Systematic thinking is the foundation of all research. Germany has produced many great thinkers in the natural and social sciences. They are best known for their systematic approach.
Hildegard von Bingen (1098-1179) was the daughter of German nobility, but decided at an early age to join the Benedictine nuns. She went on to become one of the best educated and wisest of her era, advising secular and religious leaders throughout Europe. Hildegard’s fields of expertise ranged from theology to medicine, music, ethics and cosmology. Her discoveries and insights in the area of plant-based medicines are referred to today.
Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) was one of the leading philosophers of the Enlightenment Age. His Kritik der reinen Vernunft is considered to be the starting point of modern philosophy, creating a new, systematic approach to inquiry. Kant addressed not only the theory of knowledge, but also ethics and aesthetics, the philosophy of religion, law and history, as well as astronomy and the geosciences.
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe(1749-1832) is considered to this day to be the greatest of all German writers. His work encompassed, however, also the natural sciences including botany, optics and the philosophy of color – Farbenlehre.
Carl von Clausewitz (1780-1831) was a Prussian General and military theorist. His VomKriege (On War) a systematic approach to strategy, tactics and the philosophy of war, became the foundation of military thinking in all Western nations. Clausewitz’ writings went beyond how wars are won to address the overall nature and meaning of war in the modern world.
Karl Marx (1818-1883) is renowned as a philosopher, political economist and social critic. Together with Friedrich Engels, Marx analyzed during the height of the industrial revolution the mutual influences and interactions between a society‘s consciousness and its economic system. Although Marxism has proven to fail in practice, it led to what many would consider significant social progress in public education, health care, social legislation. Marx’ writings contributed to the creation of labor unions.
Max Weber (1864-1920) was a German sociologist, legal scholar, and political economist. He is considered a founding father of modern sociology. Weber’s theories influenced greatly the so-called specialty areas of sociology: economics, religion, political power structures.
Karl Rahner (1904-1984) is considered to be the most influential Catholic theologian since Thomas Aquinas. His work opened up Catholic theology to a new and deeper understanding of faith. Rahner’s thinking influenced greatly the Second Vatical Council. Inspired by his studies under Martin Heidegger, Rahner synthesized Catholic theology with the philosophies of the modern era.
When Americans sell too energetically Germans find it a bit crass, loud, unpolished. I see in my mind’s eye a certain kind of television advertising in the U.S. Evenings. Six p.m. A local station. A local car dealership. The owner him-/herself, with his face up close to the camera, in a loud voice: “This is the greatest deal of the century. Buy fast, folks, before it’s too late!”
Or I think of the famous, and often infamous, television evangelical preachers of the 1980s and 90s, with tears in their eyes asking their audience in the church and in their living rooms to “speak directly to God” – via an 1-800 telephone number – and make a donation.
What Germans do not understand, and reject (often vehemently), is the caveat emptor (let the buyer beware) approach in the American business context. The difference between the German Auskunftspflicht and caveat emptor is dramatic and leads to significant misunderstanding and irritation.
What surprises, throws off balance, and can anger Germans is when Americans while selling their product, service, concept or idea only mention its strengths, even though the Germans sense, or even know, of its weaknesses.
They often notice immediately when Americans exaggerate the positive and either play down or leave unmentioned the negative. And if the negatives are mentioned, then as if by some magic they can actually be converted into strengths, if understood and managed properly.
Depending on how much experience Germans have working with Americans, the caveat emptor approach can lead to indignation. At a minimum Americans can be viewed as being tricky, clever, in some cases even as lying.
The past, especially the recent past, helps us to understand the present. But it is only from the present, from the current starting point, that we can go down new paths, move in a different, perhaps even radically different, direction. All Americans are immigrants or descendents of immigrants. The historical consciousness of the American people is greatly influenced by the immigrant experience. Imagine what it was like for those millions upon millions of families to take that step, to leave their home and to risk the unknown.
