Society - Culture
By: - at January 18, 2015

15 Unique Aspects of German Culture

Germany has only been recognized as a country since 1871 and Germany's culture has adapted and changed over the years. The beginnings of German culture can be traced all the way back to the glory days of the Roman Empire, when Germany was ruled by independent Germanic tribes. The modern roots of the German state stem mostly from what historians refer to as the Prussian and German Empires.

Neuschwanstein Castle in Bavaria, Germany:
Neuschwanstein Castle in Bavaria, Germany

The creation of the Prussian Empire dates back to 1701 and was formed as a means to ensure that peace would proliferate the region instead of more bloodshed and war. The Prussian Empire at the height of its power and influence, included portions of present day Germany, Poland, Russia, Lithuania, Denmark, Belgium, and the Czech Republic.

prussian-map

Long before the year 1701 and rise of the Prussian Empire, German lands were controlled by Germanic tribes who lacked a singularly unifying, national government. In an attempt to annex these lands, the Roman Empire attempted to seize control of what they saw as a mostly disorganized people who were vulnerable to foreign expatriation. Pressure from the Romans led to war breaking out between soldiers of the Roman Empire and Germanic tribesmen. The Roman Legion was perceived to be the favorite to many military strategists in Rome, and victory over what Romans perceived to be Germanic savages was thought to be an expedient achievement. At the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest in 9 AD, these Roman military strategists were proved deadly wrong. A Germanic victory at Teutoburg Forest meant two things: there would be no conquering of the Germanic tribes by Roman soldiers and the Roman Empire had reached a point of decline after generations of prosperity. The map below depicts the many invading forces that would begin chipping away at one of history's most powerful empires.


By User:MapMaster via Wikimedia Commons

After the fall of the Roman Empire, the early Franks took control of this region that was referred to as the Frankish Empire, ruled by the renowned Charlemagne (Charles the Great). Charlemagne was King of the Franks and is given credit for uniting most of Western Europe during the earliest years of the Middle Ages. German lands would be later divided among Charlemagne's heirs in 843, and the lands making up modern Germany comprised portions of what was known as the Holy Roman Empire. The Holy Roman Empire reigned from 962-1806 AD and included a complex assimilation of territories that now represent many modern, central European countries like Luxembourg, Belgium, Switzerland, Poland, and of course Germany. 

Holy Roman Empire Around 1600 AD:
Holy Roman Empire Around 1600 AD
By Ssolbergj via Wikimedia Commons

Germany is known throughout Europe as the "Country of Poets and Thinkers". Manufacturing technology coupled with engineering prowess, allows Germany to rise above most European nations. Germany's contributions to the art world such as Baroque and Neoclassicism works, literary contributions, and cinematic contributions help to set Germany on equal ground with other European nations as far as culture is concerned. Germany may of only been formally recognized since 1871, but Germany has just as much to offer as older European nations like France or Spain. Cultural customs in Germany may seem different or strange to foreign citizens, but falling in love with German culture is an easy proposition. 


15)  Eye Contact
In Germany, a particularly strange custom to most Americans is that you have to make eye contact with a person when you are saying cheers, over a drink. If a person does not maintain eye contact when they are clinking their glasses, then it is believed in Germany that the individual will suffer from seven years of bad sex as a result.

cheers

Eye contact isn’t just important over a drink. It is extremely important for you to maintain eye contact when you are talking with somebody over a business or professional matter. It’s even expected when you simply meet a person for the first time. When you shake hands with an individual you have never met, you are expected to maintain eye contact and refrain from hugging, something many Americans do especially if they are meeting a significant others' parents. If you do not keep eye contact, you will be considered impolite.

babe ruth hugging lou gehrig

In Germany, unlike in Asian countries where excessive eye contact can be considered rude, you will also be considered impolite if you refrain from keeping eye contact with an individual when they are talking to you. When you are introduced to a group of people you should wait for the host to introduce you all. Greet everybody with a handshake, look them in the eye, and of course smile!


