Making fun of Germans

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Where do we get these cliched ideas about Germans?
  • Where do we get these cliched ideas about Germans?
Children are taught that racial, ethnic, and sexual (and what have you) stereotyping is a bad idea. But what they grow up to learn is that elaborate courtesies and evasions are a bad idea too—patronizing doesn't show respect; it assumes weakness. If you're unwilling to risk saying anything to anyone that betrays the slightest stereotypical assumption, no one's going to want to sit next to you at dinner.

And so a lot of people grow up to believe that the ability to stereotype with wit and flair is a talent worth cultivating. Sooner or later they put their foot in their mouth. But the slip probably won't be fatal—we're all past that. One of the charms of HBO's Girls is that political correctness is to the characters like the ninth-grade civics course about which all they remember is that there are roughly three branches of government and every citizen has a duty to vote. It's something occasionally referenced. In episode one of season two Elijah has one of those complicated moments where he's revealing himself to Marnie and hitting on her.

"People are so prejudiced against bisexuals," he muses soulfully. "It's the only group of people you can still make fun of. Bisexuals and Germans. And I happen to be both."

He's actually not even sure he's bisexual. He's trying that one on for size. Presumably he's right about being German. And he's certainly right about it being OK to make fun of Germans. But why is it OK? Because no one thinks of the Germans as victims of history or worries about hurting their feelings. And no one thinks if you offend a German he'll shrivel up and die.

These thoughts were inspired by a New York Times article that appeared over the weekend. Correction: they were inspired by a comment on the New York Times article that was posted on Facebook by my second cousin Fabien Tepper. She said this:

"Does it not seem odd for the NYT to voice an ethnic stereotype with such breezy authority? Especially one as damning and historically painful as this?"

Here's the passage:

"Here in the homeland of schadenfreude, the zeal for unmasking academic frauds also reflects certain Teutonic traits, including a rigid adherence to principle and a know-it-all streak. 'I just think that many Germans have a police gene in their genetic makeup,' Dr. Rieble said."

It's an amazing recitation of Teutonic traits so long established and universally recognized that the Times can assert them on its own authority. The rigid adherence to principle. The know-it-all streak. The police gene. And what about the homeland of schadenfreude? It's a German word, all right, but if all the world's schadenfreude is exported from Germany no wonder the German economy is so strong.

The subject of the article, by the way, was the resignation under fire of a German cabinet member in a plagiarism scandal. A reporter who larded a serious dispatch about any other nationality with that many ethnic wheezes would be frog-marched out of the newsroom.

But does anyone feel bad for the Germans when a paper like the Times stereotypes them so cavalierly? Of course not. Does anyone but my unusually perspicacious relative even notice? When I'd read the article the passage sailed by me. And now the only thing I actually feel is a twinge of envy. At least there are German stereotypes! As Orson Wells famously put it in The Third Man, when you think of the Swiss you think of brotherly love and the cuckoo clock. Actually, unless you really put your mind to it, when you think of the Swiss you don't think of anything at all. And that is offensive.

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