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Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences – Department History

Department of Economic and Social History – Prof. Dr. Jan-Otmar Hesse & Prof. Dr. Sebastian Teupe

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Export world champion. The story of a German obsession (Hesse)

Exportweltmeister. Geschichte einer deutschen Obsession. Opus-Magnum-Förderung der Volkswagen-Stiftung, 2021-2022

In 1986, Germany for the first time exported more goods than every other country. A deeply historical goal was achieved, and in public discourse the nation decorated itself with a new title: “World Export Champion” (German: “Exportweltmeister”). The expression connected the economic success of the overwhelming level of exports to the language of the World Football Championship, which took place in summer 1986. While Germany was defeated by Argentina in the final of this Championship, the nation could be proud of succeeding in export competition – as the concept implies. The book argues that this episode is highly emblematic for the role export success played in German economic history and for the nation’s self-characterization. For some historical actors, exportation had become an obsession.

The argument set out in “Exportweltmeister” is that the export strength cannot be explained by the comparative advantage of German industry alone. Industries and products that were especially successful in export markets changed frequently over the course of the 20th century, as did the structure of industrial relations, which was also often considered relevant for the competitive advantage of the German economy. A particular German work ethic, which is also often thought to be crucial is not only difficult to define in economic terms, but also hard to identify as a driving force over a long period of 150 years. Also, advantages in organization or quality of goods might be relevant factors over limited time periods, but not for the export strength in general over the whole period. While, therefore, a systematic impact of core economic factors for Germany’s export success is difficult to identify, the book points to an astonishing continuity in the aim among the political and economic elite in Germany to increase exports.

The book describes and analyses this long-time transformation process on the basis of an intensive study of archival material, mainly from the German Ministry of Economics and the Foreign office. It is possible to show how German economic policy was highly driven by a strong export-orientation that had been established at the end of the 19th century and established itself as a core reference point not only for politicians but also for the business elite. In some cases, as becomes evident, the orientation turned into an obsession that biased perception and decision-making. It is obvious that it distorted the allocation of income and wealth in Germany by increasing profits in the export industry and depressing domestic consumption and investment.

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