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
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The Independent Online

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".