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What’s our problem with the Germans?

Photo: Peter Zimmermann - Credit: DPA/PA Images

Our fixation with Germany is based on a fatal misunderstanding of its history and risks poisoning our future relationship,

Every year, the Bovington Tank Museum knows that one particular event will be sold out months in advance, at premium prices. This is Tiger Day, when Britons flock to see the museum’s 1944 Tiger tank being wheeled out. The mystique of this particular tank is due to the fact that in Normandy, the apparently invulnerable Tigers gave the British Army a costly shock.

But there’s no mystery about why this happened. Each 50-ton Tiger cost the Nazis five times what each 30-ton Sherman cost the Allies; Boeing could build a whole Flying Fortress in the man-hours it took Henschel to build a tank to Porsche’s design. The Nazis bet on size and power in their tanks, the Allies on mass-produced numbers.

It was different economic-ideological-military calculations, not innate German technical superiority, which meant that if circumstances were inauspicious or commanders misguided, individual young British tankmen – some of their heroics are almost impossible for us to imagine – found themselves hopelessly out-armoured and out-gunned.

So why this uniquely British annual festival of Tiger-porn? Why, if you look on eBay at any time, in the section where clapped-out ‘classic’ Mercs are for sale, will you always find one billed as ‘last of the real Stuttgart Panzers!!!’ or something like that? Why, if you go to any Second World War re-enactment day (if you must) will you find that the vast majority of British enthusiasts choose to dress up as soldiers of the Wehrmacht, rather than don the uniforms their own grandfathers might have worn? How does this weird, dark adoration of Germany’s alleged might fit with the anti-German scaremongering that was an important part of Leave propaganda? What is the root of the strange fixation which led someone (I forget who) to describe the typical UKIP bigwig as someone with ‘a Spitfire in their mind and a Mercedes in their drive’?

Here’s the key: the British need the Germans to be almost invincible. For us, they are an ideal enemy which, if they didn’t exist, would have to be invented. If you have a national foe so powerful that logically, you should never be able to beat them, when you do beat them, you feel ever so good. When Scots, Welsh or Irish rugby fans watch their team beat the logically, numerically unbeatable English at rugby, the louder they cheer, the more Scots, Welsh, or Irish they feel for the afternoon. So it is with the British and the Germans: they are the perfect them, who make us feel uniquely us.

The immortal sign-off line of that immortal episode of Fawlty Towers nails it perfectly: in dwelling so obsessively on the Second World War, Britons worship their own apparent triumph over logic (‘How did zey ever win?!’). Who are that British icon Dr Who’s perennial enemies? The Daleks, of course – a blatant sci-fi reboot of the Nazis, obsessed as they are with racial purity and exterminating everyone else (in some early monochrome scenes, they all raise their suckers in a robotic version of the straight-arm salute). The Doctor, a bumbling British amateur, wins out against them by sheer flair and bold humanity.

Listen again to the British commentary on the extraordinary night in 2014 when the German football team completely took the hosts Brazil apart 7-1 in the semi final of their own World Cup. The final German goal, albeit coming against completely demoralised opposition, was a gorgeous piece of individual skill. Had it been Brazil’s seventh goal against Germany, the BBC commentator would naturally have cried ‘Oh, sheer samba football!’. As it was, he naturally reacted with just one word: the darkly muttered ‘clinical’.

Like most myths, it has kernel of half-understood truth. In late 1915 and again in the autumn of 1941, the Germany which existed from 1871-1945 really did seem about to win complete military dominion over Europe. Without the British Empire’s ability and will to resist, Imperial Germany or Nazi Germany would certainly have won either war before America was dragged in. They were great days indeed. Whatever we think of the British Empire, it is utterly fatuous to deny that it was preferable to Imperial Prussia-Germany, never mind to the Nazis. Our dead ancestors deserve our prayers, the last survivors of those days our continuing homage. But guess what? The past is the past. We can’t keep dwelling on glorious history if it poisons the future.

