How much easier to see the demons as being German than to face them at home

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The Lovis Corinth exhibition, now at the Tate Gallery, makes me brood on British perceptions of Germany. Corinth, who died in 1924, was a leader of the Secession, the movement in painting that opened the way from Impressionism to German Expressionism. He was a powerful bull of a man, whose self-portraits usually show him clutching a glass of wine or a naked woman, and often both.

There is an illusion in Britain that these great German pioneers of modernism were also rebels in their politics. Some were, but many were not. Corinth was a fervent imperial patriot, and Germany's defeat in the First World War broke his heart. He looked a bit like Bismarck, and was proud of it.

There is a series of paintings, starting in 1911, that show him dressed in medieval armour, brandishing a lance. But the last dates from 1918, the year of Germany's collapse, and the suit of armour lies scattered on the ground like a dismembered corpse. And that is how many in Britain like to imagine Germany to this day - a massive, tormented figure lurching from fantasies of domination to moods of destructive despair.

In the Tate show there is a Corinth painting of Samson, blind and bleeding, about to pull down the Temple on himself and everyone else. The travails of contemporary Germany have become ammunition for British Europhobes in the pre-election campaigning: the terrifying leap in unemploy- ment, the waves of popular protest as the government tries to balance its budget, the struggles of Chancellor Kohl who is alternately presented as a blinded Samson at the end of his career and a ruthless autocrat herding a reluctant nation into the catastrophe of a common currency. This is a caricature of Germany. But why is it so important to maintain it?

In a long and well-argued article in the Spectator, Anne McElvoy has attacked the whole Keynesian version of why German democracy collapsed in the 1930s. It is, she says, a myth that the burden of reparations inflicted by the victorious Allies caused the great inflation and led to "inflation's political miscarriage, Hitler". The Germans themselves were mostly responsible for these calamities, not the outside world. I think she is generally right about this, but McElvoy is using history to make a highly political point about Germany and Europe today.

She quotes a German professor who told her in London the other day that the point of European integration was, in one sense, to save the Germans from themselves. Then she pounces. "The unspoken codicil is that if Germany does not nominate the form of its self-deliverance [ie the German model for a politically and economically united Europe], and by some mischance misbehaves in the future, it will be the fault not of the Germans but of non-Germans - just as Hitler was widely deemed to have been partly the Western powers' 'fault' because the Versailles settlement was too harsh."

This is where I feel like blowing the whistle. Anne McElvoy is saying, in effect: "The Germans are up to their old tricks! European integration is just their selfish national interest, but they are pretending that what is good for Germany is automatically good for the whole of Europe, too. Moral blackmail! And if they don't get what they want, they will go hysterical, pull down the Temple and blame us for it."

The trouble is that, this time, the Germans are right. It's perfectly true that German leaders have in the past squashed smaller nations on the grounds that they were doing them a favour. But not now. Anne McElvoy's professor was telling her the truth, and her comparison to the rise of the Nazis is out of order. In the 1990s, getting Germany embedded in a united Europe really is in all our interests. And that would be so even if Germany didn't want to be embedded. Nothing - not even enlarging Nato eastwards - matters as much.

I know the argument is familiar. But it bears repeating, because so much depends on it. We, the other Europeans, are living with the best German state we have ever had. Not perfect: a society that is amazed when "the Jew Rifkind" quotes Martin Luther lacks self-knowledge and tact. But, in compensation, this Germany is prosperous, democratic and pacific: enough to be going on with. In 1990, German unification faced Europe with the prospect of a state so large and strong that it would outbalance any Europe of nation-states. But Kohl and his colleagues, as alarmed by that prospect as anyone else, saw that there was only one answer: the new Germany would have to pool its sovereignty and nation-state independence in a new European Union. That, rather than unification, was to be the final answer to the German question. In a united Europe with common policies, nobody need ever fear Germany again.

This is why political and economic union is a supreme British interest whether we understand it or not - and whether we go further into that union or not. The lives of my parents and my grandparents were wrecked by German imperialism - and by our own share in Europe's failure to fit the German nation-state into any security system. Now there is an opportunity to fuse Germany into a stable European order at last.

Or rather, a window of opportunity. The Kohl generation, with its enlightened self-doubt and its internationalism, will not be there for ever. We have to see this process through, for the sake of our children and grandchildren, before the window shuts again. Anne McElvoy is one of our wisest writers on German affairs. But when she suggests that Germany's struggle to merge itself into Europe is not our problem, she is terribly mistaken.

Such debates are a world away from the crazy anti-German rhetoric that has captured so much of the Europhobic right in Britain. Mrs Thatcher began it, back in 1990, with her hate list of German "national characteristics" at a notorious Chequers meeting. The other day, at a literary lunch, I heard intelligent writers and senior journalists using language about Germany that was almost incredible: the Germans were out to make Europe their empire, bent on destroying British independence, supporting aggression in the Balkans, undermining the free market with their semi-socialist economy...

Listening to this madness, I began to understand something I should have grasped long ago. It dawned on me that it was not really Germany - the actually-existing country between Rhine and Oder - that they were talking about. It was not even the Germany of the past, the Kaiser's empire or the Third Reich. This nation they hated and feared so dreadfully was in fact their own. It was that other Britain all about them which seems to the inflamed Tory mind to be denying all that it is essentially British: no outer enemy but the inner enemy disguised in foreign drag. To adapt what Anne McElvoy wrote: if this kingdom "misbehaves in the future, it will be the fault not of the British but of the non-British".

This "Germany" of the Europhobes is the inadmissible country inhabited by black and brown minorities, where selfish Scots and Welsh want to go their own way, where "chatterers" sneer at the monarchy and tamper with the sovereignty of Parliament, where the phrase "a thousand years of British history" is deconstructed, where judges defer to laws made by foreigners.

We call that country Britain. They cannot bear to, so they call it "Germany". Their own imagined homeland does not admit such alien thoughts and voices; it's a changeless Druid grove where people bow to the standing stones and know their place. Change, they think, is coming from abroad, a consuming plague which finds its way from Germany through the Channel tunnel. But the truth is that most of the fever for change is a native bug, not an import. In that sense, millions of us are "Germans" now.