A Britain still at war with Germany

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WHEN England was bundled out of the World Cup by Holland last October, the striker Ian Wright was asked why he thought his team had lost. 'Because of the German referee,' he replied. 'The Germans have done it to us again. We stuck it to them in the war and they don't like it.'

The Germans, it seems, are always doing it to us. From pinching the best spots on the beach to cheating at football, the Krauts are forever to blame. Wright's comments were particularly telling, for here was a leading black celebrity, known for his strong anti-racist views, casually tapping into the undercurrent of anti-German chauvinism that infuses British culture to explain yet another national humiliation.

But then, few people regard Kraut-bashing as distasteful or indeed as chauvinistic. It has become so much part of everyday British political culture that it is almost invisible. From sitcoms to war films, baiting Germans is portrayed as just another part of being British, a bit like suffering a wet summer or losing at cricket. 'Two world wars and one world cup' is a chant that echoes from the Kop to the chattering classes.

In truth, Kraut-bashing is a disease that is rotting Britain from the head down. It underpins a kind of Alf Garnett mentality that celebrates all that is petty, narrow and parochial. It is an outlook that is prejudiced against anything new, different or foreign. It is a pungent concoction of political bigotry and social conservatism. Nostalgia for the Second World War and hostility to everything German are among its most powerful ingredients.

The appeal of Kraut-bashing to British politicians today is that it provides a means of accessing a seemingly glorious past to buttress a less than glorious present. Victory over Hitler's Germany was Britain's last act as a true world power. As such, it remains the British establishment's most precious asset in promoting a sense of what it means to be British. Reworking the past allows for a more favourable impression of what the nation stands for than the tawdry reality of contemporary Britain.

The popular images of the Second World War resonate with the sense of a decent, tolerant, plucky little nation heroically defying the might of Nazi tyranny. It is a world far removed from the odour of sleaze, incompetence and deceit that accompanies John Major's Britain. Hence the farther the Second World War recedes into history, the more Britain seems to celebrate it. The shabbier Britain gets in the present, the more important becomes its glorious past.

This powerful undertow of chauvinism ensures that D-Day commemorations could never be a simple, dignified memorial to the dead. They are continually transformed into an affirmation of our essential Britishness, and in a way that is necessarily divisive. Any national commemoration of the Second World War helps to draw a line between us, the noble victors, and them, the vanquished tyrants. Maintaining this 'us' and 'them' attitude allows politicians to use D-Day commemorations as a means of harnessing history for petty nationalist purposes.

Invoking the war as an essential prop for national identity requires more than a little rewriting of Britain's role in it. For the image of Britain as a freedom-loving nation that saved the world from fascism does not quite fit the facts of the time. Not only did large sections of the British establishment sympathise with the Nazis almost until September 1939, but anti-Semitism remained a central feature of the Allied war effort throughout the conflict.

From the outset, the British government was reluctant to draw attention to the persecution of Jews in Nazi Germany and the Jews barely figured in wartime Allied propaganda. In The Final Solution, a new collection of articles on the Holocaust edited by the historian David Cesarani, Tony Kushner observes that a White Paper on German atrocities published in 1939 omitted mention of anti-Jewish pogroms because of 'a reluctance to identify in any way with the Jewish plight or somehow connect the British war effort in some way with the Jews'. And although the British Foreign Office had detailed plans of the rail lines and power stations serving Auschwitz and Treblinka, it withheld this information from the Air Ministry, preventing military action to disrupt the Final Solution. Whatever the ordinary soldier was fighting for, the Allied high command was certainly not waging a crusade against intolerance or anti-Semitism.

But then national myths never were based on facts. As the 19th- century French philologist and nationalist Joseph-Ernest Renan remarked: 'Getting history wrong is part of being a nation.' National identities are about sheltering us from the truth. National myths twist the facts of history to fit political needs. And they do so not through a positive evocation of identity but through the denigration of others, through creating hostility and fear. Nowhere is this more evident than in the way that British politicians wield the myths of the Second World War.

Most people were outraged by the Tories' cack-handed attempt to hijack the D-Day commemorations for party political purposes. But few seem to have noticed how they have already been appropriated for narrow chauvinist ends. The very invisibility of anti-German chauvinism makes it dangerous. For almost by stealth it is helping to create a poisoned political climate in which all manner of racist ideas can breed. It is ironic that the promotion of Britain as a civilised, tolerant nation should reveal the intolerant, uncivilised strand in British life.

(Photograph omitted)