Kraut-bashing is *so* passé. That is at least what the British comedian Frank Skinner tried to tell his countrymen when he publicized his support for the German team before last year’s World Cup final. His arguments have been summarised and endorsed by the BBC but as the article tells us, there was not just enthusiastic support for his stance. The Sun subsequently called Skinner “Franz” and digi-dressed him wearing lederhosen – they had gone Brazil nuts!
No one should have been surprised by this display of journalistic creativity. Rupert Murdoch’s tabloids as well as all other specimen of British quality publishing like to spice up dull English headlines with some Tscherman words from time to time. And it is certainly true that a vicious circle of linguistic militarism is fueled by them as well as by those English fans whose choice of words demonstrates that football can be so much more than just a game whenever a match between the old Germanic rivals looms on the playground. Their strange confusion of war and sports is very visible on the famous 1918-1945-1966-T-shirts.
But I suppose to some, T-Shirts and Blitzkrieg-laden headlines are only side effects, as Der Spiegel’s recent suspicion (link in German) that Germans have become “prisoners of history”, at least in Britain, shows. The magazine’s attention had been sparked by an article, published in the Guardian earlier last December, in which the new German ambassador to the United Kingdom, Thomas Matussek, lashed out against the country’s history curriculum –
“I want to see a more modern history curriculum in schools. I was very much surprised when I learned that at A-level one of the three most chosen subjects was the Nazis.”
– alleging that it contributed to an anti-German sentiment responsible not only for hunny headlines but also for physical and psychological violence committed against Germans in the United Kingdom.
“You see in the press headlines like ‘We want to beat you Fritz’. It ceases to be funny the moment when little kids get beaten up…”.
The ambassador’s remarks point to an incident in October last year, when two German schoolbays on an exchange programme were assaulted by a gang of British youth in Morden, south London. According to the Guardian, they were heckled as Nazis before one had his glasses broken and the other was shoved into a bush.
I am terribly sorry for the pupils’ experience. And I think it is entirely appropriate for a German ambassador to demand a more prominent place for the post ’45 “model Germany” in British textbooks. But I don’t believe that those studying the Nazi dictatorship for their A-level exams will become notorious Kraut-bashers – quite to the contrary.
In Britain – as everywhere else – physical violence against Germans for ascriptive reasons is de facto nonexistent and most instances of verbal Kraut-bashing are likely not of malevolent intent. They are simply an element of the usually acclaimed British humour Germans often have a hard time to find funny.
There are plenty of stories like the one a young German Navy officer told me last week. When he went to the UK on NATO business recently, he was greeted with a joyful “Heil Hitler” by his British comrades. However, the British soldiers lifting their right arms in all likelihood did not intend to imply he was actually a Nazi or even seriously insult him. In their eyes, it probably was a joke honouring the tradition of John Cleese’s famous “Don’t mention the war”-episode of Fawlty Towers.
Although the young officer was not amused about the incident, I would like to point out that, yes, even for a Kraut, Kraut-bashing sometimes can be fun. I know I may be generalising a bit here, but people have always made fun about alleged ascriptive characteristics of other people. But only very few are serious about them. Being able to tell the difference is what is important – for both parties involved. Quite a few usually well meaning people in the UK do not seem to understand that there are different kinds and styles of Kraut-bashing. And believe me, I know what I am talking about: I have been Kraut-bashed by Brits, too.
We all know that there are inappropriate derogatory terms for people of all ethnicities and nationalities in all languages. And we all know that the same derogatory words can have a very different, sometimes positive, meaning in a different context. It’s exactly the same with Kraut bashing. My British flatmates in Paris were allowed to Kraut-bash me. Just as I kept joking about the British “cuisine”, the Empire they lost and how their German would be much better now if the US had not saved their country’s ass twice.
