First, the cheery news: the Brits may finally be getting over the war. A YouGov survey published last week hints that the British view of Germany is less and less defined by sinister men in jackboots. Britain may still be overwhelmingly sceptical about the EU and Germany’s role in it, but Brits have developed a serious soft spot for the way Germans run their country – their politicians, banks, schools and hospitals all rated more highly than their British equivalents. In fact, Germany is the second most admired country in Britain, ahead of the US and behind only Sweden.
The stand-out adjective the British associate with Germany now is “hard-working”: ironic, given that a furious work rate used to be the reason people couldn’t stand the place. In 1906 the sociologist Max Scheler explained international antipathy towards his countrymen, with their “pure joy in work itself – without an aim, without reason, without an end”. Around the same time, his colleague Max Weber coined the phrase “Protestant work ethic” to highlight the quasi-religious aura surrounding labour in his motherland. Germany now promises to embody that ideal more than ever: as of Sunday its two highest posts are held by people from Protestant households: Angela Merkel is the daughter of a Lutheran pastor; new president Joachim Gauck is a former pastor himself.
So here’s the bad news: having ditched a view of Germany that is about 50 years past its sell-by date, Britain appears to have embraced an even older stereotype. Truth is, Germans don’t work harder than Brits. If anything, they are increasingly working less.
In a 2010 EU report on holidays, Germany came out top, with 40 days a year – compared with 33 in “work-shy” Greece. In the age of flexible working patterns and ever-flashing BlackBerrys, exact working hours are notoriously hard to pin down, but in no recent survey does Germany come out ahead of Britain, where office workers put in 43.6 a week, while the EU average is 40.3.
Unnoticed by British media, Germany has recently gone through a national debate about Burnout-Syndrom, or work-related exhaustion. Over the past six years, leading politicians, chefs and football coaches have stepped down from their posts due to stress. At their annual conference last month even the country’s Catholic bishops complained about work fatigue – you wonder what Weber would have made of it all.
A recent investigation revealed that few psychiatrists could actually define Burnout in medical terms, but that doesn’t make it a case of German angst. It may just mean that Germany is more forward-looking when it comes to the meaning of work in the Wi-Fi-ed 21st century. In hamster-wheel Britain, when the Lloyds chief executive, Antonio Horta-Osario, took six weeks off with exhaustion, it was laughed off as a “mystery illness” in the press.
It might be worth considering if there is such a thing as a typical German idea of work after all. Harold James’s new history of the Prussian steel- and arms-maker Krupp quotes the company’s founder to suggest that the Protestant work ethic may be less about long hours in the office than making work meaningful: “The purpose of work should be the common good,” said Alfred Krupp, “then work is a blessing, work is prayer.” Volkswagen’s recent decision to disable employees’ BlackBerrys outside office hours may be a hint that that ideal is not quite dead.
Could it be that the new British love of “hard-working” Germany tells us more about British anxiety than German achievement? If the Germans work a moderate amount, have a good laugh along the way, and still manage to be Europe’s most successful economy, why are people in Britain working so bloody hard?
By Philip Oltermann, deputy editor of Comment is free.