Keeping Up with the Germans: A History of Anglo-German Encounters, By Philip Oltermann


Only a few months after England had lost on penalties to Germany in the European championship semi-final at Wembley Stadium in 1996, 17-year-old Philip Oltermann moved to London from Hamburg with his parents. He was unimpressed with the traditional English Sunday roast, which centred around "an extremely stringy, dry morsel of beef". In following their hosts' lead, Philip's father generously slathered horseradish and yellow mustard over his food, only to suffer a severe coughing fit which left his eyes bloodshot and watery. This was an inauspicious start.

While his parents were determined to fall in love with the English way of life, the teenage Oltermann needed more convincing. Why, he pondered, did English bathrooms stubbornly shun the mixer tap for their washbasins, meaning that you had to switch your lathered hands hastily between the freezing and scalding jets of water? Such trifles were the least of Philip's problems. His baptism of fire into English culture was going to school.

School quickly taught him what Germans were meant to be like: humourless, efficient, robotic. "Apparently we also shouted 'Ja' at the end of every sentence!" Oltermann recounts a deeply embarrassing encounter from an English class, where he is asked to read a poem out loud. The poem features the word "banana" in every stanza, but Philip is unsure how it is pronounced. He decides to hedge his bets and try a different pronunciation each time, which leads to uproarious laughter from his merciless classmates.

Oltermann's vivid and entertaining recollections could strike a chord with anyone who has moved abroad and negotiated a foreign culture and language. Keeping Up with the Germans amounts to far more than a series of personal experiences, however. His own stories are a platform to discuss a handful of past encounters between the English and the Germans.

One such meeting was between Margaret Thatcher and Helmut Kohl. Keen to get on good terms with Thatcher, Kohl invited her to a favourite pub in his native Rhineland to enjoy some traditional cuisine. Thatcher, it seems, was little impressed with the sausage and sauerkraut, pushing it around her plate. Though Kohl had hoped that showing Thatcher his world would help to improve their relations, apparently all that she said afterwards was "that man is so German!"

Alongside the better-documented differences, Oltermann's collection of Anglo-German meetings also looks beyond rivalry to a more positive appreciation of each other's countries. There is, he shows, much more to Anglo-German relations than the deep animosity provoked by football and world wars. German philosopher Theodor Adorno couldn't get enough of the headed notepaper when he was a PhD student at Merton College in Oxford; Kevin Keegan weathered the ire of the British red-top newspapers when he quit playing for Liverpool and became the first English footballer in history to move to a German club; two German media men, Peter Frankenfeld and Heinz Dunkhase, loved so much the sketch called "Dinner for One" they saw at a Blackpool music hall in 1962 that they filmed it for German TV, making the programme that would become the most repeated show on German television.

All of this presents a far more nuanced picture of what the Germans and the British have made of each other over time. Combining historical encounters from the past two hundred years with personal recollections, Keeping Up with the Germans shows that cultural clashes and mutual misunderstanding in some areas can coexist with shared common values and friendships in others.

Hester Vaizey's 'Surviving Hitler's War: family life in Germany 1939-1948' is published by Palgrave Macmillan