September 26, 2022

Germany and the USA: Shared Visions

Posted on 23. May, 2011 by Administrator in Social/Cultural

It is said that fully 25% of all Americans can trace their heritage back to Germany. That figure has dipped a bit only because of increased immigration from other countries, but it stands out as powerful reminder that our collective ‘Germanness’ is well-earned. There are myths that abound as well. One of them is that the German language almost became the legal language of the United States. History tells a different story.

On January 13, 1795, Congress considered a proposal, not to give the German language any official status, but merely to print the federal laws in German as well as English. During the debate, a motion to adjourn failed by one vote. The final vote rejecting the translation of federal laws, which took place one month later, is not recorded. It seems that the translation proposal originated as a petition to Congress on March 20, 1794, from a group of Germans living in Augusta, Virginia.

Past is prologue

The German/American relationship is full of exciting moments, and some urban legends like the ‘German language vote’ have become fodder for the growth of a mythology about our two countries, but as we all know, myths are not the stuff true relationships are made of. Facts are another story. Putting aside the long and proud history of Germany and the two World Wars that tarnished that pride for several generations of young and old Germans alike, let’s focus on our shared values. The immigrant Germans that came to our shores in the 18th and 19th centuries were hard-working, God-fearing people. Many were farmers, but thousands had tradesmen’s skills, and they plied them across our great land. Stonemasons, carpenters and others built our courthouses and public buildings (a trip to the German settlements like Fredericksburg in our neighboring state of Texas will prove that).

They brought with them their love and zest for life as well. Scratch the surface of a German and more than likely you will find a person endowed with a love of food, dance, music and art. Their mercantile skills led them into businesses as diverse as purveyors of goods, grain and other items needed by America’s settlers. If we fast forward to the 20th century in the years after WWII and the Marshall Plan, we saw a country that was intent on rebuilding itself as it shifted into high gear. To be fair, the decimation of Germany’s old-world manufacturing and the support of the U.S. helped them implement newer technology, enabling them to leapfrog over many nations stuck with older manufacturing sectors.

They embarked on a full-scale redefinition and retooling of their manufacturing sector. From steel production to capital goods (the machines that make the machines) and the associated technology that went with it like Computer Numerical Controlled (CNC) technology helped Germany lead the way to more efficient production of not only capital goods, but also the downstream products that evolved from them. These gains enabled Germany’s premier auto companies like Mercedes, BMW, Volkswagen and many other lesser-known non-automotive firms find willing buyers for their high-quality products.

Workers and unions: past and present

Germans have always supported their own industry (unlike the U.S. that has seemed to put price and the profit margin over ‘buying local’). Trade unionism, which was an outgrowth of the old guild system in Germany, worked well for them. The unique form of German worker/owner cooperation, ‘mitbestimmung’ (joint decision-making), in the factories helped turn workers into stakeholders as many key decisions of the German corporation were vetted with workers’ representatives. This worker participation has no relationship to the Communist model where the corporations were owned and operated by the people. It was, however, a daring step on the part of German firms to bring the unions and workers into the boardroom so they could see how the ‘sausage was made.’ I’m convinced that it prevented more strikes and labor unrest from happening and helped German industry plan and execute its plans better.

While German industry was finding its footing in the post-war world, German society was experiencing its share of prosperity but also moving towards a modified form of what Americans would call, ‘socialism.’ The Germans would probably prefer to call their decisions to provide healthcare, unemployment insurance, education stipends and other forms of social safety net investments as much-needed insurance against the kind of vulnerabilities that they faced before WWII in the thirties and after. The architects of these social contracts and the politicians that voted for them were themselves witnesses to the dire economic conditions of pre- and post war Germany. They were bound and determined not to put their country at that level of risk ever again.

Immigration problems?

Ironically, Germany’s success in the sixties led to a shortage of workers in the seventies, so it looked abroad and ‘imported’ workers from Turkey, Pakistan and elsewhere. It modified its immigration laws to allow for a more liberal policy that brought many unskilled laborers (so-called gastarbeiter or guest workers) into the country and gave them special status that eventually allowed them to stay on as permanent residents. That would turn into a challenge for them, later, however. Since the formation of the Hanseatic League, Germany has always had its eye on foreign markets. Exporting has been an integral part of Germany’s business plan for centuries, and they’ve been quite good at it, establishing trading houses, distributorships and agencies for their products around the world. A joke was, if you walked into a bar in some far-flung corner of the world, you would encounter three foreigners: a Dane, a Dutchman and a German – and they would all have one thing in common (besides being able to speak German) – an abiding interest in the local market.

What do we have in common with the Germans and what can we learn from them?

Our two countries were created in large part from ‘sweat equity’ and by an abiding belief in our ability to improve on the past and seize the opportunities of the future by learning from our successes and failures. Americans can learn much from the German example and from the Germans themselves. We need a viable industrial plan that invests in new technology and new industries. We need a strong partnership with our workers, one that promotes openness and a stakeholder mentality. We must look outward to new export markets and the new opportunities for growth that comes from that effort. We need to create our own unique brand of ‘safety net’ that protects us from catastrophic illness and that trains or re-trains us in the skills we need to compete in the new world economy. We must also be flexible and forward-thinking about our immigration policy, realizing that cheap labor is not always good labor.

We must begin to bring back outsourced jobs with the carrot not the stick, AND we must learn to buy our own products, backed by the realization that exporting dollars is not the way to achieve fiscal stability or security. We must save more, and our government must spend less more wisely. German society is changing, too. It has been hit hard by the world economic downturn. While its companies are prominent in many foreign markets, Germany is part of a culturally and financially diverse mosaic called the European Union with plenty of have-nots. It knows that not everybody can afford the most expensive products, and it’s doing its best to match its products to the market. Despite that fact, somewhere in every German is a little voice that whispers, “We must never be too poor to buy anything cheap.” Maybe that’s the lesson we all need to learn when it comes to valuing each other as well.

Stephan Helgesen is a former U.S. diplomat who lived and worked in Germany. He is also the Honorary Consul for Germany in New Mexico and is working on a project called ‘IQ New Mexico’ that is designed to raise the ‘Internationality Quotient’ (profile of New Mexico) among foreign companies and governments. He can be reached at:


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