Posts Tagged ‘true’

It’s true, we Germans think you British are wunderbar

September 24th, 2014

I am a child of war. I was tossed into the horrors of the mid-20th century when, in March 1945, Danzig, my home town, went up in flames. My family escaped just in time from being buried under the rubble of the apartment house in which we lived and, like millions of Germans, we became refugees, finding a new home in the western province of Westphalia. As a schoolchild, I remember being fed British-donated rations, since Britain had responsibility for feeding and keeping alive 23 million Germans in its occupation zone.

As outlined above, the cause for this sentiment is simple: Great Britain helped Germany back on to her feet after 1945. This was not just in terms of physical sustenance – but with democratic institutions, too. Local government, trade unions, federalisation, the re-emergence of a free press: there was a distinctly British hand in the democratic rebuilding of Germany. Why, my own paper, Die Welt, was brought into being in Hamburg by the British, its first editor being a redoubtable Scot by the name of Steele McRichie. The “all-party newspaper for the British zone” only passed into the hands of the Axel Springer media group in 1953.

From my earliest years, I have conceived of our two countries as twinned by history, for better or worse. I find it all the more surprising, therefore, that the Brits never celebrated newly democratic Germany as a cultural godchild of theirs – a proud monument to the civilising hand that Britain, at the best of times, is heir to. Instead, for far too long the Nazi era was allowed to overshadow the positive approach the British pioneers on the ground had worked for and established after 1945.

My list of favourites includes Ben Donald’s Springtime for Germany or How I Learned to Love Lederhosen (2007); Simon Winder’s Germania (2010); Philip Oltermann’s Keeping up with the Germans (2012); Miranda Seymour’s Noble Endeavours: The Life of Two Countries, England and Germany, in Many Stories (2013) and, last but not least, Stephen Green’s Reluctant Meister: How Germany’s Past is Shaping its European Future (2014).

This impressive documentation of a new curiosity about Germany does not a mass movement make, I know. Compare it with the sorry neglect of history teaching in British schools and you may justly wonder when a more nuanced understanding of the cousin across the channel might reach the next generation, or how popular perceptions will ever move away from the Nazi as the defining characteristic of the German persona.

Do Germans have a more up-to-date picture of the British Isles? I often wonder. One of the best books in German, Typically English: How the British Became What They Are, has as the cover of its paperback edition a picture of two City gents with bowler hats and rolled-up umbrellas. Please! Portugal’s João Magueijo, with his latest effusion of a book, Undercooked Beef, empties a plethora of contempt over the English for some of their barbaric habits.

But to me, that’s so old hat. In the occasional critical mood, I prefer to think of food banks or the growing chasm between rich and poor and “the left-out millions”, as Churchill called them in his reformist years. The lack of housing seems to me like the cruel farewell to an essential British dream.

Still, MacGregor has it absolutely right that modern Germans are overwhelmingly pro-British. It helps that the hackneyed Nazi salute is gradually becoming old-fashioned; young Britons have other worries than to take refuge in such outdated gestures. Theirs is a peculiar malaise – the inadequate teaching of history. That’s why I hope his valiant attempt to take the thinking about Germany forward will bear fruit and start a new evaluation of how Britain looks not just at Germany but at the rest of the world, too.

It would be a pity if the country which built an empire “in a fit of absence of mind”, in JR Seeley’s immortal words, allows a modern variant of such mental luxury to rule its relations with one of its most important neighbours.

Thomas Kielinger is the London correspondent of ‘Die Welt’. His latest book is a biography of Winston Churchill


World War Two

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