Quiet Germans

Why most German speeches are rather factual and unemotional

Compared to speeches delivered by Barack Obama, those given by Angela Merkel are stale – some just say they are boring. But it’s not just the rhetoric style of the German chancellor which is that way. Most speakers in Germany have a way of delivering speeches that would put most Anglo-Saxon audiences to sleep within seconds.

And yet Germans listen. The former US-ambassador to Germany, Richard Burt, once said that he was astonished by the ability of Germans to listen to such speeches. What is the reason why the German culture of public speaking is so differnt from other countries?

In this year’s December issue the US-magazine The New Yorker published a portrait of Angela Merkel. The article is titled “The Quiet German.“ 

In this article, the author George Parker offers a precise and detailed analysis of the state of German political debate in the third term of Merkel‘s chancellorship. He also gives revealing insights in Merkel’s method of public speaking and the German rhetoric culture in general.

Parker remarks that in a country where passionate rhetoric and macho strutting led to ruin, Merkel’s lack of apparent ego is a political strength. He is right about this. He makes a brillant point. However, the root of the German scepticism against overly emotional speeches and enthusiastic speakers goes even deeper.

Naturally, Germany’s history plays an important role in the development of its dry and unemotional way of public speaking. In his book Das Befreite Wort (The liberated word), speechwriter Peter Sprong suggests that German speakers still stand in the long shadow of a little man.

The little man Sprong is referring to is Josef Goebbels, the minister of propaganda of the Third Reich. Goebbels was a brilliant agitator. His most notorious speech was delivered in February 1943. The speech posed the infamous question: Do you want total war? (Wollt ihr den totalen Krieg?) When he said these words, the people in the audience cheered frantically in response.

This speech is often used as evidence for the claim that brilliant speakers can manipulate an audience into believing or doing anything if he choses the right words.

Regardless of the veracity of that claim until today any German politician who speaks in an aggressive or hot tempered manner runs the risk of being compared to Josef Goebbels. The accusation of speaking like a Nazi will usually be made in a subtle way, but sometimes it just comes out bluntly.

In 1985 for example, the former German Chancellor Willi Brand accused the general secretary of his opposing party, Heiner Geisler, of being the worst agitator since Goebbels. A year a later, Chancellor Helmut Kohl made a comment about Michael Gorbatchov in which he claimed that Gorbatchov was a modern communist leader who knew about PR. Then he added: Just like Goebbels. He knew about PR too.

However, the aftermath of the Nazi dictatorship alone does not explain Germany’s factual speech culture.The deep skepticism against passionate rhetoric is a belief that has a much longer history not only in Germany but in other cultures as well.

Such beliefs can be traced to ancient Greece where the philosopher Plato once wrote that rhetoric was simple flattery. It was not an art, but more like a skill or something cosmetic.

For some reason, this seed idea fell on very fertile grounds in Germany. For example, Immanuel Kant pointed out that the art of speaking was simply the art of manipulating the weakness of people. Therefore, enthusiastic public speaking did not deserve any respect.

Even the most famous German wordsmith didn’t think that public speaking was an art, but merely the work of a charlatan. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe wrote in his famous play Faust:

Seek for the really honest gain!

Don’t be a fool in loudly tinkling dress!

Intelligence and good sense will express

Themselves with little art and strain.

And if in earnest you would say a thing,

Is it needful to chase after words?

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