And it does. For example, many Britons take it as axiomatic that the eurozone was conceived by the Germans, as a plan (conscious or not) to become the economic hegemon of the continent. How many Englishmen know the truth – that the euro was a French project, and more or less explicitly Mitterrand’s price for not opposing the re-unification of Germany? Who in Britain knows that according to every poll ever taken, the German electorate, if given a referendum, would firmly choose to go back to the D-Mark? These are real and present misconceptions which colour people’s actual political decisions – like the great national disaster that is Brexit.

Above everything, of course, towers the great myth: that the Germany of 1914 and 1939 might, but for our watchfulness, rise again. What we fail to see – and perhaps, this too is understandable, for what country knows such continuity as Britain? – is that 1871-1945 was a vast and terrible aberration in the story of Germany. This is where the value of history is beyond doubt. So let’s look at it clearly.

We above all should know how colossal this tectonic shift in Germany history was, because just 150 years ago, the British opinion of Germany was entirely different. At the height of our wealth and confidence, we – the richest and most self-satisfied folk on earth – were absolutely convinced that Germany was a poor, rather laughable cousin. It was the land of useless, beer-sodden academic philosophers, penniless buskers (so common that they are immortalised in London slang as ‘German bands’ = ‘hands’) and operetta miniature kingdoms.

Its principle export to Britain was its people, who made up by far the largest migrant community in mid-Victorian London. The workshop of the world had full employment, no border controls at all and virtually untrammelled freedom of speech, whereas Germany was backward and politically repressive. Karl Marx is only the most famous of the many poor German political/economic asylum-seekers for whom London was the obvious answer. Then as now, the locals were not always glad to see them.

Germany was still, above all, our favourite holiday destination, and remained so right up until the First World War. By 1860, door-to-door travel to Cologne took about the same as to Thailand today. Our ancestors went to Germany, usually via a few days’ city-break in Paris, for exactly the same reasons people today go to attractively backward developing countries; Germany was cheap but safe, full of splendid vistas, romantic ruins and curious, colourful religious rituals. By the 1860s, the Rhineland was so filled with Brits every summer that some British guidebooks advised their readers on how to escape their own countrymen and find the real Germany.

It was only the Rhineland, the Black Forest and the Alps they visited, though. Victorian Britons by no means shared our modern love of Berlin. As the Saturday Review put it in 1865: Those unfortunate enough to have been deluded into a visit to Berlin are habitually silent as to their experiences of the Prussian capital. For the British opinion of Prussia had sunk far from the days of Waterloo. It was now seen as merely Russia’s backward jackal. The Western Powers (the British and French) having just beaten the Russians in the Crimea, Russian influence in Europe, mighty since 1812, was now clearly on the wane. The future seemed to be in the West, and when Victoria and Albert engaged their daughter to Prince Friedrich of Prussia, the Times censured this connection to ‘a paltry German dynasty’.

As Prussia’s rise began, Britons were blinded to reality by their own, insular prejudices – different to ours, but just as invidious. Macaulay had taught us that our own ascent to world power was the natural, even inevitable result of our being Protestant. The inane idea (it was also taught by Hegel, Marx, Treitschke and Weber) that Protestantism is by nature, a Good Thing – that there is, in fact, some mysterious but necessary connection between Protestantism and progress – led Britons into a fatal error. They assumed that since Prussia was Protestant it was somehow automatically superior to Catholic Germany, and must be on roughly the British road to progress, liberalism and free trade.

True, the smashing Prussian-German victory over France in 1871 came as a huge shock to Britain, and set off a mighty scare of Prussian invasion. But national prejudices die hard, and once Bismarck himself embraced free trade and an apparently British-style parliamentary democracy (which was in fact nothing of the kind), Britons were soon reassured that that history was back on course. The truth – that western and southern Germany had in fact simply been annexed by Prussian militarism – eluded them.

