Sprechen Sie Deutsch? Whether you want to study in the same country as Beethoven or just learn German, there are a few things you need to know about German culture. Not to mention learn the German language!
Sometimes Angela Merkel’s country is subject to harsh stereotypes due to a few dark pages in their history books. Firstly, we need to move away from the notion that Germans are cold and rigid people.
In fact, the notion that German people are hostile couldn’t be further from the truth. They have a rich and fascinating culture!
There’s a few things about German society and the culture of German speaking countries that may surprise you!
In this article, Superprof is going to have a look at almost every aspect of German culture.
German Culture: Germany’s Historical Heritage
However, Greek and Latin written records date Germanic peoples back to “only” the 1st century BCE.
We should note that “German” people didn't technically exist until the 19th century. Originally Scandinavian (Swedish, Norwegian, and Danish), the Germanic tribes settled in the north of Germany and started migrating southwards from the Antiquity until the Christian Era. The Germanic peoples were enemies of the vast Roman Empire in southern Europe.
A number of independent tribes consolidated their borders through a number of military victories that historians call the Barbarian Invasions. Invasions by the Vandals, Burgundians, Saxons, and the Alemanni, combined with uprisings in Roman Gaul led to the fall of the Roman Empire.
Formerly Roman territories began to Germanise and adopt Christianity as the Germanic peoples founded kingdoms in England (Angles and Saxons), France (Franks and Burgundians), Italy (Lombards and Ostrogoths) and in Spain (Visigoths).
Charlemagne, the King of the Franks, who designated the Rhine as the border between Germany and France in the year 800.
Germany was part of the Holy Roman Empire for almost 1,000 years - from 962 to 1806 - which was the spiritual successor to the Carolingian and Roman empires.
At the time of the French revolution in 1789, 300 political entities of varying sizes shared sovereignty of the German territory.
It wasn’t until the end of the 19th century after the Germans won the Franco-Prussian war in 1870 and a heightened national sentiment that Germany became a unified federalised country under General Otto Von Bismark (1815-1898).
A rich history of divided communities had fashioned the German language which would later become the pillar of a unique culture.
German intellectuals and artists influenced the Renaissance and have contributed to scientific innovation since the Age of Enlightenment until today.
They’ve been involved in art forms such as cuisine, cinema, photography, painting, music, literature, philosophy and political ideas.
You’ve surely heard of names such as Gutenberg, Goethe, Kant, Hegel, Nietzche, Marx, Engels, Kafka, Freud, Bach, Schumann, Schubert, Beethoven, Mozart, and Einstein. If you haven't, you should definitely check out our list of 10 famous Germans!
German culture is the product of over 2,000 years of history in which various populations rubbed shoulders and mixed while promoting their different languages, identities, and cultures.
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The Arts in German Culture
Every age has its great thinkers and artists who contribute to the development of ideas and promote the advancement of knowledge.
Germans should be proud of their artistic and cultural heritage. In fact, there are plenty of iconic figures that arose from this rich and influential European culture.
Here’s a quick summary of Germany’s cultural heritage to help you better learn during your German classes.
German Philosophy and Literature
The history of German literature is fascinating and German writers have made their mark. Writing - like all art forms - has always been a vehicle for ideas and political protest. In fact, art cannot be separated from the economies, politics, and social context within which it was created.
From the Renaissance and the Age of Enlightenment to today, German writers have been influential in so many literary movements including:
Baroque Poetry: During the Thirty Years’ War, many poets expressed their woes through sonnets
Les Lumières: A European phenomenon affirming the individual’s primacy and rationalising the divine cause. The German I. Kant (1724-1804) was influential. He wrote, amongst numerous other famous works, his Critique of Pure Reason
Sturm und Drang (Storm and Urge) is Weimar Classicism: the literary movement of youth from the latter half of the 18th century against the bourgeoisie, nobility, and moral codes. Here we find J. W. Goethe (1749-1832) and his work The Sorrows of Young Werther (1774).
Trümmerliteratur (Rubble Literature), a movement emerging after 1945 in Germany
German literature reflects the time and its tragedies. Subjects such as a the Second World War, the Nazis, and the Holocaust have been explored by a number of German-speaking authors like Johanna Arendt (Hannah Arendt, 1906-1974), a German-American writer, and Stefan Zweig (1881-1942), one of the greatest German writers of all time!
