Please don't mention the war

April 25, 1997

British and German perceptions of each other are stuck in a time warp. We must move on from the second world war, says Richard Cockett

I was invited to an unusual dinner party by a German girlfriend a few weeks ago, unusual because food was to be earned by sitting through a video screening of Dinner for One. Armed with a glass of champagne, I expected several hours of mirthless German humour before getting my hands on the food, so was surprised that Dinner for One is no more than a 20-minute one-act television play, shown in English throughout Germany, by an English comedian called Freddie Frinton.

My German friends, some of whom had seen it ten times before, roared with laughter while I looked on in silent stupefaction. As theatre, Frinton's Feydeau-esque farce fully deserves its total obscurity in England. So why do the Germans find it so funny that it has been standard New Year's Eve fare in Germany for the past 20 years?

The play is set in the dining room of an old English castle. It is a period piece, but the precise period is hard to determine. For Germans this is half the point, as a timeless commentary on English mentality. The only characters are a widowed aristocrat and her butler, James, and the occasion is her birthday. She sits at the head of the table, with four other places laid for her deceased guests, the ghosts of the past. She insists that James serves all the imaginary guests, so he has to fill their glasses (and drink them himself) and put food on their plates. The only action, repeated a dozen times, is that James gets progressively more drunk and keeps tripping over the head of a large lion-skin rug. Every time the unfortunate James comes in with the wine, he asks, "The same procedure as last year, madam?" She replies, in a suitably stentorian voice: "same procedure as every year, James''. This, to the Germans, is the precious joke - that the English are intrinsically funny because they are determined to keep things the same every year and destined to repeat the same mental procedures for ever.

As a window on the English mind, this is hardly original. But to Germans Frinton's joke has added poignancy, because on no subject is English conversation more stubborn than our attitude towards Germany. And German feelings on that issue, are, I suspect, what keeps Dinner for One going in Germany. The more I look around contemporary British culture, the more I realise that the Germans have a point - that British knowledge and interest in Germany ends in May 1945, and begins in 1933. Britain can never be a good European partner while we prefer to dwell more on the German past than the German present. We, not the Germans, have become prisoners of history.

Perhaps it is not surprising that the older generation should still be so suspicious of the Germans. Those over 60 have had their lives shaped, often for the worse, by six years of fighting the Nazis. Just how much suspicion and antagonism remains at the top of, for instance, the Conservative party is vividly illustrated by George Urban in his short but telling account of Mrs Thatcher's government, Diplomacy and Disillusion at the Court of Margaret Thatcher. Urban, an expert on Germany and Eastern Europe, was an unofficial adviser on foreign affairs to the prime minister.

His central theme is his mounting exasperation with her incurable hostility towards all things German, culminating in her extraordinary and futile attempt to block German reunification in 1990. He attended the famous Chequers seminar in March of the same year, the leaked minutes of which famously described the "German character" as "in alphabetical order, angst, aggressiveness, bullying, egotism, inferiority complex, sentimentality''. As he shows, this was not the view of the assembled experts, but that of the prime minister, minuted by her faithful servant Charles Powell. The definitive Conservative statement on Germany and Europe was uttered by Nicholas Ridley over a lubricating lunch with the editor of The Spectator in July 1990.

For Ridley, monetary union was a "German racket designed to take over Europe''. On European integration: "I'm not against giving up sovereignty in principle, but not to this lot. You might just as well give it up to Adolf Hitler, frankly.'' Which takes us back to the war, as any British discussion of Germany inevitably does. British, particularly English, culture is saturated by images of the second world war. We celebrate that victory on an almost daily basis. War films remain the dominant genre on television. In the two weeks before writing this, I found that just over one war film a day was shown on English television, 52 years after the conflict ended. Sundays were particularly warlike, with programmes suggesting there was nothing the public liked better than to go through it all again with John Wayne in The Longest Day or Kenneth More in The Battle of Britain. This predilection extends to contemporary films, from Indiana Jones to Die Hard, in which villains have to be Nazis and/or Germans, preferably with duelling scars, for the films to make easy moral sense. As one publisher told me: "Nazis are sexy, and if you can produce something with sex and Nazis, then you hit the jackpot.'' The popular press know this better than anybody, as every Anglo-German football confrontation demonstrates. And then there is the forthcoming Timewatch series on the Nazis, war magazines ("Achtung, Spitfeuer!") adverts, VE day celebrations etc, etc I Some of this deluge comes in the guise of "history", but is at best what has been described as "comfort history", designed to make us feel better about postwar events by trying to reinforce our sense of moral and ethical superiority over a country which is now conspicuously more important than us. At worst, it is mere escapism.

The prejudices of an older generation are perhaps understandable, if not excusable. The attitudes of the young should be of more concern. In four years of interviewing history applicants at Royal Holloway College, I have yet to meet one (out of about 50) who has not done a special paper in Nazi Germany at GCSE or A level. I gave up some time ago trying to steer the conversation on to France or Spain. They know a lot about Hitler, but nothing about the achievements of postwar Germany. Mention of Erhard, Adenauer, Brandt or the "social-market economy" elicits a range of blank expressions. An Inter-rail trip to Germany means a tour of Nazi history: Berlin (for Hitler's Bunker), Bavaria (Dachau and the Eagle's Nest), Nuremberg (that stadiumI). Fearing that our applicants might be uniquely fascinated by black leather and arm bands, I phoned the examination boards. They told me that Holloway applicants are representative, because school history students study Nazis to the exclusion of almost anything else. At the biggest board, the Midlands Examining Group, 50,000 GCSE students take the modern world history paper, almost all taking "Inter-War Germany" as one of two options from ten. Of 15,000 taking A-level history in 1997 with another board, 10,000 are doing the option on Nazi Germany. The examiners say they are responding to demand - these "are things that teachers want to teach'', because that's what the students are interested in. The range of options will narrow in the next few years - but you can guess which one will stay in place. There are no opportunities to study Germany or modern Europe, because papers in these subjects do not exist.

There is a vicious circle at work here. Students study Nazi Germany because that is what everyone else in Britain seems to be interested in, schools shoehorn students into taking the exam options because that is what holds their attention, and exam boards provide the papers because that is where the "demand" lies. So they all come out as experts in Nazi Germany, viewing modern Europe through a prism which reinforces the generational obsession with Germans as Nazis. In Germany, too, all students have to study Nazi Germany. But where they study to understand and thus transcend their past, we study, more often than not, to enmesh ourselves in ours.

Urban quotes Hugh Seton-Watson: "We are, all of us, involuntary legatees of our national past, and we must be conscious of our national past - but we are not slaves to our national past." Through our unhealthy obsession with Nazism, we have become slaves to our national past.

Somehow we have to break the circle. Banning war films for a year would be a start, but we also have to examine whether we might broaden our students' education so that they know as much of the achievements of Adenauer and Erhard as of the policies of Goebbels and Hitler. Otherwise, the Germans will still be laughing at Dinner for One at the end of our next century.

Dr Richard Cockett lectures in history at Royal Holloway, University of London.

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