Gott in Himmel! It's time the Sassenachs loved the Krauts

Don't Mention the War

October 20, 2006

From a Celtic perspective, the Anglo-German antagonism looks like a bad case of sibling rivalry, a falling out between Saxons and Sassenachs. Although some Celts, as John Ramsden points out, have participated on the "British" side of this conflict, by the latter third of the 20th century this rivalry had clearly become an English-German one (witness, for example, the scenes of jubilation in a Stranraer pub, described by Jeremy Paxman in his book The English , when England's football team lost a 1990s penalty shoot-out to Germany).

Ramsden attributes the hostility directed at Germany in recent years at least in part to an English failure to find a new identity after the loss of the empire in the 1950s and 1960s. He astutely notes that the Union flag waved by English sports fans in 1966 had by 2005 been largely replaced by the older flag of St George, but England still seems unsure of its identity. It was not always so.

That English attitudes to the Germans were often positive before 1900 is perhaps generally known. That is not to say that there was a total absence of resentment when, for example, German-speaking Hanoverians assumed the throne of Great Britain in the 18th century and brought a significant German entourage with them. But attitudes began to change significantly only with the rise of united Germany after 1871, antagonism being exacerbated by German support for the Boers and the strengthening of Germany's naval resources, seen as a threat to Britannia's rule of the waves.

Immediately before and during the First World War a fervently anti-German attitude could be detected, but it is something of a surprise that this all but dissipated quite rapidly after the war, in part because there were those who argued that eternal hostility to Germany could serve no useful purpose in Europe, with John Maynard Keynes leading the attacks against the punitive nature of the Treaty of Versailles.

Even after the Second World War there were voices, Winston Churchill's among them, that refused to condemn the whole German nation, but the memory of the Blitz and the legacy of the Holocaust left a deeper scar than after 1918, despite the prominence of individuals such as the Manchester City goalkeeper and former German paratrooper Bert Trautmann.

And yet, as Ramsden notes, the overt anti-Germanness of recent years among football fans and in the media was largely absent until the 1970s. In the wake of British victories that reinforced identity, magnanimity was possible. To be sure, throughout the period since 1945 British film and television has created caricatures of Germans that can hardly foster a better understanding between the two peoples. But there have been exceptions, including the 1954 film The Colditz Story and the well-known episode of Fawlty Towers titled "The Germans", which is, although most Brits appear not to realise it, a send-up of English xenophobia rather than of the Germans. Ramsden tells us that John Cleese was delighted when in a Hamburg hotel a voice shouted "Hey, Mr Cleese, don't mention zee war", because the German shouting "had got the whole point of the episode".

Boys' comics with their square-headed Germans shouting such gobbledegook as "Himmel, ein Englander Fighter!", beer adverts that rely on folk memories of the Dambusters raid and depictions of all Germans as idiots in series such as 'Allo 'Allo! serve to perpetuate bias, but the Germans themselves remain bemused by it all. They quite like the English and become exasperated in the face of repeated references to "two world wars and one World Cup".

That other European football nations are ritually serenaded at Wembley with "If it wasn't for the English, you'd be Krauts" is no consolation. It sometimes seems as if Germany has come to have no meaning to English people beyond the Second World War and football. The problem is that since 1968 Germany has habitually beaten England at football and has advanced further than England in every major competition, too. It is no wonder that England's 5-1 win in Munich a couple of years ago provoked such joy.

The relative harmony that dominated at the 2006 World Cup in Germany was a welcome departure, even if some boors insisted on repeatedly singing "Ten German Bombers" into their beer. Whether this bonhomie can last remains to be seen: Ramsden's insightful and extremely well-researched overview of British attitudes to the Germans leaves one fearing that the Continent is, to paraphrase the old saying, in danger of remaining isolated from England.

Yet looking on from outside, one feels that the Sassenachs probably have more in common with the Saxons than with their Norman friends across the Manche. The question is: will they ever give themselves the chance to realise it?

Pól Ó Dochartaigh is professor of German, Ulster University.

Don't Mention the War: The British and the Germans since 1890

Author - John Ramsden Little
Publisher - Brown
Pages - 433
Price - £20.00
Translator - 0 316 86122 7

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