Germany is internationally renowned when it comes to philosophy. German philosophy has had a huge influence on Western and European thought.
Here are just a few examples:
Martin Luther (1483-1546), the leader of the German protestant reformation.
Gottfried Wilhem Leibniz (1646-1716), German philosopher, mathematician, diplomat, jurist, and philologist
Immanuel Kant (1724-1804)
Johann Gottlieb Fichte (1762-1814)
Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770-1831)
Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860)
Karl Marx (1818-1883), famous for Marxism and his criticisms of the capitalist system and the founder of utopian socialism
Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900)
We couldn’t possibly talk about German culture without talking about music. That’d be like studying Arabic without learning the alphabet or studying French history without mentioning the revolution.
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Music has played a huge role in German art history. Berlin is often known as the city of artists. Hamburg, Germany’s second city, has established itself as a pioneer of alternative rock. After the war, Cologne became famous for its electro-acoustic music.
Traditional German music came about at the same time as the Reformation in the 16th century with choral singing influencing music all over Germany. Bit by bit, German melodies became as common as those from French or Italian music.
Classical music is a huge part of German culture and there are so many famous classical composers from both Germany and Austria:
G. F. Handel (1685-1759)
J.S. Bach (1685-1750)
L. V. Beethoven (1770-1827)
F. Schubert (1797-1828)
R. Schumann (1810-1856)
J. Brahms (1833-1897)
R. Wagner (1813-1883)
Did you know?
The first harmonicas, harpsichords, organs, pianos, and bandoneons (the precursor to the accordion) were made in Germany in the 17th and 18th centuries.
The latter, the bandoneon, following waves of migration, would find itself Argentina, where it would become instrumental in creating tango!
Is there more to German than philosophy, music? Of course! The Germans are also famous for their photography and theatre.
In Germany, over 35 million people attend their 360 theatres and 160 symphonic orchestras and operas. Furthermore, there are 70 festivals every year welcoming millions of visitors.
German courses London or Portsmouth can teach you more about German history and culture!
German Traditions and Festivals
You can see how important tradition is just by going to a German Christmas market.
Christmas is one of the biggest events in Germany. From the first Sunday of advent, the streets are lit up and Christmas markets spring up everywhere with the most famous ones being in Nuremberg, Munich, Essen, and Heidelberg.
However, Germany is also home to other traditions including:
In terms of holidays, Germany celebrates most of the big events - religious or otherwise - that we celebrate here in the UK including: New Year’s Eve, Easter, and Christmas..
There are also a number of German holidays that we don’t have in the UK such as: The Peace Festival (8 August), German Unity Day (4 October, celebrating German reunification), and Reformation Day (31 October, celebrating the protestant reformation).
As you know, a country can often be defined by its cuisine. Certain types of food can evoke notions of an entire country. There’s more to German cuisine than you may think!
If you want to discover the German language, you should start by trying the food!
Tourists in Germany can enjoy a huge variety of local dishes. Don’t forget about the bread, either! Germany is home to over 300 types of bread. In fact, it’s the world’s biggest bread fan!
The Germans eat so much bread that you can find bakeries on almost every street corner. Each region has its own varieties of bread and they love artisan bread.
Sausage is also the star of German cuisine. There are around 1,500 types of German sausage. Germans love them grilled, in a sandwich, boiled, fried, and, above all, with sauerkraut. If you’re going to Germany, there’s one thing you should know: the Germans eat sausage for any meal.
We should also mention one of Germany’s most famous dishes: the pretzel! A genuine German pretzel is a huge crusty salted brioche rather than the “snacky” version common in the UK. You can find the pretzel and its famous knot in any German bakery. They’re also sold at traditional festivals in Germany. In fact, over 100,000 pretzels are sold every day during Oktoberfest!
You can’t learn about German cuisine without learning about German beer! That would be like talking about French cuisine and not mentioning wine!
The Germans and Beer
Beer in Germany is an institution. You could easily call it the national drink. There are over 5,000 types of beer and 1,200 breweries in Germany and while each town has one, Munich breaks all the records.
You can find more local breweries in Munich than any other city which explains why it plays host to Oktoberfest every year.
For two weeks (across the end of September and the start of October), between 5 and 6 million people descend on Munich for the world’s most popular festival. They pitch multicoloured tents and set up 14 different breweries. Beer lovers can also enjoy a huge variety of local cuisine. The festival has been around for over 200 years and there are parades, fairgrounds, and concerts.
