Born in Singapore 60 years ago, John Kampfner is a heavyweight in British journalism. He began his career abroad as a correspondent in Moscow and Bonn. He reported on the fall of the Berlin Wall and the unification of Germany for “The Daily Telegraph” and the dissolution of the Soviet Union caught him in Moscow as that newspaper’s bureau chief. Of German origin, Kempfner published in 2020 “Why the Germans do it better” (Captain Swing), which has just been translated into Spanish and was considered the best pandemic book of the year in the United Kingdom. He answers this interview from London, where he is executive director of the Chatham House think tank, although he spends half his life in Berlin. Half an hour of videoconference that is short.
What do Germans do better than other mortals?
Seriousness is very good. They take politics seriously, they are truly committed to developing their democracy. I, as a Briton, see that my country has been in the hands of infantilism and chaos for seven years.
Who has been the best leader of the Germans?
It is difficult to say, what is clear is that few were bad. They have enjoyed long periods of stability due to a Constitution (1949) that has influenced good leadership. Binary political forms, such as those in the US and the UK, produce a theatrical politics. In Germany, the system is based at all levels, from the most local to the national level, on coalition building and consensus building. That gives a different type of politician, more given to the agreement and less dramatic.
How do you see Olaf Scholz?
So far, I have not been impressed. It is quite troublesome. Instead, I am a fan of Merkel. I was quite critical of her foreign policy with China and Russia. For the Eastern European countries and the Baltic countries, she has gone from heroine to villain, but I think both extremes are wrong. History will put it in the right place.
And who was the worst?
The most questionable for me has been Gerhard Schröder, Putin’s best friend. The idea that he was finalizing his contract for the Russian state gas company while he was foreign minister is unforgivable. The most incredible thing is that this did not provoke a proper journalistic investigation or incisive questions.
Is your journalism different too? Perhaps since it is so serious it does not risk much.
This reluctance to accept risks is transversal and runs through the entire society. It is very evident, for example, in entrepreneurs and start-ups. This reminds me of a conversation I had with a couple of South Korean brothers who had achieved great success with an app and were barely 25 years old. They were already millionaires and I asked them how they had managed to get it right the first time; they laughed and told me it was their fifth project. In Germany, something like that is impossible. If your business goes bankrupt, your neighbors stop talking to you, you become a failure.
How is it explained?
It is partly due to World War II, but not only. Everything is conditioned by an effort not to create big dramas and surprises. They have to do things predictably and according to the rules, one step at a time. For some scopes that works brilliantly, but not always.
Aren’t they a bit boring?
It’s hard to generalize, sure, but I don’t think they’re boring. The social gatherings in which I have participated have been just as tedious or fun as anywhere in the world. I do recognize their rejection of change and that’s where they get how disastrous they are when it comes to technology, like the speed of the Internet. They paid for everything in cash until the pandemic, for example. It’s like they’re a few years behind. They say that they go slowly, but surely, and it is true that when they change, they change.
How has your automobile industry been updated?
It’s a good example. The basis of his economic miracle, his great showcase, he did not know how to see electrification. Tesla, Korea, Japan, everyone saw it coming and, nobody knows why, BMW or Mercedes missed it. When they found out, they reacted. Something similar happened with the dependence on Russian gas, a real madness, right? Well, in just six months they have gone from 80% to 10%. When they are forced to transform, they do so successfully.
Do you think that the rest of the European countries like Germany?
That is a good question. Obviously, during the worst of the 2008 crisis, we saw those images of Merkel with a Hitler mustache on the streets of Greece. Germany behaved in a rather arrogant way with countries like Greece, Spain or Portugal. Was Germany wrong in austerity policy? I would have to ask an expert, but my impression is that no. In fact, the monetary unit survived. I hope, in any case, that the Germans learned from the failures of that management. The most critical of Germany are the Germans, that’s for sure. They didn’t understand why I wrote a book like this and now it’s widely read there, but more as a secret pleasure.
Is it out of humility?
A combination of things. They still suffer from war guilt, they still believe that they are these horrible people who do horrible things and cannot be trusted. But it also has to do with something artificially generated, a kind of social construct that they don’t really believe. They only say it because they are supposed to. It’s as if the self-deprecating spirit of the Germans is a source of national pride, that even that they do better.
Why has the UK not been able to go as far?
It’s funny because, in certain ways, we are very similar. Pragmatic and business-oriented, logical… It is not by chance that in the EU Germany, the UK, the Netherlands and the Nordics used to line up against the countries of the South. In fact, the British royal family is of German origin. The difference lies in the collective spirit of the Germans and the individualism so British. Likewise, the German seriousness is opposed to the almost psychotic infantilism of the United Kingdom. The historical lowest point was represented by Boris, then we had that crazy woman for 45 days that she even surpassed the first one, and that seemed impossible. Now we have a pretty conservative guy but he’s trying to have a decent relationship with the EU while the economy doesn’t collapse. The fact that this is enough speaks to how low we have sunk.
Wouldn’t someone like Boris Johnson be possible in Germany?
Absolutely. Partly because of the sociocultural sense of collective responsibility. They do not take democracy for granted, it is not a game, everything is measured to the millimeter. They would not allow someone to behave the way he did.
Is it more immune to populism?
No no. There we have Alternative for Germany, we already know what they are about. No country is immune to populism. Brexit, for example, is a populist construct, largely financed by the Kremlin. The extreme right and Moscow join forces to jeopardize European cohesion. It is a very dangerous phenomenon. The people who support them are not wrong, what you have to see is why they feel inclined to believe that option whose arguments defy reason. The good thing about Germany is that it is better than the rest at proving that liberal democracy works.
Do you think that Europe still fears a militarized Germany?
That is the great dilemma a year after the invasion of Ukraine. The traditional German position is that they did not need an Army because nobody threatened them, the Americans would always protect them and, besides, they did not trust themselves. And neither do the neighbors. Well, all this has changed radically. It is a defining moment for Germany. All the Eastern European countries and the British are telling him that it is time for him to grow up, send tanks and help Ukraine more.
What should Germany do?
In my opinion, the future of liberal democracy in Europe depends on Germany and the rest of NATO being more courageous and investing more in their self-defense. The Americans are not going to stay much longer because they are focused on China and themselves. So who is going to defend Europe? I have lived for several years in the Soviet Union and Russia and I know that they will always be a threat to central and eastern Europe for the next 20 or 30 years. With or without Putin.