14)  Melting Lead on New Year’s Eve
New Year’s Eve is as big a celebration for the Germans as it is for the rest the worlds' nations. The country has a unique number of traditions that are practiced on this night, with one including melting lead over a candle.

German Bleigießen New Years Custom:
German Bleigießen New Years Custom

This custom is known as Bleigießen, and it is the custom whereby lead is melted in a spoon over a candle, and used to tell the future like others might use tealeaves. Only a small amount of lead is used for this practice, and when the lead has melted, it is poured into a bowl of cold water. This will result in the lead creating a pattern and quickly solidifying again.

The pattern that is created by the lead is interpreted to suggest what is going to occur in the coming year. Some common shapes include a ball which is thought to mean that luck will come your way, and an anchor shape means that you will need help at some point during the year. A cross shape signifies death in the coming year.

As well as pouring lead, the Germans also like to enjoy a drink called Feuerzangenbowle. Translated into English, this is a drink called the ‘flaming fire tongs punch’. The drink is complicated to prepare, with a number of ingredients including cloves, cinnamon, oranges, rum, red wine and cinnamon.

Feuerzangenbowle with Burning Zuckerhut:
Feuerzangenbowle with Burning Zuckerhut
By Kore Nordmann via Wikimedia Commons


13)  Say Hello to Everyone!
Germans have earned a reputation for being extremely polite in nature. If you should find yourself in a confined space with other people in a public setting like say on a public bus, in German culture it is expected to say hello to everybody in that space. That means if you are to use a public lift or get on a train carriage, you will be expected to say hello to everybody in close proximity to you. This is also expected in a shop or entrance to a building.

say hello

It is considered rude when people do not introduce themselves when they enter a room although it is common for English-speaking visitors to refrain from doing so. The Germans find it uncomfortable when somebody does not introduce himself or herself, considering it rude even when they are told that the individual does not practice this as part of their own culture. So if you are visiting German you must consider that for the purposes of your trip acting German is essential for making connections with locals, and in order to make sure that your trip goes without any serious issues.

saying hello in Germany


12)  Schultüte
Schultüte is a tradition in Germany where German children go to their first day of school, toting a large cone. The word schultüte translates into ‘school cone’ in English. This cone is generally made of paper and this cultural development is practiced in Austria, Germany and the Czech Republic. The cones are decorated by the children and are generally filled with treats or school supplies.

Modern Renditions of Schultüte:
Modern Renditions of Schultüte

The cones will often be stuffed with toys, chocolate and candy, as well as school supplies and other things that children can enjoy with the school year starting. This is meant to be a way of helping children with any anxieties related to their first day of a school or possibly an entirely new school all together. This is also meant to help children meet new friends by comparing their cone with those of fellow students, and even swapping and sharing their treats as a way of making new friends.

first day of school

The tradition has even been adopted by many universities today, with university students jokingly taking treats with them on their first day. The Schultute tradition goes as far back as 1810 with the first recorded use of a cone originates in the city of Jena. Later reports from 1820 and 1836 demonstrate the emergence of this German tradition, and the Schultute tradition has become a deeply rooted part of German culture.


11)  Alcohol-Free Holidays
Germany has strict alcohol laws relating to the use and commercial sale of products that contain alcohol. Very similar to the alcohol laws in the United States where legislation exists to restrict the sale of alcohol to minors, Germany also has laws in place that help to promote absolute sobriety among its youth. As a country known for its quality beers, German laws are designed to ensure that young people learn how to drink alcohol in moderation.

german beers

At the age of 14, a child is able to possess and consume fermented, undistilled drinks like beer and wine, as long as they are accompanied by their legal guardians. Then at 16, a child is legally allowed to drink and possess these beverage without the accompaniment of their legal guardian. Finally, at the age of 18, a person is considered a legal adult and will be able to access all varieties of alcohol, including liquor.

Despite most holidays being celebrated with alcoholic drinks, Germany does have a number of holidays where the use of alcohol is not accepted. These holidays are known as silent holidays, and included days like Good Friday and All Saints’ Day. On these holidays, public parties are prohibited across the country, but stores are not legally required to stop selling alcohol.

