Why our view of Germany is locked in a 60-year timewarp

Britain's obsession with the war colours its attitude towards its European partner, says its Foreign Minister. So why do we cling to the stereotypes instead of embracing the continent's most civilised democracy?
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The Independent Online

We have all laughed at Basil Fawlty's panicky injunction: "Don't mention the war." And it made some sense when the TV series was shot in the 1970s. There were middle-aged Germans then whose personal experiences between 1939 and 1945 were, one felt, more tactfully left unexamined.

We have all laughed at Basil Fawlty's panicky injunction: "Don't mention the war." And it made some sense when the TV series was shot in the 1970s. There were middle-aged Germans then whose personal experiences between 1939 and 1945 were, one felt, more tactfully left unexamined.

But now? Next May it will be 60 years since Adolf Hitler shot himself while his vile regime crumbled and Berlin fell to the Red Army. One of the last photographs of Hitler outside his bunker shows him reviewing members of the Hitler Youth, some no more than 12 or 13, about to engage in the desperate defence of the city.

Even the youngest of any survivors among them is now over 70. There are German pensioners who had just started at primary school in 1945. We are a long way from the war. The Nazis are history, rapidly receding history. Prussia, which many British people mistakenly identified with the Nazis, is still more distant. Indeed, much of what was Prussia is now Poland or Lithuania.

Yet it seems to Germans that we here have a view of their country which remains stuck in the first half of the 20th century. It is, the German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer says, "more than three generations out of date", He adds: "My children are 20 and 25 and when they watch Germany in some of the British media, they think this is a picture they have never seen in their whole lifetimes." In truth, it is a picture Mr Fischer, born three years after the war ended, has not seen in his own adult years.

Is he right? It is not just for those old enough to have fought in the Second World War, or who lost husbands, wives, fiancés, lovers and friends between 1939 and 1945, that Germany remains what it was then. It is not only the tabloids, old movies, and Commando comics that keep alive the "schweinhund" stereotype.

Nor is it even the awareness of the Holocaust that makes it difficult for some to regard Germans without suspicion: though this especially means that there are often awkwardnesses in conversation. We hesitate to ask about fathers and grandfathers, but we forget, or never think, that young Germans today may experience similar embarrassment.

There is another reason why we are stuck in the past. The two most popular topics for historical study in our schools are the Russian Revolution and the Nazi regime; and the latter is the more popular. It is easy to see why history teachers choose it. There is a great deal of material, much of it available on film or video, and the subject is almost guaranteed to interest pupils. Few children, fortunately, respond positively to the seedy glamour of the Nazis, but, equally, few are bored. History as horror movie grips.

Mr Fischer says: "Germany has changed in a democratic positive way. Today this is a democracy. Two or three generations have grown up as real democrats. If you want to learn how the traditional Prussian goosestep works, you have to watch British TV because in Germany in the younger generation - even in my generation - nobody knows how to perform it."

Indeed yes, Germany is a democracy, and, morever, a federal democracy, in which politics are evolved decently, in discussions around tables, not in the streets. Talking heads on TV have supplanted Nuremberg rallies. There are, admittedly, fringe right-wing parties, always labelled neo-Nazi, whose occasional very minor electoral successes are always seized on by our media, But they are no more significant than similar groups in Britain, in France, Belgium and other European countries.

German democracy is decent and dull. Far from being aggressive and expansionist, Germany has almost no foreign policy. In truth, the conventionally hostile picture of Germany common in Britain is based on two short periods in the country's history: the second half of the 19th century and the 12 years of the Nazi regime.

Our early Victorians saw Germany and Germans differently. It was a land of music, of poetry and philosophy. The Germans were serious, pious people. Carlyle called them "a just people, framing all their institutions for ends of justice". At the time of the Franco-Prussian war of 1870, he contrasted "noble, patient, deep, pious and solid Germany" with "vapouring, vainglorious, gesticulating, quarrelsome, restless and over-sensitive France".

This may be dismissed as an example of Carlyle's Teutonomania; but it was German literature especially Goethe, serene, liberal and magnificent, not German militarism, that had brought him to love Germany.

And even while Bismarck made wars to unite Germany, he had the support of much enlightened opinion in Britain. When Cecil Rhodes founded his scholarships at Oxford University the only foreigners eligible were Americans, and Germans.

German unity was not achieved until 1871. Before then, there were numerous German states, some very small, and Germany was, in truth, a mere geographical expression. Many Germans disliked the new Reich: Prussians because they feared that traditional Prussian virtues and qualities would be diluted; others because they resented or disliked Prussia and the Prussians. Konrad Adenauer, the first Chancellor of the Federal Republic of (West) Germany after 1945, was one such; in his view, Asia began east of the River Elbe.

Bur Prussia itself was not always the Prussia of goose-stepping militarists. It was one of the first states in Europe to practise religious toleration, more liberal in this respect than early 18th-century Britain. It welcomed French Huguenot refugees; in 1700, one-third of the population of Berlin was French-speaking. Germany was, from the time of Frederick the Great (1740-86) a Rechtstaat, a state governed by a published code of law.

Admittedly, Frederick, later the subject of Carlyle's admiring biography, waged aggressive war, but this shabby, misanthropic homosexual (non-practising) who preferred his dogs to human beings and worked incessantly, became a popular figure in Britain when he was our only European ally in the Seven Years' War; inns and public-houses were renamed "The Protestant Hero" in his honour.

Bismarck and Kaiser Wilhelm II between them changed our perception of Prussia and Germany. Imperial-Wilhelmine Germany was distinguished by a vulgar and brutal arrogance, a militaristic state where civilians were required to step aside to let officers pass them on the pavement. It was neurotically aggressive. Francophiles such as Hillaire Belloc and Rudyard Kipling found it repulsive and dangerous; it was Kipling who popularised the term "the Hun".

The 1914-18 war, with its stories of Hunnish atrocities, not all of them invented, fixed the image of Germany here: it was Prussian, brutal, warlike, dangerous, a menace the peace of Europe. Not all the achievements of German science and scholarship, not all the freedoms and cultural brilliance or excitement of the Weimar republic could efface this.

And then came the Nazis threatening the world with, as Churchill said, "a new dark age made more sinister ... by the lights of a perverted science". In 1945, we began to learn just how horribly perverted that science was; then came the revelation of the Holocaust, so awful it was natural to forget that pre-Hitler Germany was no more anti-Semitic than other European countries, far less so than Tsarist Russia and that Jews had been more thoroughly assimilated in Germany than in any other European state. That added to the horror.

We forget too, or too easily, that not all Germans were Nazis (just as few of the Nazi leaders were Prussians, and pre-Hitler Berlin was a socialist city), and that indeed the Nazis never won a free election.

Be that as it may, a Nazi Germany is as dead as Wilhelmine Prussia. Germany is not what it was then. Perhaps it has more in common with the land of Goethe than the Second or Third Reich. We should recognise it as "force for good, not evil as in those perverted decades".

The young students I have met on a couple of visits to German universities are as far from being Nazis as is imaginable. They have more in common with those brave Munich students who, influenced by anti-Nazi academics, formed the White Rose group in opposition to Hitler, and suffered death by the guillotine.

Joschka Fischer calls for more exchange visits between young people to help us to "discover the reality of modern Germany". I hope that call is answered. It might help dispel ignorance. But at Tubingen University this summer I was told there are more than 20 times the number of Spanish students there than British ones.

In Britain, the United Kingdom Independence Party, its policies founded on fear and resentment of foreigners, casts a dark shadow. It is time to open a window on truth and look at Germany as it is today.