Why Study German?

The Dartmouth Department of German Studies offers a curriculum that appeals to a wide range of interests. Our majors have pursued careers in business, engineering, finance, law, journalism, government service, medicine, and the sciences, as well as in art, literature, philosophy, music, and film. 

Even non-majors have discovered that their knowledge of German complements such fields as architecture, economics, government, history, engineering, and computer science. But no matter what their future careers, students find that German Studies, as part of a liberal arts education, can enrich their professional and personal lives.


Within a liberal arts setting, the importance of German is indisputable. German-speakers occupy a prominent place on any list of the world's greatest artists and thinkers, while almost every academic discipline has a strong German tradition, in many cases one that largely defines the field. In fact, the modern university itself, with its combination of teaching and research, is a German invention. Dartmouth's library holdings reflect this tradition: after English, more of them are in German than in any other language. Germany justifiably presents itself as "The Land of Ideas."

German contributions to the sciences are the easiest to document. In The Discoveries (Pantheon, 2005), Alan Lightman's list of the 22 greatest scientific breakthroughs of the 20th century includes eight that were made exclusively by Germans, while two more had Austrian or German collaborators.

Nobel Prize awards give another kind of indication. Scientists from the three major German-speaking countries have won 39 Nobel Prizes in Physics (most recently in 2021), 39 in Chemistry (in 2017), 31 in Medicine (2013), and one in Economics. Many Nobel laureates from other countries received their training at German universities; 47 of them had fellowships from the Humboldt Foundation, including the three winners of the 2011 prize for medicine. Seven German and Austrian individuals have also received the Peace Prize — and while the 2012 Prize went to the EU as a whole, few people would dispute that Germany has played a disproportionately large role in the success of that institution.

Germany, Switzerland, and Austria are all famous for the quality of their universities. Despite the pandemic, the number of international students attending German universities increased to 350,000 in 2020, more than in any other EU country. Free tuition is not their only attractive feature. In the 2012 QS Ranking of "The Best Student Cities in the World," German-speaking cities dominate the category of "Quality of Living" for students, with the first five places going to Vienna, Zurich, Munich, Sidney, and Berlin.

The accompanying commentary states that "Berlin can stake a credible claim to being one of the coolest cities in the world. During the past decade its cultural scene has flourished, turning it into a major centre of design, fashion, music and art to rival New York and London. More so than those cities however, Berlin is still easily affordable on a student budget, while also being enough of a global financial centre to appeal to those whose outlook is of a more corporate nature. Comfortably the most affordable city in the top ten…"


German inventiveness is also legendary. Perhaps Gutenberg’s innovation of printing with movable type is the greatest German invention, but here are just a few of the others, according to Die Welt:

Alcohol thermometer, 1709 — Daniel Gabriel Fahrenheit
Bicycle, 1817 — Karl von Drais
Electric light bulb, 1854 — Heinrich Göbel
Telephone, 1861 — Philipp Reis
Dynamo, 1866 — Werner Siemens
Refrigerator (using liquid ammonia), 1876 — Carl von Linde
4-cycle internal combustion engine, 1876 — Nikolaus August Otto
Electric streetcars, 1881 — Werner Siemens
Motorcycle, 1885 — Gottlieb Daimler
Automobile, 1886 — Carl Benz, Gottlieb Daimler
Diesel engine, 1890 — Rudolf Diesel
Glider (aircraft), 1894 — Otto Lilienthal
X-ray, 1895 — Wihlem Conrad Röntgen
Aspirin, 1897 — Felix Hoffmann
Spark plugs, 1902 — Robert Bosch
Thermos bottle, 1903 — Reinhold Burger
Tape recorder, 1928 — Fritze Pfleumer
Television, 1930 — Manfred von Ardenne
Helicopter, 1936 — Heinrich Focke
Jet engine, 1939 — Hans von Ohain
Programmable computer, 1941 — Konrad Zuse
Bar scanner, 1963 — Rudolf Hell
Chip card, 1969 — Jürgen Dethloff, Helmut Gröttrup
Fuel cells, 1994 — Christian Friedrich Schönbein
MP3, 1995 — Karlheinz Brandenberg

This kind of creativity continues. According to the GE Innovation Barometer 2014, a study undertaken by General Electric, Germany is the second-most innovative country in the world (the U.S. is first, Japan third).

