Class and Germany

A common complaint of the more geriatric members of society is that things were better in the “olden days”. Although we young wipper snappers may scoff as we illegally download yet another multimillion pound Hollywood blockbuster, while reading twitter on four different screens the old folks may have a point. It was certainly easier to work out which part of society you belonged to. If you had a powdered wig, understood Greek proverbs and were terminally inbred you were probably in the aristocracy or at least adjacent to it. If you happened to be getting shot to pieces on a random European battlefield, liked potatoes and didn’t know what an orange was you were more than likely in the lower classes. Life was simple and easy to understand.

Thankfully for those of us with class confusion, we now have a much simpler way to ascertain which class we are in, thanks mostly to one of the greatest minds ever to come out of reality television. The eminent Katie Hopkins, one time Apprentice and now keeper of great wisdom, has bestowed upon us a simple way to identify the scummy, unwashed lower classes via the complex decoding of a child’s name. Prof. Hopkins, as I’m sure she imagines herself to be, suggested on a mid-morning chat show that children with lower class names, like Tyler, were to be considered untouchables and thus never to be allowed to frequent her own child’s circle of friends. As I breathed a heavy sigh of relief, I thanked the gods of stupidity for giving me another reason to dislike this overly self-important woman.

Oddly enough though, she was making a valid point in that you could quite easily tell a person’s social standing from their name. The real problem, as I see it, is the implication that children and even adults who come from a different class shouldn’t socialize with each other. Surely this is the real problem. I know that most men called Tim or women called Persephone are doubtless coming from a different background to me, but I’m hardly going to shun them because they have, what some might consider, posh names. Personally, I think that’s half the problem with Britain’s class system. It’s rare that people outside certain social classes ever mix, and if they do its only through some achingly uncomfortable professional or social occasion where they’re forced to share the same air. With neither really understanding the other both parties can often leave with highly negative views of the other, partly based on their perceived social status.

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The one place you might find people from all strata of society mixing is at university. However, as utopian as this might sound, the eventual social groups that solidify are often centered on class similarity. My experience of university was that, although I met many people from very different backgrounds, the ones who happened to come from better areas or from more selective schools tended to bond and socialize exclusively together. Although I might socialize with them at points, I did begin to feel like a monkey in a bowler hat and a fancy suit. I may look like fun and fit in a little but really all I amounted to was an interesting sideshow. I was different to them, I hadn’t had the experiences that they had nor had they experienced my life. None of us, I hope, were judging each other, but we accepted that it was only natural that as university went on we would go in different directions.

Understanding the British class system can be bewildering to those in it and outside it. Trying to explain the nuances to my German friends and colleagues is almost impossible as they themselves have very little need for such a social structure. So much, factors in to how we perceive our own and other peoples class I’m not surprised that it can cause confusion, and thanks to two sociologists, the whole mess just got more complex. A new report claims that in 2013 there is no longer simply lower, middle and upper classes, we now have people who can be considered ‘Emergent service workers’ or ‘Precariat’. It seems Britain’s fascination with class has not abated, but is it really helpful?

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From the outside, studies such as these, as well as the British desire to quantify social status, doesn’t help project how modern we are. It also doesn’t help that our head of state is a member of a dynasty that can be traced back to 1066. Furthermore, we have a government that is routinely portrayed as guffawing posh boys having a jolly good go at governing a country with the seventh largest GDP. This is all topped off by an unelected political top tier called the House of Lords. I’m not calling for the revolution, but it’s not a surprise that radical groups routinly call for a class war and thus show how truly backward the thinking of all sides appears to be. If you happen to be in the top tier, you’re likely to remain their through the benefits of money and social status. That’s not lefty bleating about privilege, but simply a fact of life. 

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Yet, I’m not throwing brickbats from my Germanic ivory tower. I would say that social mobility in Germany is a damn site better off than in Britain or America but it’s far from perfect. Like I mentioned, Germany has little use for a class structure because in many ways it has gradually developed its own. It’s still very true that someone, through education and hard work could reach the upper echelons of society or succeed at the highest level of their chosen profession. This is of course if you happen to be European or from a European background. The real division in Germany is between Germans/Europeans and non-German immigrants. These groups have very similar issues to the classes of Britain in that they rarely mix in social a group, which is considered one of the biggest reasons for failure of integration. Like the lower and upper classes, all these groups carry stereotypes of the other that leads to a further lack of integration. Recently I had the displeasure to experience a conversation between people I knew quite well, which was a carbon copy of the argument laid out by Katie Hopkins. The only major difference was that the lambasted lower class in this group was non-German. Obviously this group was the exception, but it showed me that no matter what some people will always make more effort to be ignorant than they do to understand. What Katie Hopkins and this group succeeded in doing is showing that it’s perfectly possible, in the 21st century, to live in the “good old days” of inherent racism and class stereotypes.

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