North Sea neuroses

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 können 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, Vergangenheitsbewältigung, 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 Carré.

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 frére 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 Carré, 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 Bildungsbürgertum, 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 Vergangenheitsbewältigung, 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.


8 thoughts on “North Sea neuroses

  1. Very funny Alex and nicely written too. Are you an Aussie by the way; I’d never heard of a furphy before ?

    If only Matussek knew how much British grown-up 68ers used to envy German patriotism. – especially the patriotism of her bankers.

  2. An Aussie? You shameless turdmonkey, I hope you’re going to take that back. How dare you suggest I’d have a competent cricket team?

    No, I just lived there years ago.

  3. “Now, it is a truism that Britain and Germany share a mutual obsession.”

    I’d say that obsession is primarily “just” football.

    And I put “just” in quotation marks, since it is a big deal indeed.
    + The role of football as a form of patriotism for Germany, England, Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland….
    + Wembley…
    Though, there have not been any battles between English and German hooligans at the world cup. Despite the huge alcohol intact by Germans, Brits and everyone else. Everybody got along. The English loved our beer. And we admired their thirst:
    Nuremburg City official Peter Murrmann said: “The English proved themselves world champs. They practically drank us dry.”

    You seem to think that mutual obsession extends beyond football.
    I am not sure if we are so obsessed about each other.
    I think Matussek is nuts and does not represent public opinion.
    I have not read his book, but quite a few reviews, which were all negative. They criticized not just what he wrote about Britain, but everything else in his book. Quite a few critics ridiculed him. And he deserves it. I saw him once or twice in a talkshow. Ridiculous and stupid fellow.

    Question: Who else in Germany is obsessed about Britain these days?

    Quite a few Germans moved to Britain in recent years, incl. many doctors of medicine, football players and celebrities.
    A huge number of German students move to Britain for their Ph.D., or move to teach there after getting a Ph.D.
    And then there is the huge number of German tourists in Scotland and Wales, who just love your country.
    So many Germans associate Britain with their last holidays: friendly B&B, delicious ccones, beautiful Highlands, tranquil Lake District, magnificient Stone Circles, great musicals in London, kind people, who make hitchhiking so easy (esp. in Scotland) etc rather than the bombing of Dresden and Hamburg or those things.

    These tourists do NOT have an accurate understanding or a sophisticated appreciation of Britain, but they like Britain.

    And in recent years, the Nordsee fast food chain and others have started selling “Fish and Chips.” Of course, it is terrible. They can’t make a decent Fish and Chips. As you know, real Fish and Chips is wrapped in a newspaper, but these stupid chains sell it in some other form of wrapping that is just printed to look like a newspaper. Utter disgrace. And the fish does not taste like it should taste anyway.
    The point, however, is that Britain is “in.” Cool Britannia.

    Last but not least, the BBC and The Economist are the most trusted and most appreciated news and opinion sources for many Germans, especially for international affairs.

    The BBC World service is available on FM in Berlin (and in other German cities, I believe). My dad used to listen to the German BBC programme every single morning. There were quite big protests, when the BBC announced an end to the BBC News in German programme in the early or mid 90s.
    I don’t know how many folks in Germany listen to the BBC and read the Economist these days, but I think there are many. The Economist subscription in Germany is incredibly cheap.

    To conclude: I don’t think Germans are “obsessed” with Britain. (Definitely not more obsessed than with the US.) “Obsession” has a negative ring to it.
    And if you insist that we are obsessed, then I would like to point out all the positive associations we have re Britain and the British. Matussek is one of the few remaining dinosaurs, I believe.

    Who else besides Mattusek has “North Sea neuroses”?

  4. Ihave travelled widely in Germany,and speak some Germany learned many years ago. Hardly useful as English is widely spoken everywhere…and what a contrast that is to monoglot England””. As
    An Australian ,I find the Germany have wildly inacurate views of what Australian attitudes to the English may be.
    They fancy we may have a familial relationship to the English,and are mystified at the mixture of disdain a,scorn ,loathing and derision which are the mainline feelings of most Australians to the English .
    Some Australians I met,at a German dinner party ,almost fell off their chairs with laughter when one of the Germans present tried to make a serious analysis of British food from a recent experience.
    Nothing causes great mirth in Australia than discussions about British food !
    None of this is understood by the Germans,and efforts to see Australians as being “sort of” American evoke real concern. Most Australians have an even poor view of the US these days than of the UK.!

  5. Then again, the Scots hate the English, northerners hate southerners, Chelsea supporters hate Arsenal supporters… it seems traditional in the UK (and some of its former colonies) to hold an attitude to outsiders that isn’t so much Balkan-style passionate hatred as the grumpy disdain of an irritable old man, with a reflex action of carping and whingeing as soon as the outsider is out of earshot. Maybe Germans don’t do this quite as much, as casual xenophobia has been shocked out of them by history to some extent, and those who really hate foreigners do so in a more earnest way.

  6. “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?”
    Ach, so! So, being a children, a young boy, a teenager in Hitler’s Germany is an appropriate basis to call him a “Panzlerkardinal”?
    “Following his fourteenth birthday in 1941, Ratzinger was enrolled in the Hitler Youth (a paramilitary organization of the Nazi Party) – membership being legally required after December 1936.[2] -, but was an unenthusiastic member and refused to attend meetings. His father was a bitter enemy of Nazism, believing it conflicted with the Catholic faith. In 1941, one of Ratzinger’s cousins, a child with Down syndrome, was killed by the Nazi regime in its campaign of eugenics. In 1943 while still in seminary, he was drafted at age 16 into the German anti-aircraft corps. Ratzinger then trained in the German infantry, but a subsequent illness precluded him from the usual rigors of military duty. As the Allied front drew closer to his post in 1945, he returned to his family’s home in Traunstein after his unit had ceased to exist,…” (Wikipedia)

    [It wasn’t why they called him the Panzerkardinal, rather this resulted from his personality and policy as head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in the early ’80s.]

  7. Thanks for an interesting article!

    I wouldn’t say that the British are obsessed with Germany. The English, perhaps, the ones near London anyway, but not the British. And it’s not an obsession in the least: just a joke I think, a relaxed, wry, quiet conviction that some Germans haven’t put Nazism quite as much behind them as they like to think. However I could understand how an outsider could get the impression that what London thinks is what Britain thinks: almost all the British media is based there.

    By the way, I have never heard the term “PanzlerKardinal” before; it was not widespread in the British press (the word is far too long and far too foreign to catch on in the popular press); the term popularised in the British tabloids was rather “Papa Nazi” (also “Papa Razzi”). And personally I think his right wing rule of recent years in the Catholic church, his campaigns against gays for instance, give the name a little ring of truth.

    Anyway… here in Edinburgh every street has a few cars with German number plates parked in it, and my University department is always packed with Germans; I wouldn’t have it any other way.

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