If you were an American living in West Berlin in the late ‘60s – particularly if you were an American who was raised in a liberal environment – the attitudes of the Germans you met on the street was jarring in its orthodoxy. Something I read recently referred to this orthodoxy as political correctness and pointed out that it has long ruled the culture of that country.
As an example of their rigidity, I have often pointed out the very language itself requires adhering to group think. The word for “you” in German is either “Sie” or “du”. Very generally speaking, “Sie” is used among those who aren’t long-time friends or family – and always when children are addressing adults. In writing, “Sie” is always capitalized. Among close friends the “du” form is permissible, and in written communications it is in lower case.
Each has its own form of verb. Thus, the formal translation of “You drink water” would be “Sie trinken wasser.” The informal: “du trinkst wasser.”
Outside of family members, knowing when it is permissible to use the informal version of the language can be tricky. When Mike McCurry was in West Germany, he was told that one never addressed an acquaintance informally unless the friendship spanned at least 10 years. Since someone could be highly offended if addressed as “du” before it was due (pun intended), it was safest to use “Sie” most of the time.
This attitude tended to permeate the younger adult population as well as those who had reached middle age. If McCurry wanted to visit a married drinking buddy’s home, he couldn’t just drop in, nor could he call and ask if it were all right to drop by. It was best if he gave about a week’s notice – otherwise his wife might pull his drinking buddy license. Then, when a date was formally set, it would be expected that one arrive with flowers in hand.
Speaking of wives, the German hausfrau is famous the world over. Cleaning was an obsession and full-time job – right down to giving the front stoop a daily scrubbing. Most kept a formal living room that was used only when special guests were entertained. And where were the children during all this frenzied attention to cleanliness? Since they were expected to remain out of sight, who knows.
Cleaning the body, on the other hand, was limited. When Mike McCurry was there in the late 1960s, he learned the hard way that a large majority of Germans felt it was unhealthy to bathe more than once a week – by riding on a public bus on a hot, raining summer day.
The German little policeman reputation is well earned. In the 1960s, one couldn’t park on the wrong side of the street or attempt to cross a street without walking to the corner and waiting for the little green man without being confronted by two or three people shouting “You must not do zat!” Germans would wait for the little green man even if it was three o’clock in the morning and there wasn’t a car in sight.
Hiking, biking, strolling, or running – all required special uniforms. One good quality – although it was still a testament to their obsessive personalities – was that if you were to break down on the road, you could count on a German to stop and have every spare part known to man neatly stored in his trunk.
If you read McCurry’s War, you will discover that just when he thought there was no hope for the German culture changing, Mike McCurry met a group of students who recognized the need for change if Germany were to shuck off its past and move into the future. These students were fictionalized versions of what became known as the 1968ers. It was a very good year.