Magazine article The Spectator

Don't Let's Be Beastly to the Germans

Magazine article The Spectator

Don't Let's Be Beastly to the Germans

Article excerpt

TO most people the second world war means concentration camps. We are all haunted by the image of those hollowcheeked inmates staring through the wire with bewildered eyes. The Holocaust alone justifies the war. But it was not to save European Jewry that Britain declared war on Germany 60 years ago this weekend.

Britain went to war, reluctantly, because she was honour-bound to as a result of the security guarantees given to Poland after Munich. It was a gesture of good faith; we were not going to repeat the betrayal of Czechoslovakia.

Newsreel pictures of Auschwitz and Belsen feed Germanophobia. This is understandable. No sane person can fail to hate and fear the people responsible for the concentration camps. But there is much more to Germanophobia than hatred of Nazism. In the 54 years since the total defeat of the Third Reich, two generations of peaceful Germans have grown to maturity. Yet some sections of the British establishment remain paranoid about Germany. Among Eurosceptics in particular there is a fear that the EU is being used by the Germans as a means of achieving its longcherished desire to dominate -- perhaps to subjugate - the Continent. Even today, thanks to films and television, Germans are depicted as either clowns or sadists. They still have ways of making us talk.

The reasons for hating Germans are endless, and endlessly frivolous. They drive bigger, faster cars than we do. On holiday in Chiantishire they drink bottle after bottle of expensive brunello in the ristorante while we sit drinking lowly rosso in the trattoria next door. Then there is the now infamous provocation of the towels on the beach. I can throw in another incitement to hatred for those unfamiliar with German academic libraries: German students are just as bad as German holidaymakers. They arrive early and reserve all the available desks by littering them with books.

The national antipathy to Germany cannot be explained by war alone, however. After all, the French have even more reason than we do to hate the Germans because of war, yet they do not. Our feelings of mistrust predate not just the second but the first world war; but as these things go they are of fairly recent origin. Before 1871 they were largely non-existent. Germany, before unification, was still the land of `Denker und Dichter, (philosophers and poets) and not `Henker und Richter' (torturers and hanging judges).

Trouble started with the bombardment of Paris. This attempt to bring the Franco-Prussian war to a rapid conclusion proved something of a propaganda own-goal. It continued when Germany began to encroach on British markets overseas, and when the Kaiser started to build a powerful fleet. This corresponded with the time when the Harmsworth press came into being. From 1896 the Daily Mail, from 1903 the Daily Mirror, and from 1908 the Times were all turned over to popular jingoism. Slogans every bit as offensive as `Blitz the Fritz' were common currency before the end of the century.

Eyes turned to Germany for signs of aggressive militarism. Journalists found evidence of a new brand of Social Darwinism, which had infected elements of the German general staff who advocated war as a means of achieving national and racial supremacy in Europe. The first world war provided the press with the opportunity to put some flesh on the bones of the German, or rather Prussian, bogyman. The 'rape' of neutral Belgium was too good to be true. The Huns advanced through the defenceless country, leaving a trail of atrocities in their wake. Nuns were violated, children mutilated, and thousands of men lined up and slaughtered. Prussians burned down the university town of Louvain, destroying its famous library. Priests were singled out. In one memorable report on the fall of Antwerp, local priests, guilty of tolling the bells to warn of the German advance, were strung up and used as clappers.

In 1915 a commission was convened under the Liberal peer and former Heidelberg student, Lord Bryce, to examine German atrocities. …

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