The British Are Stuck in a WW II Time Warp When It Comes to Thinking About Germany

Roundup: Talking About History

Allan Massie, in the Independent (Oct. 22, 2004):

We have all laughed at Basil Fawlty's panicky injunction: "Don't mention the war." And it made some sense when the TV series was shot in the 1970s. There were middle-aged Germans then whose personal experiences between 1939 and 1945 were, one felt, more tactfully left unexamined.

But now? Next May it will be 60 years since Adolf Hitler shot himself while his vile regime crumbled and Berlin fell to the Red Army. One of the last photographs of Hitler outside his bunker shows him reviewing members of the Hitler Youth, some no more than 12 or 13, about to engage in the desperate defence of the city.

Even the youngest of any survivors among them is now over 70. There are German pensioners who had just started at primary school in 1945. We are a long way from the war. The Nazis are history, rapidly receding history. Prussia, which many British people mistakenly identified with the Nazis, is still more distant. Indeed, much of what was Prussia is now Poland or Lithuania.

Yet it seems to Germans that we here have a view of their country which remains stuck in the first half of the 20th century. It is, the German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer says, "more than three generations out of date", He adds: "My children are 20 and 25 and when they watch Germany in some of the British media, they think this is a picture they have never seen in their whole lifetimes." In truth, it is a picture Mr Fischer, born three years after the war ended, has not seen in his own adult years.

Is he right? It is not just for those old enough to have fought in the Second World War, or who lost husbands, wives, fiancés, lovers and friends between 1939 and 1945, that Germany remains what it was then. It is not only the tabloids, old movies, and Commando comics that keep alive the "schweinhund" stereotype.

Nor is it even the awareness of the Holocaust that makes it difficult for some to regard Germans without suspicion: though this especially means that there are often awkwardnesses in conversation. We hesitate to ask about fathers and grandfathers, but we forget, or never think, that young Germans today may experience similar embarrassment.

There is another reason why we are stuck in the past. The two most popular topics for historical study in our schools are the Russian Revolution and the Nazi regime; and the latter is the more popular. It is easy to see why history teachers choose it. There is a great deal of material, much of it available on film or video, and the subject is almost guaranteed to interest pupils. Few children, fortunately, respond positively to the seedy glamour of the Nazis, but, equally, few are bored. History as horror movie grips.

Mr Fischer says: "Germany has changed in a democratic positive way. Today this is a democracy. Two or three generations have grown up as real democrats. If you want to learn how the traditional Prussian goosestep works, you have to watch British TV because in Germany in the younger generation - even in my generation - nobody knows how to perform it."...

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George J Buddy - 10/25/2004

Allan Massie brought up something interesting in his article. In trips to London, I have noticed myself that a vague hostility to Germans lingers on in some comments heard in daily life. These comments are not even necessarily meant in anger, but tend to stick out a little bit to an American like myself.

Perhaps the answer for the British attitude to Germans and Germany, insofar as it shows this tendancy, may be rooted in the positive fact that Germany was the greatest opponent to Britain, and thus the greatest obstacle overcome by the "Empire" -- a moment of greatness that will live for a 1,000 years, as Churchill said. If the British then were able to wash their common memory of the threat and triumph of Germany, they would somehow lose the spirit or meaning of British history that still resonates today in the British story.