Tony Connelly / Oct 2015
When Volkswagen was preparing its 2014 Superbowl ad it launched a teaser. In it an uptight German engineer in a white coat announces that the company will use Germany’s famous precision skills to “engineer” a great commercial, simply by applying an algorithim to the features of US commercials – eg, celebrities, groin hits etc – that Americans typically found funny.
When the resulting “commercial” becomes crass and chaotic, the engineer changes him mind. “I don’t like that,” he shudders to the camera.
Back then the idea of Volkswagen laughing at German stereotypes seemed happy proof: a relaxed, post-modern Germany had joined the Bretton Woods of global humour.
Now no-one is laughing.
More worrying than the looming job cuts and multi billion euro clean up is the impact of the emissions scandal on Germany’s reputation for efficiency, engineering and obeying the rules.
In 2009 I was commissioned by an Irish publisher to write a book on European stereotypes. How had these half-baked clichés evolved? Were they still true in a Europe where breaking down lingering prejudice was the active ingredient of the post-national project?
Starting off (incidentally) in Baden Württemburg and the home of Vorsprung Durch Technik, I embarked on a tour of 10 countries, mostly in my spare time but occasionally cannibalising stories I had covered for RTE, (think no further than Silvio Berlusconi’s one-man mission to radiantly confirm the stereotype of the Italian male).
Along the way I learned that humans are neurologically predisposed to reaching for the stereotype when confronted with the unfamiliar, that stereotypes are devilishly difficult to break down, and that in times of stress both individuals, and nations resort to negative clichés of their neighbours, and positive ones of themselves.
Stereotypes are, as any social psychologist will tell you, a straightforward part of the in- and out-group dynamics that influence human behaviour. Yet they doggedly survive at a time when globalisation constantly erodes a key category of accummulated humanity: the nation state.
It could be argued that the two biggest things destabilising ever-closer union – the Greek debt calamity and the refugee crisis – have had at their heart the bubbling toxins of national character. No populist narrative about the euro crisis was complete without stereotypes of lazy Greeks or Teutonic overlords for whom rules and austerity were the only solution. As Europe struggles to cope with hundreds of thousands of refugees, policy reactions are framed in terms of either redeeming – or confirming – stereotypes.
Germany’s “September Fairytale”, in which Angela Merkel’s (short-lived) open door policy on refugees and the outburst of volunteerism appeared to wipe away unpleasant characteristics associated with World War II and the debt crisis.
There was a further outbreak of hostility between central and eastern European states. As insults flew, Hungary’s foreign minister Péter Szijjártó declaimed: “We are a state that is more than 1,000 years old that throughout its history has had to defend not only itself, but Europe as well many times.” In one sweeping gesture Mr Szijjártó was reaffirming Hungary’s age-old sense of itself has being the misunderstood geniuses of Europe, linguistically out on a limb and surrounded by a sea of hostile slavs – or, more pertinently, the Christian bulwark against invading (Muslim) Turks.
The unpleasant reality for those believing in Europe’s mission to advance civilisation is that the Darwinian effects of globalisation and its financial crises have brought national chauvinism in from the cold. Populist parties from the Front National, to UKIP to the Sweden Democrats are reaping the rewards.
How much we should fret about such things? That will become apparent in the coming years as a host of crises such as Grexit, Brexit, refugees – even Volkswagen’s fatal blow against Germany’s reputation for law-abiding efficiency –play themselves out. As Bruce Stokes, director of economic attidues at the Pew Research Center, told me: “In Europe national identities are much more embedded than the visionaries of Europe might have hoped. This is potentially much more human than we appreciate, that the sense of identity with one’s group is not simply rolled over by reducing tariffs or making travel easier.”
Stokes talked about how he would present research findings on the “untrustworthy French” and “hardworking Germans” (etc) to “unbelievably serious” people in the IMF, the US Treasury and the Bank of England and watch them burst out laughing.
Of course, stereotyping is only harmless until it’s weaponised by those in power. Angela Merkel provoked outrage in May 2011 when she said Greeks should take fewer holidays and retire later (never mind that statistics showed Greeks retiring on average the same as most other Europeans).
A question I am frequently asked is, are these stereotypes true? There is always the kernel of truth, but the important thing is historical forces – and prejudices – which wind-carve the myths of national temperament.
Greeks will regularly explain the pathologies of their corrupt, clientellist political system by referring back to the 1967-74 military junta, again back to the Nazi occupation and once more back to 400 years of Ottoman domination. When you gaze down the centuries you realise that fixing these things is at least a generational task, and certainly not a one to be tackled lightly – especailly in an age when social media bristles with instant and limitless prejudice.