Wallowing in the past

We like to think that we are immune to propaganda. Yes, other feeble-minded individuals may allow their attitudes to be shaped by the media and their surroundings, but we’re sure that we are far too smart for that.

In 1975, John Cleese savagely satirized British attitudes to Germany, in the classic Fawlty Towers episode The Germans. After a blow to the head, hotel proprietor Basil Fawlty loses his ability to self-censor. While taking a dinner order from some German guests, he proceeds to blurt out the names of Nazis; eventually he descends into xenophobic ranting.

The sad thing is that after 30 more years, nothing much has changed.

Partly old attitudes remain because it’s still the case that if you see someone German on UK TV (or US TV, for that matter), they’re probably wearing jackboots and barking orders. In video games from Wolfenstein to Battlefield 1942, Germans are the enemy it’s still acceptable to hate.

This year British football fans traveling to Germany for the World Cup took thousands of inflatable models of Spitfire aircraft with them to taunt the Germans with. England football captain David Beckham planned to have a Spitfire, a Hurricane and a Lancaster bomber do a fly-by at the team’s send-off party. (He was later persuaded to cancel.) And let’s not forget Richard Desmond’s amazing outburst during a newspaper board meeting a couple of years ago. The only country the average Briton distrusts more than Germany is France (of course).

Even in respectable British newspapers, it’s quite acceptable to bad-mouth Germany. As AA Gill (Sunday Times) put it, “…we all hate the Germans—come on, it’s all right, admit it, we’re all agreed, we hate them. […] There are other little things which tell you that, although they may look like us, they syncopate to a different beat. They can’t walk in crowds, for instance, which is surprising because they’re so good at marching.”

Descend to the tabloids, and you have articles like a recent one in The Sun:

GERMANY is plotting to wipe Britain off the map in their revived bid to create an EU superstate.

They want the 25 member states to scrap their national boundaries so England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland cease to exist.


The masterplan will be put into action when Germany takes over the EU presidency in January and tries to revive the rejected EU constitution.

Note the artful use of the word “masterplan”. Even when the article is neutral, they can’t resist slipping in a quick reference to the war; I found a guide for visiting tourists under the headline “Nuremberg has rallied“. More bizarrely, there’s the article about Nazi racoons “out to conquer Europe…in a furry blitzkrieg.” Raccoons may be an American pest, but if there’s a faint excuse to draw one with a swastika armband on, the British press will do so.

The British Council and Goethe-Institut have run surveys of British attitudes towards Germany, and vice versa. In 2004, 63% of Britons couldn’t name a single German celebrity. For all the supposed anti-Americanism of English people, when asked to name the country they think most highly of, 30% named the USA. A mere 4% named Germany. Even France did better in that category.

Asked what they see as positive about Germany, 36% said Germans had advanced industry and built good cars, 30% said Germans were efficient and well-organized. Asked what was bad, 45% mentioned World War I, Nazis, and being bad at football—i.e. “Two World Wars and one World Cup“. 45% also mentioned bad food. 31% talked about neo-nazis, arrogance, and Germans lacking a sense of humor. 17% said that Germany has too much influence on the EU.

A couple of quotes from the survey respondents:

“Where do I start…World War 1 and 2, wanting a European superstate, always taking the sun loungers on holidays…”

“They didn’t win the war. They didn’t want to get involved in this one, good example of learning from your own mistakes…lack of sense of humour—often true—stereotypes become so for a reason”

The most telling statistic is that 50% of young Britons have no personal experience of Germany whatsoever, whereas the majority of Germans have visited the UK or have friends there.

But as I say, we all like to think that we’re different, that we have no prejudices that need to be disassembled through experience. And then one day, we find out it’s not true; we are surprised by things that we really shouldn’t find surprising, and we are forced to step back and re-evaluate what other lies we might have unknowingly absorbed. I think that’s as good a reason to visit Germany as any.