Don't Mention the War, by John Ramsden

If the Kaiser had become the King...
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The Independent Culture

So it didn't happen, after all. Like millions of aficionados I had been lying in wait for another clash of the titans: England and Germany, slugging it out on the pitch 40 years after Wembley. Surely the gods were pointing in that direction, to give John Ramsden's book on the British and the Germans since 1890 extra poignancy? It wasn't to be.

In my truculent mood that another joust in the German-English saga has been denied us, I'm going to yield to the allure of an even bigger "What if?" than a soccer clash unfulfilled. Contra-factual history, they call it. What would have happened to Anglo-German relations, indeed to world history, if the British had had a proper royal primogeniture giving the throne to the first-born child, irrespective of its sex? Well, in that case Queen Victoria's eldest child, Vicky, married to the ill-fated Crown Prince Friedrich of Prussia, would have succeeded her mother upon the latter's death in 1901, only for the line of succession to pass in the same year - as Vicky died a mere seven months after Victoria Regina - to her eldest son, William, born in 1859.

Wasn't he educated as an Englishman manqué, little Willy? So much so, in fact, that when still a child he once exclaimed in exasperation: "I want to lose every last drop of English blood from my veins". Poor boy. Strung between his preordained fate as future ruler of Germany and the English superiority his mother had constantly teased him with, he developed an infernal inferiority complex, with a confused identity to match.

Yet, as king on the British throne, William would have had no need for his inveterate love-hate relationship with his mother's native land. Rather, his penchant for self-aggrandisement would have been satiated by England's stature as a world power, while the checks and balances of parliamentary rule would have hemmed in his volatility. There would have been no Great War, no Versailles, no Hitler, no Second World War. History like it should have been. There you are: it's all the fault of the English and their sexist primogeniture.

Alas, the cross of history as it was, not as it might have been, will be upon me whether I like it or not. That's why Ramsden's somewhat over-researched book - with its footnotes banned to the internet, thanks to a skinflint publisher - makes for such painful reading. Like many a scholar before him, he has assembled in erudite detail the panorama of a relationship gone awry, because the adversarial aspects of it continually overwhelmed its more productive potential.

At the outset, Ramsden evokes the British-German pas de deux prior to his point of departure: a useful introduction to the central paradox at the heart of the Anglo-German embrace, its "remote proximity". The British were both drawn towards and alienated by German counterparts. Admiration for their cultural prowess collided with perceptions of some of their less likeable characteristics, such as a predilection for order, if not regimentation. A rivalry of conflicting emotions ensued.

Where Carlyle regarded "Germanhood all along as a quality, not a fault", Macaulay disparaged the German philosophical mindset when he quipped: "An acre of Middlesex is better than a Principality in Utopia." Curiously, whatever fixed aversions may have lodged in the English mind, Germany often turned them into self-fulfilling prophecies. How uncanny to read that Emmeline Pankhurst, of all people, wrote a play about the Paris Commune in which a character rages about France's German occupiers, "marching with their odious goosestep through our beloved Paris" Don't mention the war? Of 1870-1871? Plus ça çhange.

On the other hand, after the First World War it was the British who were most willing to help defeated Germany - no one more so than Keynes who in The Economic Consequences of the Peace (1919) foresaw the catastrophe that would arise out of a treaty dictated by spite and revenge.

Later, "war guilt" led the British tacitly to accept that Hitler was right to claw back what Versailles had, unjustly, wrested from Germany. Appeasement caused the Times editor Geoffrey Dawson to drop in items to "soothe" German feelings. What a relief that now the media need not soothe anybody. The Sun at its word-play best can refer to England's World Cup victory over Trinidad & Tobago with the truly piquant "Phew - Late rally at Nuremberg".

Ramsden is on safe territory when he decries in his later chapters the lopsidedness of English education, where "sexy" Hitler towers over all other aspects of history. But his book, while wholly topical, ends on too sour a note by dwelling endlessly on each and every trace of "little Englanders" and their obsession with "Who do you think you are kidding, Mr Hitler?"

In a new book by Matthias Matussek, Wir Deutsche ( We Germans), one can take in the flavour of tit-for tat on the other side. There, the English, with not the slightest tongue-in-cheek, are referred to as "the most unsympathetic people on earth", lacking the finer nuances of Germany's superior culture. It's a level playing-field, and let nobody claim a monopoly on arrogance bred of ignorance. Fortunately, today we can all engage in banter and debunking with the expiating thought that, at worst, it's a war of words.

Thomas Kielinger is UK correspondent of the German daily 'Die Welt'

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