German abroad learns not to mention the war

I was recently shown around the Houses of Parliament, along with four other German journalists. The doorkeeper responded to questions with great patience, but then came the crucial moment: the Commons chamber, he explained, had to be rebuilt after an air raid in 1941, and a number of Commonwealth states had made some contribution.

I asked him whether any German government had offered assistance. "Well," he muttered, anxious not to dwell on the subject, "I suppose, your nation had its own problems then." I persisted: Some symbolic donation, a goodwill gesture might have been a good idea in later years, might it not? The embarrassed gentleman, however, evaded the question.

What is this coming to, I thought? Some 20 years after Basil Fawlty's celebrated line, it is now the Germans who should not mention the war.

Gone seem the days when people would give me a Hitler salute or goose- step in front of me. When I first came to Britain in 1988, such references were a daily occurrence - most of them facetious, a few downright hostile. Having lived on and off in Britain since then, I have faced ever fewer innuendoes about my nation's past. These days, they are almost disappointingly rare. Are the British turning soft?

If so, this may be, to some extent, to do with our recent failures on the economic front. Any German weakness is initially welcomed. Consider the reaction to the industrial unrest in Germany in 1993, and the disclosure that Germany's 1995 budget deficit had exceeded the limits laid down by Maastricht. But then, the smirks on British faces fade to sympathetic smiles: the weakness is seen as a strength - a sign of humanity in the German character.

This new surge of benevolence seems restricted to relations on a personal level, however. On the political stage, since unification, distrust has been increasing by the hour.

It has become commonplace to observe that unified Germany is itself having difficulties in defining its role as a grown-up in world politics, after the protected Cold War childhoods of the two pre-1989 Germanies. But the unease of the Germans with themselves is reflected in Britain's own inconsistent approach towards the new major power on the continent.

There is a basic paradox underlying many disagreements: Britain's demand that Germany learn to be self-assertive on the one hand, and raised eyebrows whenever it does wield its power, on the other.

Examples of this muddled attitude have abounded since unification. I witnessed a British journalist interviewing students in the university town of Gottingen, and he expressed disbelief when one after another voiced scepticism about unification. Had not an all too big Germany wrought havoc on the continent twice this century, they argued. The journalist almost implored them to be more patriotic: surely it was the most natural thing in the world for the two states to be united?

Yet, by the time unification happened in October 1990, Chancellor Helmut Kohl had been lambasted for bullishly pushing through a unification process of which everyone else was very frightened.

Earlier this year, he warned of the danger of war in Europe as a result of growing nationalism. "The bullying has begun", roared the Mail on Sunday. A "United Europe would be a German Europe. It would be Germany's passport to wielding the kind of international power it craves but cannot currently obtain on its own".

But was there not plenty of angst in 1990 that a unified Germany might try to loosen its EU shackles, break free from Nato and pursue the much- feared sonderweg - the ominous separate path between Russia and the West? It is just this sonderweg that Kohl has sought to prevent by pressing ahead with the European integration process.

The stark fact is that whatever foreign strategy Germany develops, it is invariably interpreted in Britain as shady wheelings and dealings.

Oh well, in one respect, we do have clarity. If you are German, whatever you do, don't mention the war.

Klaus Smolka