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Of perception and dogma

Trustworthiness and economic competence seem not to translate into a perception that Germany is modest and compassionate to others

Gulf News

Gustave Flaubert was the original master. In his Dictionary of Received Ideas, the 19th-century French novelist defined and mocked the cliche’s of his age: “America — praise it, especially if you haven’t been there ... Basques — the fastest runners ... Bretons — all decent folk, but obstinate ...”

In our times, to profess a taste for humour based on stereotypes of ethnicity or nationality occasions such disapproval that it is like confessing to a secret vice. But Flaubert-style satire is, of course, different from spite. How else to explain the success of Mapping Stereotypes, the internet site of Yanko Tsvetkov, a London-based Bulgarian designer?

His maps of Europe give each country a label inspired by the prejudices and preconceptions of its neighbours. The British map designates the EU “the Evil Federated Empire of Europe”. The French map depicts the Netherlands as “Weed”. The German map shows France as “Eiffelreich”, Belgium as “Waffles” and so on.

Four years ago, David Cerny, a Czech artist, achieved notoriety when, in honour of his country’s six-month presidency of the EU, he used stereotypes to depict all 27 member states: Germany criss-crossed with swastika-shaped autobahns, France covered with a banner proclaiming “Greve!” (“On strike!”) and so on. The artwork was put on display at the EU’s Brussels headquarters, which says something about the EU’s passion for artistic licence — or about its bureaucratic muddle.

National stereotypes are fertile ground for academic researchers as well as mischievous artists. Take a report published last Monday by the Washington-based Pew Research Centre. Its conclusions are that the Eurozone crisis is undermining confidence in the EU and tearing apart public opinion by separating confident, resilient Germany from embittered, struggling Mediterranean countries. But we sort of knew that already, didn’t we? More interesting, and less commented upon, was the section of the report titled ‘Stereotyping in Europe’. This asked people in Britain, the Czech Republic, France, Germany, Greece, Italy, Poland and Spain which of the EU’s 27 nations they thought was the most and least trustworthy, arrogant and compassionate.

Surprise, surprise, each country saw itself as the most compassionate. But Germany swept the board as the most trustworthy, an opinion shared by all eight countries except Greece. This fits well with another of the report’s findings: Angela Merkel, Germany’s Chancellor, is admired in northern and central Europe for her handling of the crisis, but is disliked in Greece and is fast losing popularity in Italy and Spain.

Trustworthiness and economic competence seem not to translate into a perception that Germany is modest and compassionate to others. On the contrary, six nations named Germany as the least compassionate, and five termed it the most arrogant.

Perhaps this is what comes from being Europe’s top economic dog at a time of general recession and high unemployment. Countries that wear the mantle of leadership are often deemed to possess unflattering features — look at how the Americans, British and Russians have been described in various eras of their history.

However, these “national characteristics” usually say less about the nations observed than about the observer’s geopolitical and economic inferiority. In Germany’s case, the curious thing is that it has tended to act in the Eurozone crisis with caution — too much caution, some would say — and has displayed an obvious reluctance to exercise its power to the full. In what way is this behaviour arrogant? Meanwhile, Germany has organised EU-led financial rescues for Greece, Ireland, Portugal and Cyprus as well as Spain’s banks. Is this evidence of a lack of compassion?

The explanation for the Pew survey’s findings may lie not only in Germany’s actions, but in the manner in which its political leaders and media diagnose the Eurozone’s ills and recommend cures. To the ears of numerous Europeans, especially in the south, German prescriptions for ending the crisis sound like dour rebukes and monotonous sermons.

Looked at another way, Germany might be tempted to draw comfort from the fact that three national surveys named a different European country as the most arrogant. It was France, put in the stocks by the British, the Germans and the French themselves, no less. Before anyone hails this admirably brave display of Gallic self-criticism, let it be noted that the French also put themselves top of the list of least arrogant countries. To coin a stereotype, France is the land of paradox.

More disturbing are the results of the Greek survey. Some 57 per cent of Greeks thought Germany the least compassionate nation, and 50 per cent thought it the most arrogant. These were by far the highest levels of anti-German sentiment recorded in Europe, and they dwarfed anti-Greek sentiment in Germany. The debt crisis has stirred Greek emotions into a toxic combination with recriminations over the German occupation of Greece of 1941-44.

Surveys such as Pew’s tell us nothing about who, objectively, is arrogant or trustworthy — or clever, dull-witted and lazy. But national stereotypes will be with us as long as there are nations. At times of political and economic stress, they can turn virulent — which is the best of all reasons for restoring Europe’s health as soon as possible.

— Financial Times