The way we talk to a person only depends on the kind of relationship and our mutual respect. What may be in order for a friend is likely entirely inappropriate for a stranger. And I know how much being told you are what you want to be least does hurt, especially if you’re not expecting
My stranger’s name was Julia. She was the friend of a friend of one of my flatmates and in Paris for a night in Summer 1998. So we all met in a bar somewhere in the Marais (for those who know Paris). I have to say that her first attack was as much a surprise for me as it was for my British friends.
I think you get a useful idea of Julia when I tell you that the only thing she wanted (or was able?) to talk about were her freshly pedicured toenails. But being the gentleman that I am I complimented her, just as expected. But her reply was as unexpected as inappropriate – she told me that she wasn’t interested in my bloody Nazi opinion anyway.
You probably remember – the first time does hurt. And it did. I was stunned. I did not know what to say. No one had ever silenced me by telling me I were a Nazi. And she was serious about it. Not knowing how to deal with the situation, I made the fatal mistake of actually trying to explain to her that I was no Nazi, which clearly provided sufficient incentive for her to keep bashing me until she was eventually silenced by my friends.
However much it hurt that day, I now think of the episode as a valuable experience. It helped me realise the difference between those who joke about beating “Fritz” [ or decapitate the Kaiser, for instance ;-) ] and those who actually do beat him. It also taught me how to deal with the very few Julias around.
And there are only very few Julias around. Thus, in my opinion, those trying construct a theory of German victimhood around incidents like the the teenage clash mentioned above or negligeable individual experiences like mine are creating an urban myth rather than a useful representation of reality. In a letter to the publisher, a German exchange student in North England told the magazine last week that she had spent a year in Britain and never experienced anything like the alleged British anti-German sentiment. She felt “stabbed in the heart” by the article, she said.
When I lived in London, I never experienced anything even slightly reminiscent of the Julia-episode. I walked past the “Bomber Harris” memorial almost every day and never cared about it until a British friend told me how embarassed he was when the Queen (of German descent…) unveiled a memorial for a person responsible for WW2 area bombing German cities in the early 1990s.
Another interesting encounter I had with respect to the anti-German sentiment in Britain was one with an older lady, who had clearly survived at least one, if not two world wars, and who explained to me that, yes, the British fought the Germans in two world wars but, after all, they’re decent people, as opposed to those frog-eating French.
While German tourists are still scared by the myth not to speak German in London Buses to avoid trouble, there are literally tens of thousands of Germans working in the City everyday. When you enter any of the fifty Starbucks outlets between Fleet Street and Monument tube station, chances are, you will hear almost as many German conversations as English ones.
The BBC is certainly right to admit that
“British hostility to Germany simply isn’t reciprocated – [and i]t could be that by using outdated stereotypes – the British are saying more about themselves than anyone else.”
But, in my experience, less and less people are seriously thinking in those stereotypes. Kraut-bashing may not be *so* passé yet, but it is definitely passé.
Last November, the American writer, Pulitzer price laureate, and Princeton University literature professor C.K. Williams made a very interesting argument in the German weekly newspaper Die Zeit (link in German, Archive.org) about how Germans have become a group no longer defined by what they actually are or what they actually do – but what they stand for. In his opinion, the eyes of the world see Germans, more than anything else, as a symbol of evil – they have become Ze Tschermans.
While my personal experience is largely different, Mr Williams is probably right to some extent – some Tschermans are still out there, on celluloid, in the history books and, most importantly, in the memories of those who suffered unspeakable horrors under the Nazi dictatorship. As long as we define ourselves as German, we have to accept the historic context which we have been handed – just like everybody else. While history does by no means excuse ascriptive prejudices, it can help explain their existence. Time may be a healer, but big wounds heal slowly.
Sometimes it is up to us to explain where we feel things are no longer funny. The young German officer clearly told his British comrades that he did not enjoy their joke. All people but the very few Julias around will not cross that line again.
And Sometimes we should just relax. Julia taught me to no longer care if some stupid person believes I am a Tscherman. Why should I? I know I am not. And those I care about do know that, too.
What else could be important?