Newly arrived Director Germany, Paul Smith, shares his initial insights of the country, bringing with him knowledge of various other countries including Indonesia, USA and Afghanistan.

He explores die Zukunft der Vergangenheit, namely how the past informs the views and hopes of Germany’s next generations. 

In 2019 the British Council issued Next Generation Germany, a survey of 2,000 German citizens aged 18 to 30, listening to their reflections on their lives and their thoughts of the future.

It was refreshing to hear of a young populus that was so essentially positive about life, where some 70 per cent were ‘satisfied with their current roles’ and happy to live in a country which they felt gave its citizens relative safety and security. 

What a long trajectory German young opinion seems to have travelled from 1945, from 1963, even from 1989.

This reminds me of two public spaces, which as a recent arrival in Berlin I have familiarised myself with. In the heart of Berlin, near the Reichstag, the Tiergarten, the Brandenburg Gate and Unter den Linden, are two adjacent public spaces. One is the most moving you will ever witness. The other is the most non-descript. 

‘The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe’, known as the Holocaust Memorial, adjoins a housing estate with a large dreary car park. That car park covers the remains of Hitler’s bunker and the Nazi offices from which the final atrocities of the Second World War were conducted in our parents’ and grandparents’ lifetimes. 

Cutting alongside the Memorial’s achingly moving stelae, built to last a thousand years, and cutting alongside the car park, the anonymous destitution of the thousand-year Reich which lasted barely a decade, is the pathway of the Berlin Wall which divided Western and Eastern Europe in our own generation. 

Global memory: breaking down walls 

‘Die Mauer’ similarly makes of Berlin a place where global memory aches and a place where further oppositional ideologies and political-isms have ravaged humanity over the past eighty – just a lifetime’s – years.

This whole area of Berlin illuminates William Faulkner’s observation that ‘the past is never dead; it’s not even past’. 

Neil McGregor potently captures the emotional meaning of the Holocaust Memorial when he writes that no other nation ‘at the heart of its national capital builds monuments to its own shame’. 

It’s that concept of ‘shame’, that rarely addressed and most traumatic human emotion, that exudes from these, theoretically ‘past’, defining historical narratives and that aggrieves these legacies of human outrage – legacies of totalitarianism and genocide but also, across a broader panorama of history and geography, legacies of slavery, colonialism and tyranny.


Today, interestingly the majority of the young people we surveyed identified themselves not so much with the German nation as with larger or smaller cultural geographies, with Europe or their Länder (states) or with their city, town or local rural area. 

There was a wariness of nationalism and a concern that it encouraged political polarisation and potentially more extreme political views. 

Their identification was more with a cultural, than a country paradigm and this led to often benign views about borders and an aversion to walls, with the younger group, 18 to 24, particularly open to immigration both from Europe and wider afield. 

Indeed, according to our latest perceptions survey , young Germans have a very international outlook: they are some of the most likely in the G20 to say that their country should prioritise international co-operation/challenges. 

From our Next Generation Survey, we established a concern among young Germans that, in national politics, a growing right-wing ideology was a destabilising force and there was a wish – if values and principles could be upheld – for youth opportunity with more political and civic engagement.

Perhaps most tellingly in the report was that:

‘Young Germans reported feeling that the rest of the world still links German identity with the Second World War which limits the role that Germany can play on the world stage. There is a sense that Germany has to seek consensus before it can give its opinion for fear of being accused of trying to dominate.’

It seems that the German struggle to accommodate their past, die Vergangenheitsbewältigung  (quite a mouthful and, perhaps, necessarily so), endures through the generations. 

It lends a moral and principled Geist to the young people of this most liberal and tolerant country. 

This perhaps partially explains Germany’s second place ranking (only after Canada) in supporting important 21st century values, as perceived by the 36 countries in our 2020 perceptions survey

Think of that – ‘most liberal and tolerant’. It is just 75 years since Germany was the pariah nation, the outcast, the West European nation that needed to be occupied by four other nations to ensure its tolerability. 

Now, according to perceptions data,  Germany consistently reaches the top 5 on ‘trust in government’, ‘trust in institutions’ and ‘trust in people’ metrics. 

Think of a single lifetime trajectory that has made of Germany one of the, perhaps the, most trustworthy and responsible amongst world leading nations, a beacon of human hope in an, again, prejudiced, xenophobic and divided world of walls.

Yet, the reclamation of an inspirational Germany, as betokened by its gentle but persuasive young adults, has been a cultural movement not a political one. 

It has derived from an evolution of societies, communities, professionals and peoples working towards new means of relationship, engagement, learning and collaboration. 

At the heart of this is a new international recognition and respect for Germany, where new cultural relationships, as much as diplomacy, have been most influential. 

As a British Council person, dedicated to international cultural relations, I know truly great cultural relationship initiatives when I see them. And I see them every day when I witness the work of the Goethe Institut. 

Cultural relationships

Think of that too. Six years after the War and Germany creates a cultural organisation to project itself through the world - a daring and perhaps dangerous idea one would have thought. But this is not cultural promotion or national showcasing. 

The Goethe Institut is a voice for dialogue around the things that really matter in the world, human and cultured discourse with the peoples of the many countries where the Goethe operates - principled discourse leading to collaboration and co-production. 

By building cultural relationships the autonomous, effective and well-funded  Goethe Institut, and its sister organisations, ifa and DAAD have worked massively to rehabilitate the reputation of Germany as among the most responsible  and trusted of nations, just as Germany’s young people can increasingly be seen as true explorers of the age old quest which lies behind all politics and all moralities – ‘what is the good life’?

And for the future?

As in the 1940’s the world is again at an existential crisis moment. Even before the pandemic, young Germans had anxieties about the future. 

They were anxious about the future , feeling that it would be less settled. They wondered if their education would prepare them for future jobs disrupted by technology and where creativity and entrepreneurship would matter more.

Yet now, our environment is imperilled, our populations are diseased, our governments are antagonised, the diversities of our peoples are enraged. 

 Race, religion, gender, sexuality, identity, belonging – all the great cultural paradigms of our being demand action and recommitment. 

Shame rightly spreads, and the deep cultivation of new trust is essential. 

Many in the UK too are reflecting on aspects of its imperial past in striving for equality at home and a collaborative place in the world. Indeed, an important point of close contact between Germany and the UK is the degree to which the values and interests of the two countries are the same.

According to our latest perceptions data, both Germany and UK believe the most important values that countries around the world should support or encourage in the 21st century are equality rights, the environment, tolerance and eradicating poverty. As predicted in Crossing Points: UK-Germany , the UK's exit from the European Union has done little to change these shared values. 

The work of cultural relations has never been more vital and the understanding of history never more pertinent to finding right ways forward. 

In this, the voice of German youth is salutary and the knowledge that national populations can transform from pariah states to models of empathy and outreach is a source of life-giving hope.