Hellmut will be horrified by this, but here goes. As a boy, I used to play soldiers with my mates. Now, this may be a normal thing for a boy to do, but who, in 1983, were our play “enemies”? Invariably, they were the Germans, or “Jerries”* as we preferred to call them. (Remember that in 1983 we had just finished a war with Argentina, yet Argie-hatred was nothing close to Hun-hatred.)
British Germanophobia runs deep. Everyone’s favourite Fawlty Towers episode has John Cleese clumsily exclaiming, “don’t mention the war” when a group of German tourists visits his hotel; football victory over the Germans sends the nation into delirium; and as we have seen, British schoolboys who grew up 40 years after the Second World War cannot forget it. So dire is Britain’s popular view of Germany that the German ambassador to the UK is embarking on a publicity campaign to encourage Brits to view Germany beyond the Nazi stereotype.
A new book describes how all this nonsense came about. According to John Ramsden in Don’t Mention the War: The British and the Germans Since 1890, things deteriorated long before the world wars. For much of the 19th century there was a sense of a shared Anglo-Saxon heritage with Germany, and many Germans were held in high regard in Britain, Luther, Handel, Hegel, Kant, Beethoven, and Wagner chief among them. This all changed with the unification of the German states and their victory over France in 1870-1. The balance of power in Europe was disrupted, and Teutonic imperial ambition was felt in Britain to clash with Britannia’s divine right to rule the waves. The world wars certainly did not help, but the roots of Germanophobia go deeper: why else would otherwise sane Britons believe that the EU is a German plot to build the Fourth Reich?
Of course, such Germanophobia horrifies me (a German speaker and soon to be Austria expat), and Britons desperately need some lessons in German history and culture that goes back further than 1914 (and beyond 1945). But I’ll tell you this, if England meet and beat Germany in the World Cup, well, my stein runneth over. I can’t help it, I’ve been defeating Germans in my head since I was seven.
*Preferable to Krauts, nicht wahr?