A N Wilson: Don't let's be beastly to the Germans. They gave us Goethe and Bach

As the Max Mosley case reminds us, the British persist with the curious idea that "German" equals "Nazi". Our prejudices, based only on recent history, are philistine and contemptible

I want to write, not about le vice anglais, which is a harmless eccentricity over which some chaps have no control, but about a much worse English vice – namely our demonising of the Germans. Thomas Kielinger, the London correspondent of Die Welt came on the radio, during the early stages of the case of Mosley vs the News of the World to say that no one nowadays thought mock-German accents were funny. Ephraim Hardcastle in the Daily Mail immediately responded with "Vee shall be the judges of zat, Herr Kielinger!"

The fact that Max Mosley spoke German to one of the young women involved in the case (she happens to be German) and that all those involved with the afternoon episodes apparently broke into what purported to be "German accents" led automatically to the charge that this expensive game in a Chelsea basement had – but what else? – "Nazi overtones".

Mosley is a brave man for bringing the case, and I hope he wins, but even he seemed to be falling into rather absurd stereotypes when he told the court, "German somehow sounds appropriate for a bossy dominant character". (Are there elderly gentlemen in Berlin basements paying women to speak to them in the tones of Baroness Thatcher or Dame Eliza Manningham-Buller?)

Lovers of English poetry will have been reflecting, during Mosley's brave court battle, upon the most celebrated, and perhaps the most distinguished, of all his colourful circle of relations. That is to say, we shall have been remembering Algernon Charles Swinburne (who was at Eton with his first cousin Bertram Mitford, the first Baron Redesdale), whose wonderful poem "Dolores" celebrated the "red mouth like a venomous flower" of the ladies who were paid to punish him in the privacy of a St John's Wood parlour. ("O mystic and sombre Dolores/Our Lady of Pain"). W E Gladstone (another Old Etonian) used to carry a small whip with which to flagellate himself (though one of his modern biographers believes this task was sometimes given to those young women whom Gladstone set out to rescue).

Gladstone the high churchman and Swinburne the sceptic would not have agreed about much, but they would surely have taken it for granted that it was intolerable for a newspaper to spy upon elderly gentlemen during the privacy of their afternoons and thereby to draw impertinent political conclusions. Above all, those pillars of 19th-century civilisation would surely have been amazed at the newspaper's belief that "German" equalled cruel, barbaric, or murderous. You were far more likely to encounter corporal punishment in England than in Germany – witness the Kaiser's innocently unpleasant request to his grandmother, Queen Victoria, to be allowed to cross the bridge at Windsor and watch Eton boys "being whacked".

Until the First World War, the great majority of the educated classes in Britain rejoiced in their cousinship with the Germans. Their half-German queen had been married to Prince Albert, a true Renaissance man, who was not only an accomplished artist and musician, but who also nurtured science, technology and benign political thought, both in Britain and Europe. Had he lived, and had his son-in-law Fritz (Frederick William of Prussia) not died within a year of becoming Kaiser from throat cancer, Germany would certainly have developed along federalist lines, and the nationalist-militarists who influenced the whacking-fanatic Wilhelm II (Frederick William's son) would never have taken Europe to the extremes of the First World War.

Since the time of Dante in the Middle Ages, there had been no single figure whose literary, political and philosophical outlook both outsoared and defined his contemporaries' – until the arrival upon the scene of Goethe. Not only is Goethe Europe's greatest modern poet and the inventor of the modern psychological novel. He was also a pioneer scientist, whose theory of the single origin of plant life foreshadowed much of what was later learned about the evolution of species, and of genetics. His colour theories and optics challenged Newton himself. And this was also the great man of the theatre, who was in addition a full-time politician. There is no one like Goethe, whose Faust defined the modern human being.

And who was the first to write Goethe's biography? Not a German, but George Lewes, the common-law husband of that translator of world-changing German philosophy and Biblical scholarship Marian Evans, aka George Eliot. The Lewes biography received a mixed reception in Germany, not least because it was a bit too News of the World for that fastidious people. The Wagners, for example, whose private life was pretty rackety, deplored Lewes's frankness about Goethe's love life. But no one in Britain or Germany could doubt Goethe's pre-eminent place in human history. (For the philosemitic George Eliot, incidentally, Wagner's manias about the Jews were something to tease him about "eyeball to eyeball"; she considered him a loveable man, while thinking his music was awful – not a point of view you often meet with these days.)

For the educated Victorians, Germany was the land of music, philosophy and theology. After the shock of the first Vatican Council in 1869-70, which defined the doctrine of papal infallibility, it was to Germany that Gladstone went to discuss its implications with the great Dr Döllinger. One was going to add that Döllinger was the most learned thelogian in Europe, but that prize could have been contested by many – nearly all of them Germans.

During the same period, Hegel dominated universities, in Britain as well as in other European countries. You may say that was a bad thing, and the British Hegelians, such as J M E McTaggart (Bertrand Russell's tutor), who believed that there was no such thing as time, may seem absurd. But it remains true that many of the most interesting philosophical questions posed by the human race – outside the narrow circle of Anglo-Saxon empirical scepticism – began in Germany, with Kant's Critique of Pure Reason, Hegel's Phenomenology of Mind, and, in the 20th century, with Martin Heidegger's Being and Time. The latter book may be dismissed in many Anglo-American faculties, but to other readers demonstrates the not uninteresting notion that Descartes was wrong and the history of modern philosophy based upon a mistake.

If the field of abstract thought has been dominated by Germany in the last 200 years, it almost goes without saying that the same is true of music. Bach and Beethoven outsoar all other composers. If you include under the umbrella of "German" the German-speaking world, you will have to see that the whole history of Western music, through the times of Haydn and Mozart, to the innovations of Alban Berg and Paul Hindemith, is a German story, with the mighty caesura of Richard Wagner marking the change, with his Tristan und Isolde.

In short, to be a European with the smallest inkling of what our shared culture has produced, you must be steeped in German culture. And one of the causes or symptoms of British decline into philisitinism and isolationsim in the last half century has been this country's contemptible imprisonment in anti-German prejudice. (I was going to write that this prejudice was "pathetic"; but, as my first German teacher, a witty doctor's daughter from Munich, remarked to me, among the European languages, only in coarse-grained English is the word "pathetic" a term of abuse.)

Unfortunately, anti-German prejudice extends beyond Basil Fawlty goose-stepping out of the dining-room at Fawlty Towers, or the laboured jokes of 'Allo 'Allo. For years after the Second World War, British politicians, far from seeing a reunited Germany as the simplest bulwark against the appalling tyranny of the Soviet Union, resisted any such notion. To outward appearance they might have looked like Harold Macmillan, Harold Wilson or Lady Thatcher, but inside they were Captain Mainwaring, fearing the stamp of the Nazi jackboot on the Amusement Arcade at Walmington-on-Sea.

More than 60 years after the ruination of Europe, and after a tragic war, from which the Soviet tyrants emerged victorious, the British are still fixated upon the idea that Germany – socially enterprising, politically liberal to the point of blandness, filled in every town and region with gentle, music-loving, civilised people – is secretly longing to return to the days of concentration camps and the Nuremberg Race Laws.

Since each British generation is less competent in foreign languages than the last, and since the British press grows more and not less insular, we will presumably continue to think that German accents are "funny" and that "German" equals Nazi.