The arts

German speakers are equally prominent in the arts. Twelve German, Austrian, or Swiss-German writers have been awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature, the most recent ones being Peter Handke in 2019, Herta Müller in 2009, Elfriede Jelinek in 2004, and Günter Grass in 1999.

As Alex Ross pointed out in the New Yorker (June 30, 2022), the German public funding of theaters typically amounts to 2.7 billion euros each year, and Germany's 80 permanent opera houses offer about one third of the world's performances.

Germany and Austria are of course also famous for their great music — Anthony Tomassini's recent ranking in The New York Times of the ten greatest composers in history has six Germans and Austrians, with Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, and Schubert holding down the first four positions, followed by Brahms (#7) and Wagner (#9).

But the two countries have also again become centers for the visual arts, including film. According to the magazine Capital, the two living artists whose works are most sought after by the world's museums and collectors are Gerhard Richter and Sigmar Polke, followed in fourth place by Rosemarie Trockel and in seventh by Georg Baselitz.

In this century, Nirgendwo in Afrika ("Nowhere in Africa"), Das Leben der anderen ("The Lives of Others"), and Die Fälscher ("The Counterfeiters") won Academy Awards as the best foreign pictures, while Sophie Scholl, Untergang ("Downfall"), Revanche, The Baader Meinhof Complex, and Das weiße Band ("The White Ribbon" — which earned a Golden Globe), Toni Erdmann, and Werk ohne Autor were also nominated.

In 2005, Newsweek called Gegen die Wand ("Head On") the best film of the year (and in the same issue claimed that Germany was the best of all countries in which to be a creative artist of any kind).

In 2012, the Frankfurt-based company, Pixomondo, created the Oscar-winning special effects for Martin Scorsese's film, Hugo. That same year, two German films were nominated for Oscars: Wim Wenders's Pina (Best Documentary) and Max Zähle's Raju (Best Short Film).

German in Europe and the World Today

While these academic and artistic perspectives hold the most relevance for liberal arts studies, practical considerations are also unavoidable, and many students choose a foreign language with an eye to their professional futures. Here, too, the study of German offers some real advantages.

According to Germany.info, "German is the most widely spoken native language in Europe. On the one hand, this is because of Germany's size, which with around 82 million inhabitants is the most populous country in the EU. On the other hand, German is also an official language in Austria, Switzerland, Belgium, Luxembourg and Liechtenstein as well as in Italy's South Tyrol. In addition, German plays a role as a recognized minority language in Denmark, France, Poland, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Romania and Slovakia. Approximately 55 million Europeans speak German as a foreign language."

According to the Economist, "German ranks tenth [in the world] in the number of native speakers. But it is fourth in the economic output produced by them ... German is also fourth by number of learners, trailing English, Chinese and French and roughly tied with Spanish." The MIT economist Albert Saiz calculated that the average lifetime earnings bonus for an American college graduate who learns German is $128,000 (for French: $77K, for Spanish: $51K).

A variety of international surveys confirm that Germany is one of the world's most admired countries, whether viewed from the perspectives of economics, quality of life, scientific achievement, culture, tourism, or ethical values. In 2020, the Gallup report on Global Leadership announced that Germany had retained its top ranking for the third year in a row. The BBC World Service, in its annual international poll of various countries' influence since 2005, rates Germany and Canada tied for first position. The annual survey by the Danish-based Anholt-Gfk Nations Brand Index, finds that Germany is consistently the "Top National Brand." And US News & World Report ranks Switzerland #1 and Germany #4 among "the best countries overall" (#2 and #3 Canada and Japan).

