Don’t Mention The War

England’s friendly match against Germany at Wembley passes off without incident. A goal would have been nice.

There was a time when a 0-0 draw between these two countries would have been seen as the diplomatic solution, one which best placated the hordes of ruffians who and gave them no occasion to vent their triumphalism or frustration on the innocent burghers and shop windows of the host city.

Fortunately we live in enlightened times, most of us anyway. Political relations may be strained between Britain and the continent but on the football field at least this particular match has moved away from a being a rerun of the battle of Arnhem into something like a normal sporting contest.

It was hard to imagine then that thirty years later a German team would come to London to play England in the Remembrance Day fixture and help with the ceremony. Germans were not supposed to remember the war — it was the job of England’s idiots to remind them of it.

There are still idiots out there of course. The national anthems were faultlessly observed for the latest fixture but England’s bigots were out in force at the last meeting between the two teams in Dortmund, booing the German anthem and regailing all present with a less than tuneful rendition of “Ten German Bombers”.

The German fans observed the minute’s silence with impeccable respect but the kind of meathead who regards the red, black and gold as nothing more than a flag to fight under is alive, well, and last seen in the summer harassing the good people of Burnley.

It will be a good few years before the kind of patriot who makes his fellow countrymen cringe has been completely eradicated from our society, but we are growing ever more confident in expressing that these people do not speak for most of us. Most of us are rational beings who know what bombers, German or otherwise, can do.

It was good game of football. In the spirit of reconciliation I as a Scotsman am even prepared to admit that England played well. They should play it more often because it provides the sort of match practice that both sides can benefit from. Any rivalry between Britain and Germany should be of the productive type: We can spark off each other and spur each other on, if only it doesn’t get too personal.

Does it get too personal? Well if you’re reading this in Britain then you probably have your own view on that one. I’m writing this in Germany so I’ll come at it from the other angle. What do Germans actually think of the British?

Before I go any further I should probably first point out that in one respect they know us better than we know ourselves. Germans always talk about Engländer when they mean “English” and Briten when they mean “British”, unlike the French who use the term Angleterre indiscriminately. Whereas in France britanique is only used by academics and very petty bureaucrats, Germans will struggle away with Großbritannien despite it being the most difficult word to spell in their language. One “t” two “n”s.

In this respect English people could learn a lot from the Germans — and probably get on better with the Scots as a result. Of course both England and Britain are foreign countries and so ignorance naturally persists. Germans often ask whether I have a British passport or a Scottish one. Often people want to know whether English banknotes will be accepted in Scotland.

On other occasions the questions I am asked border on the philosophical — the most common being:

“What is Wales?”

I’ve still never worked out a satisfactory answer to that particular query. Just recently, people have become curious about the Isle of Man — you only need to look in the newspaper to know why.

There is much respect and affection for Britain, although much of it is slightly rose-tinted. As a country, Germany is a slave to progress and so the rustic charm that the British tourist board likes to portray has a certain appeal.

Around half the Germans I know have been to the UK, most commonly either to London or to the quintessentially English towns on the south coast: Hastings, Eastbourne, Brighton. Failing that it’s quintessential Scotland; Loch Ness, Glencoe or a whisky tour of Islay. For years I recommended the Isle of Skye to German visitors without ever having been there myself — and none were disappointed. As I’ve said before, in Germany it can sometimes be hard to find something quintessential.

What do they like specifically? Any particular symbols of the rustic ideal which stick out? Wooden window frames for one. In Germany windows are made of plastic and glass and nothing else. Dry stone walls. Britain does conservation like this far better than Germany does. Bowls on the green is another overriding memory. The royal family. Pub quizzes. Cider.

What do they not like? Carpeted bathrooms are at the top of the list, followed by strong regional accents and cooked breakfasts. Another student of mine took the trouble of stuffing his suitcase full of yoghurt before travelling to Hereford for a business trip rather than face a fry up each morning for a week. Before you protest that most hotels offer a continental breakfast yes, that’s true — but not with real bread. The first thing that expat Germans do when they return home to go to the baker’s. British plumbing and central heating are also occasional sources of amusement while no German likes to drive on the left.

For those who have never been to Britain, the rustic idyll is propagated in German popular culture through media and literary icons scarcely known in Britain. Dinner For One, a British 1960s black-and-white comedy sketch featuring a 90-year old English Duchess and her eccentric butler, is broadcast on all TV channels every new year and is watched religiously in the original language. Rosamunde Pilcher and Edgar Wallace are far better known in Germany than they are in Britain. There is a cult-like fascination for Ken Follet that I can’t quite explain.

Other aspects of Britain are admired and detested in the same breath, the Bolshevism towards Europe being perhaps the most prominent example. Germans are used to doing what they are told and thus have a grudging respect for anybody who will not be bossed around. The British football chant “no-one likes us, we don’t care” has been translated into German many times and has found popularity in stadiums across the country. Other Germans take a different view of this kind of attitude, seeing it as yet more proof that the “island apes” are backward and conservative.