For most of them not freely. For many it was a question of survival. For others it was about freedom. They wanted to decide their own fates, and wanted the same for their children. Nonetheless, the decision was very difficult. It meant leaving everything they knew, everything that gave them security. Once they left, however, the present and past of their native country would no longer be relevant. But what do human beings have other than their past and present? The unknown, insecurity and risk? Or do they have opportunity?
In such situations people have to make hard, tough decisions, about what they take with them from the past and the present. Of course all immigrant groups, including the waves of Germans who came to America, brought their language, customs and traditions. The older generations continued to speak their mother tongue. Foreign-language newspapers were published in all of the major American cities. All that they knew and brought over lasted, however, only for a certain period of time.
The everyday challenges of life in America rubbed and pulled away, layer for layer, the recent present and the past of the homeland. The immigrants took on, layer for layer, the realities of the current present in the United States, like having old skin replaced by new. It was painful. The time came in every immigrant family when the children no longer wanted, or no longer could, speak the language of the old world.
Many parents who immigrated demanded of their children that they assimilate as quickly as possible, that they forget the old language, customs and traditions. They had decided to leave their homes, towns and homelands. They refused to get stuck between two realities. To move forward demanded that they leave behind what they had known. It was time to go down a new path. The cares, worries and chores of the day left them no other choice.
That path to and in America was difficult, hard, rough. Many did not make, did not succeed. Every wave of immigrants had to fight for their future in America. Everything which weighed them down, every form of ballast, had to go. And that meant much that was associated with the homeland. For many, even for most, however, throwing overboard the ballast of the past set them free.
Bonn. I remain standing. Ten or fifteen minutes. I imagine as best I can a summer day back during one of those years. What was life like in any of the houses, the homes, in that neighborhood? Just around the corner is the Karthäuserplatz, a small square, where I lived from 1991-95. In a three-room apartment on the third floor.
On the first two floors lived three sisters, all in their 80’s, never married. Born in the early 1910’s they would remember the last years of the First World War, and most certainly all too well the entire Second World War. I imagine what it was like for them. Did they have brothers? Did those men/boys fight, kill, die? Catholics in the German Rhineland.
I imagine, see the pictures move by in my mind‘s eye. Three brothers. Second World War. Wehrmacht. The one dies in the early days of the invasion of Poland in September 1939. The second survives the 1944 Ardennenoffensive – what Americans call the Battle of the Bulge – only to then die in Vienna in early 1945, not long before the end of the war.
The third brother survives the war, including several years as a prisoner in Russia. Their mother (the father had died in 1918 on the Western Front of WWI) and the three sisters pick him up one summer day in 1949 upon his arrival in Bonn by train via Berlin. Within a year and a half he would die of gangrene.
I am fifty-five years old. All of my brothers – two older, two younger – are still alive. None of us has killed or been killed. My son, Daniel, was born in May 1998. His mother is German. He is a German-American boy, more German than American. A school project in History. The fourth grade.
The children are asked to find in Bonn the evidence, indications, the signs that once, many centuries ago, the Romans had lived in what became Bonn. He and his mother take a long walking tour. Bonn is a small town. Daniel is excited. He soaks it all in. My son, my boy, is growing up in Germany. My own flesh and blood. He is learning to think historically. He is learning to understand his present. He is being prepared to deal with the future.
The history of Germany, as well as the historical consciousness of the German people, continue to impress and attract me. Today, just as strongly as a quarter century ago. You need only to go into a bookstore in Germany. Their books are not only solid, well bound and have great covers. The Germans have a very special relationship to books. There are always many older and newer publications about history, about their history. For those Germans who want to know their history there will never be a shortage of opportunities.
Every city in Germany, large and small, has museums in which history, but not only theirs, is told, is kept alive and relevant. In my early years in Berlin and Bonn I was astounded by how many fascinating and well-made documentary films were shown on German television. There was never a day without at least one in the evening. The German language is worth learning if only to read their books, to visit their museums, and to watch their documentaries. Although not a documentary, but one with the look and feel of one, was Heimat, by Edgar Reitz.
