SPEAKING to some Germans? Don’t mention the war! Every Brit recognises that tongue-in-cheek scenario. Yet the Fawlty Towers episode ‘The Germans’, which embedded ‘don’t mention the war’ into the British psyche, is the most popular episode of the series in Germany, despite the goose-stepping Hitler impressions, or perhaps even because of them. Contrary to what many Brits believe the Germans do have a sense of humour, especially when it comes to laughing at themselves.
Having a German mother, being a German national and visiting the country around four times a year, I do have some insight into Germany and its people. The Germans, as I have experienced them, are warm, always up for a laugh, often self-deprecating and idolise the Brits. It never fails to astound me how obsessed Germans are with Britain, its culture, its politics and its royal family. There was a misunderstanding about the German reaction to Brexit. The predominant response was sadness at losing a friend from their club.
What you also need to understand about the Germans is that they are deeply scarred by war. Last Friday 28 German intellectuals and cultural figures wrote an open letter to Chancellor Scholtz speaking out against the decision of the Bundestag to send heavy weapons to Ukraine. They warned of the risk of World War 3 and pleaded for all efforts to be put into finding a diplomatic solution. There are many more outright pacifists in Germany than in the UK. Surely that it is understandable. However the UK media understands it not. Moreover many in our mainstream press not only misunderstand the German character but have recently evoked a near-hatred of Germany and its people. One could be forgiven for feeling as though Britain was once again at war with Germany.
‘It is too early to say who will win the war in Ukraine, but one nation has already suffered a catastrophic loss of prestige: Germany,’ declares Daniel Johnson in the Telegraph. This is one of a dozen Telegraph articles in the last month vilifying Germany. Johnson’s article labels the ‘German elite’ as ‘arrogant, incompetent and corrupt’. He focuses near-exclusively on Germany’s past sins regarding their close relations with Russia. It’s hard to argue that huge mistakes were made, especially in the reliance on Russian oil and gas. However is it really helpful to pontificate on German sympathies for Russia going back to an 18th century German princess becoming Tsarina Catherine the Great? Never have the words ‘we are where we are’ been more apt.
Another stand-out attack piece by Daniel Johnson for the Telegraph fumed: ‘This war is a shameful episode in German history . . .’ Again I can’t help feeling he’s channelling the anger from the last century’s great wars. This is especially evident as he keeps focusing on Zelensky’s Jewishness and makes several inappropriate Holocaust references. ‘The bitterest pill of all to swallow for a German audience was to be told by a Jew that their fine words about the Holocaust, not least at Babyn Yar in Ukraine, the site of Nazi massacres, were “worthless”.’ Call me old-fashioned but defining people solely in terms of being Jewish could be seen as problematic. Zelensky is also a millionaire actor. Somehow that never comes up in the mainstream media, and neither do the Nazis whom Zelensky tolerates as a key part of the Ukraine army. Johnson’s article also almost makes it sound as if the Bundestag’s major sin was not to be more moved by Zelensky’s speech. The applause was not enthusiastic enough, tears were not shed in sufficient abundance and Chancellor Scholtz had the temerity to mention ‘diplomacy’.
A love of the ‘D word’ is apparently now Germany’s great failing. Yet again this betrays ignorance of the nation and its psychology. Although foreign minister Annalena Baerbock’s Green Party and their coalition partners the FDP have been critical of Scholtz’s hesitancy on Ukraine, Baerbock has also called for ‘creativity and pragmatism’. Pragmatism is a philosophical movement that attempts to get to the truth in a non-idealistic way in order to achieve real-world solutions, and is strongly associated with Germany. However ‘pragmatism’ is not a popular concept in the mainstream media when it comes the West’s handling of the Ukraine crisis.
‘Olaf Scholz must choose between an energy embargo on Russia, or a moral embargo on Germany,’ says Evans-Pritchard. He and many more in Britain may agree with this assumed moral superiority but it is naïve. The cost of an immediate cessation of all Russian energy imports would be a hit to the German economy that would ripple out into the EU and beyond. The world doesn’t need another source of economic pain. This is why German energy companies such as Uniper are pragmatically paying euros into Gasprombank which converts it to roubles and pays Russia. It is worth noting that Hungary and Slovakia have also adopted this EU sanction-avoiding method. Austria and Italian company Eni are likewise looking to do so. But the attacks remain focused on Germany.
It is also clear that after two years of harsher, longer lockdowns than in UK many German people will just not accept more suffering. Even before the Ukraine crisis there had been long-standing festering civil disquiet. Anti-lockdown demonstrations, often violently suppressed, were widespread throughout the pandemic. This has prompted high-level debate about the limits of the right to protest under the German constitution. The considerable German hostility to conflict escalation is clear. This can be seen by the barrage of condemnatory responses to Chancellor Scholtz’s tweet pledging more military support to Ukraine. One such response, with several thousand likes, asked him why the Germans devastated by the floods in July 2021 were still waiting for financial support when millions could be sent to Ukraine in a flash. A common theme was that Germans wanted their immediate needs to be put first. Many reminded the Chancellor of his sworn oath to do just this, tweeting the words at him: ‘I swear that I will dedicate my efforts to the well-being of the German people, promote their welfare, protect them from harm.’ It is a matter of debate whether helping Ukraine is indeed looking after the security of Germans in the wider context of global security. Certainly some would argue that bottomless support is just prolonging an inevitable defeat whilst risking nuclear Armageddon. Furthermore if you are struggling to pay basic expenses such as maintaining a car or buying clothes for your children, that significantly colours your outlook. Many Brits are struggling in a similar way. It is therefore surely only a matter of time before the disquiet felt by many Germans spreads here. Both the Brits and the Germans care about their families, their businesses and not being taken for a ride by their politicians.
Reading vicious anti-German comments in response to those newspaper articles attacking not just German policy but the German character has hit me hard. I grew up watching the popular 80s sitcom ‘Allo ‘Allo! in which all nationalities are hilariously mocked. The English airmen are posh fools, the Italian officer a ludicrous womaniser, the Germans are scheming pantomime villains and even the plucky French resistance are hapless idiots. In fact everyone is a bit of an idiot. It is good natured mickey-taking that radiates warmth and affection for national traits and sometimes silly quirks. Would that we could get back to that. We could both do with the laughs and the old-fashioned concept of learning from each other.