Matthias Matussek, once London correspondent of Der Spiegel and now its culture editor, not to mention brother of top diplomat Thomas Matussek, has a book out. Wir Deutschen: warum die anderen uns gern haben kÃ¶nnen is meant to be a call for a renewed German patriotism and pride in culture. This would usually suggest a very dull book, but I enjoyed it immensely. Not for the right reasons, though.
Matussek’s approach is idiosyncratic, not that there is anything wrong with that, and the book is really a collection of essays, on topics ranging from Heinrich Heine and Angela Merkel to Britain, Britain, the German economy, VergangenheitsbewÃ¤ltigung, the World Cup, Britain, Danish cartoonists, the East after reunification, and Britain. In fact, an obsession with Britain runs through this book like letters through a stick of rock-hardly a page passes without comparing some German institution, writer, company, statesman or building to one in Britain, and no chapter is complete with a volley of snark directed roughly westward.
Now, it is a truism that Britain and Germany share a mutual obsession. But this would be less interesting if it wasn’t for the sheer wordcount devoted to complaining about the British obsession with Germany. There is a complete chapter on Anglo-German relations, which I looked forward to-the possibilities are immense. Would he dig into the pre-1914 closeness that gave Bradford a Little Germany (and its own Nazi, Ernst-Wilhelm Bohle, born there in 1903 and later Rudolf Hess’s right hand) and Leeds a Dortmund Square, Robert Graves a relative on the Oberste Heeresleitung?
Nah. Instead, most of the chapter is dedicated to the results of a trip to Germany for some schoolteachers his brother’s embassy organised, and a pleasant but uninformative weekend in the country with John Le CarrÃ©.
Apparently, they ignored all the efforts to convince them that Germany was not all Hitler and “spoke not without relaxed pride to the press about all the stuff they’d got out of the Krauts”. Supposedly, the British press had a field day, and especially the Guardian. He quotes one Peter Liddell, a teacher, as saying that the woman next to him in the opera had fallen asleep (why should we care?) and that he couldn’t have afforded to stay in the hotel the Germans put them up in – indeed, language teaching is not the best-paid job – and that he wouldn’t be changing the content of lessons as a result because the pupils found the second world war interesting.
Sadly, whatever Matussek frÃ©re came up with would not have changed it. British school teachers have not defined the content of their own lessons since the national curriculum was introduced in 1993-4, which is prescribed by the Department for Education and Skills in London, or now by the relevant devolved administration. Liddell also seems to have pointed out that the pupils can drop history as a subject at age 14.
Now, this tabloid furore left me wanting something: some token that any of it had actually happened. Strange to tell, I had absolutely no recollection of it, and so I reached for iBook and pencil. The field day appears to amount to precisely one article in the Guardian. It gets worse. On the next page is a highly intemperate rant about “a stupid clique of opinion-makers who react to the fact a German was elected Pope almost unanimously by the cardinals of the world by belching, as if by reflex action, “Panzerkardinal and Hitler Youth”, and this is not even the Sun, but the upmarket Guardian”
Unfortunately, this seems to be a furphy. For reasons of his own, Matussek has some sort of beef with the Grauniad, a subset of the prevailing obsession. This is the oldest online reference to “Panzerkardinal” I could find, an interview from 1998 on Bayerischer Rundfunk. All other sources seem to agree that the phrase was invented by Italian reporters covering the Vatican beat in the 1980s. Personally, I think that is relevant information about the man, as is the fact he grew up in Nazi Germany – after all, what should the paper have said he was doing then? An active member of the Cats’ Protection League? Or perhaps nothing – he should leap into existence fully formed and complete with dogcollar at graduation, safely in the postwar era? Does he really think newspapers should rig the facts when it would be embarrassing not to?
Elsewhere, we are told that the British are vulgar, nouveau riche, that they are like the West German bourgeoisie of the 1960s, are buying up the whole of Brittany and learning to pronounce French wines correctly, that Britain is the most tasteless place in the world (I enter a caveat on behalf of Dubai), that the publication of a list of the world’s 50 best restaurants that included some British ones is a plot by Guardian editorial staff, that political commentators eat curry like provincials, that everyone is a snob, that the British economy isn’t really doing well because MG-Rover shut down, that there are a lot of people on the long-term sick, that patriotism is an economic force and this is why Britain has a rebate from the EU and Germany is the biggest net contributor (hint: it’s the biggest economy), that patriotism, again, means that the British economy really is doing well after all, that Dresden or Leipzig look better than some British cities, that Heidi Klum has shown “the London heroin models” where to get off, that the House of Commons is an example of “stuffy neogothic”, that A.S. Byatt is a terrible Eurosceptic, that the BBC would never show as much theatre (which is in any case better in Germany) as ARD, and much, much more.
As he repeatedly puts it, burp! With all this, you’d be surprised he finds space to discuss Germany at all. You’d be even more surprised when you realise that much of the rest of the book is taken up by an amusing essay on how he lost his shirt in the .com boom daytrading Deutsche Telekom stock, which I suspect might have failed to make it into some other journal and been recycled, another (very good) one about Alexander von Humboldt, and a chapter devoted to comparing himself to Heinrich Heine. This is a special case of the book’s besetting fault, self-importance of elephantine scale. As well as picturing himself variously as a latter-day Heine, a martyred rabble-rouser, and a globe-trotting feuilleton superstar, he does a lot of namedropping – even leaving aside the interview chapters, it is rare you get more than a few pages before tripping over some celebrity who he’s shanghaied into the narrative.
