1. British perceptions of Germany
|British comments about Germany
|"British public people, whether journalists or politicians, are more prepared to demonise the Germans than any other people I know are prepared to vilify any other nation I have heard of, with the possible exception of Arabs and Jews."
|"Admit it, we all hate the Germans."
|The Sun 20.04.2005
|"From Hitler Youth to Papa Ratzi"
(after Cardinal Ratzinger became the new Pope)
|"Ein Volk, ein Reich, ein Euro!"
(in an anti-euro camapign video)
|"The Germans are getting too big for their jackboots."
|"Let's Blitz Fritz!"
|"Any war which finds us on the same side as the Luftwaffe is an absolute disgrace."
(On NATO's intervention in Serbia)
It's now 2010, and the Second World War has been over for 65 years. Except in large sections of the British media, of course, where the clocks appear to have stopped for good in the year 1945. Although 80% of Germany's current population were born after 1941, the above examples prove that 'kraut-bashing' remains a socially acceptable journalistic pastime in the United Kingdom long after the dangers of peddling cliches about African and Asian nations have rightly been recognised. When asked in March 2000 what he thought of British press coverage of Germany, the then German chancellor Gerhard Schröder concluded: "We seem to have something of a time lag sometimes. I like to see reporting on the Germany of today, not on a Germany that does not exist."
The traditional defence that such chauvinistic soundbites in the media are merely part of the biting British sense of humour, created and consumed with a knowing postmodern irony, is highly questionable. The Nazi "jokes" aimed at German visitors to Britain put the latter into a Catch-22 situation. If you laugh along with the joke, then you are not confronting the underlying accusation that nothing has changed in Germany since 1945. But if you fail to laugh, then you merely reinforce the stereotype of the humourless German. This is the fate that befell German footballer Dieter Hamann, who was understandably less than amused to be given a copy of Mein Kampf by his English colleagues as a "joke" Christmas present when playing for Newcastle United.
It was therefore depressingly predictable that the campaign aimed at preventing Britain from joining the single currency should launch a promotional video in June 2002 containing a scene in which the comedian Rik Mayall dressed up as Adolf Hitler and bellowed "Ein Volk! Ein Reich! Ein Euro!" That the video was trying to suggest, over half a century after the end of World War Two, that the euro was part of a fiendish German plot for European domination was of course strenuously denied by anti-euro campaigners. Anyone who didn't find the video funny should "get a life", said Labour MP Kate Hoey, who also appeared in the video. It was in other words up to Germans (and all of the other European nations who signed up for the euro) to prove their sense of humour to the British by merely laughing off what amounts to a gross calumny.
In 2006, Matthias Matussek, who was at the time the British correspondent for the German periodical Der Spiegel, interviewed the British novelist Ian McEwan in London. "We had a lovely dinner, then bumped into a famous director on our way out", Matussek recalled. "I won't tell you his name but he was nominated for an Oscar. When Ian introduced my wife and me as 'friends from Germany', the director gave us a Nazi salute. Then laughed his arse off. I laughed it away. What else can you do?"
It's hardly the best advert for British humour that they've merely recycled the same stale joke about National Socialism over and over for 63 years. It's even less of a good advert when the British (or perhaps it's just the English?) fail to realise when the joke is actually on them. In "The Germans" (1975), perhaps the most famous episode of the comedy Fawlty Towers, the permanently stressed English hotelier Basil Fawlty struggles to cope with a party of German guests without making any tactless references to the Third Reich, yet merely succeeds in referring to World War Two every time he opens his mouth. John Cleese, who co-wrote the series and played the role of Basil Fawlty, is very much a Germanophile. In 2006, he backed a competition launched by the German Embassy in London in which British students were encouraged to write 3,000-word essays about modern Germany. "Iím delighted to help with trying to break down the ridiculous anti-German prejudices of the tabloids and clowns like Basil Fawlty, who are pathetically stuck in a world view thatís more than half a century out of date", Cleese said. "I think the German contribution to literature and philosophy is extraordinary, and to music and science is enormous."
Yet many British viewers failed to grasp that the joke was meant to be on Basil Fawlty, and not on the Germans. One line from the episode "Don't mention the war!" has become a well-known catchphrase, but is often used in a way that is diametrically opposed to its original intention. In July 2004, Richard Desmond, the proprietor of the Daily Express newspaper, goosestepped round the boardroom during a meeting with Daily Telegraph executives in an imitation of Basil Fawlty's impression of Hitler in Fawlty Towers. He was apparently prompted by a bid for the Telegraph by the German media group Axel Springer. Despite Axel Springer having a commitment to the state of Israel, Desmond asked Telegraph executives if they were looking forward to being run by Nazis. "They're all Nazis", he said of the Germans.
When it was announced in 2000 that the German broadcaster RTL was considering remaking Fawlty Towers, yet without the infamous "Don't mention the war!" sketch, some commentators implied that this merely proved that "the Germans" did not have a sense of humour. Quite the contrary: the episode was one of the most popular of the series when Fawlty Towers was repeated in the German-speaking countries by the broadcaster 3Sat. German viewers perceived very clearly that Cleese's attack was aimed at the petty-minded English hotelier - not least because many Germans had experienced similar (if less exaggerated) treatment on their visits to Britain.
And the fact that RTL was considering not remaking the episode about "The Germans" was not due to oversensitivity about the country's past. The fact is that, in the 21st Century, neither the German media nor the German people as a whole harbour such reductive and demonising stereotypes about an entire nation as the British media often still appears to harbour about Germany. As Dr. Ulf Poschardt, columnist for the newspaper Die Welt, explained: "Because of our history, we don't offend other countries like that. Or put them down. The only people we put down are anti-Israel. And pro-Fascist."
In short, the episode of Fawlty Towers simply wouldn't have been credible if RTL had substituted "the Germans" with another nation. In the end, only the pilot film of the German version of the series was broadcast in 2001, with Jochen Busse in the role of Basil Fawlty.
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