Our escape from Colditz

May 2, 1997

Richard Cockett ("Please don't mention the war", THES, April 25) handles good evidence superficially and comes to some unjustifiably simplistic and alarmist conclusions.

One of his arguments, the need to ban all war films involving the Germans, is even rather dotty, especially coming from a historian. I saw most of these films during my childhood as soon as they reached local cinemas, yet came through the experience unscathed. Seeing those films again now on television, I think I see why. Though they possibly fall into the category of "comfort history", designed as Cockett puts it, "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 (?)", they are not exactly memorable for their triumphalism. One, The One That Got Away, starring the German actor Hardy Kruger, was actually an admiring account of a German prisoner-of-war who managed to escape.

I have been carrying out research into Anglo-German perceptions and misperceptions for ten years and my own findings, which are based not just on media coverage but also on public reactions to it, suggest British perceptions of Germany have never been quite as Colditz-bound as Dr Cockett asserts, though I agree with him that this has been a prevalent phenomenon. More importantly, I believe that the mentality in question is being challenged. Consider the study of German at school and university (I myself am a Germanist), and the twinning arrangements between British and German towns. Also consider criticisms of the "Achtung! Surrender" Daily Mirror front page reproduced with Cockett's article. No doubt this particular issue of the Mirror was thought up by people who either think the way Dr Cockett says or who believe their readers do. But, significantly, the Daily Mirror strategy backfired. One of the newspaper's readers reported it to the West Midlands police for inciting racial hatred and Radio One DJ Simon Mayo declared that he was embarrassed, adding that "you can yell and scream for England and Gascoigne without putting him in a 1940s tin hat". The Mirror not only apologised to its readers but also made a peace offering to the German football team.

A good number of Britons may still be prisoners of history when it comes to looking at Germany, but there are still many of us who have, so to speak, escaped from Colditz. We should bear this in mind when the next "Hans off our sunbeds" headline hits the newspapers.

David Head

Department of modern languages

University of Northumbria

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