Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

Away with Kaiser Kohl: Britain Must Conquer Its Fear of Germany If We Are to Understand the Problems Facing Europe's Giant

Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

Away with Kaiser Kohl: Britain Must Conquer Its Fear of Germany If We Are to Understand the Problems Facing Europe's Giant

Article excerpt

Cliches--herein lies their power and destructiveness--are often rooted in images that have little to do with present-day life. Two pieces ofheadgear, longago departed from use, retain a central place in the folklore of Germany's and Britain's depictions of each other. When German newspaper caricaturists seek to portray an archetypal Englishman, they still regularly draw a City gent in his bowler hat, a species that departed the Square Mile a generation ago, along with the effortless sangfroid he supposedly exuded. The prime image of Germany in the British media remains that of a. second world war Wehrmacht soldier adorned, in a modest clash of styles, in a 1915-vintage, imperial spiked helmet.

A shared leaning towards misplaced stereotypes is an apt sign of the mutual bewilderment that trails the Germans and the British as they wobble towards the millennium. Given their array of common interests, problems and challenges, the two countries should enjoy better relations. One way of achieving them lies in improving Britain's understanding of the trials Germany has gone through and still faces as the result of unification in 1990.

Under Chancellor Kohl, Germany has become larger and, potentially at least, more capable of throwing its weight around. During the past six years, Helmut in his helmet has become a frequent guest on the pages of British newspapers. The cartoonists' pencils have now been honed razor sharp by the beef crisis. The Sun has not yet gone so far as to suggest that the origins of mad cow disease lie in teutonic bull semen sprayed from doodlebugs, but part of the British popular press clearly blames it all on a German conspiracy to finish off the job left undone in 1940.

Whether goosestepping to a BSE march, spreading their beach-towels across the poolsides of Europe, or hatching plans to swamp our island race with dud toytown Euro-money, the Germans have become the arch-instigators of every menace facing John Major's Britain.

The truth is that the Germans have become somewhat harmless since the second world war: a rich, ageing and anxious society is not likely to present great dangers to its neighbours. When Germans these days seek Lebensraum, they are talking of booking themselves into old people's home. Yet precisely this combination of past aggression and present peacefulness makes the Germans such good targets.

There is certainly light and shadow in the relationship. On one level, it reeks of successful sobriety, on another, of ignorance, ignobility and illusion. Most ordinary British people who encounter Germans through work and social exchanges would probably say they match the Americans in agreeability. Given most Germans' command of English, a visitor from Dusseldorf probably can more easily order a drink in a British pub than can a man from Dakota.

In many areas of economics, education, culture and sport, Germany has supplanted the US as the main foreign yard-stick against which Britain's performance is measured. Germany is Britain's largest trade partner, and German companies during the past two years have invested more in the UK than in any other country in the world.

An extraordinary indication of Germany's openness to British influences was this week's visit to Bonn by Tony Blair, the Labour leader, to deliver the keynote speech at the annual conference of the Confederation of German Industry. Blair's red-carpet treatment stands in marked contrast to the disdain shown by the German business establishment for the Social Democrat opposition in Bonn. The main difference, of course, is that the SPD looks almost certain to lose the next election in 1998, while Blair seems likely to gain power in Britain. Businessmen like to pick winners.

Beyond such examples of level-headedness, however, lies a catalogue of misunderstandings--overwhelmingly on the British side. The opinion survey published last week showing how many UK schoolchildren bracket modern Germany with Hitler shows the lingering power of prejudice. …

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