Posted by: ericgrimsrud | June 10, 2015

German exceptionalism

Germany’s economic and military dynamism along with its geographic centrality have posed problems for Germany itself, as well as the rest of the world, during much of the 20th Century. With the dissolution of the Hapsburg Monarchy at the close of WWI, Germany was absolutely devastated but under the leadership of its infamous Fuhrer rose again to its pinnacle of near world domination only 25 years later and then had to be crushed a second time. Whatever one thinks about the role that country played in the 20th Century, it is clear that Germany has produced people of exceptional will and capabilities. It should also be noted that many of her highly educated citizens accomplished great things both before and after migrating to other countries in response to Germany’s horrific leadership in the ’30s.  For example, most of the scientists who were responsible for winning the nuclear arms race during WWII were actually from Germany and its satellite  countries – having received their educations and initial research experiences there. By 1940, the Allied countries, including the USA and Britain, had not yet produced enough physicists with sufficiently advanced understanding of nuclear processes as to successfully undertake the Manhattan Project. We managed to do that because of the indispensable assistance provided by displaced Germans.  In most other fields as well, including both the sciences and the humanities, German exceptionalism has been evident throughout the 20th Century and now continues into the 21st.

Germany is, indeed, now once again showing itself to be an international leader – whether it is trying to be one or not – just by the example it is settling in facing the universal challenges all countries have.  For example, one of the greatest problems facing all countries today is that of climate change and Germany appears to be doing a better job of responding to it than all other industrialized nations.

I  was therefore struck by an opinion piece I read yesterday in the Washington  Post (see it at:  While in Germany to cover the G7 conference, Catherine Rampell noted the extensive coverage given to the issue of climate change in Germany’s public schools.  To summarize, she states that it’s like “being on an entirely different planet”, rather than just a different country.  In German schools the global warming issue permeates all courses both in the sciences and the humanities and is not presented as merely one side of a legitimate two-sided issue.  In German schools it appears that science is given its due respect and their students are spared the nonsense commonly accompanying the teaching of this issue in our country

The German public and its political leaders are also apparently not as scientifically challenged as so many in America are and are facing the problem of greenhouse gas warming with much more vigor than we – that is, straight on,  right now, and in their own backyards.  As a result, about 30% of all of the energy produced in Germany is already supplied by the solar panels and wind mills on homes and farms throughout Germany. While the nay-sayers of America say that the alternates cannot power a country, Germans are showing us that they can – even in their relatively northern and cloudy country (they don’t have an Arizona, you know) . All of this reminds me of the ’60s and 70’s when the automobile manufacturers of Japan embarrassed those of the US by making cars that our industrial nay-sayers said could not be made.

Nevertheless, many Americans continue to insist that we are the “most exceptional” of all while the party that most often makes that claim continues its efforts to “dumb down” the coverage of climate change in our public schools.  If those efforts continue, American students might soon have to learn about klimawandel (climate change), as well as the means of fighting it, from German text books rather than the increasingly light-weight offerings of our public schools. In addition, we might again have to rely on German-educated scientists and engineers to help us with the technologies of survival that will be required in a hotter world.

In 1940, Adolf Hitler asked “What is America but beauty queens, millionaires, stupid records and Holywood?” While that rhetorical question was quickly answered in spades by what Tom Brokaw called our “Greatest Generation”, I wonder what would happen if German Chancellor Angela Merkel made the same statement today concerning the battle against climate change. Such a statement by her would clearly be justified. Due largely to the USA’s enormous propensity for self indulgence, it continues to be much more a part of the problem than a part of the solution.  And I agree entirely with President Obama when he says that there have been times when the USA has behaved in a less than exceptional manner. On the climate change issue now is such a time. Therefore, I am very pleased to see that Germany is doing its best to fill the void of exceptional leadership that exists today on this most important issue of our times and wish her well.


  1. Unrelated response.

    This is your old friend Sparky. (Someone you never respected, but was somewhat nice too). I thought you might like this little piece of trivia concerning James Hansen (the climate modeler). He grew up in Denison, Iowa. His algebra teacher in high school was a guy by the name of Bob Leahy. Bob is 88 years old and is golf buddy of mine. He was a great golfer (Iowa amateu state champion 54′,55′ and 57) and and exceptional person. Bob always tells us about how he was James’ math teacher.


    • Yo Sparky, Thanks for sharing that story. Your friend did a good job of teaching one of our country’s best and most courageous scientists.
      But you have one thing very wrong. You were and are one of my most memorable and favorite students. Kathy agrees. Please stop in at Amen Lake, MN, any time in the summer so we can do some fishing (its good here) and catch up on things. Eric

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