“It is perhaps best to see the British and the Germans as an odd couple with a tendency to lurch from throwing dishes to mutual admiration.”
London has been enjoying a German Autumn this year, with retrospectives for the leading contemporary artists Anselm Kiefer and Sigmar Polke, plus the first major show of the great Viennese Expressionist Egon Schiele, culminating in the Germany: memories of a nation exhibition at the British Museum. The occasion for this remarkable British celebration of Germanic culture is actually a political one: the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, the significance of which for the rest of the world was both vast and benign — perhaps the first event in modern German history of which that could be said.
The German Autumn has also been the occasion for a good deal of scolding of the British for having hitherto harboured prejudices against Germany, in particular for having focused on the Nazis to the exclusion of the rest of German history. The charge of Germanophobia is not new: more than a century ago, there were complaints about Anglo-Saxon attitudes towards the Germans from none other than the Kaiser, whose mother was Queen Victoria’s eldest daughter. In 1908 he told an American journalist that “Great Britain looked upon Germany as her enemy because it was the most dominant force on the continent of Europe . . . His eyes snapped when he spoke of England, his bitterness was so intent.” Wilhelm II never forgave the British. In May 1940, as the Nazis swept into Holland, the exiled emperor was offered asylum in England by his cousin George VI. He replied that he would rather be shot.
The Kaiser, like Hitler, belonged to another age. But the last of the German dictators, Erich Honecker, who built the Berlin Wall and ruled East Germany until shortly before it fell, died only 20 years ago. The party he led has reinvented itself and sits in the Bundestag as Die Linke, “The Left”. And one of the KGB colonels who helped to prop up Honecker’s regime was Vladimir Putin.
Against that background, present Anglo-German disputes seem rather petty. In any case, not all Germans think alike about Britain, any more than all Britons think alike about Germany. Recently, the German press has been ruder about Britain than the other way round. Last June Der Spiegel claimed that David Cameron had threatened to leave the EU over the appointment of Jean-Claude Juncker as Commission President: “For years Britain has blackmailed and made a fool out of the European Union,” the magazine claimed. “It can play by the rules or it can leave.” The British media, by contrast, has been so impressed by Angela Merkel and her economy that the latest German downturn took many in the City by surprise.
It is perhaps best to see the British and the Germans as an odd couple with a tendency to lurch from throwing dishes to mutual admiration. An excellent new German biography of Churchill by Thomas Kielinger, Die Welt‘s correspondent in London, is intended as a corrective to his compatriots’ received wisdom that the British are so obsessed with their “finest hour” in 1940 that they can never be good Europeans. For Kielinger, Churchill was “the late hero” who saved Europe and the British are right to revere him. Meanwhile the BBC has been running a radio series by the British Museum’s Director Neil MacGregor which merely reinforces that stereotype: he accompanies his justified enthusiasm for German culture with the mischievous claim that the British greet German guests with Nazi salutes.
The myth of British Germanophobia is just that — a myth. Likewise, German prejudice against England as “the land without music” has evaporated: Sir Simon Rattle is a tutelary deity in Berlin. The Hanoverian succession in 1714 gave the British a less colourful dynasty than the Stuarts, but one that was willing to play its part in the experiment that would later be dubbed constitutional monarchy. That first Anglo-German settlement three centuries ago set the pattern. Today, our Verständnis with the Germans is considerably more cordial than our Entente with the French.
The fall of the Berlin Wall is an anniversary which both countries have good reason to commemorate. A quarter of a century afterwards, though, it is clear that the myrmidons of the Evil Empire never really went away. A thousand miles further to the east, a new iron curtain has fallen across the Continent. Britons and Germans should be conspicuous in presenting a united front against Putin’s attempts to divide and rule those he deems part of his sphere of influence. In Russia, the “Fascist” (i.e. Nazi) bogeyman is still a powerful tool of propaganda, just as any hint of conflict with Russia conjures up the worst nightmares of older Germans.
Yet though the Russians are delighted to have Germany as their largest trading partner and creditor, it is easy to exaggerate the Kremlin’s diplomatic leverage in Berlin. For example, German energy firms could, at a pinch, obtain their fossil fuels elsewhere. There is no chance that Mrs Merkel, who knows more than most about life under a dictatorship, would ever cave in to pressure from Putin. Tony Abbott may have threatened to “shirt-front” the Russian President if he gets the chance, but Mrs Merkel is already accustomed to giving Putin a piece of her mind. As one who played a small part in the events of November 9, 1989 (see page 26), I hope and believe that the German people will remain true to the spirit which animated them that night when they seized their freedom back. They will now need to stand up for it again in Ukraine, the Baltic and beyond.