Editor’s Note: This is the first in a series looking at the books, authors, and ideas capturing the zeitgeist in various countries this summer. Coming soon: dispatches from Brazil, France, and the United Kingdom.
Germany is a country of readers. But, like much of the world, they are reading less—and much less than they think. In fact, according to Culture Score Index of the UK-based market research firm NOP World, Germany is tied for 22nd with the United States for the amount of time spent reading per week, just 5.42 hours. Since 2013, the German book market has shed some 6.3 million readers, most of them between the ages of 20 and 50.
But according to a June 2019 report by the German trade association Börsenverein des Deutschen Buchhandels, the worst may be over. The number of book buyers rose during the first half of 2019 for the first time since 2012 by roughly 300,000 people. Today, some 29.9 million Germans over the age of ten (in a population of 82.7 million) buy at least one book per year. And Germans spend 1.6 percent of their total income on books, second in the European Union only to Slovenia.
So, what are Germans reading? The land of Goethe is fond of fiction, of course, which makes up 31.9 percent of total book sales. Within this genre, they prefer suspense novels and thrillers. Children’s and young adult literature come in second, followed by self-help books, a genre the Börsenverein suggests is in an uptick. General nonfiction rounds out these numbers, but it is also the category, importantly, that generates the most conversation. The manner in which key nonfiction-book topics translate into robust discussions on national television talkshows, newspapers, and magazines illustrates just how earnestly nonfiction is treated in Germany.
According to the Spiegel bestseller list—the equivalent of the New York Times bestseller list—the top half-dozen nonfiction books for July 2019 were, in order: Der Ernährungskompass (The Nutrition Compass), by science journalist Ben Kast, a thoroughgoing overview of what you should be eating to stay healthy; Stephen Hawking’s posthumous Brief Answers to the Big Questions, published in German in July by Klett-Cotta as Kurze Antworten auf Grosse Fragen; child psychologist Michael Winterhoff’s Deutschland Verdummt (The Dumbing Down of Germany), a jeremiad about the failure of the German school system to properly educate the country’s youth; Michelle Obama’s much-beloved autobiography, Becoming; journalist Mieke Winnemuth’s book Bin im Garten (I’m in the Garden), about the challenges of successful gardening; and finally, former German president Joachim Gauck’s Toleranz: Einfach Schwer (Tolerance Isn’t Easy), about the Enlightenment value of tolerance—where it originated, why it is so important, why we need it, and what threatens it today. Of these titles, two have generated significant debate, primarily because they offer critique of the German national character, which Germans—trust me, I have lived here for 15 years—take very seriously.
Michael Winterhoff’s Deutschland Verdummt claims that German children today “have no tolerance for frustration, and they avoid all exertion.” By the time they graduate, half of them still “have the psyche of a small child.” The author of eight previous books on childhood development, Winterhoff’s primary concern is that children today have become “tyrants.” They don’t know proper boundaries; they have not been taught how to submit to parental and social authority. And this, Winterhoff says, is entirely the fault of parents themselves. Beginning in the 1990s, they have treated their children like friends and partners instead of acting like authority figures and moral guides, preferring to allow children the freedom to develop and move at their own pace instead of submitting to the adult order of things.
Deutschland Verdummt recapitulates Winterhoff’s perennial angst, but this time—since the hope of parents changing “is as good as lost”—moves the fight into schools. Preschool instructors, kindergarten teachers, administrators, and educational policy itself have failed kids as much as their parents have. This is attributed to a number of factors: class size, budget cuts, EU-wide educational standards, federalism, and digitalization, among other influences—all of which have contributed to the Niedergang (demise) of education in Germany. Winterhoff foremost laments “the ideology of open instruction,” which encourages children to decide what they want to do in class instead of being told what to do by teachers. He cites a number of interviewees who attest to this dour state of affairs.
A critique of the book by business journalist Martin Spiewak, on the online version of the weekly newspaper Die Zeit, asks of Winterhoff’s thesis:
In how many schools have grades and homework been completely abolished? And where exactly is ‘open instruction’ the standard way of doing things? If one chooses to believe the results of actual empirical educational research and the reports of state school-inspectors, the opposite is the case: the traditional mode of teaching (particularly after grade school) continues to structure the school day.
Rather than referring to national statistical research by the federal department of education, says Spiewak, Winterhoff has stitched together his assessment from a smattering of cherrypicked “newspaper articles, opinion polls, and teacher interviews.” But, as witnessed in book sales and public resonance, Winterhoff’s diatribe has touched a nerve, evidencing a worried undercurrent in how children are being raised in Germany—as well as the financial straits that prevent some parents from being able to dedicate more time to their upbringing.
The other book that’s stirred controversy is Joachim Gauck’s Toleranz: Einfach Schwer. Gauck is a venerated former German President (2012-17) who brought much needed moral authority to the office following the disgraced resignation of Christian Wulff, who became embroiled in a housing-loan scandal and then tried to put the kibosh on negative media coverage by threatening journalists. Gauck, an ordained pastor who served at the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Mecklenburg, was raised in East Germany and suffered constant surveillance by the Stasi, which considered the young theologian “an incorrigible anticommunist.” He went on to become a warrior in the fight to bring down the Iron Curtain, organizing protests as part of the democratic opposition movement New Forum, and then as an elected official to the GDR People’s Chamber, representing Alliance 90, a mishmash of pro-democracy and human-rights associations. After the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 he became head of the Stasi archive.
In Toleranz: Einfach Schwer Gauck offers a bold argument in favor of tolerance. For a nation coming to terms with the rise of the rightist party AfD, the Alternative für Deutschland, this is widely seen as a welcome call. Gauck traces the history of tolerance as a liberal virtue, traversing the varied thought of Voltaire, Mill, Kant, and Goethe, showing how tolerance broadly conceived incorporates qualities such as patience, coexistence, respect, and love—and how the political efficacy of tolerance helped put an end to the religious wars of the 17th century.
But Gauck also notes that tolerance has limits. He leans on his own past to address the GDR’s intolerable intolerance for nonconformity to state doctrine and the nightmarish repression of political dissidents. In the present, he suggests not only the need for increasing tolerance for immigrants and alternate lifestyles, but also for a rather obvious limit to tolerance: When extreme political movements or religious fanatics degrade human dignity and deny others their freedom, we are morally obligated to be intolerant, to question and confront illiberalism in all its forms. (He also warns of the dangerously individualizing ethos of identity politics, which he believes leads to people neglecting a broader view of shared social life.) This practice of tolerance is particularly important in Germany now, Gauck notes, as the country becomes increasingly multicultural, multiethnic, and multireligious—in a word, more American. This plea is not especially original, but it nevertheless remains key to maintaining a healthy liberal democracy in a globalized world: We must accept differences while uniformly upholding the rule of law, universal suffrage, and human rights.
Germany has been undergoing dramatic social change since the fall of the Berlin Wall, which occurred 30 years ago this November. Since then, the entire eastern half of the country has been brought into the fold of Western liberal capitalism—but not entirely successfully. Unemployment is still higher in the east, and brain drain to the west remains common. It is in these eastern Länder—particularly Saxony and Saxony-Anhalt—where the AfD has gained the most ground. Fear-mongering arguments against immigration and an Islamic takeover continue to attract scores of German citizens whose future economic prospects are less than rosy. Regardless, one cannot help but detect the political vestiges of an old GDR intolerance in its novel political manifestations. Let us hope that Gauck’s wise counsel can sway this worrying trend.