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German Culture
Beer gardens in Munich. Castles in Heidelberg. The Black Forest. Hamburg’s red light district. A world-class art scene in Berlin. Marlene Dietrich. Relics of Mozart in Salzburg and Zurich’s banking might punctuated by the tick-tock of their infinitesimally precise clocks—there’s a lot about German culture that you probably already know. Like trains and…well, the list goes on. But did you also know that German is spoken in parts of Italy? Did you know that if you don’t look an Austrian in the eye while saying “Prost”, you’ll be cursed with bad sex for 7 years? Did you know that the tiny country of Switzerland has four official languages?

Do you even know what those languages are?

There are probably too many interesting facts about German culture and customs to recount in a single lifetime, but you’ll find plenty of them here. So if you’re interested in learning information about Germany and other German-speaking countries, then you’ve come to the right place. This article delves into all aspects of German culture and customs, by exploring the three major countries that speak German, their history, language, society, economy, art scene, politics and even foreign policy, and how they are all interrelated. More than just information about Germany, we hope to give you a visceral sense of the place by delving into what all these trivia questions about German culture really mean for real people who want to learn the language and hopefully spend time in this fascinating part of the world, interacting with real people—not just guidebooks and old buildings.

Visiting Germany: German culture vs American culture
First off, it’s important to understand that Germany is an exceptional place to visit and Germans are extremely good hosts, in both the public and private spheres. But people traveling to the German speaking part of the world for the first time should expect significant, if subtle cultural differences, and be prepared for them. One such difference is the apparent frigidity of the Germans at first encounter. Many people mistake what appears to be standoffishness and at times even harshness to be a sign of indifference or worse. But nothing could be further from the truth. To help better understand what’s going on here, it’s instructive to trot out an old metaphor that actually hits the nail on the head. If you want to compare German culture to American culture, then think of Americans as peaches, and Germans as walnuts. Americans are soft and sweet on the outside, but hard on the inside. And while Germans are hard to crack, it’s well worth the reward.
What does this mean? It means that while Americans are often extremely smiley, friendly and outgoing on a first meeting, it’s can be very difficult to truly be accepted and befriend an American. Germans, on the other hand, might not be as effusive at first. But once they get to know you, they’ll be your loyal and faithful friend for a long time.

It should be noted that the peach can also represent other countries besides America. Somebody from Spain, for example, could easily stand in as the peach. And it’s not to say the peach is any better or worse than the walnut. Both have their pros and cons. But the Spanish philosopher José Ortega y Gasset, who studied in Germany and developed much of his thinking there, posited that Spain (like, one could argue, the United States) has a uniquely superficial culture, while Germany is profound. Spain is bright and sunny, while Germany is lost in the clouds. So there are good and bad aspects to both, but what he touched on is a truism. The German psyche, the national consciousness of Germany has tended to operate on a very subcutaneous level.

Of course, as with any generalization there are always exceptions which prove the rule. For example, while many would assume that German culture applies to Austria as well, there is a sharp contrast between the Austrian and German cultures. A few notable differences come to mind when one goes to compare Austria to Germany. First the Austrians are a smaller country with a more limited role on the world stage (with a couple important exceptions being the IAEA in Vienna, and the Gubernator from Graz, Arnold Schwarzenegger). But by and large, the country assumes the mantle of a quiet, conservative resort destination with its finances in order. The people may even be regarded as more conservative than the typical German. They certainly are richer. But at the same time Austria shares its southern border with Italy, and the Italian influence in Austria is easy to spot, once you know what to look for. Italian cooking and cuisine is very present in Austrian food, and even the prized Austrian Wiener Schnitzel was adopted from the Italians. Austrians are also keen to fashionable attire in a way that the typical German just isn’t, and this again is a direct nod to their neighbors to the south. The Italian influence in Austria even extends to the Austrian mannerisms and customs: they’re big into eye contact when they clink beer glasses, and in general place a lot of stock in gregariousness and bonhomie; they tend to be warm and exuberant much like the Italians. So to say while German culture pervades much of Austria, it’s a mixed bag. A bag containing both peaches and walnuts, perhaps.

Here’s a good trivia question about German culture: which Latin Country speaks German? The answer is Italy! There is a region called Tyrol which lops over northeastern Italy and western Austria. The southern part is called South Tyrol. Although it is located in Italy, the people speak German. But when asked whether they’d prefer to be Italians or Austrians, many would identify themselves as Tyroleans first and foremost. The other part of the region is North Tyrol, which lies in Austria (the capital of North Tyrol is Innsbruck). Violent separatists have actually gone to prison for life for plotting terrorist acts in the hopes of autonomy for the whole region. Of course opinions about what to do are diverse as the number of people living there themselves. But it’s interesting to note that Austrian taxpayers in North Tyrol bankroll many of the public services for Italian South Tyroleans.

Perceptions of Germany in the English speaking world
Elvis vs The Beatles. That’s what it boils down to. Because to understand German is as much about understanding how we perceive the country, vs how other people perceive the country. The difference between British perceptions of Germany can provide a very informative glimpse into what this concept called Germany actually is.

To do so, it’s important to compare American perceptions of Germany to British perceptions. At the beginning of this article were listed a few of most prevalent stereotypes as well as facts about Germany, Austria and Switzerland. While its attempt was to be inclusive, one should be aware that a British person and an American would react completely differently upon reading it. This is largely because of the breakdown of post-WWII occupation. While the British occupied the north of Germany, Americans occupied the south. Elvis Presley, for example, was stationed in Friedberg, Germany. Soldiers returning to the United States would regale their fellow citizens with stories of the beer gardens in Munich, the castles in Heidelberg and the clubs in Dusseldorf, while British soldiers spoke of northern port cities. In this light it’s no wonder the Beatles got their start in Hamburg!
Of course, one of the many great aspects of Berlin was that it was a representative microcosm of the entire country of Germany. So both British and American soldiers were stationed in Berlin, meaning that good news about the city’s enduring magic and intoxicating chaos was spread word-of-mouth on both sides of the Atlantic. Still, it is eye opening to realize what a different image of Germany the British have from what Americans perceive when they think about the country.