Brexit is of course the most obvious example of this kind of mentality. On this specific issue the most commonly heard idiom on the subject is borrowed from football: Britain has scored an own goal. Much though the Bolshevism is admired, most Germans are at heart not Brexiteers. A line has been crossed and there will be little sympathy for the UK if it goes wrong.

Some years ago the comedian Martin Sonneborn, leader of Die Partei, Germany’s equivalent of the Monster Raving Looney Party, was approached with a few to making a pact with Nigel Farage. His reply was that the two men had much in common — in particular that they both enjoyed drinking beer and both wanted Britain to leave the EU. Those kind of jokes go down very well over here.

Germans know everything about fair play and nothing about sporting comportment. In victory they like to display a smug arrogance and triumphalism that would make even the Australians cringe. This is true in sport but also in life: When Germans believe that they have the upper hand then they like to display this unashamedly. As such, superficially at least, the question of Brexit will be met with a flourish and comments along the lines of “shut the door on the way out.”

Many people are enjoying the slapstick element of the negotiations in much the same way that they enjoy Dinner For One. The Tory party’s misadventures are just Germany’s kind of humour. I’m sure I don’t need to remind you that the English word schadenfreude is German in origin.

If you dig deeper, however, then many are worried. Those who work in industry are aware of how much they sell to Britain while elsewhere the penny is starting to drop that when Britain stops paying into the EU budget, Germany may have to make up the shortfall. Most people understand that there will be no winners in this game. The bloody Tommies are in danger or torpedoing the ship for everyone.

And what about the ultimate low blow? What happens if — perhaps frustrated by the Brexit negotiations or after your team has lost to the Germans in yet another penalty shootout — you decide to inquire of your German colleague just exactly who won the bloody war anyway? Will your colleague break down in tears like in that episode of Fawlty Towers?

It will be seen as bad form of course. It will confirm prejudices about British people being jingoistic, thick-headed and stuck in the past. It will confirm stories heard in the press about how famously inhospitable the British can be. Older Germans have still not quite forgiven the allies for the suffering they had to endure and here the subject is best avoided completely. Mention the subject to a skinhead from the far right and he will do unto you what he did unto the citizens of Burnley on his summer holiday.

Tears there will not be. Any Germans who have ever seen Fawlty Towers find it very funny, with the exception of that one episode where John Cleese mentions it once to his German guests and doesn’t get away with it. It is not that they are offended, it is simply that they do not understand why a young German tourist would burst out crying at the mention of a conflict that took place before she was born.

Mention the subject more objectively and you will get frank and honest answers. The flip side of Britain’s obsession with its own quintessence is that it has not been able to throw ideological baggage over the side the way that the Germans have. The 8th of May 1945, the day the last conflict finished, is commonly refered to in German as die Stunde Null — zero hour, the moment the country started again from scratch. The Second World War defines modern Germany much more fundamentally than it does Britain.

Any discussion of the subject in Britain relies heavily on the kind of history which was written by the winners. German historiography is much more divided but on a day-to-day basis many people are clever enough to see that losing also had distinct advantages. American money for reconstruction for one thing, or restricted military deployments overseas.

There’s a reason that Donald Trump complains that Germany spends so little on defence: For a long time everybody was perfectly happy for Germany to have the firepower of a peashooter, its direct neighbours especially. Meanwhile the country spends 11% of its GDP on health, around €4,200 per person per year, putting them right up at the top of the global league table. No wonder they laughed at Boris Johnson’s battle bus.

Rivalry can be healthy, especially where Britain and Germany are concerned. Maybe one day we’ll live in a world where jokes are traded about who makes the best cars or who has the best football team and not who won the bloody war anyway.

So no, you should never ask a German that question. Apart from anything else there is a risk that it will be treated as philosophically as the question “what is Wales?”

Our two countries will never think quite alike, but respect is everything.

6 thoughts on “Don’t Mention The War

  1. I have found myself wondering recently how long it will take most people to realise that Germany is a vast country – still the biggest population in Europe I believe (if you discount the Russian Federation) – and that’s a much smaller Germany than it was historically. For the record, I still think the England ladies team would beat the mens team in a competitive game (especially if dissent was carded).

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  2. I am not quite sure which two countries you refer to in thinking alike. Is it Germany and England? England and Scotland? Scotland and Germany?

    You needn`t worry about Wales. The answer to `what is Wales ?` is quite simple. It is a unit of standard measurement or benchmark – e.g. – `a storm that was half the size of Wales` / `a farm that was the size of Wales`/ `a search area that was one third the size of Wales`. Of course some folks may use football pitches to do the same job.

    Likewise Ireland – the Northern bit is actually part of England, the south is in the EU already.

    Anyhow – “Here`s tae us. Wha`s like us. Naebody – and they`re a` deid`. Old Scots drinking toast like `Prozt` (excuse spelling please).

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    1. Defining exactly what the country is is a very British problem. I tend to explain it thus: At Eurovision we compete as the United Kingdom (known in French as “Royaume-Uni null points”), at the Olympics we are Team Great Britain while at football we are England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. We haven’t worked out which parts are leaving the EU yet.

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