The German Way of Life

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The German Way of Life

Woods and "Wanderlust"  Long ago, practically all of Germany was covered by vast, nearly impenetrable forests. (That's one reason why the Romans were never able to penetrate very far.) Many place-names and even family names in Germany end with the syllable -wald (woods), a reminder of their origins. But years of tribal migrations, wars, and the cutting and clearing of forest land have reduced Germany's forests to a fraction of their former density. A few of the original forests still remain: the Black Forest and the Teutoburg Forest. These forests of Germany were a wellspring of folk legends and superstitions, much like their counterparts in France and England. That's why the most authentic remnants of German folk culture are to be seen today in little towns buried deep in the oldest forests, like the Black Forest, where peasants still wear the traditional costumes.

Germany's "forest culture" has survived the decline of the forests themselves. Germans have always been romantic nature enthusiasts, passionately attached to the land they live on. Their love of nature expresses itself in physical as well as literary form: in hiking and camping, the nation's most popular sports. They're actually more than mere "sports" in fact. Hiking is revered for its rejuvenating effect on the whole person, on his mind as well as his body. This is all part of a long tradition that goes back to the days of nomadic wanderings: the tradition of Wanderlust (literally, "joy in wandering"). Hikers put on their Lederhosen (leather shorts) and knapsacks, grab their carved walking sticks, and set off for the hills and forests. They might be away for a long weekend, or for several weeks if it's the summer. There's more to the trek than simply walking, cooking over campfires, and sleeping under the stars. The students often recite poetry, sing together, or discuss literature and philosophy far into the night. Farmers often let the students sleep in their barns and stables. Thomas Mann has described these student hikes and some of the involved conversations in his novel, Doktor Faustus.

Theory over Fact  The tendency to exalt nature illustrates a general characteristic of the Germans, which is their weakness as well as their strength. It is the tendency to put theory over fact, fantasy over actuality, the ideal over the real. This tends to make for good philosophers (Germany has more than any other country) and good music and literature, but it deflects attention from day-to-day affairs, and promotes disorder in politics and society. "Scratch a hard-working German and you'll find a dreamer" sums it all up.

What is it about the Germans that has led them to place theory over fact? Probably the answer is the German language itself. German is the most flexible language in Western Europe. German grammar is loose, and gives tremendous freedom to the writer. He may make nouns out of adjectives, verbs out of nouns, and manufacture new words all by himself. This encourages great creativity in literature, but again, has unwanted side-effects in public life. Demagogues and orators can whip up mass emotions in a way that a French or British politician would find much harder to do.

One might note a parallel with Greek culture here — a comparison not overlooked by many German scholars themselves! The Greek language gave much freedom to the writer and orator. It could suggest ideas without pinning them down precisely, and this made the Greeks the greatest philosophers, poets, and dramatists of the ancient world. Yet Greek political history, like that of Germany, was chaotic and violent. In spite of its cultural achievements, Greek civilization was an easy prey to another civilization with less philosophical brilliance but with a prosaic talent for organization: the Roman. And perhaps the same could be said for modern Germany vis-a-vis the U.S.

Mysticism: This is the word most often used to sum up these German traits. The fascination for the mysterious and mystifying, for things one can sense without seeing directly, for ideas instead of facts, for the dim as against the clear — this is mysticism. You can see it in a sidewalk debate in Germany: the debate starts out calmly and methodically, as in a college classroom. But if the antagonists stick with it long enough, the level of passion rises to a pitch you seldom expect among such "sober" and "self-disciplined" people. In German literature, the most sentimental of expressions can be found alongside exhortations to duty.

Mysticism is the driving force behind German music (think of Wagner), behind German painting and poetry, and behind the speculative theories of Germany's greatest philosophers. Occasionally, a sober classical form has been given to it, as in Bach and Beethoven. But underneath the classical form, the tendency toward mysticism is still there, flowing as a wellspring of inspiration.

German Efficiency  What goes up must come down. Swings in one direction tend to call forth swings in the opposite direction. This was true for the Greeks, who worshipped "moderation" at the same time they put whole populations to the sword. And it's just as true for the Germans. The German way of life represents a centuries-long attempt to harness and temper this mystical tendency by subordinating it to the ideal of order. Take the aphorism we quoted earlier and turn it around: just because the German is a dreamer, he's got to be hard-working simply to survive.

But there are more specific reasons too in the case of Germany. Germany is a country fairly rich in natural resources: minerals, forests (of yesteryear), lakes and rivers, and fertile soil. It is a land which rewards effort, but which yields nothing without effort. Woods had to be cut, fields drained, meadows cleared of stones. Wars swept the country, destroying whole cities and towns. Hard work was the price of survival, and it became habitual.

The Civil Service: The hardest workers of all were the Beamten ("officials"), and it is they who ran Germany for much of its history. Generally loyal and immune to bribery, the civil servants took charge of day-to-day affairs while elected politicians or kings sat around dreaming of "ideal" solutions. It was the civil service rather than any feeling of patriotism that held Germany together over two world wars, in spite of all the pomp and ceremony. Even today, most Germans are content to let the "officials" run things as long as streets are clean and pocketbooks reasonably well filled.

The Final Dilemma  The triumph of theory over fact shows up even in the most pervasive of German traits, hard work. Many Germans continue to regard work as a moral imperative rather than a simple necessity. (This does make for good automobiles.) We can see in this the age-old tendency to elevate a mere necessity into something more sublime, to invest a simple action with a higher, loftier meaning. This tendency to exalt theory over practice creates a dilemma for anyone trying to interpret the German way of life. On the one hand, one admires the German intellectual tradition, with its rich contribution to European thought, art, and music. On the other hand, one must acknowledge that German political history is the least stable in Europe. Feelings of admiration tend to blend with a sense of tragedy as you witness both sides of the German way of life.

Traveler's Paradise  To conclude on a happier note, we may say that Germany is a traveler's paradise today. The prices may be higher than elsewhere, but the quality of service you get for the money almost makes the expense worthwhile. The legendary efficiency and thoroughness of the Germans hasn't brought the usual brusqueness and discourtesy. Germans are usually willing to help in any situation, and a policeman will often go out of his way to help you find an address. This is especially true of the smaller towns, although the courtesy scale doesn't plummet so sharply when you venture to the larger cities, as it has a way of doing in France and the U.S. Pickpockets, shortchangers, and fleecers are far rarer in Germany than in France or southern Europe.

Practically all Germans with any education can speak at least passable English, and many are fluent in English and French. More people speak English in Germany (and in Austria and German Switzerland) than in any other country outside Britain. Unlike the French, the Germans feel more relaxed about their language, and aren't offended by the visitor's stumbling attempts to speak it. This openness and Yankee-style informality makes Germany one of the most fondly-remembered countries among Americans who have traveled through it.


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