And as Mercer Consulting's 2019 Quality of Living Survey determined, many of the world's most livable cities are German-speaking: among the top 10, Vienna is 1st, Zurich 2nd, Munich 3rd (tied with Vancouver), Düsseldorf 6th, Frankfurt 7th, Basel 10th. Other German-speaking cities also do well: Berlin (13th), Bern (14th), Hamburg (19th) , Nuremberg (23rd), and Stuttgart (27th) rank above Paris (39th), London (41st), Barcelona (43rd).

The German economy

German-speaking countries' economic significance is even greater. Germany, with a population of just over 82 million, boasts the world's fourth-largest national economy, while German-speaking Switzerland and Austria, whose per capita GDPs rank third and fourth in the EU, are also significant. The 2016 edition of the World Economic Forum Global Competitiveness Report ranks Switzerland fifth among the most competitive countries, with Germany seventh (The first four are Singapore, the U.S., Hong Kong, and the Netherlands).

The Bloomberg business report for 2014 also ranked Germany fifth among the best current places to do business, while the UN Conference on Trade and Development's World Investment Prospects Survey (2012-2014), placed it third.

In 2013, foreign investment in Germany totaled 23.4 billion euros, with the U.S leading the way. In ranking Germany so high, the WEF Competitiveness Report considered, among other factors,  market size, innovation, infrastructure, and training. In this last category, German is particularly outstanding.

As the Wall Street Journal (6/14/2012) reported, U.S. companies and state governments are increasingly turning to German companies for help in training skilled factory workers.

In the area of world trade, Germany's significance is greater than just its GDP would indicate. From 2003-2008 it was the world's largest exporter. It is now second to China, even though its exports continue to grow dramatically, and it has the world's highest balance of payments surplus. At the same time, Germany is the second-biggest donor of aid to developing countries.

Germans are No. 1 in the world when it comes to travel — 40 million Germans spent 24.2 billion euros on travel to other countries in fiscal 2012 — and Germany itself is a major tourist destination. Between January and May 2012, international visitors accounted for 23.8 million overnight stays in German hotels, and in 2010 Berlin passed Rome in the number of foreign visitors. Austria and Switzerland are of course also popular destinations. In its list of the 44 "most compelling travel destinations" in the world for 2009, The New York Times put Berlin at No. 4, Vienna No. 8, and Cologne No. 30 (1/11/2009).

In addition to its exports, Germany invests heavily all around the world. In 2001, Volkswagen plants in China supplied over half of all the automobiles sold there, and Audi recently opened a major manufacturing facility in India. Similarly significant investments can be found in many other parts of Asia, Africa, Australia, Europe, and the Americas. The more than 700 German companies with operations in Mexico, for example, account for five percent of that country's GDP.

Despite its global reach, Germany maintains an especially strong economic relationship with the United States. In 2018, 7.7% of all investments in the U.S. came from Germany. The top 50 German companies in the U.S. employ approximately 750,000. They include not just the obvious firms like Daimler, Volkswagen, BMW, Siemens, Bayer, and Bosch, but also Trader Joe's, Aldi, BASF, T-Mobile, SAP, and Puma.

Mid-size businesses traditionally form the backbone of the German economy — according to the Institut für Mittelstandforschung (IfM), 95.1 percent of all German companies are family-owned businesses that account for 45.1 percent of all business volume. Yet of the world's 50 largest companies, nine are German: BASF, BMW, Daimler, Deutsche Post, Deutsche Telekom, E.ON, Metro, Siemens, and Volkswagen. HochTief is the world's leading international construction firm, and the Deutsche Bank one of its biggest financial institutions.

In terms of money spent on research and development, Daimler and Siemens rank third and fourth in the world, while Volkswagen, Bayer, Hoechst, Bosch, BASF, Boehringer/Ingelheim, Deutsche Telekom, and Mannesman also occupy places among the first 90 (International Herald-Tribune, 26 Feb. 2000).

