It took a while, but Germany finally won me over. By the time I pulled up stakes after living there for six years, I had concluded that it is the world’s most successful country. That could have been hyperbole — may Providence strike down any columnist who exaggerates! — but its essence remains true. A global emergency is the ideal moment to measure which countries work and which don’t. In today’s crisis, Germans’ deep respect for competence, and their ingrained sense of shared responsibility, shows once again how and why their country has become so successful. That shines an uncomfortable light on America’s failures — not just in recent months, but over decades.
Little remains to be said about the epic incompetence that the United States has demonstrated in facing the pandemic. China’s response has been far more effective, after a dreadful start, but China is a regimented state and has tools of social control that the United States cannot deploy. Some other countries that have been notably successful in fighting the pandemic, like South Korea and Taiwan, are guided in part by Confucian tradition, which places a premium on harmony and respect for authority. Germany is different. Like the United States, it is a fully Westernized society with a diverse population and democratic government. Yet Germany has confronted the pandemic quite differently: calmly and with evident success.
The virus has not spared Germany. Its people have endured the familiar litany of social restrictions and business closures, as well as the death of thousands of fellow citizens. Although Germany has one-fourth the population of the United States, however, it has registered less than one-tenth as many pandemic-related deaths. There is no shortage of doctors, medical equipment, or hospital beds. The millions who have lost jobs still receive salaries and remain covered by health insurance. People are confident in their government’s ability to protect them. Why have the United States and Germany developed so differently?
The first truism that emerges from this crisis is that preparation is everything. Germany has been preparing for generations to win a battle like the one it is now fighting. The United States is the opposite: great at proclaiming how determined we are to win, but unwilling to make the sustained and expensive preparations that victory requires.
Chancellor Otto von Bismarck established the world’s first welfare state after unifying Germany in 1871. He did it not because he was progressive, but for the opposite reason: He was a conservative who believed that in order to maintain a society in which the rich could prosper, others also had to prosper. Today’s Germany embodies this principle. It is a communitarian society shaped by a sense of solidarity, rather than a dog-eat-dog free-for-all in which those who cannot thrive are cast aside.
To promote equality of opportunity, the German state invests heavily in education. Teachers are generously paid and schools are well equipped. Most universities charge little or no tuition. This produces educated citizens who go on to do two things that Americans don’t always do well. First, they tend to vote for responsible politicians rather than demagogues or showmen. Second, they respect science and expertise.
Germany’s economic system distributes the fruits of labor through the entire population. Most workers in large companies are unionized, and union representatives sit on every major corporate board. That assures transparency and leads to a broader sharing of profits. Those who lose their jobs, as millions have in recent weeks, are paid from an unemployment compensation program that has existed for generations.
In Germany, as in most other developed countries, health care is considered a basic right of citizenship. Every sizable community is near a hospital. No sick person is turned away. My German friends shake their heads in amazement when they hear phrases like “the health care business” or “the health care industry.” Their public health system is designed according to the needs of citizens, not those of insurers, hospitals, medical instrument manufacturers, or pharmaceutical corporations.
The money that pays for all this comes from high taxes and prudent management. Tax burdens are distributed more fairly than in the United States, and although Germans grumble about paying like everyone else, they recognize that those taxes produce long-term benefits. Suddenly injecting huge sums of money into a hollowed-out economy, as American leaders are now doing, cannot compensate for generations of failing to invest in human security. While the US budget is in mind-boggling deficit, Germany consistently runs a budget surplus. The government either invests the extra cash in physical and social infrastructure projects or stashes it for future emergencies — like a possible pandemic.
Germany’s success is especially important for Americans at this moment because it reaffirms a principle that should be self-evident: good government produces stable and prosperous societies. To emulate that success, we would have to break some of our worst national habits: cutting taxes for the rich, deregulating our economy, demonizing the public sector, obstructing trade unionization, allowing corporations to contribute money to political campaigns, and paying trillions of dollars to fight foreign wars and maintain 800 foreign military bases. Beyond that, we would have to embrace a national ethos that places the needs of citizens first. If this pandemic leads Americans to conclude that we must change our national course, Germany offers an appealing alternative.
Stephen Kinzer is a senior fellow at the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs at Brown University.