In Foreign Policy:
One year ago, Germany was named the “best country” in the world, according to a poll by the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School. The poll relied on criteria measuring entrepreneurship, power, public education, and quality of life, among others. But for a growing number of Germans, the important thing was that it offered confirmation of their own self-image. Their country slipped to fourth in this year’s poll, behind Switzerland, Canada, and the United Kingdom, but that seems unlikely to do much to dim the self-confidence of a country enjoying a surging economy and growing international cachet.
Whether the field is migration or manufacturing, fiscal policy or renewable energy, Germans increasingly believe that they, and they alone, know best, at least judging from the attitude newly on display everywhere from newspaper columns to parliamentary speeches to barroom chats over beer. In German the phenomenon is summed up in one word: Besserwisserei, a know-it-all attitude, which the Germans themselves admit is somewhat of an engrained cultural trait.
But it’s increasingly clear that one country’s allegedly evidence-based Besserwisserei is another country’s intolerable smugness. Just ask Germany’s European neighbors, and others, including the United States, where resentment of Germans has been percolating for years, under constant threat of bubbling over….
German high-handedness is eliciting angry charges of “moral imperialism” from Hungary, and its central European neighbors, including Slovakia, Poland, and Croatia, largely concur. Meanwhile, during the first round of the French presidential election, candidates from more than one party chastised Merkel for dictating a German eurozone policy. “We order it, you obey, and tout suite,” is how the German publisher Wolfram Weimer critically summed up Germany’s new modus operandi during the bailout negotiations in an article titled “Virtuous Totalitarianism”. U.S. economist Paul Krugman repeatedly blasts Germany for “moralizing” on European fiscal policy, namely Germany’s obsession with budget discipline, which he considers entirely counterproductive. Since Germany’s setting of the onerous terms for the eurozone’s recovery packages, beginning in 2011, surveys in Europe show that many fellow Europeans consider Germans arrogant, insensitive, and egotistical (while, strangely, praising their dependability and influence in Europe)….
Of course, another reason German smugness can get under the skin is the fact that Germany simply isn’t nearly as universally superlative as it might prefer to think. A close corollary of Besserwisserei has always been hypocrisy. So Germany may browbeat other countries about their deficits today, but other Europeans remember that in the 2000s, when the German economy was in the dumps, and again during the financial crisis, Berlin consistently ran budget deficits in excess of eurozone rules — and avoided penalties for it. The deficits were critical for Germany to get its economy going again.
Meanwhile, Germany insists that other countries follow its lead on climate change, shutting down nuclear power stations and switching to clean energy generation. But Germany is Europe’s biggest burner of dirty coal (seventh in the world), and it’s not on track to hit the Paris Agreement’s reduction targets for 2020. Its best-selling export is big, expensive, gas-guzzling luxury automobiles, including diesels. The Dieselgate scandal caught Volkswagen and other German car manufacturers cheating on emissions tests.
And it’s no accident that the scandal was uncovered in the United States, far from the reach of German political and cultural power — nor that Germany’s discussion about the scandal has been just as focused on how the German auto companies in question can be saved rather than about the financial or moral atonement they might owe. “It’s obvious that the EU should take over emissions testing and that the commission should impose huge fines on Germany,” Lever says. “But it won’t, because it’s Germany, that’s why. It shows how much power Germany has now.”