Andreas Whittam Smith: A nearby country of which we know shamefully little

The repeated feeling of victimhood, which surfaced during the Thirty Years' War, is useful in assessing Germany's attitude to the euro crisis

Share
Related Topics

As all eyes turn towards Germany in its role as arbiter of the euro, one's understanding can be let down by a poor knowledge of German history and culture. As Simon Winder comments in his excellent book Germania: A Personal History of Germans Ancient and Modern, Germany is a sort of dead zone today. Most of us visit it only if we have a professional reason for being there. Yet if we knew the country more thoroughly, then we might make better informed guesses about the development of its policies. After all, the matter could scarcely be more important. Germany will determine whether a good solution is found to the sovereign debt crisis – or whether Europe is plunged back into recession.

This national ignorance of Germany goes back to the outbreak of the First World War in 1914. In a fit of mad patriotism, we wilfully tried to block out so-called "German" thinking. Even in my days at university many years later, the German philosophers were scarcely taught. Our grandfathers began to mock German "Kultur", though we did continue to listen to its music. And the British even stopped drinking German wine – did it not taste "too much of steel helmet"? We still don't drink it and we have forgotten why.

Then, between the wars, there was a bit more interest. Munich was again considered a major cultural centre and the vibrant modernity of Berlin attracted visitors. My mother, who was born in 1905, spent weeks in the two cities at the end of the 1920s in preference to, say, Florence or Paris. But then when Hitler came to power in 1933, the shutters came down again and they have remained more or less closed ever since. It is as if the Second World War hasn't yet ended. German re-unification in 1990 was widely seen as the final settlement. But so long as German culture is unreasonably shunned, the conflict really isn't over.

Winder has written his book as a way of making a window. "I want to try to reclaim a bit of Europe which is in many ways Britain's weird twin, and which for almost all its history has been no less attractive and no more or less admirable than many other countries." At the same time, this autumn BBC Four is broadcasting four new series on the art, landscape, culture and history of Germany. Could we hope, therefore, that by 2014 a century-long period of quarantine might finally come to an end?

Among the features of Winder's account, his emphasis on Germany's repeated feeling of victimhood, which first surfaced during the Thirty Years' War that ended in 1648, is useful in assessing Germany's attitude to the euro crisis. When Bild, Germany's most popular newspaper, violently criticised Greek habits when the bailout was being prepared, it was in the tones of one put upon by the rest of the world.

As Bild described it, comparing Germany with Greece: "Here, people work until they are 67 and there is no 14th-month salary for civil servants. Here, nobody needs to pay a €1,000 [£850] bribe to get a hospital bed in time. Our petrol stations have cash registers, taxi drivers give receipts and farmers don't swindle EU subsidies with millions of non-existent olive trees. Germany also has high debts but we can settle them. That's because we get up early and work all day." And the other day, the newspaper called Ireland a problem child.

The long nightmare of the Thirty Years' War, the first of these victim experiences, has never entered the British imagination because, fortunately, James I kept us out of it. Its origins were about religion and it was, to begin with, a vicious battle between Protestant powers and armed Catholics. But the protagonists found themselves unable to end the fighting. We should recognise this feeling from Afghanistan, for instance, where the war against the Taliban has already lasted longer than either of the two world wars. But imagine it going on until 2032. For it was for this same period of time that armies marched and counter-marched across Germany. They lived entirely through plunder, ruining both friendly and unfriendly territory through their insatiable depredations. They left a quarter to a third of all Germans dead. These were victims.

The next example of victimhood was during Napoleon's successful invasions of the German states. Winder puts it well: "That one Frenchman could wipe out so much history, reorganise states more or less at will, make up fun new names for them, give them to relatives to run, fill them when he fancied with French troops: this was a nightmare of helplessness with strong echoes of the Thirty Years' War, generating a longing for self-sufficiency."

Then comes the most famous expression of German resentment, the Stab-in-the-Back legend that was invented to explain Germany's defeat in the First World War. The public had failed to answer their "patriotic calling", and socialists, Bolsheviks and Jews had systematically sabotaged the war effort. There was as little truth in this as there was in the epic poem "Song of the Nibelungs", where Hagen stabs Siegfried in the back. But it rang a very loud bell.

We are not done with German victimhood yet, for there is one more example. It concerns Prussia. While we need shed no tears for the disappearance of Prussia as a political entity, which had the aggressive Bismarck at its helm, consider its fate through German eyes. During much of its history it faced threats to its very survival; in the great scheme of things, it was a marginal state. Then in its glory days it led Germany from unification in the mid-19th century to disaster in 1945 with the result that large tracts of its historic lands were absorbed by Poland and Russia and its very name banished in 1947. Its former enemies succeeded in having Prussia cancelled, crossed off and removed. It's well and truly gone.