It was the summer of 1992. I watched episode for episode of Heimat. My eyes were glued to the television, my mind racing to understand every word, to pick up on as many nuances as possible. What an opportunity for me to gain insight in Germany of that time period, between the world wars. Time and again I had to turn to my then German wife to get the meaning of this or that word, for the dialogue was in the dialect of that region of Germany, the Hunsrück, along the Moselle River, between Trier and Koblenz. After every episode I was in a kind of trance, reflecting about what I had just taken in.
Then another time. I was in the car. Driving through Bonn. Evening. I turned on the radio. Deutschlandfunk. A book review was being read. It was about the immediate post-war years in then West Germany. The first sentences grabbed my attention. They flowed: complex, clear, rich, full of substance, critical, analytical, yet elegant. That feeling had come back, from when I was a student at Georgetown. History. German History. The history of another people. In another part of the world. And when I read the books by John Lukacs. Trance.
The reader continued. I was captured, drove further, but as if on a soft cloud just a few inches above the road. I think of the many war memorials in Germany. When I walk or ride my bicycle down the hill from the Venusberg in Bonn to the former government quarter on the Rhine, I pass through Kessenich where there is such a memorial.
It’s round, cement, encircling a lovely oak tree. Six pillars about eight feet high. Plenty of space between them to step in and out. The tops of all eight crowned – or held together – by a cement ring providing the tree with space to stretch out its branches. Just below the top each of the eight the face in cement of a German soldier with the iconic German steel helmet from the World War I.
Chiseled into the pillars, from the top to just about the bottom, are the names of the men who died in the two world wars. Six pillars, three sides each. Longs lists. Names. Of men, and boys, from that part of Bonn, from the neighborhood. Yes, boys, many no older than seventeen or eighteen years old. Sad. Especially sad for me, as one of five Magee boys, to read the same last names. Meyer. Schmitz. Leyendecker. Two, three, sometimes four of the same last names. Brothers. Cousins.
Imagine the deep, deep sadness of the mothers and fathers who saw their boys go off to war only to kill and be killed. 1914. 1915. 1916. 1917. 1918. Four long years for an entire continent. Then on the other sides of the pillars. 1939. 1940. 1941. 1942. 1943. 1944. 1945. Many of the same names. The sons and nephews of those fallen between 1914 and 1918. The Germans suffered, too.
The Germans often consider Americans as a people to be either uninformed or uninterested in their own history, and equally uninformed about the recent history of given situations, allowing them to make decisions only based on the present. Americans appear to not think things through, not thoroughly. They can appear to Germans as Dünnbrettbohrer, literally people who only drill through the thinnest of boards.
From the German perspective their perception is not false. It’s what is behind the German cliché that Die Amerikaner gehen mit dem Kopf durch die Wand, that Americans try to go through the wall with their heads, meaning forcing solutions in situations which they have not fully understood.
But are Americans really so un- or a-historical? Partly, yes. I think of the region in which I grew up and the people there, me included. Philadelphia. Many of the most dramatic events of the American Revolutionary War against England took place in and around Philadelphia. Independence Hall in downtown Philadelphia is very well known and visited every summer by countless Americans and guests from other countries.
It is where the Declaration of Independence, the Articles of Confederation and the Constitution were drafted, debated, passed and signed. Philadelphia was the capital of the insurrection, Independence Hall the meeting point of the conspirators.
Several critical battles took place in the area. On September 11, 1777 British troops defeated the colonists under George Washington at the Battle of Brandywine. Two weeks later, on September 26, Philadelphia was conceded to the British under General Charles Cornwallis.
On that day Washington and his troops counterattacked in Germantown, roughly five miles north of Philadelphia, against just under ten thousand British soldiers. It was an attack by night, from four different directions, with the hope of forcing a quick surrender. Because communications among four groups broke down, and due to shortages of munitions, the attack failed. Washington and his men were pushed back to White Marsh.