A study in 2015 has also showed that Germans are spending more and more time in cultural venues:
“From 1995 to 2013, the number of adults occasionally or often participating in cultural activities (opera, classical music, theatre, exhibitions, and museums) rose from 52% to 58%. The highest proportion of people (rising from 54% to 64%) took part in popular cultural activities (cinema, pop concerts, jazz concerts, dance shows, and clubs).”
Going to a German festival is a great way to learn about German culture and its traditions as well as immerse yourself in the German language!
Family in Germany
A country is inseparable from its people and its language. Each individual in Germany adds to German culture and becomes a spokesman for the nation when they interact with tourists on their home soil or abroad. Therefore, when talking about the cultural aspects of a country, you have to talk about the daily lives of its inhabitants in order to better understand it. Family, and education, in particular, are the cornerstones of German culture.
In contemporary Germany, family has never been as important for most Germans as it is now. Raising children is seen as crucial.
There are some stark differences between German education and British education. Parents in the UK might get a few odd stares for fussing too much over their children. They won’t in Germany!
While “helicopter parents” are criticised in the UK, in Germany, it’s the opposite, the rabenmutter (or raven mother), who gets criticised for leaving their child in the hands of private institutions rather than looking after them themselves. Mothers who quickly return to work are often looked down upon.
However, while there are only a few establishments for very young children in Germany, the German government is trying to bring together work and family life. Steps, such as the 2013 law on childcare, have been taken to make Germany more child friendly.
Foreigners visiting Germany may think that the children are treat like little kings and may be seen as being raucous and ill-disciplined.
The German mentality when it comes to education is quite different to ours. In Germany, children are allowed to freely express their creativity.
Children in German schools are free to go where they want and they can even leave the grounds to go buy themselves a pastry. Don’t be shocked if you see this while you’re in Germany!
This is probably why Berlin is a haven for creatives and artistic types!
The German Work Ethic
You should be aware of the cultural differences when it comes to work if you’re moving to Germany.
The German approach to work is somewhat different to that of the UK and this can be quite a culture shock for anyone moving there.
Experience is more important than qualifications when it comes to working in Germany. There isn’t really a German equivalent to Oxbridge and, as a result, there are top-quality universities up and down the country.
They’re known for getting straight to the point. They don’t mess around with endless meetings and prefer action to words. Germans are more direct at work and could be criticised for being overly serious.
Those who’ve already worked with Germans will know that speaking directly won’t be frowned upon. On the other hand, that doesn’t mean that you can just interrupt them, either.
German Society: Order and Ecology
Rules are not made to broken in Germany. As soon as you arrive in Germany, you’ll see how ordered everything is.
The one you should know is that you have to follow the rules. Germans aren’t really known as rule-breakers. In fact, most Germans wouldn’t ever consider crossing the road when the light’s red or littering.
You’ll be charged by the Ordnungsämster (Order Service) for dropping cigarette butts on the floor and cyclists not using the designated cycle paths will also receive a warning.
While there are many complaints about health and safety in the UK, you haven’t really seen anything until you go to Germany!
In fact, this can be seen when it comes to the German bureaucracy for things like registering at the town hall or getting a registration plate for your car. It would be fair to say that Germans are more regimented than us Brits.
While some may think this is a negative, it actually makes Germans more trustworthy. When they tell you the time of a meeting, you can be sure that they’ll be on time.
Think German, Think Green
German organisation also extends to the environment. In Germany, everyone is responsible for sorting out their rubbish. When it comes to organising waste, Germany is the best in Europe.
The Federal Environment Agency aims to have no rubbish go to landfills by 2020 and Germans only create 3kg of landfill waste per person. Germans also consume much more organic produce than other countries.
According to the Arbeitskreises Biomarkt working group, the organic industry grew by 5% in 2015.
Language and Culture Are Inextricably Linked!
To speak German, you should learn as much as you can about the country before your first lesson. You can learn german online. However, remember to avoid stereotypes since every German is unique! While society can influence behaviour, we can’t tar everyone with the same brush. Here are a few things you should know, especially if you’d like to become a German citizen.
Just like there are Brits who don’t like football, don’t drink beer, and have never had a fry-up, there are also Germans who don’t like beer, pretzels, or sauerkraut.