German abroad learns not to mention the war

LONDON DAYS

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

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksNow available in paperback
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Investigo: Group Financial Controller

£50000 - £55000 per annum: Investigo: A growing group of top end restaurants l...

Ashdown Group: HR Generalist - 2 week contract - £200pd - Immediate start

£200 per day: Ashdown Group: Working within a business that has a high number ...

Austen Lloyd: Private Client Solicitor - Oxford

Excellent Salary : Austen Lloyd: OXFORD - REGIONAL FIRM - An excellent opportu...

Recruitment Genius: Business / Operations Manager

£35000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This well-established and growi...

Day In a Page

In a world of Saudi bullying, right-wing Israeli ministers and the twilight of Obama, Iran is looking like a possible policeman of the Gulf

Iran is shifting from pariah to possible future policeman of the Gulf

Robert Fisk on our crisis with Iran
The young are the new poor: A third of young people pushed into poverty

The young are the new poor

Sharp increase in the number of under-25s living in poverty
Greens on the march: ‘We could be on the edge of something very big’

Greens on the march

‘We could be on the edge of something very big’
Revealed: the case against Bill Cosby - through the stories of his accusers

Revealed: the case against Bill Cosby

Through the stories of his accusers
Why are words like 'mongol' and 'mongoloid' still bandied about as insults?

The Meaning of Mongol

Why are the words 'mongol' and 'mongoloid' still bandied about as insults?
Mau Mau uprising: Kenyans still waiting for justice join class action over Britain's role in the emergency

Kenyans still waiting for justice over Mau Mau uprising

Thousands join class action over Britain's role in the emergency
Isis in Iraq: The trauma of the last six months has overwhelmed the remaining Christians in the country

The last Christians in Iraq

After 2,000 years, a community will try anything – including pretending to convert to Islam – to avoid losing everything, says Patrick Cockburn
Black Friday: Helpful discounts for Christmas shoppers, or cynical marketing by desperate retailers?

Helpful discounts for Christmas shoppers, or cynical marketing by desperate retailers?

Britain braced for Black Friday
Bill Cosby's persona goes from America's dad to date-rape drugs

From America's dad to date-rape drugs

Stories of Bill Cosby's alleged sexual assaults may have circulated widely in Hollywood, but they came as a shock to fans, says Rupert Cornwell
Clare Balding: 'Women's sport is kicking off at last'

Clare Balding: 'Women's sport is kicking off at last'

As fans flock to see England women's Wembley debut against Germany, the TV presenter on an exciting 'sea change'
Oh come, all ye multi-faithful: The Christmas jumper is in fashion, but should you wear your religion on your sleeve?

Oh come, all ye multi-faithful

The Christmas jumper is in fashion, but should you wear your religion on your sleeve?
Dr Charles Heatley: The GP off to do battle in the war against Ebola

The GP off to do battle in the war against Ebola

Dr Charles Heatley on joining the NHS volunteers' team bound for Sierra Leone
Flogging vlogging: First video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books

Flogging vlogging

First video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books
Saturday Night Live vs The Daily Show: US channels wage comedy star wars

Saturday Night Live vs The Daily Show

US channels wage comedy star wars
When is a wine made in Piedmont not a Piemonte wine? When EU rules make Italian vineyards invisible

When is a wine made in Piedmont not a Piemonte wine?

When EU rules make Italian vineyards invisible