Facts about Switzerland and Swiss culture

German is but one of four official languages spoken in Switzerland. So here is a good trivia question: Apart from the German language, what other tongues are spoken in this Alpine nation? Well, of course Italian and French are. But did you know there is a tiny population of Romanch speakers, who populate more or less the center of the country. Theirs is among the four official languages of Switzerland. But while the French and Italian regions of Switzerland do have sway and lure in tourists, it’s really the German speaking part of Switzerland that carries the major clout. This is because most of the country’s major cities and financial, cultural and artistic centers, such as Zurich, not to mention tourism destinations and world-class ski resorts, lie in the German speaking region on and to the north of the Alps, the mountain range that slashes horizontally through the country. As a historically neutral country, Switzerland did not join the European Union and retains its own currency, while all its neighbors traded in their francs, marks and shillings for euros. That said, traveling between Switzerland and European Union countries is easy and there is hardly any border control. From the tourists perspective, the only largest hassle would be changing money—that is, if it weren’t so easy to just withdraw from your own bank's balance in the local frank currency, using an ATM machine.

History of Germany
When the Roman Empire failed to conquer the vast region east of the Rhine, it was dubbed Germania by Julius Caesar. Several fierce tribes with names that may sound familiar today – such as the Vandals and the Visigoths – fought back the Romans and eventually contributed to the downfall of the entire Empire. This just goes to show how the real estate that Germany today occupies has been coveted for thousands upon thousands of years. While it does get cold in the winter, the land is replete with farmland, forests, harbors in both fresh and salt water, as well as a variety of natural resources.

Of course, Germany is most notably remembered for leading role in WWII, which included one of the most brutal acts of genocide in the history of mankind, the Holocaust. This legacy is and will continue to play a central role in the consciousness of its citizens and leaders, even as major policy is crafted. But it would do a disservice not only the German people, but to those who were the victims of the Holocaust themselves to ignore the rest of German history, and focus only on this national tragedy. Germany—that is, the region where the country exists today—had millennia of history before the Holocaust, and since then Germany has worked tirelessly to promote peace and equal rights, without glossing over the hard reality of what the nation both caused and endured. The reason it’s important to examine more of German history than just the Holocaust is because in it one may find lessons about mistakes Germans made that led up to that national tragedy. Also, in its better days in the century before the two World Wars, Germany was a mover and shaker not to be outdone by England and the United States when it came to major breakthroughs of the scientific, philosophical and literary type.

Probably the most notable milestone in German history since World War II was reunification and the collapse of the Berlin Wall. After WWII Germany was split into two nations commonly referred to as East Germany and West Germany. East Germany was part of the Soviet bloc controlled by Russia, whereas West Germany cast its gaze toward the United States. Geographically, Berlin was a pivotal point in the Cold War, and Germany’s reunification, along with the all night block party that accompanied the tearing down of the Wall that divided that city, was a symbol that the war had come to an end, the Soviets had been defeated and the West, in particular the United States, prevailed. So Germany continued to be an important country not only to Europe, but to the entire planet.

Despite its dark past in the 20th century, Germany is finally coming into its own, embracing national pride in a healthy way, and realizing its crucial role on the world stage. It is still by far the most powerful country in Europe, it calls the shots in the Eurozone, and is an economic powerhouse rivaled only by the United States, China and Japan.

Explore more about German culture: read our reviews of the best German movies.

More German culture resources
Facts About Germany CIA World Factbook
Germany Country Information US State Department
Information about Germany German Embassy
German Culture Goethe Institute
German Cultural Center University of Missouri - St. Louis
German History California State University Stanislaus
Official Facts about Germany Book German Government
German Identity New York Times

Other German speaking regions
Facts about Switzerland University of Colorado at Boulder
Austria Information Resources WashLaw
Tyrol Ethnicity and Identity American University

Books about German culture
These are our favorites. Each of us has a well-worn copy of the following volumes. Click here if you are interested in buying the best German culture books:
German Cultural Studies: An Introduction
Understanding American and German Business Cultures
Aspects of German culture,
Culture Shock! Germany: A Survival Guide to Customs and Etiquette (Culture Shock! Guides)
Those Crazy Germans! A Lighthearted Guide to Germany
German Culture Past and Present
German Survival Guide: The Language and Culture You Need to Travel with Confidence in Germany and Austria
Germany: Unraveling an Enigma
When in Germany, Do as the Germans Do: The Clued-In Guide to German Life, Language, and Culture

Scholarly books On German culture
The Cambridge Companion to Modern German Culture (Cambridge Companions to Culture)
Medieval Germany: An Encyclopedia (Routledge Encyclopedias of the Middle Ages)
In Times of Crisis: Essays on European Culture, Germans and Jews
An Essay for Germans, Austrians and Jews: The Other Half of the Truth About the Holocaust & Other Things
Art, Culture, and Media Under the Third Reich
Gestalt Psychology in German Culture, 1890-1967: Holism and the Quest for Objectivity (Cambridge Studies in the History of Psychology)
Classic Yiddish Fiction: Abramovitsh, Sholem Aleichem, and Peretz (S U N Y Series in Modern Jewish Literature and Culture)

 

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