There are obviously countless lessons that can be drawn from German history, as there are from any country's. But in the context of the eurozone, where German taxpayers are being asked to bail out one country after another, first Greece, then Ireland, next probably Portugal and after that perhaps Spain, we should understand the political imperative that confronts the German Chancellor: voters will not allow themselves to be cast as the dupes for other nations' profligacy. That is what the Germans would call an "iron rule".

a.whittamsmith@independent.co.uk

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

C#.NET VB6 Developer (Software Developer, Software Engineer)

Negotiable: Harrington Starr: C#.NET VB6 Developer (Software Developer, Softwa...

Service Desk Analyst- Desktop Support, Helpdesk, ITIL

£20000 - £27000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Service Desk Analyst- (Desktop Su...

Service Desk Analyst - (Active Directory, Support, London)

£25000 - £35000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Service Desk Analyst - (Active Di...

Junior Quant Analyst - C++, Boost, Data Mining

£30000 - £50000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Junior Quant Analyst - C++, Boost...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Letters: The West flounders in the Middle East morass

Independent Voices
David Tennant as Hamlet  

To vote no or not to vote no, that is the question... Although do celebrities really have the answer?

David Lister
All this talk of an ‘apocalyptic’ threat is simply childish

Robert Fisk: All this talk of an ‘apocalyptic’ threat is simply childish

Chuck Hagel and Martin Dempsey were pure Hollywood. They only needed Tom Cruise
Mafia Dons: is the Camorra in control of the Granite City?

Mafia Dons: is the Camorra in control of the Granite City?

So claims an EU report which points to the Italian Mob’s alleged grip on everything from public works to property
Emmys look set to overhaul the Oscars as Hollywood’s prize draw

Emmys look set to overhaul the Oscars as Hollywood’s prize draw

Once the poor relation, the awards show now has the top stars and boasts the best drama
What happens to African migrants once they land in Italy during the summer?

What happens to migrants once they land in Italy?

Memphis Barker follows their trail through southern Europe
French connection: After 1,300 years, there’s a bridge to Mont Saint-Michel

French connection: After 1,300 years, there’s a bridge to Mont Saint-Michel

The ugly causeway is being dismantled, an elegant connection erected in its place. So everyone’s happy, right?
Frank Mugisha: Uganda's most outspoken gay rights activist on changing people's attitudes, coming out, and the threat of being attacked

Frank Mugisha: 'Coming out was a gradual process '

Uganda's most outspoken gay rights activist on changing people's attitudes, coming out, and the threat of being attacked
Radio 1 to hire 'YouTube-famous' vloggers to broadcast online

Radio 1’s new top ten

The ‘vloggers’ signed up to find twentysomething audience
David Abraham: Big ideas for the small screen

David Abraham: Big ideas for the small screen

A blistering attack on US influence on British television has lifted the savvy head of Channel 4 out of the shadows
Florence Knight's perfect picnic: Make the most of summer's last Bank Holiday weekend

Florence Knight's perfect picnic

Polpetto's head chef shares her favourite recipes from Iced Earl Grey tea to baked peaches, mascarpone & brown sugar meringues...
Horst P Horst: The fashion photography genius who inspired Madonna comes to the V&A

Horst P Horst comes to the V&A

The London's museum has delved into its archives to stage a far-reaching retrospective celebrating the photographer's six decades of creativity
Mark Hix recipes: Try our chef's summery soups for a real seasonal refresher

Mark Hix's summery soups

Soup isn’t just about comforting broths and steaming hot bowls...
Tim Sherwood column: 'It started as a three-horse race but turned into the Grand National'

Tim Sherwood column

I would have taken the Crystal Palace job if I’d been offered it soon after my interview... but the whole process dragged on so I had to pull out
Eden Hazard: Young, gifted... not yet perfect

Eden Hazard: Young, gifted... not yet perfect

Eden Hazard admits he is still below the level of Ronaldo and Messi but, after a breakthrough season, is ready to thrill Chelsea’s fans
Tim Howard: I’m an old dog. I don’t get too excited

Tim Howard: I’m an old dog. I don’t get too excited

The Everton and US goalkeeper was such a star at the World Cup that the President phoned to congratulate him... not that he knows what the fuss is all about
Match of the Day at 50: Show reminds us that even the most revered BBC institution may have a finite lifespan – thanks to the opposition

Tom Peck on Match of the Day at 50

The show reminds us that even the most revered BBC institution may have a finite lifespan – thanks to the opposition