John Walsh: Will Germany ever be allowed to feel that its past is not its present?

  • @johnhenrywalsh

I'm looking forward to seeing this new movie called Iron Sky. It's based on a simple premise that, in 1945, a Nazi army flew to the dark side of the Moon to set up a swastika-shaped compound and, in 2018, they're poised to return to Earth. The film shows jackbooted stormtroopers marching, pig-tailed German schoolchildren being taught to chorus "We come in peace", and a fat Goering-lookalike chuckling, "und zen we launch zer meteorblitzkrieg und wipe all zer untermenschen from the earth".

It's being sold as a hilarious spoof and has, you'll be intrigued to hear, gone down very well in Germany. At the Berlin Film Festival, local citizens flocked to screenings in their thousands.

Part of the reason for their enthusiasm is that it's a Finnish film, not a bad-taste example of Germans trivialising the worst episode in their history. And though the Nazis are seen plotting ruthless domination on Earth, they're just another invading army, like the dome-headed aliens in Mars Attacks!. "We were asked if we thought it was appropriate to make fun of the Nazis," said the movie's German producer Oliver Damian. "Of course, Germany has its history - and we are aware of it. But I think a black comedy can be made on the subject."

You can hear the relief in his voice. As long as everyone agrees that the Third Reich can be seen as farce, wounds can be healed. If the Finns, who were appallingly treated by the Nazis, can spoof their former tormentors, both sides can laugh together, can't they? Because the Germans have, for 65 years, been looking for a way of absolving themselves from the past, disespousing themselves from history. National shame evolved into national embarrassment, and thereafter into a rather tense national humour.

I remember visiting a German lighting company 20 years ago, and listening in amazement as a senior executive told post-prandial jokes about a Jewish staff member: "We call him 'Six Million and One' you know?" he said, dabbing tears from his eyes. "He's a nice guy, but nervous, you know? When he goes past the factory chimney, he takes a looong walk around..." It was a way of saying, "All that Nazi stuff happened to other people, another Germany, not us. We must have seemed quite scary and unfriendly in the past but we can laugh at ourselves now." There was an aggressive frivolity about their approach, a heavy-handed, backslapping insistence that everyone be friends.

How ordinary Germans, over the past 40 years, must have hated the enduring success of the film Cabaret (which is celebrating its anniversary with a new print) and the scene in the beer garden when apparently ordinary Germans enjoying the sunshine are roused to deranged zealotry by "Tomorrow Belongs to Me". The scene is fiction, but it's stuck in millions of heads as having the ring of truth.

Events in the eurozone have brought such matters into focus. We've watched Germany bullying Greece into digging more cuts out of its budget – like digging its own grave. We've watched the Greek president lose his temper with his old enemy. Karolos Papoulias fought in the Greek Resistance; now, hearing Germany's finance minister, Wolfgang Schäuble, complaining that Greece was holding up the bailout opened old wounds. "Who is Mr Schäuble to ridicule Greece?" he raged. "Who are the Dutch? Who are the Finns? We always had the pride to defend... the freedom of all of Europe." In other words: Back in your box, you Nazi. It looks like modern Germany is going to need more than humour, black or otherwise, before its people can feel fully rehabilitated.

Not in the Express, not on Facebook

So Facebook doesn't mind images of nursing mothers, as long as the sharp end isn't on display. What is it about this charming, universally nourishing part of the female anatomy that upsets people? Haven't things changed since 1978, when John Cooper Clarke, the punk poet, first voiced the paradox: "You can view all kinds of violent excess/But you'll never see a nipple in the Daily Express."