Magazine article The Spectator

How Countries Shape Character

Magazine article The Spectator

How Countries Shape Character

Article excerpt

Is national character real? If so, how is it formed?

As I write this, I am sitting outside a weinhaus in Kaub, a half-timbered town on the wooded slopes of the middle Rhine. If you don't know the place, I recommend a visit: the scenery is lovely, the hiking is fine, and the Riesling is great (they have to handpick the grapes, like peasants in a Brueghel painting, because the river-ine vineyards are too steep for machines).

But there is another reason to make the agreeable journey to Kaub: it's a brilliant place to contemplate the mysteries of nationalism and national character -- i.e. what makes one nation 'different' from another. A question which, as we face the separation of Scotland, has a serious resonance for us all.

Kaub's contribution to this debate is historical. It lies on one of the great fault lines of Europe, between France and Germany, between Catholic and Protestant -- it was devastated many times in the 30 Years' War, when the Catholics fought the Reformation and a fifth of Germans died. It also lies on the old frontier between the Roman Empire and the barbarian nations.

But there is a more recent event which has even greater relevance. On New Year's Eve, 1813, the Prussian Field Marshall Blucher (of Waterloo fame) ambitiously marched an army of 50,000 men across the Rhine, at Kaub, to drive Napoleon out of Germany. It was a first inkling that the tide was turning: that Prussia/Germany was overtaking a slowly declining France.

Beneath this military derring-do lies the vital paradox. The Prussian nobility who led that assault on France all spoke French. This is because upper classes across Europe, at the time, saw French culture, language and customs as superior, and enviable. In a sense, the Prussian elite not only wanted to beat the French, they wanted to be French. Yet they were never French, and could not be.

This attitude, in super-diluted form, still lingers today. As I've travelled around the middle Rhine, from the fake medieval castles of Boppard to the exquisite ruins of Bacharach, I've lost count of the number of Germans, in the Rhineland, who have told me they feel almost as French as they do German -- thanks to their wine-drinking, soft climate, and joie de vivre (lebensfreude ).

Yet they aren't French. At all. German cuisine is still fairly bad. Germans are friendly and apologetic. Germans wear socks with sandals, a punishable crime in France. And boy do the Germans like oompah music. You don't hear that in Paris.

So how do national characteristics emerge? It feels like a vast, silly generalisation to say nations have characters; nonetheless, they do. The painter Jean Cocteau once said that 'Les Français sont des Italiens de mauvaise humeur' ('The French are the Italians in a bad mood'). He was surely right. To me, Frenchness seems like the Islam of nationalities: it still believes in its inherent superiority, and it is perpetually irritated by clear evidence that this belief is false.

The French therefore stand in stark contrast to their neighbours. If you take the short trip from sunny Menton on the Riviera to Ventimiglia on the Ligurian coast, you go from a land of obstinate, proud, rather grumpy Gallic shruggers to a land of bouncy, chirpy, slightly unreliable Latin chancers, in just eight miles. …

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