The Rambling American: The (Dis)order Within

Locke McKenzie questions stereotypes of the German people and the country’s cultural awareness.

I‘ve been thinking back more and more about Nicholas Kulish’s article in The New York Times, which discusses the phenomenon of German Ordnung (basically translated as “order,” although its meaning is much more far-reaching).

Citing both the mainstream German refusal to jay walk and their strict adherence to taking off their shoes in the “Barefoot Zone” at the pool, Kulish paints a comically accurate picture of exactly what German Ordnung connotes. It’s the unspoken understanding that you will do what you are supposed to inflatable trackless train

Yes, yes. This is the land of rule-following, engineering, and efficiency. It is a stereotype we regularly cast upon Germans — they’re inflexible, unfriendly, unfun. Even living here, we “outsiders” often like to poke fun at this.

As an expatriate friend recently said, “I know they’re smart. They’ve got to be, but what the hell are these people doing with all this intellect these days?”

Good question. There’s no denying the fact that Germania has a rich history of great thinkers — Bertolt Brecht, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Max Ernst to name a few — but what about today?

In his article, Kulish argues that Germans adhere to a stringent sense of order in reaction to their past. He claims that this country’s regular and unfortunate history of turmoil has ultimately resulted in a “a national knack for sticking to the program.” Reading Kulish’s piece, one would think that contemporary Germany is where fun and critical thinking come to die.

I would argue that this is just bad typecasting. Especially when reflecting on the last hundred years, Kulish’s argument seems bizarre. The notion that Germany has embraced order in a “concerted effort to permanently banish the instability and violence that have marked its history” seems completely illogical. As I understand it, not asking questions and just doing as told was what got Germany into trouble in the first place.

While Kulish’s examples are admittedly present in German society, a deeper look reveals something much different. Instead of order and efficiency, contemporary Germany is built to a large extent on the necessary rejection of the status quo.

Especially having grown up in the United States — a country made up almost entirely of immigrants — I’ve seen how the desire to embrace and treasure our origins has been imbued into our value system. In Germany, the idea of doing something simply because it is traditional would be considered blind stupidity. I remember speaking to a German last summer while I was playing my bagpipes in a park.

“What gave you the idea to ever start doing that?”

“I don’t know, my family’s roots are in Scotland. I guess I wanted to hold onto a bit of that culture, to do something traditional.”

Having played the pipes for the last six years, I have given this answer to curious spectators on countless occasions. In the States, their response was always more or less the same: “Oh, cool. That’s great.”

In Germany, I was in for a bit of a shock.

“Hey, don’t talk to me about roots. You know where cultural pride got my father?”

For many people, doing something simply because it is German would be considered one step away from Nazism. Thinking critically about what they do and why is hammered into their heads from a very young age. Sometimes they do so to an exaggerated extent, questioning any and everything that comes into public discussion, regardless of the issue.

Here I am thinking mainly of the Linksradikal (radical left) and Antifa (anti-facist) groups that make up a large slice of the alternative scene. In Hamburg, the Rota Flora, an occupied house in the middle of the city, functions as a center for what I can only label protest awareness. The building is not only a meeting place for those who want to get involved, but it’s also a billboard. Each week there is a message of a new protest or solidarity movement to consider. Be it the G20 Summit, a fur convention, or the cancellation of a beloved street fair (which was cancelled because of the unorderly riots that result each year), there is always some cause to question.

As the protestors see it, the desire for stability was what lead the Germans to follow Hitler. Now they want anarchy.

This disorder doesn’t always have to be serious, however. Often it is a matter of simply having fun.

Consider the German music scene here, specifically the elektro movement. German elektro is a celebrated part of contemporary society. Each weekend thousands of people pack themselves into the various clubs where they can lose themselves to the heavy bass beats until the wee hours of the morning. (For evidence one need only come sleep at my apartment on the weekend. Beneath me, the club Fundbureau plays from around 10 p.m. until noon the next day.)

These elektro parties are not simply a place to drink beer and listen to music all night. In a way, they are also a massive political argument. As recently described in the Süddeutsche Zeitung, “This disco culture… offers the amazing experience of disengaging and melding social rolls and identities.”

One steps into a club and, if the club is good, loses all sense of place and time. The article discusses discos – namely Berlin’s famous Berghain — as places of transcendence. There are no rules. There is nothing. Just the music.

In my time since living here, I have been introduced to, and at one time or another embraced, all of these things. Especially after gaining a first impression similar to that of Mr. Kulish’s, I was surprised by each.

It’s not that the Germans are more orderly than Americans, it is simply that we choose to be orderly in different ways.

If a German and American came to the same pedestrian crossing, 90% of the time the American will walk regardless of the light and the German will stay. The American, however, will do this at 2 a.m. when the bars all close. The German won’t make it to that intersection until eight or nine in the morning.

Locke McKenzie runs a language company in Munich, Germany. When not expounding on the finer points of communication, he tends to drink and write about it at Reinheitsgebot-Renewed.