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Society

Typically German? The power of clichés

Germans drink beer, Cretans lie and the French eat frogs: Old clichés still have an impact on the way we view each other. But what's behind them? DW speaks with a stereotype expert.

Traditionally dressed Bavarian men raise their steins and enjoy a sunny day of the famous Bavarian Oktoberfest beer festival in Munich, southern Germany, Tuesday, Sept. 25, 2012. The world's largest beer festival, to be held from Sept. 22 to Oct. 7, 2012 will see some million visitors. (Foto:Matthias Schrader/AP/dapd)

Oktoberfest 2012

Diligent, punctual, no sense of humor - and often drunk. Clichés like this have a huge impact on how the world views Germans. Ina Ulrike Paul heads the "stadium plus" institute at the University of the German Federal Armed Forces in Munich. Her research focuses on how national stereotypes come into existence - and how they can be changed.

DW: Where did the stereotype come from that Germans drink a lot of alcohol?

Ina Ulrike Paul: This stereotype from Tacitus' "Germania" has been prevalent ever since the Renaissance - by both Germans and non-Germans. The Germans cited the stereotype because they could at the same time refer to other characteristics that Tacitus mentioned, like being honest, courageous, freedom-loving and straight-laced.

Foreign observers cited this alleged national trait because it was common knowledge, even though they had actually refuted it. Here's a nice example: An English gentleman was traveling through Europe for five months and published a travel journal in the early 17th century. The cover illustration showed a "Germania" that personified the German nation, flanked by "Gallia" and "Italia." All three were wearing a kind of crown on their heads. But at second glance you can see that Germania has a keg on his head and is vomiting - just as the readers would expect from "the Germans."

Cornelius Tacitus, Undated lithograph by Bernard Romain Julien (1802-1871)

Cornelius Tacitus was a Roman historian who lived from around 50-116 AD

So the Germans were known for drinking a lot?

Yes, although the traveler, Thomas Coryat, wrote that he didn't see any more intoxicated people while traveling through Germany than elsewhere. The cover picture of his book contradicts his observation. Stereotypes usually function in such a way that our own assumptions are considered the exception: One hasn't actually seen any drunken Germans, but everyone knows that they drink a lot in general.

Your research project is titled "All Cretans lie," a reference to a statement by Greek philosopher Epimenides, who came from Crete himself.

This sentence is a paradox. It describes an irresolvable contradiction. If a Cretan were to say that all Cretans lie, then what is the truth?

But what does that have to do with stereotypes?

Stereotypes tend to confirm themselves, but contradicting them is usually impossible. The observer maintains certain expectations that define their perceptions. You can't verify or disprove the common images of Europeans, because they're based on pictures, on fiction, on alleged characteristics of one, two, 10 individuals which are transferred to millions and millions of people.

Why did you decide to tackle this huge topic?

Five different beer glasses

Just because the Germans make good beer doesn't mean they have a drinking problem

I'm interested in researching the stereotypes Europeans had of themselves and of other European nations during the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries. When did they change? Or have they always stayed the same? The 18th century, the period of Enlightenment in Europe, is particularly interesting. Nationalism in the contemporary sense didn't begin until the 19th century.

How did you conduct your research?

As a stereotype "filter" I chose a medium that was very popular among academics and educated people in the 18th century and which captured the level of knowledge in the sciences and the arts at the of date publication: the newly developed encyclopedias published in Europe's native languages.

In the definitive lexicon articles about the individual empires and republics in Europe, or under the category "Europe," you can find out what people of a particular country thought about themselves and their neighbors.

The lexicon articles summarized ethnographical, historical and other literature from antiquity, the Renaissance and the Enlightenment. So they gave readers a condensed version of what they were like themselves, but also what the Poles, the Spaniards, the Hungarians were like, and so on.

Can you give an example of what can be found in one of these encyclopedias?

A Dutch person would read in the Dutch encyclopedia, for example, that Dutch people are freedom-loving, militant and a trading nation. The positive aspects of this self-image were emphasized, and a few more negative traits - mainly those attributed to the Dutch by other Europeans - were downplayed.

Prof. Dr. Ina Ulrike Paul

Ina Ulrike Paul says stereotypes can be changed

Do clichés change over time?

Definitely. Fictional national images can change for political, economical, or other reasons. In some cases reading other countries' "national encyclopedias" - the term should be used carefully - led to reactions in future editions of the encyclopedias.

Let's looks back at the stereotype that Germans are addicted to alcohol. It's mentioned in a Leipzig lexicon from 1709, but the stereotype was modified in later editions. The Germans may have drunk too much in the past, but not anymore, they wrote, but look across the border to Poland - they drink a lot over there. Polish readers, on the other hand, found that it was the Russians who drank excessively.

Is it possible to break away from stereotypes?

Although Einstein said it's easier to split an atom than to destroy a prejudice, it is possible to change stereotypes. I don't think that, these days, Germans would express negative stereotypes about the French or that the French would revert to the old anti-German stereotypes. The so-called arch rivalry has indeed been overcome.

Ina Ulrike Paul teaches modern German and European history at the Freie Unversität Berlin.

DW.DE