It seems Germany has finally shed the last trappings of the oddly sheltered life it had led until the Berlin Wall fell 25 years ago, one part GDR, one part FRG. The country had long lost its feeling of a divided nation, between a capitalist and a Communist tradition, and made room for a new type of attitude, less provincial, more confident, and probably more liberal.
Gone are the days of ready stereotypes, when the Mirror under Piers Morgan could carry headlines along the lines of “Achtung, surrender!” in 1996. The jokes so brilliantly touched upon Germany’s idiosyncratic guilt complex in its manifold guises, even if they didn’t mention the war: Germans wear freakish sandals, and socks with them; sheep-like, they wait for the green man to appear before crossing the street, even if there’s no traffic; and when they laugh, it’s at someone else’s expense — such were the stereotypes. (And as a somewhat reluctant German, I can assure you that they are all true!)
Just how much Germany has changed is, however, nowhere more visible than in the eyes of its most reluctant ally, Britain.
As someone who has lived in both countries, I have been struck by how the image of Germany and the Germans has changed in Britain over the last year; judging by the welter of exhibitions, BBC series and commemorative events, Germany is suddenly as chic as France, perhaps even more so. It was Angela Merkel who got treated to a full state visit, including tea with the Queen, when she visited London last spring; François Hollande had to make do with a pub lunch. The Germans have never been more popular, it seems, even though the European Union has never been more unpopular. In a poll of people in 20 countries about the most popular country, Germany came top, beating the US and UK into second and third place respectively. Another poll suggests that 59 per cent of Britons have a positive opinion of Germany — including half the supporters of UKIP (whose leader, Nigel Farage, has a German wife). What has changed?
Angela Merkel has been running Europe — very efficiently — and is expected to carry on for another few years. She also acts as the EU’s foreign minister-cum-president in her dealings with Russia, where she is seen as the only leader bold enough and close enough to East-European sensibilities to negotiate with Vladimir Putin. (She also speaks Russian.)
Germany continues to guarantee the stability of the eurozone, which is obviously in Britain’s interest. British public opinion is split between those who want to leave the Union and come to an arrangement like those negotiated by Norway or Switzerland and those who want to stay in but on better terms. Those terms are, in effect, in Merkel’s hands to determine. Politicians are thus forced to gesture towards Germany, whether they like it or not. The immigration speech made by David Cameron in November was widely seen as a nod in Merkel’s direction by focusing on benefits, not borders.
In recent years, the two countries have differed, in particular on this issue, whichever party was in government, but now their concerns begin to sound quite similar. This is new for Germany. Only a few weeks ago Merkel put a positive spin on the issue of immigration by organising a summit for immigrants, urging her country, rather loftily, to become a “country of integration”. She has in the past criticised multiculturalism. Britain by contrast is more worried about reducing its pull-factor for immigrants.
The numbers are quite interesting in this respect: about 13 per cent of the population in Germany are immigrants but Germans think the figure is about 10 per cent higher. A German Marshall Fund study last year found that 64 per cent of people in Britain see immigration as a problem compared to 29 per cent who see it as an opportunity. In Germany it is the other way around, with just 32 per cent seeing immigration as a problem compared to 62 per cent viewing it as an opportunity.
This public perception may change if Germany fails to respond to potential problems — problems which Britain has struggled with for a number of years, such as the rise of extremism. As in Britain, hundreds of young Germans have travelled to Syria to fight with Islamic State — the public didn’t seem quite ready to accept the notion that Germany has Islamists, too (and that this was not simply a problem to do with radicalised immigrants).
Is there a real exchange on such matters? It doesn’t seem like it. Germany ought to seize the moment while its cultural products — Dürer, Holbein, Richter, Meissen, Bauhaus, Mercedes — are as popular as ever. In turn Germans should see what Britain has to offer in political as well as cultural terms. Germany will only keep Britain in Europe if it makes the most of this new-found British interest in the Germans.