The information economy

Germany's automobile, engineering, chemical, pharmaceutical, and high-end appliance firms are well known, as is its leadership in design, but the country's information enterprises are also significant. Bertelsmann is the world’s largest publisher, and the German book-publishing industry as a whole ranks third in the world (behind England and China), traditionally producing over a third more new titles each year than does the United States (see The Bowker Annual). In fact, 10 percent of all the world’s books are printed in German.

Germany is also among the leaders in computing. SAP is the world’s largest business software company and the world’s third-largest independent software provider. A 1999 study by McKinsey found that the Munich area’s 1,800 computer firms, with over 100,000 employees, formed the world's fourth largest concentration of hardware and software producers (after Silicon Valley, Boston, and London). With approximately 300 microelectronics firms, the area around Dresden is known as "Silicon Saxony."

Munich is also home to 115 biotech companies, while Dresden hosts 765 semiconductor firms.

On the internet, German is one of the most-frequently used languages, and ‘.de’ is the world’s most widely-used country-specific domain.

Energy efficiency

In 2014, the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy ranked Germany the most energy-efficient country in the world, and it is also a leader in the development of alternative energy. Approximately half of all photovoltaic cells and a third of all windmills are produced in Germany, while a single firm, Voith in Heidesheim, provides a third of the world’s hydroelectric installations. Renewable energy accounts for 25 percent of Germany’s electricity.

By March 2009 Germany had already met its 2012 Kyoto Treaty obligations for reduced greenhouse gas emissions, three years ahead of time. It is on target to raise the share of renewables in electricity production to 35 percent by 2020.


Even in the world of sport, German-speakers figure prominently. Germany is consistently one of the most successful countries in the Summer Olympics, and Switzerland, given its size, also does remarkably well. In the 2002 and 2006 Winter Olympics, Germany was the top medal winner; in 2010 it was second, and in 2014 sixth (Switzerland was seventh and Austria ninth). Athletes from all the German-speaking countries traditionally dominate alpine skiing to the extent that German is the sport's primary language. The U.S. Ski Team has traditionally sent its members to Dartmouth's ALPS Program to learn German.

In soccer Germany has few rivals. Its 2014 World Cup victory represents the team's most recent success, but throughout Cup history it has shown a unique consistency. Germany has won the title four times (tied with Italy and one behind Brazil), reaching the finals eight times and the semi-finals 13 (both more than any other squad). It has also scored the highest total number of goals (223), and seven of the 14 top all-time scorers have been German, including No. 1 (Miroslav Klose) and No. 3 (Gerd Müller). The women's team has been similarly successful, reaching the finals three times and winning them twice, in 2003 and 2011. In fact, Germany is the only country whose men and women have both won the World Cup. 

There has been similar success in the European Cup. The men are tied with Spain for the total number of victories (three) and have reached the finals more than any other country. And things look good for the future: the U19 team won the 2014 European Cup. The women's record is even more impressive: they have won the eight of the 11 European competitions, including the last six in a row. As with the World Cup, Germany is unique in having both its men and women win the European title. Comparable results extend to the club level. In 2013, Bayern Munich won the Champions League's European Cup for men for the fifth time (its tenth time in the finals) by defeating another German club, Borossia Dortmund (Other winners have been Frankfurt in 2022, Dortmund in 1997, and Hamburg in 1983. In other years, Frankfurt, Mönchengladbach, and Leverkusen were finalists). German women's clubs (Frankfurt, Potsdam, Duisburg, and Wolfsburg) have been especially dominant in the UEFA Cup, winning eight of the 13 competitions.

Tennis, swimming, rowing, golf, track, basketball, boxing, riding, handball, field hockey, ice hockey, ice-skating, fencing, auto racing, and now even baseball are just some of the other major sports at which Germans excel. German-speaking Switzerland has also produced some of the world's top tennis players, including Martina Hingis and Roger Federer.