The Hofbrauhaus Beer Hall in Munich, Germany:
The Hofbrauhaus Beer Hall in Munich, Germany
By Jorge Royan via Wikimedia Commons

It is considered disrespectful to consume alcohol in public on these holidays, however. Restaurants are the only places that will have any major restrictions on these holidays, as they will have to abide by the German Youth Protection Act which was designed to ensure that young people were not accessing distilled liquor.

Other silent days, like the Sunday of the Dead, require no music to be played in clubs, bars, pubs or other public spaces in different regions across Germany.


10)  Shoes for Santa
In the United States and most English speaking countries, is welcomed by placing a carrot and a glass of milk on the hearth. Children will often put a mince pie or other treat on a plate like cookies, and the tradition is that Saint Nicholas will come down the chimney, drink the milk, eat some of the pie and give the carrot to his reindeer.


By Jonathan G Meath via Wikimedia Commons

In Germany, the tradition is very different. Particularly in Northern Germany, children will leave a boot behind for Saint Nicholas outside of their front door. Then, Saint Nicholas is said to fill the boot with sweets and gifts, much like he would fill a stocking with gifts in English-speaking countries.

Christmas Stockings:
Christmas Stockings

The tradition also says that if a child has been naughty during the year, then they will not receive sweets in their boot, but a tree branch instead. Traditionally, Saint Nicholas is also joined by his companion KnechtRuprecht, who is responsible for finding out whether a child has been naughty or bad during the year. If a child has not been saying their prayers and being polite, then he will shake a bag of ashes at them.





9)  Shaking Hands
In Germany, shaking hands is a large part of German culture. When it comes to doing business with somebody in Germany, it is essential to shake hands with that individual. When being introduced to a man, this should be a brief shake with a strong grip. If you are being introduced to a woman, then you should wait and see if she extends her hand to you first. If she does then proper German etiquette is to hake her hand. Other popular greeting cultural norms in Germany include when a woman enters the room, it is customary for the men in the room to rise. This doesn't apply when the opposite scenario occurs, so women do not need to rise when men enter the room.

shaking hands

Shaking hands is considered common courtesy not reserved for solely the business world in Germany, and shaking hands is considered a way of casually greeting people that you have never met before. Should you be introduced to a person in Germany, it is common courtesy to extend your hand to them. If you are being introduced to a woman and you are a man, then just as if you were in business you should wait for the woman to extend their hand to you first.


8)  Fire Rolling at Easter
One popular way to celebrate Easter is by having a bonfire. This is a result of many of Germany's pagan roots. Prior to the massive popularity of Christianity, winters were welcomed in by people burning massive bonfires. These bonfires soon became adopted for use during Christian festivals as many Christian customs has their origins in Pagan holidays. During these holidays, the communities of Germany will usually gather massive amounts of wood and light one central bonfire at the center of town as well as smaller fires throughout the cityscape.

massive bonfire
By Yoninah via Wikimedia Commons

Fire's proliferation of German culture doesn't stop here! Another popular tradition is called ‘osterrad’. This tradition is commonly found in the rural parts of the country and also has its roots in paganism. A wagon wheel will be stuffed with dry hay and other materials that can burn quickly. Then, the wagon wheel will be lit on fire and rolled down a hill.

osterrad in Germany

If the wheel is able to roll down the hill without falling on its side, then the tradition says that there will be a good harvest for the year. If the wheel falls over, then it was customary in Germany to believe that the entire year will be plagued with bad luck.


7)  Knock for a Round of Applause
It is only customary to give a regular round of applause in theaters and concerts, in Germany. In other social settings like in business meetings or at university classes, clapping is not considered an appropriate signal of praise. There is an academic habit in Germany, involving knocking on tables or school desks, is much more appropriate than clapping your hands together. While there is no one single reason for why people do this, but it is generally considered that there are three primary reasons why Germans knock on their tables.

