informed by its history. All the arts, including TV and film, regularly refer to and treat Nazi history – there’s no one message because it is everywhere. They all call this Vergangenheitsaufarbeitung, a word that translates to “working off the past”, which refers to the decades-long process through which Germany has come to terms with Nazism and the Holocaust. Politically progressive youths and artists continue to talk about it and are a contributing catalyst to why so many feel they can be who they want to be – without judgement or fear.
Yes, monuments and talk are cheap because did you know that during the summer of 1938, delegates from 32 countries met in France for The Evian Conference to discuss the escalating Jewish refugee crisis? The delegates expressed sympathy for the Jews who were seeking to flee Nazi persecution but most countries, however, refused to admit more refugees. Then in 2015, over 1.3 million refugees fleeing war and terrorism in Syria, Afghanistan, and Iraq arrived on Europe’s shores and in an act of true moral leadership by drawing on her country’s past, Angela Merkel let in 1 million asylum-seekers because “Wir schaffen das” (translation: we can handle this). Actions always speak louder than words.
On 13 February 2008, former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd issued an apology to Australia’s Indigenous People and while it was an important day for truth-telling and healing, have we done enough?
They are comfortable with nudity
Prior to the fall of the wall, the GDR (German Democratic Republic) was already known to be more progressive with nudity and (premarital) sex compared to conservative West Germany so women, in particular, reported having much happier romantic lives before the Reunification of Germany. Whilst nudity in mainstream media is often sexualised, here in Germany, stripping down isn’t uncommon where instead of swimsuits, it is often just your birthday suit.
I will never forget the first time my girlfriend took me to one of Berlin’s most beautiful wellness resorts where I was instructed to take off my bikinis and sit inside a sauna nude with four strangers, then to be met with another group of the same in the spa – there was simply nowhere to hide. The irony was, you would get more awkward gazes if you wore your swimsuit than if you were naked. And when the sun shines, don’t be surprised to see a swathe of naked sunbathers strutting their junk in parks or lakes – an experience you will never forget as a conservative Auslander. All of this is part of German life, and they even have a term for it – Freikörperkultur, or “free-body culture”. Like jeans, nudity became a quiet means of showing resistance and served as an escape from the oppressive Communist State.
Germans can’t get enough of doner kebabs
I know this is an interesting fact to end my article but it still makes me giggle because I know Australians like kebabs and we are all guilty of this 2:00 AM pleasure but let me emphasise that Germans LOVE their kebabs. So much that they eat 2 million kebabs a day, which makes this a 2-billion euro industry per annum. Safe to say, the thinly sliced meat – cooked on a vertical spit, wrapped in pita or flatbread and topped with salad – overrules their famous Wurst as a preferred fast-food option, which is a prominent symbol of the cultural and economic influence of Turkish immigration on German society. There are more than 40,000 kebab shops across Germany with Berlin leading the pack at 4000, astonishingly more than Istanbul. I was also hugely amused that people often line up around the block for a roll of this tasty goodness and I have happily waited over 90 minutes for our delivery to show up. Seriously, so many people have profited from the doner kebab trade.
Note: These are my own observations and opinions, which have been curated out of personal experiences. And since I have touched on some sensitive and political topics, please be respectful with your comments and I am happy to discuss any points you may disagree with in private.