The German foreign minister, Joschka Fischer, has been in Britain this week - and all most people probably heard about it was his condemnation of British media coverage of Germany
The German foreign minister, Joschka Fischer, has been in Britain this week - and all most people probably heard about it was his condemnation of British media coverage of Germany. Stressing how much Germany had changed over the past two or three generations, he said: "If you want to learn how the traditional Prussian goose-step works, you have to watch British television, because in Germany in the younger generation - even my generation - nobody knows how to perform it."
Actually, Mr Fischer said a lot more while he was here. He said that the terrorist attacks of 11 September, 2001, had changed his mind about the need for Turkey to join the European Union. He was now strongly in favour. He spoke, too, of the need for a strong European Union that would be capable of admitting Turkey and retaining its character. He spoke about the European Constitution and how, inevitably, it was a compromise, but one he wholeheartedly supported. Would that we had heard similar words spoken with equal conviction from a leading British politician.
As a bonus, Mr Fischer, a Green Party member, child of the Sixties' protests and long Germany's most popular politician, put to shame almost every British politician of equivalent rank with his impressive command of English. Which brings us back to his remarks about the British media. Clearly, any language problem can be ruled out: Mr Fischer knows whereof he speaks. And he was careful to draw a distinction between official relations, which he said were in excellent shape - despite the continuing differences over Iraq - and relations at the grass roots. This is where he pinpointed the difficulty. "People to people," he said, "there is a problem and I think the media are playing an important role."
Few would deny that there is a problem with certain sections of the media as far as coverage of Germany is concerned. Bad news from Germany tends to be seized upon with glee; little in Germany - even cars, now - is presented as superior to anything in this country, even though there is much we could learn from today's Germany: from hospitals to recycling to standards of new buildings. Stereotypes, including goose-stepping, are well entrenched in fictional series. Films about "the war" feature regularly on television as though we keep needing to convince ourselves that this was indeed our finest hour.
The unfortunate truth is, though, that Mr Fischer was probably too generous when he singled out the media. The media bears some responsibility. But it feeds on and plays into a significant strand of British opinion which projects the stereotypes of the past and the vicarious experience of the war on to the Germany of today.
The worst of it is that such preconceptions are not restricted to those who remember the war. Indeed, views of Germany in the older generation are no more hostile, perhaps less so, than among other age groups.
The truly disgraceful reality is that, far from dying out with the war generation, anti-German sentiment and stereotyping seem to be enjoying a revival in Britain. Some ascribe this to the national curriculum in history where the Second World War and the Third Reich are among the most popular options. This period, of course, has its place in the curriculum, but the wider context and subsequent developments must be taught as well, as must the history of other European countries. Video and computer games seem also to have fuelled an unhealthy preoccupation with Nazi Germany. Games designers can surely find more enemies for the British market?
The root problem is not the media so much as an ingrained tendency, even - perhaps especially - among young Britons, to affirm their national identity by crowing about old victories and doing a defeated enemy down. Do we really have nothing better, nothing more recent, to feel good about? It is high time that we British grew up in our attitude towards Germany, just as Germans have grown up in their attitudes towards us.Reuse content