A Volkswagen dealer in Berlin. (Odd Andersen/AFP via Getty Images)

In some nations, when large companies fail, there is a certain schadenfreude among the media and much of the public.

Not so in Germany — at least not these days. When news emerged that Volkswagen, the country's big car manufacturer, had equipped at least 11 million vehicles with devices to cheat emissions tests, there was an undeniable feeling of embarrassment.

ARD called the debacle a "worst-case scenario" for the company, while the newspaper Die Welt speculated about an end of the diesel fuel era because of the crisis and covered the latest developments in a live blog titled "Thriller at VW."

Indeed, these are headlines Germans are not used to: The scandal has struck a rare nerve in the country. What went wrong? And who is responsible?

Surprisingly, the answer to that question is not as clear as it may seem. Of course, German media were quick to blame VW CEO Martin Winterkorn. "Why Winterkorn must go," the influential daily newspaper Sueddeutsche Zeitung concluded in an editorial published Tuesday evening. But another article in the same paper raised doubts about who was to blame. "There is no certainty," the writers said.

Of course, much of the agitation in Germany can be explained in terms of economics: Volkswagen is the country's leading mega-enterprise in an industry that employs millions, if those working for supplying companies are included. VW alone has about 600,000 workers around the world and is not only among the prime employers in Germany, but also in Britain and other countries.

Cheating on emissions tests will probably ruin the company's U.S. business and complicate its growth internationally. Many German commentators already expect the costs to rise far above what the company currently fears it will have to pay.

In addition to the costs for Volkswagen, the scandal also points to another vulnerability that affects the German industry more generally: Most of Germany's recent economic growth has been due to its strong export industry, which has largely benefited from exchange rates and growth in emerging markets, including China. Volkswagen's efforts to gain an even bigger international foothold might have tempted executives to cheat instead of investing in a slightly more expensive option.

Although the VW crisis is not a catastrophe for the German economy so far, it does emphasize the extent to which many German jobs depend on exporting goods. The country is experiencing a historically low unemployment rate — but for how much longer will Germany's economic wonder last?

The country's reaction to the scandal cannot solely be explained in revenue numbers and financial losses, though. What may make the disaster much worse to many Germans is the disrespect VW's actions show for their values.

It may be considered cliché by some, but Germans do indeed take pride in their precision and obedience to the rules — values both celebrated and sometimes mocked abroad.

Anyone who has visited Berlin or other German cities will inevitably have noticed the omnipresent role of both.

For instance, even when there are no cars in sight, German pedestrians often refuse to cross at a red traffic light — simply because it's against the law.

This obedience to rules has certainly not gone unnoticed in Europe: In a widely cited study from 2013, most European nations surveyed agreed that the continent's most trustworthy country was Germany. (Apart from that, it was also considered among the most arrogant and least compassionate nations.)

German companies love to mention German precision and efficiency in their advertisements abroad. In a Super Bowl ad broadcast last year, Volkswagen prominently featured those aspects: "Why not use [German precision] to make a good Volkswagen commercial? By isolating your most successful humor ads, we have developed an algorithm to make the ultimate commercial for your big American football festival. Let's watch."

The clip then featured Volkswagen cars with items typically considered "American" abroad, such as burgers, cowboys or the @-sign. "Oh, I don't like that," the actor, representing a German Volkswagen engineer, then said.

Turns out those feelings might be mutual.