Never before have I compiled a list of things the British do not understand about the Germans. For several years I instead toiled, as a correspondent in Berlin, at the vainglorious task of rendering the Germans comprehensible to readers of the Daily Telegraph. With what joy I fell on evidence that these admirable and hospitable people are just like us!

David Cameron seems to have made the same error. On discovering that Angela Merkel agreed with him about some aspects of EU reform, he yielded to the belief that she must agree with him about other aspects too. Like an over-confident suitor, who takes the wry smiles of his intended conquest as evidence that she will do whatever he wants, he failed to realise their relationship was deepening only inside his own head.

Hence the story in this week’s Spiegel, which reports that the German Chancellor will not support any proposals the British Prime Minister may make to limit the free movement of people within the European Union, and that she thinks such a policy would make Britain’s departure from the EU more likely.

The Open Europe think tank suggested “this is much less of a story than the headlines suggest”. But as an instance of the British capacity for self-deception about Germany, it is exemplary. When the belief that the Germans agreed with the Prime Minister’s view was exposed as illusory, the British media responded by demanding that we call Berlin’s bluff, followed by shakings of the head in German government circles, and even “mockery” of Cameron for bringing this on himself. Yesterday’s Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung carried a piece on the affair under the headline, “The Chancellor is not amused”.

Much the same happened when Cameron tried to block the appointment of Jean-Claude Juncker as President of the European Commission: the fact that Merkel was prepared to sit in the same boat as Cameron when they were guests of the Swedish Prime Minister did not indicate she was actually going to help him to stop Juncker. If we wish to avoid an unending series of such disappointments, it might be worth bearing in mind a few of the things we do not understand about Germany: though the first of these things turns out to be a person.

1. Angela Merkel

The British have no idea what makes the Chancellor tick. The Germans too have no idea what makes her tick. Merkel is inscrutable even to her own Christian Democratic Union: a party accustomed to being led by Catholic men from the Rhineland. For the last 14 years it has been led by an unknown woman who spent the first 36 years of her life in East Germany, where her father was a Protestant clergyman.

Here is a politician with a genius for getting people to believe she is on their side, and to vote for her, without actually telling them what she thinks. Seasoned journalists have said in despair that she can hold an hour-long press conference while saying nothing they can use. She has been Chancellor since 2005, and during the euro crisis she demonstrated her remarkable ability to keep the show on the road. My guess is that people feel at ease with her in part because she declines to ask various questions about the future of the nation state which the German people do not want to answer, and won’t even feel ready to start tackling for another generation. She just gets on with securing as good a deal as she can for Germany.

Merkel had ample opportunity to learn how to keep her opinions to herself while living in East Germany. Despite her Lutheran upbringing, and her refusal to join the Socialist Unity Party of Germany (as the East German communists were known), she pursued a successful career as a scientist. She has said that at school she learned how “not to stand out” and “always be a little bit better than the others”.

Her opponents often make the error of underestimating her. Her amiability is accompanied by a lethal streak of opportunism. At the end of 1999 she was the only Christian Democrat who had the guts to go for Helmut Kohl, and end his career, when he refused to reveal who had given him the illegal donations which for 25 years had helped him to dominate the party. In 2011, after the disaster in the Fukushima reactor, she astonished everyone by suddenly turning against nuclear energy in Germany. But she didn’t get where she is today by showing her cards. Anyone in Downing Street, or elsewhere, who makes self-serving assumptions about what she will do next, will very likely be mistaken.

2. The German language

Few of us understand it. To think one can understand a country without knowing its language is a presumption.

3. German manners

But even if one knows the language, one may find oneself unable to comprehend the manners. Take the elementary and unavoidable question of when to use a first or Christian name and call someone “Du” – the familiar form of the word “You”. One of my most treasured souvenirs of my time in Germany is “A short Guide on The Correct German Form” compiled by Lieutenant-Colonel Jan-Dirk von Merveldt, of the Royal Green Jackets, for the use of British officers stationed in Germany. Merveldt’s family emerged in Westphalia in 1159, both his parents were German and he spent the first 14 years of his life in Germany. He confirms that in many circumstances we are liable to get things wrong: “This British habit of liberal use of first names is regarded by many Germans as irritating, excruciating, unwelcome, over familiar and an invasion of privacy – although no German will actually ever admit it to you.”

The Germans won’t tell us when we get it wrong, and have no doubt learned to expect foreigners to get it wrong. I would be very surprised if Cameron, eager to make friends, has not got it wrong. And of course some Germans go to the opposite extreme, and insist on being utterly liberal about such matters. I have dear friends at the Free University in Berlin who solemnly insist that good manners are “undemocratic” and that Germany has no class system. So the old-fashioned, or 1950s, element in German life goes unnoticed. It is in some ways a more formal and in the best sense provincial society than we understand.

