Genre of the Week: Planet Germany: Eine Expedition in die Heimat des Hawaii-Toasts

Author’s Note: This Genre of the Week has been pushed up a couple days due to important commitments. This is the first review that has been done by a guest columnist. And for a good reason….. 🙂

When we look at Germans, we look at high quality and how they strive to achieve perfection, priding on the likes of BMW, Nutella, soccer, universities and a good beer. However, when asking a German whether they are proud of their culture or how they perceive us Americans and our way of looking at things, we see and hear another story.  In this book review, Planet Germany: An Expedition into the country that is home to Hawaiian toasts (this is the English equivalent to the original title), Eric T. Hansen takes a look at the old question of German identity and how the Germans look at their own culture, from a humorous point of view. This review was done by Ann Marie Ackermann, an American expatriate living in Germany and working as a lawyer, translator and a writer. Here’s a look at the reason why a person should think about reading this book:

A case of a lost cultural identity

Can it be that the Germans really don’t know themselves? And that they need an American to hold up a mirror and show them why the rest of the world holds its arms open to the German culture?

One American who’s been living in Germany since 1983 seems to think so. Eric T. Hansen’s book, Planet Germany, dissects the German psyche. His scalpel is his rare sense of humor, and he cuts through layers of poor national self-esteem to find the ingenuity that created Hawaii toast. I say “rare” because Hansen manages to elicit laughs from both Americans and Germans. Any American expat in Germany will appreciate the book, not only for the insights into the collective mind of the German folk, but for Hansen’s satire.

The world admires the Germans, but the Germans don’t know it

It was in a shopping mall in Magdeburg, Germany that Hansen discovered Germans don’t know who they are. The author, a journalist, was writing an article about exports, and asked shoppers what German products and personalities they thought would be popular in America.

“Nothing,” said the shoppers. One German man said he couldn’t imagine Americans would be interested in anything from Germany.

Frustrated, Hansen spouted a number of possibilities. “What about Mercedes? Volkswagen? BMW? Are there any German cars that aren’t famous in America?” His list went on:  Braun, Bosch, and Siemens? Gummi bears and “Nutella”? Lowenbräu? Blaupunkt and Grundig? Claudia Schiffer and Heidi Klum? Das Boot, Lola rennt, and the Brother Grimm fairy tales? Wolfgang Petersen and Roland Emmerich? Kraftwerk, Nena, Rammstein, and the Scorpions?

But it’s not easy to impress a German. “That might be,” said the man. “But nothing else.”

Americanization of Germany or Germanization of America?

We – the American expat community in Germany – have all heard it before. At some point a German has sat down with us in a café and started complaining about how the Americans are taking over the German culture.

The first time I heard it, I was incensed. Every individual German votes with his or her wallet by selecting products. Collectively, the country has chosen the culture it has now. Why blame the Americans? But on a deeper level, does a country really lose its culture by purchasing foreign merchandise like Coca-cola, jeans, and pop music? In the United States, we eat tacos and sushi, sing French and German Christmas carols, and listen to Jamaican rhythms. But we call that enriching our culture.

Oh no, says Hansen. That’s not what the Germans really mean. “Americanization” for them really means “modernization.” Alas, the Germans are just mourning the loss of the culture they knew as children.

Hansen puts the complaint under a microscope and finds a better case for the Germanization of America. At the time he wrote his book (2007), the value of German exports to the United States was almost one third more than the other way around. That’s not bad for a country half the size of Texas.

But the Germans better watch out. There is another country that’s done a lot more to infiltrate their country: Sweden. Germans read Astrid Lindgren as children and buy clothing at H&M. They listen to Abba and buy their first furniture from Ikea. They read mysteries by Henning Mankell and watch movies with Ingrid Bergman. And if that’s enough, says Hansen, the Swedes have to go out and flood Germany with Knäckebrot.  But nobody in Germany talks about “Swedenization.”

Germans as World Champion Complainers

Hansen’s satire shines most brightly in his chapter on why Germans believe complaining is a sign of higher intelligence. It’s sort of an unofficial German IQ test. Whoever does the best job of spontaneous criticism is the smartest. A comparison of the headlines in Spiegel and Time Magazine proves this, says Hansen: The American magazine offers information, and the German one critique. Even my German grandfather noticed this tendency. “When a German and an American both buy a new house,” he used to say, “the American guests come over and talk about everything they like about the house, and the Germans come over and find everything wrong with it.”

And here Germans are the Weltmeister. Just as Arabic has more words for “camel” than any other language in the world, Hansen points out, German has more words for criticism. It’s not necessarily a bad thing, because public, grassroots criticism plays an important role in democracy. Heck, Germans even have a holiday for political criticism. Have you ever watched German television during Fasching?

To anchor the importance of complaining in the German culture, Hansen applied for a job as professor at twenty German universities. He asked the universities to establish a chair for the esthetics of complaining (Nörgeleiästhetik) and offered a curriculum. Hansen includes his application in the book, and you can find the answers of three of the universities in the appendix. And don’t tell me the Germans have no sense of humor. When I read the appendix, I always have to pull out my Taschentücher because I start crying so hard.

About the book:

Eric T. Hansen, Planet Germany (Frankfurt a.M.: Fischer Verlag, 2007); 289 pages, in German. Eric T. Hansen is a journalist living in Berlin.

Author’s Fazit:

The book did provide the author with an idea for an activity that students in both Germany and elsewhere can try at home. Click onto this interview about Germany and what to expect. Make a list and ask yourselves whether there is more to Germany than what is mentioned here, and share it with your classmates and teacher. You’ll be amazed at the various answers brought up, especially if you as the teacher is a non-native German. Good luck with that! 🙂

Note: The video was produced by Jason Smith, Marc Schueler and Dan Wogawa in 2013 and powered by GoAnimate.

About the writer and critic:

Ann Marie Ackermann (small)

Ann Marie Ackermann was a prosecutor in the United States before relocating to Germany, where she worked for 15 years as a legal and medical translator. Ann Marie now researches and writes historical true crime. Her first book, Death of an Assassin, will appear with Kent State University Press in 2017. It tells the true story of a German assassin who fled to the United States and became the first soldier to die under the American Civil War hero Robert E. Lee. You can visit Ann Marie’s website at http://www.annmarieackermann.com.

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