It's true, Brits now love ze Germans

Forget Fawlty Towers, it seems the old enemy has become our best friend.

Earlier this summer, many in Britain paid tribute to the great Manchester City goalkeeper, Bert Trautmann, who died at the age of 89. The scale of the eulogies – in newspapers, on TV and social media – was astonishing, not because Trautmann was German, but because he had been a paratrooper in the Second World War - awarded the Iron Cross, no less. ‘I’ve been looking at the things being said about him in newspapers and from ex-players’, his son Mark remarked in the aftermath. ‘It’s heart-warming… It’s unbelievable and overwhelming to read the comments that have been made. It goes to show how much admiration there is for him in the country.’

How times change. When Trautmann, recently a prisoner of war in Cheshire, signed for Manchester City in 1949, there was still much resentment towards the Germans. The club was deluged with furious letters, season tickets were torn up and 20,000 protestors took to the streets of Manchester; at games, spectators jeered him as a ‘Kraut’ and ‘Nazi’. Yet, by the end of his life, the man who played the final minutes of the 1956 FA Cup final with a broken neck had become a ‘hero’, a ‘legend’.

It’s been an altogether revealing year for Anglo-German relations. In May, Londoners welcomed fans of two German teams, Borussia Dortmund and Bayern Munich, to the capital, where they played in the UEFA Champions League final. There were no reports of trouble, and judging by social media, much conviviality took place between hosts and guests. Then in the summer, Brits found themselves rooting for the delightful Sabine Lisiki at Wimbledon (she literally became the poster girl for The Times), a tournament that annually presents us with Boris Becker, the man who jostles with Jürgen Klinsmann for bragging rights as Britain’s favourite German. With Germany enjoying so much economic success these days, one might expect resentment and envy towards our Teutonic masters, as there is in southern Europe. But a BBC poll in May revealed that Germans are the most popular people in the world, and not least among the British. 

How did it come to this? Those of us who grew up in Britain in the second half of the twentieth century were led to believe that the Germans were dour, mechanical warmongers (at best, they made a lot of porno films), thanks to the drip-drip effect of endless films about the Nazis, ’Allo ’Allo, techno music and Commando comics – ‘for you Schweinhund Englander, ze war is over’. As the Daily Mail put it in 1966: ‘If Germany beat us at Wembley this afternoon at our national sport, we can always point out to them that we have recently beaten them twice at theirs.’

GCSE history students are still encouraged to believe Germany’s most important contribution to civilisation has been Adolf Hitler. As recently as 1996, the Mirror newspaper put up the infamous ‘Achtung! Surrender!’ headline in anticipation of England’s semi-final clash with Germany in that year’s European championship. The ensuing English defeat led to outbreaks of violence, 200 arrests, vandalism of German-brand cars and the stabbing of a foreign youth. As the German journalist, Philip Oltermann, wrote last year: ‘I sometimes wonder if Germany in my lifetime has been hated with more passion than it ever was in the 1910s or 1940s.’ His use of the past tense here is telling.

Even by 1996, the underlying mood was shifting. The man who eventually lifted the trophy for the Germans was Klinsmann, a man once loathed by English football fans and charged with constantly feigning injury. After mock-diving as part of his goal celebration on his 1994 Tottenham debut, he swiftly became one of the best-loved footballers in the land. ‘So the Germans do have a sense of humour?’, gasped the English.

Another famous Jürgen was significant in that decade – the one portrayed by TV comedian Harry Enfield. ‘Jürgen the German’ was a tourist in London who forever felt the need to ‘apologise for my country’s disgraceful behaviour during ze war’. Even if he was an ambiguous character who secretly yearned for the Third Reich, ‘Jürgen the German’ was a neat re-imagining of Basil Fawlty: by the 1990s, no civilised person in Britain would have thought it appropriate to mention the war to a German visitor, let alone ask him to apologise. Even by the 1970s, when Fawlty Towers was first aired, most Brits were becoming aware that, despite winning the war, Britain was losing the peace (‘However did they win?’, asks the German guest). As Germany lords over Europe today, to hark back to the war would not only be rude, it would be embarrassing.

A transformative event was the 2006 World Cup in Germany. The country is not a traditional holiday destination for Brits, so this event was crucial in breaking stereotypes. As The Guardian’s veteran foreign correspondent, Luke Harding, put it: ‘The 100,000 England fans who flocked to Berlin and other German cities discovered that Germans were not frigid or humourless but party-loving hedonists, the kind of people you would want to share a beer with… By the latter stages (after England had gone out again on penalties) the mood had become pro-German, with English fans cheering Germany against Argentina in the quarter-final.’ I’m not sure the comedian Henning Wehn could have achieved success in the UK before 2006, and certainly not in the 1970s.