There, between December 5th and 8th, British troops pursued and attacked the revolutionaries several times. General Howe had hoped to end the war before the winter had set in. Washington‘s men held, though. The redcoats pulled back into Philadelphia. Washington and his troops moved into nearby Valley Forge.
But how many natives of the Philadelphia area are familiar with these events? I certainly did not hear of them during grammar and high school. I don’t recall any school trips to the battlegrounds or to a museum. Nor did my parents interest us six children in them. Nor have I ever seen a documentary film on television about those battles in and around Philadelphia, my home region.
Why? Perhaps because the United States and England (UK) have been close allies in two world wars. Perhaps we Americans don‘t like reliving bad old times. Perhaps because the events, regardless of how momentous, go back to the 18th century, long before any of my ancestors immigrated to the U.S. from Ireland, Scotland and primarily from Germany. That part of American history was not a part of their history.
If Americans indeed have a less developed sense of history than the Germans, maybe because change in American history and culture is so ever-present. Maybe Americans, in comparison to Germans, are more tolerant of – open and willing – to embrace change, to drive change.
The momentous decision in and of itself to immigrate to America, to leave the homeland behind, makes almost every other decision in life seem far less dramatic. Change is less intimidating to Americans. On the contrary, the more change is accepted as a fact of life, the less relevant are the past and continuity with the past, and all that much more important it is to be able and willing to adapt to new situations.
2003. I‘ll never forget a statement made by an American engineer who was on delegation to Germany for a German customer of mine. We had met for the first time to discuss a project I was assisting them on. Team-building measures, workshops, seminars, etc. During one of the breaks we were doing a little smalltalk. I asked him what he’s seen in Germany thusfar, and what’s on his list. He looked at me, rolled his eyes and said: “I don’t want to see any more old churches!”
I was a bit shocked, felt insulted, was irritated. As student of history I thought: “How ignorant can someone be not to know or to recognize that German and European history cannot be understood without understanding the role of Christianity and the Church.” Ok, perhaps he had been shown enough churches already. Still, I felt embarrassed as an American. Fortunately, no German colleagues had been present.
On my way back to Bonn that day I imagined well-intentioned German colleagues taking their Sunday to pick up their American colleague and driving to Cologne to see not only the cathedral, but also several of the beautiful Romanesque churches within twenty minutes walking distance. In my mind’s eyes I see him bored and saying: “This is all interesting history, but I want to see modern Germany.”
For the more exact we can define our starting point and its direction (trajectory), all the better we can adjust it. My response to the American colleague would have been: “Sure. But before we can truly enjoy getting to know the modern Germany of today, let’s start with how Germany has become the way it is today. On that basis we’ll really begin to imagine the Germany of the future!”
This is also a reason why it is anecdotes, if well told and timed, are enormously persuasive in the American cultural context. For Americans anecdotes are empirical. They are reality experienced, the opposite of theory, which is often seen as abstract and unrealistic, separated from reality.
An anecdote says: “I know what I’m talking about. I was there. I saw it with my own eyes. This is no theory, it’s reality!” Any American politician, for example, speaking in their legislative district or in the media about a difficult issue, such as the war in Iraq, will come across as especially convincing if they can claim to have visited that region.
Like aphorisms, anecdotes transport deeper-lying wisdom. Isn’t that what the Bible – Old and New Testament – does via one story after the other, communicate the deepest-felt, and therefore most complex, beliefs of a people, of Jews and Christians?
Isn’t story-telling the highest, the most sophisticated, form of activating (speaking to) the human imagination? Truly persuasive communicators in the U.S. plan very carefully when they draw on anecdotes. This is why we all listen so carefully when our grandparents tell their stories. They have the years of human experience.
The historians are in agreement. That Abraham Lincoln was the most masterful storyteller in American history. It has been written that he could hold audiences for up to two hours at a time.
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