When will they ever learn? No sooner had Michael Naumann, a minister of state in Chancellor Gerhard Schroder's government, noted the cruel misrepresentations of his country in the British press than The Sun obligingly referred to Manchester United's encounter with Bayern Munich as "Cool Britannia versus the Master Race". Those many Germans who watch events in Britain find it disheartening that the homeland of Inspector Morse should tolerate a gutter press that seizes every opportunity to sling mud, and worse, in their direction. Was it really necessary to present an interview with Germany's ambassador under the banner headline "The Hun meets The Sun "?
From Basil Fawlty's "Don't mention the war" to the legend of the treacherously appropriated sun-loungers, from Oktoberfest frolics and feisty Brunhildas to military jackboots, England's assessments of her neighbour tend towards the wilfully shallow. They could even be seen as amounting to a paranoid denial of the second component of her own heritage as the "Anglo-Saxon" nation. How many Sun readers would care to recall that the "House of Windsor" owes its invention to the Gotha bomber, sent to strafe an island then ruled by the House of "Saxe-Coburg-Gotha"?
Two books, Stereotypes in Contemporary Anglo-German Relations , edited by Rainer Emig, and Uneasy Allies , edited by Klaus Larres, resemble one another as compilations of essays that illustrate and analyse aspects of the phenomenon, although they address this task from opposite angles. Emig's contributors concentrate on the grass roots - the irresistible rise of "Fortress Beach Towel", the excesses of Euro 96 and the curious fate of Jurgen Klinsmann's No 18 shirt. A helping hand is then extended to the hard-pressed pedagogue in a chapter on "stereotypes in language teaching".
Larres concentrates on the wider picture and is concerned with political factors rather than with the popular media. In a series of abundantly documented research papers, British policy towards West Germany, the German Democratic Republic and the European Union is evaluated against a variety of backgrounds, including our supposedly special relationship with the United States and Nato, and the familiar evergreens of monetary union and the enlargement of the EU.
Merely to describe a stereotype is to open oneself to the accusation of perpetuating an image that owes its existence to the arbitrary will of the collective. And yet, once chosen, cliched attributes are rarely discarded until well past their shelf-life. There are parallels between Tacitus and Joshua Poole's English Parnassus of 1657, in which Germans feature as "fierce, warlike, audacious" but also as "rebellious, thirsty, drunken". Such national "types" can still be quickly teased out of any classroom audience in Britain and Ireland today. But how creditworthy are they, given their dubious origins somewhere between the primitivism cherished by Roman historians, 19th-century irredentism, the social Darwinians and the doctrinal fetishes of recent fascist states?
J. A. Cramb's Germany and England of 1914 is frighteningly prophetic in several of its insights. It shares the schizophrenic perspective of so many British writers on the German question. Cramb treats war between Britain and her "cousins" as inevitable, given their similarly expansionist goals; but he is quick to argue that understanding between the two nations must be achieved. The main obstacles to this lie in British indifference to the German language, culture and history. Lack of language skills and the absence of good translations of German books have played contributory roles in the lamentable process.
Emig turns over many such issues when he contrasts British envy of German efficiency with German envy of a perceived British cultural sophistication. It does make one wonder how many Germans actually share this quaint "chocolate box" view of England. In their view, the British are "naturally" cultured, which means that in an environment soaked in history and made up of pleasant landscapes scattered with chocolate boxes, they have no choice but to enjoy celebrating life with slightly antiquated, but ever-so-quaint rituals, such as five o'clock tea, sherry parties and church bazaars.
As Roland Barthes said of myths, such fantasies are characterised by their inflexibility and rely for effect on not being questioned. This brings us to the second impediment to the effective study of national stereotypes: the fact that much material derives from elusive, anonymous sources, and, even when its origins can be traced, it remains rigidly subjective in essence.
Larres is unlikely to be arraigned for peddling an idiosyncratic view, for his is the firmer ground of political debate in the public sphere. Yet here, too, lurk pitfalls. Individual speeches by election-conscious ministers have scant contractual value, and when Tony Blair expresses "the bold aim that over the next few years Britain resolves once and for all its ambivalence towards Europe", one does well to note that the venue was Aachen, not Blackpool. What is known in politics as "the vision thing" produces short-term effects that should be treated with no less circumspection than the headlines in yesterday's Sun . Joschka Fischer may speak of "a great openness and readiness to act jointly", but convergence of purpose must be shored up by something more substantial than a foreign secretary's fine words.
Common to both books is an undercurrent of optimism that is timely and welcome. Would that the two nations had come together as comrades-in-arms (for the first time since Blucher's intervention at Waterloo in 1815) under a luckier star than that of the Kosovo crisis of 1999. What is now overdue is a closer look at the German (and Austrian) side, where debates about national characteristics may have been treated as taboo since 1945, but where highbrow organs including Der Spiegel and Die Zeit still employ shorthand codes, as was evident at the height of the debate on BSE. Then there is the wider context within which such sentiments must be set. French ambivalence towards les boches and Dutch resentment of mofs may not directly feed the newsprint but continue to surface in private conversations with educated citizens in both countries. An inquiry of 1989 indicated a higher level of antipathy towards Germans in Italy, France and the Netherlands than in Britain. Denmark has long defined its identity with reference to its opposition to Germany.
Economic circumstances have often fuelled political attitudes, and the time may have come to look for an upturn in perspectives on Germany.
Margaret Thatcher, remembered for the crude "Chequers memorandum" of March 1990, may, through her unflinching insistence that Britain's ailing industries must learn to walk tall, have helped to initiate the long-awaited reversal. Increasing confidence, industrial muscle and a strong currency could eventually succeed where countless Goethe Institut initiatives and Daad (German Academic Exchange Service) bursaries were slow to generate visible results, now that Otmar Issing has named Germany the "sick man of Europe". When Joschka Fischer was dubbed the new Hitler by German Greens in May last year, it was the Daily Mirror , only recently (unsuccessfully) reported to West Midlands police for incitement to racial hatred for its grossly anti-German campaign during Euro 96, that gallantly rushed to the minister's defence. There are grounds to hope that the next chapter in Anglo-German relations will be written in more sympathetic terms than the last.
Osman Durrani is professor of German, University of Kent at Canterbury.
Uneasy Allies: British-German Relations and European Integration since 1945
Editor - Klaus Larres with Elizabeth Meehan
ISBN - 0 19 829383 6
Publisher - Oxford University Press
Price - £50.00
Pages - 344