Has there ever been a country in the planet’s existence that has ever been so thoroughly and negatively stereotyped based upon only 12 years of its history?

Consider the national brand of Germany and its 82 million residents. What does the mere mention of the country’s name trigger in the minds of most people? The Nazis, Hitler, Goose-stepping, Blitzkrieg, Luftwaffe, Panzers, Gestapo, Sieg Hail, Holocaust, Lugers, Monocles, the Bunker etc.

This deeply ingrained stereotype (e.g. Wilhelm Klink and Sergeant “I know nothing” Schultz of Hogan’s Heroes) comes immediately to mind and will be extremely difficult, if not impossible, to overcome. However, there may be four answers to at least soften the country’s perception problem: time, normalcy, products and most of all, famous women who have or who are softening the nation’s image.

As Pulitzer Prize writer and journalist William L. Shirer wrote in his best seller The Rise and the Fall of the Third Reich he personally detested totalitarian dictatorships and came to loathe Nazi Germany as he lived through it and “watched its ugly assault upon the human spirit.” That was from 1933-1945 or 66-78 years ago.

merkel1

Since then, Germany was conquered, occupied, divided and then reunified. Das Land in der Mitte (The nation in the middle of Europe) has become the central economic engine of the European Union (EU). Many are openly wondering whether Germany will bail out Greece, and if they do, will they then be asked to do the same for Spain, Portugal, Italy, Ireland or add any other ailing EU country here.

As vexing as these questions are, they also signal that Germany may be increasingly regarded as a normal country. This is not to suggest the concentration camps, the ovens, the mass graves and the Holocaust should ever be forgotten; all should be permanently remembered to prevent this horrifically sad chapter of human history from ever repeating itself.

Why do I care about this subject? Personally, I have been studying the German language since 1989, the year the Berlin Wall came tumbling down and with it, the end of European branch of Communism. An authentic piece of the wall sits within inches of my mouse pad as I write this commentary. Just this week I received word that I will receive the Zertifikät Deutsch from the Goethe Institut, signaling at least a basic conversational proficiency in the German language. The question is should I openly celebrate?

On more occasions than I could possibly count, colleagues and associates express surprise when they hear that I am studying German. It doesn’t take long for the 12 years of the Third Reich to come into the conversation (not that I raise it). I even experienced one of my colleagues suggesting that I banish Shirer’s award-winning best seller from my home book shelf because it includes a Swastika on the side cover…Gee, I didn’t put that emblem there…

Maybe, I should just be at peace with my interest in learning a second language and let people think what they want to think? Germany does not have the same luxury. So how is Germany rebuilding its reputation and enhancing its brand, even though the damage from the Nazi years will never be totally mitigated?

● Time. The World War II generation is dying out. With each passing day, there are fewer people who have first-hand experience with the War in Europe and its aftermath. The Prussian guns have been silenced and an enduring democracy has emerged from the ashes of war.

● Normalcy. As discussed already, all eyes are on Germany as the solution for the European economic crisis. Germany has been sending its military out of the country…not as invaders and occupiers…but as peacekeepers (e.g. Bosnia) or to assist in the War on Terrorism (e.g. Afghanistan).

● Products, brand names and reputations. BMW, Daimler-Benz, Porsche, Audi, Volkswagen, Bayer, Siemens, SAP, Deutsche Telekom, Deutsche Bank, Becks, Bitburger, Spaten and more are all regarded as world-class competitors in their respective automotive, pharmaceutical, technology, banking and brewing segments. German craftsmanship and quality engineering are legendary.

● The influence of prominent women. One of the quickest ways to soften an image and maybe to start the job of repairing a brand are women who do not threaten and command respect. Three German Frauen come immediately to mind in ascending order: Steffi Graf, Katharina Witt and most of all, Angela Merkel.

graf

Graf, 42, (born, Mannheim, Baden Württemberg) won 22 Grand Slam tennis titles (second most ever) including the only calendar year Grand Slam (Australian, French, Wimbledon and US). Fräulein Forehand played a classy brand of tennis and earned the respect throughout the tennis world. She is married to former male tennis star Andre Agassi and they are raising two children.

Witt, 45 (born, Staaken in former East Germany) won two Olympic Gold medals in figure skating in Sarajevo (1984) and Calgary (1988). She won the figure skating World Championships four times. She raised a few eyebrows with her nude portfolio in Playboy in 1998 becoming only the second personality to ever sell-out an entire editorial run of the magazine; the other is none other than Marilyn Monroe. She is regarded as one of the best figure skaters of all time.

wittgold

Merkel, 56, (born, Hamburg but grew up in East Germany) is the nation’s Chancellor and first female head of state in the various iterations of Germany that goes back to the formation of the Holy Roman Empire in 962. Merkel is the head of Germany’s Christian Democratic Union (party) and is the second woman to ever chair the G-8. She has positioned herself as a pragmatist and centrist in domestic and foreign affairs. She was welcomed to the White House with an official state dinner earlier this month.

Just like the rubble that piled up in Berlin took years to clear out after the shooting stopped in 1945, the rebuilding process for Germany’s brand is well underway. Will the Nazi past and with it Vergangenheitsverdrossenheit (angst about history) ever go completely away? The answer is nein. However, time, normalcy, engineering prowess and the influence of some key women (and men too) are maybe the keys to reassessing Germany’s reputation and steadily building its national brand equity.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Steffi_Graf

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Katarina_Witt

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Angela_Merkel

http://www.whitehouse.gov/blog/2011/06/07/watch-live-welcoming-chancellor-merkel-germany-white-house-official-visit

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hogan’s_Heroes

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Germany

Advertisements