The story needed some time to cross the Channel, but on Saturday, International and German newspapers (taz) will grant Richard Desmond, owner of the publishing group Northern & Shell, whose papers include the Daily Express, the attention he already received in the British media. Shortly after announcing that his papers’ political allegiance would from now on be with the Tory party instead of Labour, on Thursday Mr Desmond managed to turn a regular meeting between executives of his papers and the Daily Telegraph at a jointly owned printing plant into a comedy show by apparently greeting people with a fake German accent, imitating Hitler, and finally ordering his senior management to intonate “Deutschland ?ber alles”.
It is not the first time that Mr Desmond, who became rich by publishing pornography, is making the headlines himself. Allegedly, he planned to print a cover with a naked look-alike of Cherie Booth, Tony Blair’s wife. Despite Mr Desmond’s religion – he is Jewish – the more immediate reason for his outburst is likely the German Springer publishing group’s apparently serious bid for the Telegraph Group, part of Hollinger International, and currently for sale. Mr Desmond had attempted to acquire the Daily Telegraph’s holding company himself but dropped out of the race after his bid of up to ₤600 million was deemed insufficient, according to the Financial Times Deutschland.
Except to those present, I would argue that Mr. Desmond’s words – though clearly absurd – are of minor importance, particularly given the unusually widespread and quick condemnation thereof. It was the Telegraph’s Chief executive, Jeremy Deedes, who made the incident public to MediaGuardian after having been called – according to The Times – “a miserable piece of s***,” for objecting to Mr Desmonds initial remarks and explaining that Springer Publishing is committed to the support of Israel (incidentally, the contractual obligation to Support Israel and the US which Springer places on its German journalists may turn out to be a problem with UK media regulators in the case of an acquisition).
Mr. Deedes may have had a personal agenda to report the incident and later repeating it on air, but the absurdity of this episode may turn out to be more helpful that it appears, even for Springer. It may be a useful test to see how the Telegraph’s target audience – the paper is usually ardently Conservative (as is Die Welt, Springer’s flagship paper), EU-bashing, and always suspicious of a possible secret German agenda to rule Britannia through the European Commission – might react to a Springer owned Daily Telegraph, possibly even to increase the awareness that Springer himself was no Nazi and the British themselves granted him a publishing license after the war, in order to pre-empt future attacks during a possible merger phase.
After all, a few years ago, Springer’s plan to acquire the Daily Mirror was abandoned amidst fears the paper would suffer severely from an adverse reader reaction to a German owner. Meeting in London last week, the FTD reports, Springer executives had wondered whether going forward with the acquisition would be useful thing to do.
Sure, all this is speculation. But the British published opinion’s reaction was probably read with relief in Berlin, even though the company obviously declined to comment officially. Embarrassed silence, by the way, was also the reaction of the Tory party, when asked about their new and prominent endorser’s outburst.
Krauts, Frogs, or Rosbifs – there are certain situations where ethnic slurs are simply unacceptable. Silvio Berlusconi failed to honour this principle in last year’s address to the European Parliament. In many instances, however, they are mostly a testament of ignorance and lack of manners, to be met with disdain – like in this case, or in that of a German tv host calling Italians “spaghetti gobblers” last week. In most cases, however, there is a fine line between humour and harassment, fun and filth.
About a year ago, when the Kraut-bashing issue came up because of some statements by Thomas Matussek, then the new German ambassador to the UK, I tried to walk this fine line of British Kraut Bashing by adding some personal context. Here is the slightly edited result –
Kraut-bashing is *so* pass? – 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 the 2002 World Cup final. His arguments have been summarised and endorsed by the BBC, but 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 fuelled 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 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 in December 2002, 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. Although there are exceptions, even in “quality” publishing – I am still rather uncertain about the correct interpretation of “Thinking the Wurst” by Julie Burchill, for example, incidentally published in The Guardian on the last day I worked in Westminster – they are usually simply an element of the commonly 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. 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 of 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 depends on the kind of relationship we have 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 it.
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. 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. Her reply, however, 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” 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 Der Spiegel 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 embarrassed 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 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.
German tourists are still being scared with the myth not to speak German in London Buses to avoid trouble while 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* pass? yet, but it is definitely pass?.
In November 2002, 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) about how Germans had 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 (just as Julie Burchill in the article quoted above).
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?