4. The drinking customs

This is a deep subject on which I am not qualified to give guidance: an example of something most of us don’t even know we don’t know about.

5. The slowness

Germans tend to have a different and less impatient sense of time. Doing something properly, with craftsmanlike deliberation, is more important than doing it fast. This has a bearing on politics: changes tend to be debated for 20 or 30 years before actually occurring. To reform the EU in two years might be quite difficult. It is true that the fall of the Berlin Wall occurred in a rush, and forced the Germans to display their gift for improvisation. But the popular demand to reform the EU is not quite so strong.

6. The geography

This may seem too obvious to be worth mentioning, but it is a subject which the British often ignore or underplay. Germany has more neighbours than any other country in Europe: nine with whom it shares a land border, and about the same again once one includes those which can easily be reached by sea. Each of these countries is smaller than Germany. If they are not to feel frightened of German power, then some system of co-operation may be desirable, or even, if one thinks about it, essential. The British Isles are not subject to the same pressure. We may be worried about isolating ourselves, but we have nothing like as many neighbours who would feel worried if we did so. We can go off-shore, if we want to, because that is where we already are. The Germans do a colossal trade with China, but their geographical position is at the heart of Europe.

7. The history

This again may seem too obvious to be worth mentioning. But it is unfortunately the case that very few people in Britain know much about German history before 1914, or after 1945. We even tend to overlook the large role played by Britain in the creation after the Second World War of free institutions in West Germany, a subject on which Thomas Kielinger touched in a recent piece for the Daily Telegraph. Concentrating on the First World War, and then on the monstrous events of 1933-45, and knowing nothing about what came before or after, is not a good way to set about understanding Germany. Neil MacGregor, Director of the British Museum, has now produced, in Germany: Memories of a Nation, a series of 30 radio programmes which offer a brilliant account of some of what any educated Briton would hope to know about Germany. I have missed most of them when broadcast live, but find that even for someone as technologically backward as myself, it is possible to arrange to listen to one or more of these 14-minute programmes while doing the washing up.

Another obvious but often overlooked point about the history: it makes it harder for Germany’s political class to express a healthy German nationalism. In some ways, the immediate post-war generation of German politicians, including such remarkable figures as Kurt Schumacher, born in 1895, and Konrad Adenauer, born in 1876, found this easier than those who came later, for their political formation had occurred before 1933. In the post-war period, a new currency was created of which all West Germans could be proud, for it too was uncontaminated by what the Nazis had done. Unfortunately this currency was subsumed in the euro.

8. The politics

The West German tradition of consensus politics is different to the Westminster tradition of adversarial politics, and is therefore difficult to explain to or bring alive for British readers. Here again is an aspect of Germany we do not really understand. And the German political class discusses these matters in a way which to the British ear can seem at once deeply bogus and deeply boring. If one wishes to understand this stuff, one has to go to a large number of high-minded conferences, and in order to do that, you need pretty much to go native, and to start talking in the same way: whereupon you sacrifice the trust of Britons who value our tradition of national sovereignty.

When I interviewed Douglas Carswell for this site, he said one of his formative experiences, when he was wondering whether to leave the Conservatives and join UKIP, was attending a Königswinter conference – a meeting of British and German policy-makers – in Cambridge in March this year, at which some of Cameron’s advisers were, by his account, “smirkingly, eyeball-rollingly contemptuous of even the most modest treaty reforms”: an attitude which convinced Carswell that Cameron could not be trusted to make serious reforms of the EU.

9. The similarities

And yet there are close similarities between Britain and Germany. We share an admiration for the Royal Family, and a fondness for beer and dogs, among many other things. And in both countries, one finds a conviction that it would be more sensible to run our own affairs, than to have them run for us from a city in Belgium. The rise of UKIP is paralleled, in a more serious and professorial tone, by the rise of Alternative für Deutschland. But these similarities can become yet another cause of misunderstanding: for the visiting British eurosceptic tends to be encouraged by them into the erroneous belief that the Germans take exactly the same view as he does of the EU.


When I began writing this article, I intended to list a dozen things the British do not understand about Germany, but it now strikes me that nine are quite enough to be going on with. I draw two modest conclusions: first, that when we make assertions about Germany, we don’t usually know what we are talking about, and second, that it is ridiculous to imagine that German attitudes to the EU will ever be identical to ours.

Any British reform plan which assumes complete German concurrence will not merely fail, but will create, on a vastly magnified scale, the embarrassment and confusion surrounding this week’s story in Spiegel. In order to achieve reform, we need, in a curious way, to be less absolutist about things: less insistent on creating a Europe in our own image, and more willing to imagine what it would be like to have a land frontier with nine other countries.