German Culture

German culture, customs and etiquette

For most travellers German culture will consist of World War Two and the Nazi occupation of Europe, but scratch beneath the surface and you will find the country has had a key role in the history of Europe, politically and economically. Modern day Germany, with its storied history, is a captivating blend of tradition, innovation, and warmth.

Cultural Diversity and Heritage

German culture is a mix of various influences that have shaped the country over centuries. Celtic, Roman, Frankish, and Slavic legacies have all left their mark on German culture, influencing its language, architecture, cuisine, and traditions.

Today, Germany is known for its contributions to art, literature, philosophy, science, and technology, making it a global cultural powerhouse.

Historic cities like Berlin, Munich, and Cologne are treasure troves of architectural wonders, museums, and cultural institutions that celebrate Germany’s artistic and intellectual achievements and heritage.

Cultural Festivals and Celebrations

Germany celebrates a variety of cultural festivals and events throughout the year, each offering a glimpse into the country’s rich cultural heritage.

One such festival is Oktoberfest, held annually in Munich to celebrate Bavarian culture and traditions. Festivities include beer tents, live music, traditional Bavarian food, and colourful parades, attracting millions of visitors from around the world.

Another significant event is Karneval, celebrated in various regions of Germany to mark the beginning of Lent. Festivities include street parades, costume balls, and colourful processions, with participants wearing elaborate costumes and masks to ward off evil spirits and celebrate the arrival of spring.

The highlight of the carnival season is Rosenmontag, or Rose Monday, when massive parades wind their way through city streets, featuring floats, marching bands, and costumed revellers.

Music and Arts

Germany has a rich cultural heritage in music, literature, and the arts, with influential figures such as Ludwig van Beethoven, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, and Albrecht Dürer leaving a lasting impact on the world. The country is home to world-class museums, theaters, and concert halls, showcasing a wealth of artistic treasures and cultural expressions.

Social Customs and Etiquette

Hospitality is highly valued in German culture, with hosts often going out of their way to make guests feel welcome and comfortable. It is customary to bring a small gift for the host, such as flowers or wine, and to express gratitude for their hospitality.

Sharing meals is a central aspect of German hospitality, with gatherings often featuring traditional dishes like sauerbraten (pot roast), schnitzel (breaded pork or veal cutlet), and bratwurst (sausage), accompanied by hearty bread, potatoes, and beer.

Politeness and respect for others are highly valued in German culture, with courteous behaviour and good manners being important aspects of social interaction. It’s customary to greet people with a handshake and to use formal titles such as “Herr” (Mr.) or “Frau” (Mrs.) followed by their last name, until invited to use their first names. Germans also value personal space and may appear reserved or formal when meeting new people.

Germans appreciate honesty and straightforwardness in communication, and it’s important to respect personal space and avoid interrupting others during conversations.

Behaving aggressively or disturbing the peace will earn you a conversation with German police officers and possibly a fine. Behave respectfully in places of worship and places that carry the dignity of the state (like the numerous war and holocaust memorials, parliaments and other historical sites).

World War Two and the Nazi era

In the late 19th Century, Germany was arguably the most enlightened society in the world. As a mental exercise, try to think of five famous physicists, philosophers, composers or poets without mentioning a German name. This dignity and prestige faced a severe setback during the period of National Socialist rule under Hitler.

Since then, the Third Reich has been a permanent scar on the German national identity, and is considered a blot on Germany’s national honour and will remain so for a very long time. Every German pupil has to deal with it at about five different times during his or her schooling and most classes visit a concentration camp (most of these sites have been transformed into memorials).

Growing up in Germany, whether in the GDR or West Germany, meant and still means growing up with this bitter heritage, and every German has developed there way of dealing with the public guilt.

For the traveller, this can mean confusion. You might come across people (especially young ones) eager to talk to you about Germany’s troubled history, feeling the urge to convince you Germany has come a long way since then. Choose adequate places to talk about the issue and be polite about it.

Humour, even made innocently, is absolutely the wrong way of approaching the subject and is insulting. Even worse, what might sound funny abroad may earn you jail time (up to 3 years) and a hefty fine in Germany.

All Nazi-era slogans, symbols, and gestures are forbidden (except for artistic or educational purposes, and even these are strongly regulated), and displaying them in public is illegal. Foreigners are not exempted from these laws.

Do not even think about jokingly giving a stiff arm Nazi (roman) salute! For example, a German court had to decide if it is legal to wear a crossed-out swastika (to show one’s opposing the ideas of national-socialism) since it still contains a forbidden symbol!

Buddhist, Jain and Hindu visitors should note that even though the swastika is not banned as a religious symbol, you might get some strange looks from the people living there if you wear the symbol, as many Germans are not aware that the swastika is also a religious symbol. You could also end up having to explain your religious situation to the German police.

Probably the best way to deal with the issue to stay relaxed about it. If your company likes to talk about German history, use the opportunity for a sincere, maybe even very personal conversation. If you want to steer clear of awkward moments, don’t bring up the matter.

However, this is not the case when you ask them about the division of Germany into East and West. Communist symbols, GDR songs and other East-German related regalia are circulated freely and many are somewhat nostalgic about the country, hence the artistic and commercial movement “Ostalgie” (nostalgia for the East). Just avoid bringing up the topic of the Berlin Wall impulsively, as it is still a very divisive issue.

German culture is a testament to the country’s unique identity and spirit. As Germany continues to evolve and embrace its cultural heritage, its customs, traditions, and history will undoubtedly remain an integral part of German identity for generations to come.