Is Germany Now the ‘Beacon of Hope’ That America Used to Be?
Peter Gumbel Talks to Andrew Keen on Keen On
The coronavirus pandemic is dramatically disrupting not only our daily lives but society itself. This show features conversations with some of the world’s leading thinkers and writers about the deeper economic, political, and technological consequences of the pandemic. It’s our new daily podcast trying to make longterm sense out of the chaos of today’s global crisis.
In this episode, Andrew is joined by Peter Gumbel, the author of Citizens of Everywhere, to discuss the fallout from Brexit and examine the history of culture in Britain and Europe.
From the episode:
Andrew Keen: Pre- at least First World War, many people saw Germany as the heart of culture and civilization, and you suggest in your book that we’re returning to that. I at least consider Angela Merkel to be the most enlightened and liberal—liberal with a small L—of politicians in the world today. Here we have a headline of Merkel attacking Twitter over the Trump ban, even though she was anything but a Trump fan. Is Germany now the place that America used to be, the beacon of hope for liberals, for people who believe in individual freedom and balancing, calibrating, the power of the state with individual freedom?
Peter Gumbel: I think it’s quite shocking for a lot of people when I say this, but yes, in many ways Germany has gone through an extraordinary period after the war of coming to terms with what happened and this descent into barbarism, and there’s a genuine amount of remorse and atonement that’s taken place, that continues to take place. And also, three generations have passed. If you look at Merkel, look at the way that she opened the doors to two million refugees in 2015, 16, 17, 18, and they’re very well integrated. Many of them who came, they’ve got jobs—or at least they had jobs before COVID. And if you look at the way that Merkel herself stood up to Trump and was calling him out on values, and as you say, now even on Twitter saying, hey, wait a minute, free speech is important.
So in that sense, Germany has become a very interesting place. Whether it’s a model is hard to say because so many people still associate it with the Nazis and those terrible years of the Third Reich. But the values there currently are very strong ones. And, of course, there’s an extremist element in Germany. There’s a political party in the parliament with some seats who are anti-immigrant and intolerant, but they are very much a minority. There’s much more tolerance in Germany than, I would say, in Britain. In fact, one of the chapters in my book is about the role reversal in some ways between the two countries. That Germany is the beacon of hope for refugees today, in the same way that England was the beacon of hope for my grandparents.
Andrew Keen: Outside of Europe, are there countries that have liberated the notion of citizenship from ethnicity and soil? The Canadians, perhaps? The Australians? Is that really what we need to think about citizenship in a globalized 21st century—of countries that are able to embrace the notion of citizenship whilst at the same time rejecting ethnicity, race, religion?
Peter Gumbel: It’s very hard. Canada clearly is a beacon of tolerance. I think in general, Europe is leading the way. I mean, this idea of having pool sovereignty, of being a community, of accepting differences and different cultures, different languages, and trying to find common ground. I think in many ways that is an example and a shining one in some places. Not everywhere, unfortunately. But it’s an experiment that’s been going on for 50 years and will continue to go on. Has anybody else got it right? Hard to tell. Australia, you mentioned, is a fantastically interesting country. I was there a year ago before the pandemic, and it’s very interesting to see how they have become much more multicultural. At the same time, they still have very rigid barriers, especially to illegal immigrants, and treat them pretty badly. And so nowhere has got it completely right. But I think more and more, this is going to be the challenge of our societies in the future. Finding places that have the right values, that see citizenship as being something that is inclusive, is going to be crucially important. And the other part, of course, is the economic part—that you can have societies who are balanced and at peace with themselves really only if you have economic wellbeing that’s widely shared.
Peter Gumbel teaches at Sciences Po in Paris, as well as working as the university’s Communications Director. He is an award-winning journalist who has worked for Reuters, the Wall Street Journal, Time, and Fortune.