Don't mention the obsession...

All attempts by Germans to assess the British national character are counter-productive

HERE WE go again. Always mention the war, and damn the consequences. The British tabloids routinely do it. Most recently, The Sun depicted Germany's finance minister, Oskar Lafontaine, as the ghost of panzers past.

And, just as predictable, comes the German reaction to all of this. Frustration coloured the German culture minister Michael Naumann's outburst in an interview yesterday, when he depicted Britain as the only country which had made "the Second World War a sort of spiritual core of its national self, understanding and pride". So now you know.

But the man who spoke thus is also someone who, shortly after he was born in 1941, lost his father to Hitler's criminal war efforts. So Naumann really struggles on two fronts - getting to grips with his own country's past and reacting viscerally to shopworn cliches hurled at Germany, which belie the great strides forward the country has made over the last 50 years.

However, let me say a few more things about my friend and contemporary Michael, so that the debate he has triggered anew can be put into perspective. Naumann is no whingeing German, craving for a few petty squabbles. He is a polyglot player in the global culture stakes, who has worked as a journalist, as a director of various German and US publishing companies, and who has all the qualifying degrees for a professorial position in any German university.

A formidable and tireless mind, Naumann has made it his hallmark to jolt many time-hallowed beliefs from their bedrock immutability. Germans have received their dose of the Naumann style with a vengeance. He hasn't even shrunk from attacking what he thinks is a monumentally flawed approach to the planned Holocaust memorial in Berlin, which he would like to see turned more into a thinking man's study centre than just a politically correct monument.

For Chancellor Schroder to recreate a German ministry of culture was a daring move, in a country where none had existed since 1945. Schroder wants Germany to regain a more prominent voice in the one field which seems pivotal to a country's profile and prestige nowadays - culture. In its widest interpretation, this includes the way we live as much as the films we make, the art exhibitions or sport tournaments we host, as well as the prejudices we manage to dismantle or, conversely, to perpetuate. With Naumann as the man to spin it for Germany, the Chancellor could not have come up with a better choice.

I may thus be forgiven for disagreeing with Michael on what he has to say about the "spiritual core" of Britain's national self. Arguably, the tainted vision of errant anti-Germanness may make anyone's blood tingle with wrath, as Tony Blair can testify. It has not made the task of moving Britain closer to the European Union, in a confident, self-assured fashion, any easier.

But if certain sections of British public opinion make life miserable for politicians and their designs, so all attempts by Germans to assess the British national character, at this point in time, can only be equally counter-productive. Naumann inadvertently helps elevate stereotype and cliche to the height from which it should justly be torn down.

Furthermore, Naumann's reference to the Second World War provides incomplete evidence for judging mentalities and character traits. Had there been television footage and such of Napoleon or the Spanish Armada, Naumann could with equal measure decry Britain's obsession with those older foes.

In fact, a German umpire is the least suitable judge to bespeak himself of an island nation which has travelled a uniquely different course from that of any other continental European state. If Britain is famously awkward towards Germany, it is because the Second World War happens to be the latest in a sequence of events which over the centuries have shaped what Naumann critiques as the British "mythology".

For this to be reoriented towards a ever-closer union with Europe requires an almost superhuman effort at sensitivity and diplomacy, by all concerned. I can only wish those in charge the very best of British luck. Adverse popular press comments do not a country's vocation make. Nor are they of sufficient gravitas to merit an outburst by a German culture minister.

To Michael Naumann I say - it's the geography, stupid, and there is really nothing you can do it about it except, as a German, having rebuilt a nation from the slings and arrows of outrageous failures, to shut up and smile and hope for the best.

The author is the London correspondent for the German national daily, `Die Welt'

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