Time to end our national self-delusion

We should examine our own history and identity as critically as the Germans have been forced to examine theirs
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The Independent Online

Whatever we do this D-Day anniversary weekend, let's mention the war. No, let's do better than that, let's talk about it. Not the messy little war we are chattering about at our dinner tables these days, but the real war, the war that blighted and glorified the lives of today's grandparents, the war that cast its shadow over the childhood of the baby-boomers far more than we knew, the war of easy black and white, good and evil, that lives again in the history books studied by our children. The war Britain fought against Germany.

Whatever we do this D-Day anniversary weekend, let's mention the war. No, let's do better than that, let's talk about it. Not the messy little war we are chattering about at our dinner tables these days, but the real war, the war that blighted and glorified the lives of today's grandparents, the war that cast its shadow over the childhood of the baby-boomers far more than we knew, the war of easy black and white, good and evil, that lives again in the history books studied by our children. The war Britain fought against Germany.

Say that word again: Germany. Three generations of Britons have been led to believe that this was a war like no other. Well before political correctness was invented, we were encouraged to speak - if we had to - of a war against the Third Reich, against the Nazis, against Hitler, against the embodiment of Wickedness, but not against Germany or the Germans. If we mentioned Germans at all, we had carefully to separate "good" Germans from "bad".

There was truth in this, but never the whole truth. Somehow we British never permitted ourselves to admit that pre-war Germany was a nation, a proud, powerful and aggrieved one, and that for all the genuine Nazis and genuine dissenters, Germans fought - no less than we did - for the future of their country. The difference was that our side won and theirs lost.

History, of course, is written by the victors. And ever since the tide of the Second World War turned 60 years ago this weekend, we have twisted British-German relations retrospectively in our favour and refused to look modern Germany in the face. While three generations of Germans have been brought up to take Britain pretty much as they find it, to learn the language and travel, three generations of Britons have preferred to stick with the comforting propaganda images handed down from the war. Look at the cartoons, listen to the tone of media reports, consider the films shown on our screens, the games our children play on their computers. Fewer and fewer British pupils learn German.

Every turn, good and bad, in Germany's post-war history is still viewed from this side of the Channel through a prism of judgement. The Economic Miracle of the Sixties - one of the swiftest, most impressive examples of what we would now call post-war "reconstruction" ever - was the object of jealousy, resentment and sneering about the capacity of Germans for hard work and order. The murderous rampages of the Red Army Faction were treated as Germany's come-uppance for the unexpatiated guilt of the parents. These were "Hitler's children".

The reunification of Germany was seldom hailed in this country as the historic vindication of freedom, free-thinking and the free market that it was. Tears rained down cheeks in this country, just as they did the world over, at the spectacle of Germans clambering over the Berlin Wall and hacking off chunks of concrete. Britons, no less than other young Europeans, rushed to the newly united Berlin to walk through the newly opened Brandenburg Gate.

But, as leaked at the time, ministers in Margaret Thatcher's government, even the lady herself, were not at all keen to see the rout of Communism in Europe translated into a united Germany, such were the spectres it raised. Remember the last time anyone walked or marched the length of Unter den Linden? We were back in the land of massed rallies, rasping calls for Lebensraum and the Nazi salute. Small matter that it was peace marches, a mismanaged economy and popular defiance of collectivism that had brought the German "Democratic" Republic to an end.

Even now that united Germany has proved economically weaker than the presumed sum of its parts, we British still cannot think outside the boxes of victor and vanquished. We lay in wait for the first proof that Germany had slipped into recession and then crowed, though not too loudly, about how the Economic Miracle had never been sustainable. We compared our growth and unemployment statistics with theirs (now that both were to our advantage), and dispensed helpful advice about liberating the employment market, cutting red tape and generally effecting a Thatcher-style revolution.

When Germany exceeded - by a very small margin - the borrowing limits for the European single currency, we crowed again. For those sceptical of Europe and the euro, this was proof that the project could not work. And even as we exulted in how far the mighty Germans had fallen, we stubbornly looked past the reality. Here was a country that had absorbed a bankrupt and backward state one-third of its size, without bankrupting itself, without civil unrest and without soliciting special terms from Europe.

It is hard to envisage any other country matching this achievement. Yet where they acknowledge the burden that (West) Germany assumed, our economists, uniquely, tend to play down the sheer scale of this new German miracle, singling out one element for criticism - the decision to exchange East German marks at the rate of one to one - even though it was politically the measure that by itself preserved peace.

Even now, analysts tend to look askance at the patent disparity (8 to 18 per cent) in unemployment rates between former West and East, as though the German government was worthy of blame, rather than praising the truly spectacular speed with which the gap between the two Germanies in the conveniences of daily life - shops, services and infrastructure - has been narrowed since reunification.

Even now, we British seem unable to consider Germany's successes and failures on their merits, without another agenda of winning and losing that harks back to the war. It is to our shame that many of those who shout most loudly about Germany's vices, have least experience of Germany and "real" Germans, whether during the war years or now. It is ignorant and irresponsible to take Germany to task for its reluctant embrace of social security and employment reforms without recognising that many aspects of life in Germany - its transport, housing and healthcare - are cheaper, better and more fairly distributed than our own. Whatever the raw statistics say, living standards for many people are higher. This is why Germans are hesitant to adopt Thatcherite or New Labourite reforms, not because they are hidebound Teutons or anti-British.

On Saturday, Chancellor Schröder will take his place on the Normandy beaches alongside the leaders of the nations that defeated his homeland when he was only 13 months old. It was a misguided act of reconciliation on the part of the Allies to extend the invitation, and equally misguided on the part of Germany's leader to accept. Sixty years on, the British and Germans do not need more ceremonial reconciliation; we have been drowning in it for half a century or more. What we do need is more realism on our side. We could start by examining our own national history and identity as critically as the Germans have been forced to examine theirs.

So whatever we do, this D-Day anniversary, let's talk about the war. Let's revel, by all means, one last time, in the high-flown clichés and the heroics about saving the world, and then finally lay them to rest.

M.Dejevsky@independent.co.uk

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