Book of the week

Why the Germans Do It Better

by John Kampfner
Atlantic 320pp £16.99
The Week Bookshop £13.99


When David Cameron visited Angela Merkel at her country residence in 2013, she tried to break the ice with small talk about her favourite Wagner performances at Bayreuth. “Cameron stuttered,” writes John Kampfner in his new book, “and said he liked watching TV” – before explaining that he’d like to go to the opera, but knew the media would label him an elitist “luvvie” if he did. The Germans’ high-minded attitude to culture is one of many things that Kampfner celebrates in this “thoughtful, deeply reported” book, said Oliver Moody in The Times. What he admires most is their tireless self-questioning – a consequence of their Nazi past, which has given them an acute awareness of democracy’s fragility and a tendency to prize “unassuming competence over flashy charisma”. But he’s “impeccably even-handed” – praising Germany’s formidable manufacturing tradition, for example, while pillorying its complacent and corrupt car industry.

Kampfner’s fine book holds up a mirror to Britain, which he finds mediocre and myopic in comparison, said David Edgerton in The Guardian. He is less focused on the economy than many British commentators: he admires Germany as a gentle, intellectual and progressive place, rather than “the land of Vorsprung durch Technik”. But the fact remains that it has three times Britain’s share of global manufacturing, and even the east – which suffered a “brutal” transition to capitalism – is now wealthier than many parts of the UK. It’s telling that when Merkel was asked what Germany meant to her, she answered: “I am thinking of airtight windows. No other country can build such airtight and beautiful windows.”

This is an “excellent and provocative” book, said Max Hastings in The Sunday Times, and not one that Boris Johnson will cherish. Kampfner has spent 40 years reporting on Germany and suggests that a key reason for its success is its people’s humility: “they have much to be proud of, yet few can bring themselves to praise their country”. Germany has shortcomings aplenty, symbolised by Berlin’s new airport, whose planned opening was delayed by the discovery of half a million faults. But “its vast underlying strength dwarfs all this”. Its postwar leaders have been remarkable. Merkel’s exemplary handling of the pandemic is a case in point: “She told citizens what she, her ministers and scientists knew, and what they didn’t. She never blagged. She never boasted.” It’s time we showed more respect for our “stable, reliable, supremely efficient neighbour”.