Sign on a School Complex in Germany:
Sign on a School Complex in Germany
By Joachim Müllerchen.Jom from Wikimedia Commons

The first idea is that knocking on a shield was once seen as a sign of agreement, during medieval times. Knocking on shields would occur even in courts, and it is possible that this practice simply evolved to knocking on tables to show that there is agreement on a topic. Other research suggests that the ‘freshmen’ in the 18th century were introduced to academic centers by drumming on the floor with wooden sticks. This was also performed when students did not like the lecture being provided by the lecturer. It is possible that the meaning behind the knocking has changed over time.

Statue Depicting a Student and Educator Located in Rostock, Germany:
Statue Depicting a Student and Educator Located in Rostock, Germany
By Schiwago via Wikimedia Commons

Finally, another theory suggests that the reason why people do not clap is because one of their hands is busy writing. Knocking on the table allows someone to quickly show agreement or appreciation without putting down their pen or pencil.


6)  No Early Birthday Parties
It is absolutely unacceptable in Germany to have your birthday party before the actual date of your birthday. Also in Germany, one should also never wish a German person a happy birthday before the actual date of their birthday. This practice is not only considered rude, but is also considered to bring bad luck to the person having the birthday. So, be sure not to give anyone from Germany any presents, any good wishes or even a card before the date of their birthday. Although throwing birthdays before the actual date is considered a faux-pa, it is acceptable in Germany to throw parties or give gifts after the birthday has passed.

happy-birthday

The opposite of this practice is common in regions of Austria, with late birthdays seen as unlucky and early ones seen as bearers of good luck. It is even customary in Austria for people to celebrate their birthday on the day prior to their actual birth date.

Another birthday custom in Germany is often welcome to visitors. If you are invited out to a birthday party or out to a bar for somebody’s birthday, then don’t expect to pay for any of the drinks. No matter how much you might insist, you will simply not be allowed to pay for your own drinks. This may seem strange to Americans and the British, but it is commonplace for the birthday boy or girl to pay for his or friends to have a fun night.

The major birthdays in Germany include the 16th, 18th and 25th birthday. The 16th birthday brings with it a tradition of pouring flour over the top of the birthday boy or girl’s head. Then, on the 18th birthday, Germans will often crack eggs over the head of the birthday boy or girl.

cracking eggs over head

Finally, on the 25th birthday, the whole town will know it’s your birthday if you are an unmarried man. Socks known as ‘sockenkranz’ will be tied outside the home of the unmarried 25 year old man. In Germany, an old sock is meant to represent a bachelor. When the birthday boy comes across another sock, he will be expected to drink an alcoholic drink.


5)  Passionate About Sports
Sport is a huge part of German culture, and it has been for a long time. In fact, it was reported in 2006 that more than 27 million people were members of sports clubs in Germany, totaling more than 991,000 clubs in the country. Much like the United Kingdom, Germany is particularly fond of football, or ‘soccer’ in the United States. The top-level league of football in the country is called the Bundesliga, and this league has the largest average attendance of any professional sport league in the entire world.

Bundesliga

The Germans are also particularly fond of ice hockey, handball, basketball and motorsports.


4)  Literature
Literature is a huge part of the culture in Germany, and it has a particularly long history in the country. German literature can be dated to the Middle Ages, and has been popular from the Early Modern period right up to the 21st century. The literature of Germany includes any piece of text that has been written in the German language, which technically means that pieces from Austria and Switzerland are classified under German literature.

While there is a long history of writing literature in Germany, the most popular comes in the form of modern literature, which came about during the time of the Enlightenment.

In the 21st Century, there is a greater diversity in the varieties of literature that are written, and become popular. For instance, science-fiction and fantasy are two immensely popular varieties of literature, with poetry and novels still fairing well, even in this modern age.

Giants of German Literature:
Giants of German Literature:

A total of 13 times, the Nobel Prize has been awarded to authors who write in the German language, with the last German Nobel Prize winner being Herta Muller, in 2009. Other Nobel Prize winners for literature include Theodor Mommsen, Rudolf Christoph Eucken, Paul Heyse, Gerhart Hauptmann, Carl Spitteler, Thomas Mann, Nelly Sachs, Herman Hesse, Heinrich Boll, Elias Canetti, Gunter Grass and Elfriede Jelenik.


