Germany is a country thoroughly well loved by Americans. When I was teaching at the high school, my kids would often ask me what Americans really think of Germany as well as what Americans would think of them if they came to America. I’m not sure they believed me when every time I told them that Americans think Germany is awesome and Germans equally so – we glorify their beer, we admire their economy and industriousness, and we think Angela Merkel should run for U.S. president (well, ok, no, but Americans tend to really like her). For Americans visiting Europe, Germany is often a top destination, and Germans visiting the U.S. are often very well received.
But just because Americans tend to love Germany doesn’t mean they actually know that much about it. Having spent some time in this country as an American myself and observing other Americans, here are four of what I would say are the top misconceptions Americans have about Germany and its inhabitants.
1) Germany is Bavaria.
This is the number one misconception of Germany among Americans, and really foreigners in general. The stereotypical image of what life in Germany is like is that of a man wearing lederhosen, a woman in a dirndl, both clutching a huge mug of beer bounding through an Alpine meadow. Or something like that. Yet what many Americans don't realize is that all of these images come almost exclusively from a single German state -- Bavaria (Bayern in German). There are 15 different states besides Bavaria, each with a unique culture and set of traditions, but this fact seems to escape many tourists. Moreover, Bayern isn't exactly a state the rest of Germany loves, or at least feels is representative of the country as a whole. Showing up in Berlin or Hamburg and wondering where the Lederhosen are at will get you a reaction similar to showing up in Seattle and asking why people aren’t wearing cowboy boots and oversized belt buckles.
Lederhosen and Dirndl are types of Tracht (traditional clothing) specific to southern Germany. Other parts of Germany have traditional clothing, but the styles are different. This is not to say you won’t see these types of clothing outside of Bavaria, but likely if you do, it’s someone who’s just dressing up for fun (or perhaps a Bavarian that’s far from home).
Similarly, raucous beer halls where busty barmaids serve beer in liter mugs is a trait of Southern German culture. If you go to a city like Cologne, you'll be in for a shock when you find out the most common beer size there is .2 liters -- and they think that's a far superior way to drink beer. There is a Hofbräuhaus in Berlin, but it’s fairly new and largely targeted at the tourist demographic that comes to Germany expecting to see such beer halls everywhere.
And those alpine meadows? Compared to Bayern the rest of Germany is really quite flat. There's only one other mountain range of note, the Harz Mountains in Lower Saxony. Still, there’s actually quite a nice variety of scenery to be found in Germany, from the beaches in the north, to the scenic river valleys in the west, to the wetlands of the east. Just because the rest of Germany doesn’t look like a mountainous wonderland doesn’t mean it’s not worth exploring!
2) Germans will accept you as their own because your great-great-great-great-great-grandfather was maybe German.
Americans love talking about their ancestry, because nobody wants to be just an American. Many people proudly identify as Irish-American or German-American, despite the fact that their families have been in the U.S. for several generations and their family likely has no specific ties to those countries anymore (beyond that mythical castle in Ireland or England people always tell me their family owns).
However, I think sometimes Americans overestimate the social capital that gives them when they do travel abroad. I’ve known many Americans to proudly proclaim that they, too, are German to natives while visiting Germany, and its usually met by a bemused smile and a polite response. I don’t think anyone would ever be rude about it, but I feel like Americans sometimes expect such an announcement to be met with a big hug and a “Welcome home!” – which never usually happens.
Simply because your family originated in Germany doesn’t make you German. Modern day Germany has a culture and politics very distinct from America, and showing off your German last name and professing a love of Hefeweizen isn’t going to be enough to circumvent that. It’s fine to explore your roots, and I’m sure many Germans would enjoy helping you along that journey, but you’ll still be just an American in most people’s eyes.
2a) Maybe rethink that German flag tattoo.
As a corollary to the above, this is a prime example of a lapse between German and American culture. I have known some Americans to be so proud of their German heritage that they would go so far to have a memento of it tattooed on their bodies – such as a German flag tattoo – and they then show it off to Germans expecting to impress someone with their dedication to Germany. Unfortunately, such a display is more likely to make people want to stay away from you, because generally the only people in Germany who would have such tattoos are neo-Nazis or other nationalists, types of people that are (understandably) strongly disliked by the general populace.
