It was obvious during the 70s and 80s that whenever an English person realised I was German, there was an intake of breath and they had to try and reconcile the extremely rich store of German war images and stereotypes with – me. This usually took a few beats, long enough for me to interpose a comment such as, “yes, I left the jackboots at home today”. Postwar images of Germans in the media tended to be of unattractive or hateful; fat, harsh women; vain, pompous men; desperately uncool tourists and so on. The constant diet of negative images of Germans as ugly, ridiculous, humourless, unsubtle or downright evil often made my Mother feel defensive and ashamed. As for my teenage self, it simply made me want to integrate into English culture. Not that I simply wanted to blend in. When I arrived in Grammar School my English was up to speed and I was on my way to forging a personal identity which incorporated some of the popular culture of the time: progressive rock, hippie clothes, etc. Being German just made me different in a way which could be OK as long as I could explore being a kid in England without being hemmed in.
Knowledge of contemporary Germany was very sketchy in the UK and paled into insignificance in comparison to the all-pervasive War imagery. While the Brits were still basking in the glory of victory, Germany had rebuilt and West Germany was forging ahead economically. Britain was fast becoming the sick man of Europe, with archaic nationalised industries riven by multiple strikes. Ironically, the Germany I knew was also more liberal than the UK. In school for instance, in Germany we had no school uniforms, corporal punishment was not an official sanction, whereas in the UK it still was. German school kids took days out to protest about issues and had genuinely independent school councils. In Britain the school regime seemed to me to have a kind of antiquated quasi-military organisation and discipline, with uniforms, calling teachers ‘Sir’, canings meted out by the headmaster, prefects who could punish younger kids, and so on. The scouts, which I did not know about in Germany but were a common sight in England, were shocking to my family because they reminded them so much of the Hitler youth.
The lack of knowledge about modern Germany, and in fact continental Europe as a whole, is something which I have often found frustrating. Of course all countries are first and foremost interested in themselves. But it is obvious that the British media are much more concerned with what is going on in the predominantly white English speaking world than they are in their nearest neighbours. There is a cultural proximity which creates an easy flow of music, TV and films, particularly between the UK and the US. Culturally, England is much closer to Australia than to Holland. This is despite the fact that many Brits travel to and work on the Continent, and despite the many visitors and immigrants from those countries that come here. I think that apart from the history and politics of European countries what is very much missing in the UK is European trivia. Stories of everyday life and celebrities that populate the mind with a sense of what life is like in a place. We get plenty of this from the States, but hardly anything from Europe. More often than not, the stories that do come through conform to stereotypes. For instance, neo-Nazis in Germany have been a favourite topic in the UK media over the years. Don’t get me wrong: there is an extreme right in Germany and they are disgusting and of course we should be on our guard against them. However, for much of the last half century they have been marginal. The Greens (Green Party) on the other hand have been and are a powerful force. They began as a grass roots organisation and pressure group and eventually became a strong political party which was in coalition government from 1998 to 2005. They have been instrumental in bringing about the discontinuation of nuclear power in Germany and have been part of a transformation of attitudes which has been highly influential in other countries, and is of course at the heart of global discourse today. I don’t remember ever seeing a report on the rise or the influence of the German Green movement in the British media. I’m not saying that this was never mentioned, but it certainly was not something of which the British public were generally aware.
It was this cultural distance from Europe that made being German here such an effort at times. I felt like an ambassador and sometimes like a sole representative of a country about which so little was known in its present form, but about which historical narratives abounded, that the pressure to be a good example of a modern German was always there. The lack of closeness to the experience of life on the Continent also contributed to the antipathy to the EU. These people with whom one was supposed to be sharing the running of things now? The English simply did not know who they were.