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

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

SThree: Recruitment Resourcer

£20000 - £25000 per annum + Uncapped Commission: SThree: Do you want to get in...

Ashdown Group: Project Manager - Birmingham - up to £40,000 - 12 month FTC

£35000 - £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: IT Project Manager - Birmingham - ...

SThree: Recruitment Consultant - IT

£25000 - £30000 per annum + Uncapped Commission: SThree: Sthree are looking fo...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant - Dublin (based in London)

£20000 - £25000 per annum + commission: SThree: Real Staffing's Pharmaceutical...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Prevention is better than cure if we want to save the NHS

Tanni Grey Thompson
Question time: Russell Brand interviewing Ed Miliband on his YouTube show  

Russell Brand's Labour endorsement is a stunning piece of hypocrisy

Lee Williams
Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

China's influence on fashion

At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

Rainbow shades

It's all bright on the night
'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

Bread from heaven

Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

How 'the Axe' helped Labour

UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
Welcome to the world of Megagames

Welcome to the world of Megagames

300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

Vince Cable exclusive interview

Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

It's time for my close-up

Meet the man who films great whites for a living
Increasing numbers of homeless people in America keep their mobile phones on the streets

Homeless people keep mobile phones

A homeless person with a smartphone is a common sight in the US. And that's creating a network where the 'hobo' community can share information - and fight stigma - like never before