March 2019 saw me in my new home city in Central Germany and a year on we are living in a time of a pandemic.
The idea that Germany is full of jack booted ´little Hitlers´ and it´s ´in their DNA´ was a common theme in the UK when I was growing up. It was a typical enough stereotype which along with similar themes regarding France and Italy helped define how many Brits saw the World. Even recently reference to Napoleon and Hitler was used by prominent British politicians as well as the general public when expressing an opinion regarding the European Union and therefore in some minds by default, Germany.
Although I learned to think for myself as best as possible it was still hard to shake these thoughts. Now that I live here it is has become clear that Germany isn´t too different from the UK. Elements of the general public can be just as annoying – litter droppers and worse lurk within both communities etc., but during the Covid-19 pandemic it has been interesting to look at opinion polls to shine a light on the Germans. This might explain why things seem calm In Germany at this time despite the lock down and the intense battle being fought in the country’s hospitals etc.
Recent polling (ARD) showed that over 90% of German´s supported the social distancing ´lock down’ rules, also that Chancellor Merkel remains very popular and her Health Minister Jens Spahn (CDU) and Finance Minister Olaf Scholz (SPD) were given a large show of confidence. Additionally, the parties on the extremes of the political scope have seen a decline in support.
Germany acted early when the news flowed from China about Covid-19 and began testing (500,000 a week) with carriers being isolated very early (the first recorded case was on January 27). Was this because Germany is so very efficient? Germany like so many other nations isn´t perfect – for example German intercity trains are often late or cancelled without notice and construction projects can (and do) go awry, the ´new´ Berlin airport in Berlin is a case in point (not open after multiple years of delay).
No, what was smart about Germany in the early days of the Covid-19 crisis is that it was watching and listening both to the experiences of other countries and to science/experts. Secondly, no one waited for a prime minister or their inner circle to decide when to act. Thirdly ideology or politics was most certainly not part of the equation.
It could be argued that Germany should have cancelled the many carnivals held early in the year (a source of the large Heinsberg cluster near the Netherlands border) nonetheless from January voluntary social distancing was ongoing in Germany, followed by the gradual introduction of enforcement measures by regional states and local government leading up to Merkel first issuing a national set of rules toward the end of March. By this time, social distancing restrictions were part of my everyday life which means that I haven’t seen friends or visited a restaurant etc. for a long time.
Meanwhile in the UK it was sort of business as usual up to only a few weeks ago as we waited to see what the Government would do despite the unfolding tragedies in China, Italy and Spain.
The polling reflects what I have seen when in public in Germany – I have noted that nearly all people are being cooperative and work to give you space, plus they do it with a big dose of good grace (we are free to venture out of our homes). No doubt some people are pains in the arse, but police and local authority civilian enforcement officers in my area have not reported either medium or high numbers of breaches.
A sense of solidarity is real and adhering to the social distancing measures isn´t a slavish following of orders, rather it is more about doing the right thing. Interestingly this mindset maybe indicative not just during the pandemic, but also after the crisis is over (the infamous curve points to a fall in new cases giving cause for cautious optimism).
I am thinking after years of cuts and pay suppression it will be hard for politicians to argue against giving better terms and conditions to vital workers. There looks like there could be an imperative for the nation and the German people to offer more than just applause to thank them for their efforts on the frontline etc. At the end of the pandemic further polling (DW) suggests that the German people also want to be supportive of other countries and the shaken European Union.
This suggests to me that Germans possess a feeling of confidence about living through the pandemic despite being the fourth worst infected nation currently on Earth, it has comparatively fewer deaths – and that Germans are mentally preparing themselves to deal with the aftermath.
I wonder after the war on Covid-19 is won who will win the peace? Will there be a sense of purpose to meet the challenges that so many governments can sweep under the carpet when not held to account? Health care, the environment, racism and social inclusion being just a few I might mention.
So no, Germany is not a nation of ´little Hitlers or even ´Bonapartists´, rather it appears to me for all its own oddities this is a nation that thrives on cooperation and not enforcement. In general life and away from the pandemic my impression is there are fewer signs saying NO and less in your face health & safety in Germany than in the UK.