A recent tell-tale sign is the changed relationship between our two country’s leading tabloid newspapers, Bild and the Sun. This has traditionally involved trading light-hearted banter: the Sun would make reference to Panzers and moustachioed dictators, and its German counterpart would respond that we drive on the wrong side of the road and that the English can’t beat its former colonies at cricket. But this ding-dong has undergone a remarkable mutation. In January, prompted by David Cameron’s pledge to re-negotiate Britain’s terms of membership with the EU, Bild issued a piece pleading Britain to remain in the EU, because ‘you are so wonderfully crazy’ and Germans would miss our ‘quirky’ royal family. Other reasons to love Britain included Mr Bean, the Sex Pistols and the Loch Ness Monster.

The Sun duly responded with ‘10 reasons to love Germany’: its cars, the supermodels Claudia Schiffer and Heidi Klum, the alcoholic drink Jaegermeister, Puma, Adidas, Oktoberfest, Aldi, Lidl and former footballer Rudi Völler – custodian of the finest mullet-moustache combo in Christendom.

To paraphrase the football commentator John Motson, relations just keep getting better and better and better. British tourism to Germany is on a steady rise – at two million per year, it rose 8 per cent in the first five months of this year compared to the same period in 2012, a phenomenon replicated in a multitude of BBC programmes about Germany this summer. Travel sections in newspapers have been festooned with features about the ‘beauty of Freiburg and the Black Forest’ (Telegraph) or the ‘rebuilt wonder’ of Dresden (Independent). A favourite topic of today’s sports pages is the egalitarian nature of the Bundesliga, compared favourably to the greedy Premier League. In March, the hipster magazine Monocle even dedicated an entire magazine to the ‘new Germans: how Europe’s star economy uses business brawn, good design and Gummi Bears to win hearts, minds and tummies’.

The tightening bonds of culture are replicated in the political and economic spheres. In January, data from the Bundesbank showed that Anglo-German trade in goods and services soared to €153 billion in the first nine months of 2012. British goods exports to Germany rose 20 per cent over the first three quarters compared to a year earlier, in spite of the economic downturn.

After decades of denial, the Brits now openly admit that Germany should be our role model. Cameron recently told an audience at a car parts plant in Worcestershire that ‘Brits need to be more Germanic to help industry’, by training up more people to do practical jobs. Lord Weidenfeld says that Angela Merkel is the contemporary politician he most admires – ‘she’s got moral firmness: solid, rock solid!’ – while the Labour peer Maurice Glasman has ventured: ‘We might, for example, bring in German masters, as we did in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, to renew guilds.’

Both leaders in our two countries are in accord when it comes to the EU and the need to implement austerity, and neither country has much of the ‘Euro-at-all costs’ monetary union worship found among certain types in France and Belgium – even if Berlin will only tolerate so much special pleading from London.

All this might surprise Germans. As Philip Oltermann, who has lived in England since he was 16, explains in his book Keeping Up With The Germans (2012): ‘A line repeated again and again in the German press is that telling English people you are German can easily lead to a punch-up. I have never got into trouble for telling people where I am from. Usually, the response used to be polite, pitying silence. “I’m German” has suddenly started to trigger an entirely different response: “Germany? Oh, I love Berlin.”’

To be sure, this transformation isn’t complete. There remains some resentment on the left, from certain types who bemoan what they perceive as Germany’s economic imperialism, imposing austerity on others while living it up at home. But this is more connected with politics than nationalism. Sure, there is populist left-wing anti-German resentment in Europe, but you will find among its centre-right newspapers – in Italy’s Corriere della Sera and Le Figaro in France – the kind of admiration for Germany that you’d read in The Times or the Telegraph.

At the risk of understatement, the twentieth century was a blip in Anglo-German relations. Before Bismark, writes Oltermann, ‘German’ in Britain was ‘shorthand for romantic dreaminess’. The British once spoke of ‘German genius’. It was the land of forests, castles, mountains and fairytales – the birthplace of Romanticism (in a reversal of late-twentieth-century perceptions, it was the French, after the Enlightenment, revolution and Napoleon, who were seen as warmongers and purveyors of bleak, soulless rationalism). The British venerated Kant, Schiller and Goethe in the same way the Germans have always loved Shakespeare, our tradition of democracy and freedom of speech, and our unfathomable sense of humour.

There has been much discussion as to how to mark the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War next year. Might we upset the Germans? Were they to blame, or was it a needless squabble between imperial powers? What boring contemplations! Let’s instead look forward to getting even friendlier with the Germans.

Patrick West is a spiked columnist. His 2005 book, The Poverty of Multiculturalism, was published in Catalan in April, as Les Misèries del Multiculturalisme.

For permission to republish spiked articles, please contact Viv Regan.

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