3)  Cuisine
Germany is home to some of the heartiest meals in Europe, and they certainly have a sweet tooth. The country has a real passion for quality food, and a number of dishes are considered German classics.

A particularly popular dish that has become a favorite all over the world is the Apfelstrudel, otherwise known as the apple strudel. This is a pastry that’s filled with apples and sugar, along with other ingredients like raisins, cinnamon and breadcrumbs. This has been a popular dish since the 18th Century.

German Apfelstrudel with Ice Cream:
German Apfelstrudel with Ice Cream

The dough is kneaded and stretched until it becomes as thin as possible, which means that, when cooked, the pastry is both smooth and crumbly at the same time. The dish is served warm with powdered sugar on the top.

In terms of main meals, the Eintopf is a popular German food. This is a steaming bowl of stew that, when translated into English, simply means ‘one pot’. The name comes from the fact that everything is cooked in the one pot, instead of using any complex cooking styles. The recipe is really simple – it just involved cooking some form of meat, usually pork, chicken or beef, along with vegetables, pulses and potatoes. Cooked in stock, the stew is a popular dish in the winter.

Pichelsteiner Eintopf:
Pichelsteiner Eintopf
By Josef Türk via Wikimedia Commons

One dish that hasn’t really taken off across the world, however, is the Kasespatzle. This is a dish that includes noodles made from eggs and wheat flour. This is a dish mostly eaten in Southern Germany, where the noodles are topped with cheese. The dish is somewhat similar to macaroni cheese, and is sometimes served alongside roasted onions.


2)  Dialects
As with near enough every country in the world, Germany has a number of dialects that have formed over hundreds of years. Dialects can simply be accents, but in other instances, dialects can form what seem like entirely separate languages.

German Speaking World
German Speaking World

The variation of dialect found among German speakers is quite significant. Comparing Low German, Upper German and even the High Franconian dialects would seem as if you were comparing separate languages. Many people who speak Low German would simply not be able to understand many High Franconian dialects, and vice versa. The biggest divide in dialects in Germany can be found between Low German and High German. These terms came about due to the geographical divide of the two ways of speaking. The following charts show the prevalence of the German Language in the year 1910 then again in 1950.

German Language Popularity in 1910:
German Language in 1910
By Rex Germanus via Wikimedia Commons

German Language Popularity in 1950:

These graphs show the slow decline of the German language, especially in countries like Switzerland. The percentage of the world that speaks German has slowly been declining where other languages like Spanish have flourished thanks to large booms in the Latin American population.


1)  Music
Music is one of the most important parts of any culture, and is often forgotten about by people examining culture. Germany has a long history of creating music, with famous pieces coming from the classical period, folk periods and popular music periods. Germany was a pioneering nation in terms of music when producing opera, chorale, baroque, classical music, romantic music, Bavaria music, sorbs, cabaret and even swing. Post-war, Germany has remained an innovator in the music industry, and today, electronic music is incredibly popular in the country. Some of the most popular "German" musicians of all time include Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Franz Schubert. Mozart was born in Salzburg, Austria and Schubert was born in Vienna, Austria. During the 1700s and until the late 1800s, Vienna was the musical center of all of Europe.

Franz Schubert:
Franz Schubert

Renowned Child Prodigy, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart as a Boy:
Renowned Child Prodigy, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart as a Boy

Germany has the biggest electronic music scene on the planet, and one of the first bands from Germany to break into the international electro scene was Kraftwerk, which remains one of the most popular techno bands of the century.


Conclusion
The culture of Germany includes all the things you would usually expect, and more. The German culture is not all about strange customs, but in fact considers the national love of sport and music, and their abilities in the areas of art and literature. Despite set backs in history, the country has become one of the hubs of culture, art and literature in Europe, and continues to innovate in a number of cultural areas, including music and performance art.



 

 

 

 

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