The Purest Joy is Gloating
If travelers to Germany understand the German terms Weltschmerz, Schadenfreude and Ordnungspflicht, they understand the German people even without knowing their language.
According to a European study, Germans are the most dissatisfied and grumpiest people in Europe. This fact might astonish Americans. After all, Germany has been blessed with universal health insurance since 1874, high salaries, free university education, and a “safety-net” social system – no unemployed or bankrupt person will ever face homelessness. So why are Germans so dissatisfied? It might have something to do with three essential characteristics of Germans: Weltschmerz, Schadenfreude and Ordnungspflicht.
Visitors to Germany might have noticed these conceptual words while traveling through Germany. One has to be a native German, however, to understand completely the meaning of these three words, because Germans experience them: Weltschmerz at least once a month, Schadenfreude on a daily basis and Ordnungspflicht 24 hours a day. These words are difficult to translate because, no matter how they are translated, their actual meaning cannot be captured by other languages.
What Does Weltschmerz Mean?
The English translation is “world-weariness”. But Weltschmerz is so much more than just world-weariness, given the fact that “Welt” means world and “Schmerz” means pain. Other translations describe one’s feeling of sadness when thinking about the evils of the world.
The term Weltschmerz was coined by the German author Jean Paul in 1823 and originally denoted the experience of someone who realizes that physical reality can never satisfy the demands of the mind. This kind of pessimistic world view was disseminated by several authors such as Lord Byron, Heinrich Heine and Hermann Hesse.
The modern meaning of Weltschmerz is the psychological pain caused by sadness that can occur when realizing that someone’s own weaknesses are caused by the inappropriateness and cruelty of the world. Fortunately this angst usually passes after one or two days.
Schadenfreude – The Purest Joy is Gloating
There is no translation that expresses the real meaning of Schadenfreude. Some dictionaries mention “mischievousness” and “malicious joy” as the English equivalent, but real German Schadenfreude is more than that. It means really taking delight in another’s misfortune. So every German child knows the meaning of “Die reinste Freude ist die Schadenfreude” – the purest joy is gloating. “Schaden” means damage and “Freude” means joy.
Germans experience Schadenfreude at least once a day. Visitors to Germany will notice it right upon arrival at the Frankfurt Airport, for example, when they try to catch the train to Mannheim or Heidelberg from the airport terminal. As soon as the train arrives, Germans waiting on the platform rush and push their way inside – they will do anything to get a free seat. Those who fail to do so will harvest glances full of Schadenfreude.
If someone on a German street stumbles over something, he gets those glances as well. If a classmate is late and is reprimanded by the teacher or scores a bad grade on a test, if a neighbor bumps his new Mercedes into a garden fence, or if a best friend does not receive the promotion he had expected, Germans feel Schadenfreude. No, the unfortunate person is not angry with his friends; the next time, Schadenfreude may be directed at the gloaters.
Ordnungspflicht – The Obligation to be Orderly
An English word for Ordnungspflicht cannot be found in any dictionary. The noun Ordnung means orderliness and Pflicht means obligation and duty. Ordnungspflicht can only be a German word as nowhere in the world there is so much “Ordnung” and “Pflicht” than in Germany – in the truest sense of the word! It means to be orderly and to keep order in all aspects of one’s life without physical compulsion.
Many of the author’s foreign students have experienced this during their stay in Germany. Crossing the street when the light for pedestrians is red costs the jaywalker 60 Euros if noticed by a policeman. They wait at every corner to catch someone who starts walking when he is not supposed to. Full of Schadenfreude, they catch the perpetrator. Germans know that they must wait for the light to change even if no car is in sight for fear of being napped. One has to pay a “Ordnungsstrafe” (“Strafe” means fee) on the spot.
In addition, playing music in the streets is not allowed – street musicians must first obtain permission from the “Ordnungsamt” (“Amt” means office). If a street musician lacks this license, he should run if a policeman comes into view.
Germans live “Ordnung” 24 hours a day – the duty to be orderly includes never being late except in serious circumstances, getting registered at the local Registry Office within three months when moving within the same city or to another city, always carrying an identification card in one’s pocket, recycling garbage and never leaving any dirt in the streets (not even a little piece of paper), eating everything on your plate when invited for dinner (leftovers are not welcome) and generally being efficient throughout the day.
It is because of Ordnungspflicht that Germans feel Schadenfreude (to have a little fun) and Weltschmerz – one can only become depressed when faced with so much Ordnung!
P.S. The author knows what she is talking about – after all she is Germany and has lived in Germany all her life.