This was the great disjoint in German history. Everything which the British popular mind ascribes to Germany – jackboots, heel clicks, scar-faced militarism – was unknown in pre-‘unification’ western Germany for the very good reason that it is specifically Prussian. We can perhaps best understand what happened to the poor Germans if you imagine that somehow, in the chaos of the wars which racked the British Isles in the mid-17th century, England had become hopelessly split while a smaller, poorer, but more unified and far more militaristic state, the Ulster Scots, somehow managed to become the pre-eminent power in the whole of Britain, and to use all the wealth of southern Britain for its own political purposes. For that is exactly what happened to the wealthy south and west of Germany.

In the 1880s, though, the meteoric industrial growth of Imperial Prussia-Germany and of America coincided with the relative decline of Britain. As always happens when a Great Power finds its star suddenly waning, people looked around for someone else to blame. The uncomfortable truth was very similar to that which faces America today: Britain was politically locked into importing cheap food and consumer goods, while the rate of profit on investments in Britain simply couldn’t compete globally, so British capital was flowing in torrents elsewhere.

But as with Trump’s voters, this was far too much to take. Instead, Britain decided that the end of the golden age of the British Empire was all due to a deliberate and systematic German plot. It’s surely no coincidence that Wells wrote The War of the Worlds at the very time the scare-tract Made in Germany was storming British bookshelves. The British Empire had located its very own, almost inhuman, ‘them’. Again, though, you can’t really blame Britons, for in Prussia-Germany, Bismarck deliberately hiked Anglophobia in his own obedient press, for his own political ends, throughout the 1880s. The stage was set for the Great War, the womb of all the disasters of the 20th century.

That century is gone. The British Empire and Prussia both went with it, erased right down to their very names. But we are still at it. We continue to ascribe to the Germans an almost inhuman technical mastery, calculation and ruthlessness. We do it because it’s the only way that we, at the very end of our slow decline from Empire to just another mid-range country (‘We’re not! We’re not!’ scream the Brexiters) can still claim to be somehow the special heroes of humanity. In 2005, I wrote a novel, Speak for England, in which an old-school English imperialist comes home, rides to power on a populist wave, and exits the EU. It got great reviews. In 2005, it was funny. It’s not now. The farce has slid over into real tragedy.

The only Britons and Germans who can recall shooting at one other are getting into their 90s, for Christ’s sake. It’s time, for all our sakes, to stop it. We British are not the Guardians of the Galaxy. We do not need to claim that we ‘punch above our weight’ and we don’t need a mythically potent ideal foe to prove it against. We just need to get by in the world, like anyone else. And one good place to start losing our self-delusion would be to accept that the Germany of 1871-1945 – Prussian Germany – was a fatal aberration in German history.

You cannot live in the past and navigate the future. In the mid-19th century, 50 years after Waterloo, Britain’s sclerotic ruling order, and elements of the press, were still obsessed with a by now completely non-existent French menace. A couple of meaningless French naval technological coups – the steam-driven Napoleon and the ironclad La Gloire – led to Apollo-like sums being expended on that vast chain of forts which, practically indestructible, can still be seen from Cork to Dover. Even before they were completed, thinking people realised they were delusional, and christened them ‘Palmerston’s follies’. This legacy fixation on the Catholic French who ‘say what they may, hate us as a nation’ (Palmerston) was a material factor in Britain’s utter miscalculation about the rise of Prussia to hegemony over Germany.

Today, 70 years after the end of the Second World War, far too many Britons are far too locked into a fantasy of Germany which has no bearing whatsoever on the country it has now – freed forever from Prussia – once again become: a place at once completely distinct from the Mediterranean lands, yet undeniably part of western Europe, and with no desire whatever to rule the continent. On the contrary, it is most Germans’ heartfelt wish to see all the nations of Europe – including their own – dissolve at last into a truly European identity. The only Tigers still rolling anywhere are in the museum of the British mind.

James Hawes leads the MA Creative Writing at Oxford Brookes. His website is and his most recent book is The Shortest History of Germany. His 2005 satirical novel, Speak for England, predicted Brexit.

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