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America is different. Germany is, too

Cornelia Funke talks about the high regard many Americans have for Germans, but also about German anti-Americanism and how the world can overcome nationalism.

Cornelia Funke
© dpa

The German Times: The German- American relationship has reached a new low point. Do you notice this in your private life?
Cornelia Funke: I live in California, the “out-of-control” state. No one in my circle of friends or acquaintances voted for Trump. This is not surprising, especially seeing as all of them are active in social initiatives and work on behalf of immigrants and environmental protection. As soon as I moved to the US twelve years ago, I started noticing a palpable hostility to America in Germany. This hostility has become even stronger due to Trump. But even before his election, I encountered a high degree of anti-Americanism in talk shows and interviews. It was quite obvious that many of these negative opinions were based on a frighteningly high level of ignorance and narrow-mindedness. There are so many clichés out there, so many catchphrases that perhaps touch on the truth but otherwise completely ignore the fact that America is a country that is both diverse and contradictory. My uncle always used to say: “The best and the worst come from America.”

What kind of clichés have you noticed?
For example, I’ve noticed that many people think Europeans are more social and humane than Americans. But my experience has shown me that the exact opposite is true. I would say Americans are friendlier, more polite and more willing to help. And I would argue that we Europeans are often very unfriendly to one another, that we’re very ill-tempered in our deal­ings with one another. In contrast, I have the sense that the US still has a very high level of social cohe­sion. Perhaps it’s the legacy of the pioneering era – an age in which one needed to work together with others in order to survive – that’s still very present in people’s minds. In the US, people deal with each other at eye level. Social differences are considerably less noticeable and often simply ignored. I still find it very moving to see how deeply Americans believe in humankind and the future.

Is it possible that the image of Europeans as being more socially oriented comes from the fact that citizens in “old” Europe pay higher social security contributions and the state takes on a number of social-welfare obligations that would be unthinkable in the US?
That may be the case. And it’s true that parts of the social welfare system in the US are appalling. However, I’m always impressed by how much personal initiative people show in the US. Of course, this is due in part to the fact that everyone knows the state is not going to take care of certain things. This puts all the more responsibility on rich people to contribute, and this pressure is handled in a much more aggressive way than in Germany. For example, I very quickly got used to being asked to make donations, even on my private phone.

Do you see anything positive in the German social welfare state?
Absolutely! Germany also has an unbelievably positive image among Americans. There’s no need for me to do any publicity for Germany in America. On the contrary, I don’t think I’ve ever been so appreciated by others simply because of where I come from. Americans see Germany as being exemplary in terms of environmental protection, solar technology, alternative energies, environmental legislation and organic agriculture. They see us as very disciplined, hard-working and efficient. Everywhere I go, I hear people saying that Germans should be proud of what they’ve accomplished. Sometimes this worship goes a bit too far for my taste. I feel it necessary to tell my intellectual friends that, no, not all Europeans sit around in cafés reading Proust.

And when I say that we Germans are still very much obliged to carry a large degree of guilt because of our history, they look at me with big eyes and say “that was a long time ago.” Nonetheless, I think it’s incredibly important that Germany display the ability and the willingness to continue to examine our past. I consider it a virtue to never forget Germany’s terrible legacy.

Unfortunately, nationalism is making a comeback.
Yes. In Europe, the radical right is emerging again. It’s a focus on national self-interest that goes back to the 19th century.

Nationalist tendencies are also enjoying a resurgence in the US. How can we move away from them?
We have to reinvent what it means to be human. And we have to understand that we’re not just linked to the rest of the world in terms of industry, that is, due to the outsourcing of manufacturing plants to low-wage countries. We can no longer be surprised when social problems arise in those countries and bring refugees to our shores. We are a global society, which means that we have to bear social responsibility globally. We have to focus on our common values, the ones we stand for and defend. In the US, we now suddenly find ourselves faced with a president who is reversing many hard-won gains just to increase profit. These include human rights, environmental protection, sexual equality, etc. I can only hope that we’re going to see a new level of awareness of the fact that democracy is not going to just fall into our laps. We all have to become more political.

In Germany, criticism of Donald Trump is widespread and the two countries increasingly seem to be more strangers than friends. What are your thoughts on this trend?
Since I moved to the US, I’ve noticed that German media often portray the US as anything but a friend. And for the past twelve years I’ve been consistently asked the question: How can you live in the US? I’ve had to listen to a number of very unenlightened opinions on America. It’s hard to make out any form of friendship in such approaches.

Things look different from the US perspective, however. Americans see European countries as their natural friends and allies, even if Trump is currently trying to undo these bonds. We shouldn’t forget he’s doing the same thing with the rest of the world as well. Every once in a while, I have guests who have very anti-American attitudes, which is difficult for me, because I live here and love the country. Inevitably, after about two weeks, these people start asking how they can get a green card. Fortunately, one learns quite quickly that America is multifaceted and that stereotypes simply don’t do justice to the country.

Germans are critical of the US and yet our lives are immersed in American culture. We watch American films and listen to Ameri­can music. How do you reconcile these two forces?
It’s hard to understand. On the one hand, European culture embraces American culture, and many Germans identify with the US. On the other hand, those same people often argue that the US is populated by hillbillies alone. It’s a schizophrenic posture, it’s pharisaical, or doctrinaire. I’ve notice on several occasions that people in Germany – in contrast to other European coun­tries – simply have no idea of the richness of American culture. Many world-famous artists, such as Guill­ermo del Toro and Neil Gaiman – neither of whom is American but both of whom are very famous in the US – are hardly even known in Germany. This betrays a strange degree of provinciality. Indeed, we only feel like Europeans when we’re in America.

Peter H. Koepf spoke with Cornelia Funke at the launch of the Year of German-American Friendship (Deutschlandjahr USA) on Aug. 25, 2018, in Berlin.

Read the whole interview on The German Times website

© The German Times