3) "Don't mention the war."
Fans of Fawlty Towers/superior British comedy will recognize that reference. For those unfamiliar with it, it’s from a sketch from a 1970s British TV show in which Basil Fawlty, owner of a hotel, tries to accommodate a group of German guests. A major part of the episode is his efforts to try and avoid mentioning World War II for fear of making his guests uncomfortable, but unfortunately his efforts backfire spectacularly and hilariously. Check a clip from the episode here (but the whole episode is worth watching).
The point of this is, I feel many Americans come to Germany interested in learning more about WWII, but somehow feeling like this is a taboo subject or that they could easily offend someone by bringing it up. Obviously this is something that should be approached carefully and tactfully, but by no means is it an unapproachable subject. Younger generations especially are far enough removed that they can talk about it freely and often without shame (or at least, without feeling a deep personal guilt).
However, I do think it can sometimes be offputting for Germans when Americans come over interested in WWII and approach with a more apolitical approach – i.e. Americans who are extremely interested in learning about wartime artillery, who like to discuss military strategy, or maybe those who collect Nazi memorabilia for purely historical reasons. The concept of someone being a military history “buff” is far less common here, and I feel like that kind of interest could be misunderstood as shedding a positive light on German military actions in WWII if people aren’t careful about how they express themselves.
3a) Germans are somehow ignorant of the Holocaust/try not to think about it.
Similar to talking about WWII, the Holocaust is treated as an especially taboo topic among visitors to Germany when interacting with Germans. Certainly, most people know that concentration camps all over the country have been preserved and made available for visitors, but acknowledgement of the Holocaust goes far beyond turning concentration camps into permanent memorials.
I think one of the most under-appreciated aspects of Germany today is how hard this country has worked to memorialize the atrocities of the Holocaust and WWII as a whole and to make sure it they are never forgotten. There are countless memorials in cities and towns, ranging from subtle Stolpersteine to sprawling memorials like Berlin's Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, which acknowledge where an event happened or how many people died at a given location. And more are being built every year; this is an ongoing process in Germany. Additionally, all German students will visit a concentration camp at least once in the course of their studies, but likely more.
Again, this is a subject that should be approached tactfully, but it is in no way something that Germany is shy about facing or that Americans should feel awkward acknowledging. Germany has done such good work in this regard, and I think that’s worth recognizing and talking about.
4) The Autobahn is some sort of mythical strip of highway somewhere with no speed limits ever.
Finally, one of the other classic stereotypical images of Germany is of its roads – specifically, the Autobahn, a place you can drive as fast as you want! No speed limits! Total freedom!
Eh, not quite. First of all, many Americans speak of the “Autobahn” as if it is one singular place. As in, you can go to the Autobahn, drive really fast, then leave and continue on with your day. The Autobahn is just the name for Germany’s interstate system, the same as we have in the U.S. Meaning, there are many different stretches of it – the A-33, A-5, etc. So talking about the Autobahn as if it’s just one part of Germany makes as much sense as someone asking a visitor to America, “Did you see the Interstate? How was it?”
Second of all, the whole “no speed limits ever!” deal isn’t true at all. Only certain portions of the Autobahn are without speed limits, and I wouldn’t even say that the majority of its segments are without speed limits. The limits can change abruptly, so tourists would do well to keep an eye or for signs for risk getting “blitzed” (caught in an automatic speed trap) and facing a hefty fine.
So for all those Americans ready to strap on their Lederhosen, show off their German flag tattoo and talk about how they can’t wait to speed down the Autobahn, I’d recommend taking a quick step back and giving yourself a chance to learn more about the German culture before you visit. It’s a wonderful country with many friendly, welcoming people, but keeping these points in mind will give you a broader window into what Germany is really like and help make sure you don’t come off as an ugly American -- or worse.