Britons glory in the war, says German minister

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BASIL FAWLTY'S advice may have been spot on when, in advance of the arrival of a group of Germans at his disaster-prone fictional hotel, he famously pleaded to his staff: "Don't mention the war." But the trouble is, it appears that we cannot help ourselves.

From the football terrace to the television, from our mass-produced lager to our popular literature and magazines, Britain, it seems, remains obsessed with a war that ended more than 50 years ago.

Yesterday it was revealed that some prominent Germans believe this British obsession with the Second World War goes even further. Michael Naumann, the German Culture Minister, claimed that the interest in the war had actually become the spiritual core of Britain's national identity.

"There is only one nation in the world that has decided to make the Second World War a sort of spiritual core of its national self, understanding and pride," said Mr Naumann, a former journalist.

Mr Naumann said this obsession was most evident in Britain's attitude to football. Not only were terrace chants ("Two world wars and a World Cup too") and xenophobic headlines examples of this, but the very language used by the British revealed an overriding inability to think of Germans without reference to the war.

"Think of poor old Franz Beckenbauer [former Germany captain and coach]," Mr Naumann said. "One of the most elegant players in the game and the only metaphor you had available for him was to call him a Panzer."

Many would argue that for one generation, the Second World War with its attendant rationing, blitzes and the death of so many young men was understandably, a defining period.

But 50 years on, are the British still really obsessed? Dr Max-Stephan Schulze, a lecturer in economic history at the London School of Economics, said: "I think that Naumann is going over the top. It certainly features in the press, in particular the tabloid press, but there is a question as to how far it features in everyday discourse among citizens.

"It is not something I am really aware of. I have been living here 10 years and I have only suffered any [racial] abuse once, and that was after an England football game when my car still had German plates on it."

Others disagree. Professor Gordon Smith of the University of London said that while the Germans were trying to put the war behind them, the British wanted to hang on to it. "Just look at the BBC, always dusting off those old war films and repeating them," he said. "Just after the war, having won against the odds, these things may have had a value but what is the point now?

"I think that something that may have initially come from a feeling of supremacy is now perpetuated by a sense of inferiority. We don't like the fact that the German economy is strong."

Apart from the behaviour of some football fans and the tabloid headline writers, the most obvious examples of such an obsession are television shows such as 'Allo 'Allo and Dad's Army. But by portraying the SS commander Herr Flick as a leather-wearing fetishist, are we laughing at the Germans or laughing at our own obsession with laughing at the Germans?

Have we all suddenly become terribly ironic?

"I think there is a difference between the headlines during the European Championship - which were of the moment - and other, more long-term aspects," said Bob Ferguson, a lecturer in media studies at the University of London.

"In the longer term, I think this interest stems from the fact that the Second World War still sells. It is also cheap to produce," Mr Ferguson said.

"It provides us with someone else for us to laugh at and it also provides a myth that keeps us going. We might mythologise our victory but as far as I know the Russians won the war."

Mr Naumann said that the obsession was infecting all areas of British life, pointing to the recent portrayal of the German Finance Minister, Oskar Lafontaine, in The Sun as possibly "the most dangerous man in Europe".

"It's not as though poor Oskar goes to bed crying about this," he said.

"But to call him a gauleiter goes to the gut. People do not understand what a personal offence this is to people who have spent their lives rebuilding this nation and are truly anti-Fascist."