These encounters, though, are a source of unintentional comedy. He blunders into Susan Sontag, the previously mentioned Byatt and Le CarrÃ©, Ian McEwan and others, usually managing to offend them or take offence, rather like a Borat of the cultural elite. It is the fate of the journalist that you can meet people you would very much want to speak to, but they don’t want to speak to you, although the people you would rather not speak to always do, so this must be partly discounted. Why he didn’t discount them is more interesting.
Some of the why may be concealed in chapter 9, which is entitled “A speech to the nation.” With or without irony is not clear, but anyway the content is a long right-wing rant by what Matussek claims is “the young conservative he would like”. It is little more than a long bayonet-practice session against a whole field of strawmen – in! twist! out! on guard! – ranging from feminists, who supposedly think the ideal life is to be the presenter of as many TV programmes as possible rather than having children like they should, to Joschka Fischer, who he despises with a pathological degree of loathing, to the working classes, who ought to realise that God is unjust and the Bible is against equality because God loves some people and not others and they all ought to tighten their belts (surely an insane prescription for the German economy). He finishes with a highly narcissistic passage about being stoned off stage by the unlettered, feminine mob, before hastily ducking behind yet another of his vast stockpile of strawmen.
Rather like the soap-opera character whose death “was all a dream”, Matussek’s exercise in faux Norman Tebbit turns out to be just a fictional character, and of course nothing to do with his real views. This does not impress me much.
More seriously, Matussek carries out a succession of interviews with some interesting people: Klaus von Dohnanyi, Harald Schmidt, Hagen Schulze, Peter Sloterdijk, Sarah Kuttner, Heidi Klum, each of whom get a whole chapter, and a number of normal citizens, who do not. These are perhaps the pick of the book – like the essay on von Humboldt, they would stand on their own. Dohnanyi is picked out to discuss the role of the BildungsbÃ¼rgertum, which is fascinating, and Schmidt that of humour, which is very funny. (Asked whether the political Kabarett was Germany’s distinctive contribution to humour, he says that nothing could be more German than four people sitting on a stage and being right all evening.)
But even here, the obsession bursts out, tentacles spewing from every dark crevice. Dohnanyi remarks that the British were not drawn away from slavery by education, just as it did not save Germany from Nazism. But it was precisely the new bourgeoisie, the Manchester men, who led the campaign to abolish it. According to Dohnanyi, the British dominated the world first militarily and then economically, which is the exact reverse of most historiography on the empire. These slightly odd historical judgements litter the book. Apparently, no nation could have tolerated the territorial losses of Versailles as quietly as the Germans. Really?
The image of Britain all these people project is eerily like the British stereotype of Wilhelmine Germany – an insecure, militarist nation of nouveaux riches. It’s as if an iceberg had been blown down the Norwegian coast, down into the North Sea, and both sides thought they saw each other in the huge canting planes of ice that reflected back a hideously distorted image of themselves. Weirdly, for a book dealing with modern Germany’s place in the world, there is no mention of Russia, and even more weirdly for a book that also claims to have been inspired by Heinrich Heine, there is almost no mention of France. It is refreshing, up to a point, to read about German political life without constant worthy references to Franco-German cooperation, but surely it cannot be ignored completely? But France appears only here as a romantic backdrop to the life of Heine.
Finally, some conclusions. Matussek’s prescription of civic patriotism is admirable, but it seems hard to differentiate it from normality – isn’t it precisely what the Bundesrepublik has always had in spades? Once you overlay the admonition to be proud of Willy Brandt, Heine, Max Planck, Franz Beckenbauer and Daimler-Benz on routine discourse, there’s hardly any overlap. What there is seems to be a violent polemic against the 68ers, the SPD, feminists, and Joschka Fischer in particular, not to mention the Guardian. It’s little different from a certain kind of fogeyish British Toryism.
He repeatedly takes issue with VergangenheitsbewÃ¤ltigung, Fischer’s remark that Auschwitz was the foundation stone of modern Germany, and British schoolteachers for mentioning the war, but he is hazy on what should replace it – after all, if Mr. Liddell was to drop Hitler from his course in favour of Willy Brandt, as Matussek suggests, what on earth would he say Brandt apologised for in the Warsaw Ghetto? Here, one of his interviewees’ words are probably worth recalling. Schmidt remarks that even in New Zealand he had to explain to his children that a preserved ship had been preserved because she brought Jewish refugees from Germany, and that whereever you go, Hitler was there before you. Indeed, and no amount of blowhardry will shift him.
Is it worth reading? Certainly, especially for the interviews. Is it a good book? Possibly. But it should not be confused with a serious political prescription. Matussek has the Feuilletonist‘s vices in spades – staged intellectual brutality, farting pomposity, a slightly loose way with facts – but also the good features, spanning erudition, superior-quality snark and sharp writing.
Shameless plug: I bought the book in Cape Town, at Ulrich Naumanns Deutsche Buchhandlung, which is a really excellent German bookshop that just happens to find itself 8,000 miles away.