Still exhibiting the same old prejudices

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HOW SLOWLY national stereotypes die. After last week's sale of Rover to BMW, the Daily Star showed a German officer standing in a Land Rover, offering a Hitler salute. The Daily Mail showed the Rover production line, with the loudspeakers calling: 'Achtung] Achtung]'. Ho, ho. Let's take a break, while we split our sides laughing.

But these images do damage. Germany's biggest-selling daily, Bild, reproduced the Daily Star cartoon and published a leading article, the headline of which pointed out: 'We say 'Hello', not 'Sieg Heil'.' It commented, with rueful defiance: 'It is 49 years ago, that is true. But not in the English press . . .'

By pure accident, the BMW takeover coincided with the opening in Bonn of an Anglo-German cartoon exhibition, Coping with the Relations, which opened in London last month. The exhibits, spanning the past four decades, show German attitudes to Britain to be almost genteel. The British cartoons, in contrast, constantly refer to the Second World War. On every subject from the Bundesbank to the reluctance to send troops into another war, the same images recur: goose steps, swastikas, Nazi salutes.

Stereotypes, it must be said at the outset, can be a fine and wondrous thing. They are valuable for humour, and for therapy. Nor should we be cowed into thinking that they are always foolish. Generalising - to use the more polite word, which expresses the same idea - can be accurate, even useful.

A recent report in the Suddeutsche Zeitung, in connection with the Taylforth-and- sausage case, commented that this was the latest in a series of eccentric libel cases, 'such as are only imaginable in England'. Unacceptable stereotyping? Sadly, not. The uniquely British mixture of prudery and voyeurism is all too obvious when one compares the British reaction to such stories with similar stories elsewhere in the world.

Similarly, not every stereotype about Germany needs to be tossed out of the window just because it is a stereotype. Germans describe as typisch deutsch just the characteristics that the foreigner notices, too: the Grundlichkeit, or thoroughness, and the desire that things should be Just So. There are the much-mocked rules of domestic life - when you may not mow the lawn, when you may not hang out the laundry, and much more besides.

On another, more elevated level, there is the politicians' insistence that difficult decisions are passed on to the Constitutional Court, to ensure that everything is Absolutely Legal. The national Grundlichkeit is real. Most of my German friends show a distinct lack of Grundlichkeit - but neither they nor I are persuaded that this disproves the general point. Come to that, I would like to think that my British friends do not show the 'British snootiness' noted by the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, with reference to the cartoon exhibition in London; but it is difficult to argue that the paper's jibe is therefore unfair.

Round one, then, to the cliches. At this point, however, the stereotypes about Germany go astray - with disastrous results. Nobody suggests an association between Swiss neatness and closet fascism. Yet in Britain the association - half-

jocular, but not quite - is ever-present when it comes to Germany. Perhaps because of too many comics and war films, an equivalence is sought between Ordnung and jackboots.

This has little to do with Germany - but an enormous amount to do with Britain's perceptions of itself. If an observant Martian spent some time living in Europe, he might comment on the orderliness of the Germans, by comparison with some of their scattier neighbours. But - at least if he avoids exposure to newspapers and television both in Germany and abroad - he is unlikely to label the Germans as people with what has been described as 'a gene loose'. On the contrary, the most conspicuous feature of mainstream German society is its sense of civic duty, and the commitment - across the political divide - to create a fairer, more democratic world.

In the political arena, there is a determination to achieve consensus, as exhausting as it is admirable. Equally, the trauma of what their grandparents did 50 years ago - still an enormously important theme in contemporary Germany - strongly affects German attitudes today.

Germany agonises daily about what it should or should not do. In Britain, that earnestness is mocked or treated with suspicion. It should not be. Certainly, the murderous violence by a tiny minority is important - and Germany's historical baggage makes it doubly so. Germany must watch out for danger signs - just as Britain has to take note of the BNP's victory in Tower Hamlets. Germany, moreover, faces greater problems than Britain because of the trauma of unity and the pressures of hundreds of thousands of would-be refugees - to whom Britain closed its doors. But the revulsion against the far right by the overwhelming majority is sometimes lost, drowned out by headlines about the violent few. Even disillusionment with the established parties has turned itself into a new form of civic commitment, with the creation of 'citizens' parties' that allow anger to be vented against the politicians without giving succour to the far right.

Which brings us back to last week's cartoons and the exhibition, with the complacent hostility on the British side that they so vividly reveal. That hostility is noted in Germany with bemusement and dismay.

Part of the problem is that, for Britons, the Second World War was the glory days. Britain knew where it was going, and why. It is easier to hark back to those certainties than to accept that things have changed. Theoretically, the digs at the Germans are all just good clean fun (Star caption: 'I tell you, Klaus - zey're not going to like zis at all'). But the cartoons reflect the half-hidden belief that, because fascism was dangerously concerned with efficiency, efficiency is dangerously close to fascism.

That fallacy is lazy and absurd - and, in the last resort, dangerous. The most notable quality of fascism is the tendency to blame others for your troubles. Collectively, Germans take responsibility for their present, past, and future. It is Britons who seek to pass the blame.

'Coping with the Relations' is at the Goethe Institute, 50 Prince's Gate, Exhibition Road, London SW7, until 26 February. Tel 071-411 3400.

Matthew Symonds is unwell.