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2. Statistics and explanations

Do the anti-German stereotypes which appear in the media represent - or at least inform - British perceptions of the Germans? On one level, the answer would appear to be yes, and increasingly so:

26% of Britons polled by Gallup in the 1980's perceived Germany to be their country's closest ally in Europe - by 1992, this figure had shrunk to only 12%.
In 1986, 28% of Britons indicated that they had a great degree of trust in Germany, with only 18% claiming that they had "no trust at all" in Germany.
By 1995, poll results suggested that only 10% of Britons "trusted" the Germans with a massive 35% indicating that they had "no trust at all" in the Federal Republic.
In 1977, 23% of people believed in 1977 that National Socialism could one day return in Germany. By 1995, this percentage had more than doubled to 53%.

Nor too does it logically follow that younger generations of British citizens would grow up with a greater degree of tolerance. British children are exposed from an early age not only to wall-to-wall World War II films if varying degrees of jingoism, but also to TV series, comedians and newspapers parading a broad range of German caricatures such as the pedantic bureaucrat, and the arrogant sandal-wearing tourist getting up extra early to thrust his towel onto a vacant deckchair. Advertisements which perpetuate anti-German myths - such as an infamous towels-on-the-beach lager advert - are targeted exclusively at the young. So too was the aformentioned anti-euro video, which was aimed specifically at the 18-35 age group who are apparently prepared to trust comedians much more than they would politicians.

Anglo-German friendshipThe British education system has also come under attack for its failure to question anti-German prejudices. In December 2002, Thomas Matussek, who was the German ambassador to Britain until March 2006, criticised history teaching in British schools, saying it concentrates too much on Germany's Nazi era. He said that he was surprised to hear that 80% of A-level students studying history chose to study Nazi Germany. "It is very important that people know about it study in depth, but they also need to know that history does not stop in 1945," he said. "They need to know that the lessons drawn from this dark era of our past are being implemented and that German democracy is a success story which could also be taught."

If British children are not taught about modern Germany, Matussek claimed, then there is a danger of fuelling xenophobia. He pointed to an attack on two teenage German exchange students in London as an example of the damage cultural ignorance can do. In October, two boys who were staying in Mordon, South London, were attacked while playing football with local teenagers. One had his glasses broken and the other was thrown in a bush. And in July 2003, four 13-year-old schoolchildren in Cardiff greeted their German teacher with a Hitler salute and racist remarks.

Ambassador Matussek's impressions seemed to be confirmed by a survey of 10-16 year old British schoolchildren which asked the question - "What do you associate with Germany?" 78% of them said "World War II" and 50% mentioned Hitler. A 1998 survey of British schoolchildren put Hitler at the top of the list of the 10 most famous Germans with 68% of the vote. And a report published in 1999 by Aberdeen University showed how, especially above the age of 12, a sample of children would react much more negatively to a photograph when told that it was of a German than when shown the same photograph two weeks previously without any mention of nationality. "We have the best army in the world thanks to Oliver Cromwell. We beat Germany in World War Two," one ten-year-old said.

Attempts to portray a different image of Germany to British teachers have not always between successful. Matthias Matussek, who was the British correspondent of the German periodical Der Spiegel for two years (and who is the brother of the former ambassador to Britain), described in May 2006 how nearly two dozen English history teachers were invited to Germany at a cost of 35,000 in order to show them what modern Germany was actually like:

And what did the rotters do? They spurned all the attention as though it were some kind of indecent proposition. "It wasn't a great experience," a paper quoted one teacher, Peter Liddell, as saying. At the opera, the woman next to him nodded off, he reported. They went along for the ride. But that wouldn't change the curriculum, which - after all - calls for Hitler, Hitler and more Hitler. A colleague summed it up for the record: "Nazis are sexy. Evil is fascinating."

There are three simple lessons here.
One: the British have zero interest in the new Germany.
Two: the British have zero interest in the old Germany.
Three: the British are interested only in Nazi Germany.

And that, I would say, is not a German problem, but a British one. 

If Matthias Matussek is correct in his conclusion that Britain's collective obsession with Nazi Germany "is not a German problem, but a British one", then what does this obsession indicate about 21st Century Britain? Firstly, it could be argued that the Second World War still looms so large in the British collective consciousness as it represents the last instance where the country was both morally and militarily successful. In 2005, a YouGov poll asked the British public to select from a list of phrases that defined the essence of Britishness. The most popular phrase was "Our right to say what we think". But the second most popular phrase to describe the British collective identity was "Our defiance of Nazi Gemany in 1940". In short, British impressions of Germany (and other European countries, such as Italy) remain firmly rooted in 1945 because Britain's perception of itself remains firmly rooted in 1945.

Not least because after 1945 - to paraphrase Dean Acheson -, Britain could be seen to have lost an empire and failed to find a role, declining into industrial stagnation at the same time as West Germany underwent an unparalleled economic recovery. In his 2006 book on Anglo-German relations, Don't Mention the War: The British and the Germans Since 1890, John Ramsden argues that the British obsession with flaunting their victory over Nazi Germany can be read as a collective consolation for the British inability to match the social and economic achievements of postwar Germany. This is also true in the world of sport. The chant of "Two World Wars and one World Cup", heard from certain sections of English football fans whenever England meet Germany, may be interpreted as an equally self-delusional attempt to mask the fact that West Germany have been patently more successful than England on the football field, winning three World Cups in 1954, 1974 and 1990 and reaching the final on four other occasions.

Secondly, British antipathy towards Germany often represents an emotional shorthand for British suspicions towards Europe as a whole. The increase in scepticism towards Germany that reared its head in the 1990's stems in part from fears that a reunified Germany would assume a dominant role in a European Union from which Britain was in the process of distancing itself. "It is usually much more about hostility to the European Union and the expansion of its powers than it is about hostility to Germany," argued Lord Watson, chairman of the British-German Association. "If you want to say that European unification is a threat to Britain, the easiest way to say it is to say that it's all about the power of Germany. It's very explicit in Margaret Thatcher's memoirs."

Thirdly, the specifically British "Inselmentalität" (island mentality) seems to incorporate an unwillingness to visit or indeed come into contact with our European neighbours, the perception of whom seems to have remained frozen at the last previous historical instance when the island was threatened by invasion. When BMW decided to cease operations at its Longbridge car plant in Birmingham in February 2000, perhaps the most thought-provoking response to the all too predictable anti-German posturing in the popular press came in a letter to The Guardian from Thomas van den Bergh:

I am a Dutch Jew, and I lost three grandparents, two aunts, two uncles and numerous cousins thanks to the Germans. However, I know quite a few Germans (which most British don't), I speak the language (which most British don't), I visit the country quite regularly (which most British don't) and I think the Germans in general aren't better, or worse than other people. They are certainly less selectively xenophobic than the British. 

Or as John Hooper, the former Berlin correspondent for The Guardian, observed in May 2006: "That is a clue to why our images of Germany remain so negative. We don't go there on holiday." Less than a month after Hooper had made this comment however, one sector of British tourists found a reason to visit Germany en masse and discover at first hand that the memes and stereotypes perpetuated about the Germans in the British press had little or no basis in reality.


 Web Links 
Thomas Matussek Read what the German ambassador to Britain had to say in December 2002 about the teaching of German history in British schools.
Jürgen Krönig: Krauts This German perspective on Anglo-German relations was written by Jürgen Krönig in 1999. In German only.


Weiter!Part 3: Accentuating the positive

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