Fish Swimming in Chablis

There is no doubt that coming to England initially made me much more aware of being German and what that might mean. Living in a culture is a bit like being a fish swimming in an aquarium; the fish is not aware of the water. Moving to another culture is like suddenly being transferred to another liquid, say Chablis. If a fish were to survive such a move, it would suddenly feel a number of differences between swimming through water and swimming through white wine. Growing up in West Germany was particularly transparent because any expression of nationalism or patriotism was totally taboo and did not really occur in my orbit. This was, of course, because there had been a surfeit of all that under the Nazis and it was the last thing anyone wanted to hear after that disaster. My generation, however, did not remember that and there was pretty much an information blackout on the matter, as I have said previously. Therefore, I had only the vaguest sense of what it might mean to be German when I arrived in Britain, where I was confronted with a population whose idea of Germanness was only too clear – and it wasn’t good. 

Not only did the English kids I went to school with have a strong Idea of what being German meant, but they were also much more forthright about Britishness than I could be about my own background. There was the obvious sense of pride and superiority about winning ‘two World Wars and one World Cup’, but there was also still an idea of the Empire, or at least the Commonwealth, of traditions like cricket, ancient schools and other institutions. Wider British society nurtured an impressive sense of continuity which contrasted markedly with the turbulent and fractured history of my country, and that of most other European countries. I attended two English schools which were named after a monarch from the 1500s, and apparently dated back to that time. The Gymnasium I attended briefly in Germany was named after the Scholl siblings, who were guillotined for resisting the Nazis. Germany had 7 different kinds of government in the 20th century: 

1) Monarchy under the Kaiser

2) A period of anarchy and revolution after WWI

3) The democratic but unstable Weimar Republic

4) The Nazi dictatorship

5) Occupation and administration by the Allies after WWII

6) Divided Germany: communist East and democratic, capitalist West

7) Reunified, federal, democratic, capitalist Germany

This made it difficult to have a sense of the place and its history. Earlier in the 19th Century, Germany was not even a nation state as such, but a crazy-paving of little independent territories, loosely presided over by a shadowy Holy Roman Emperor. Somehow, there seemed to be any number of obstacles to getting a sense of Germany as an entity, including its constantly changing borders. But the main problem was Hitler. In order to approach some kind of comfortable relationship with the German past, you had to get past him, and you don’t get much more uncomfortable than that, so most of it remained amorphous or out of bounds. 

The English, by contrast, seemed to have a way of loving their past, of telling themselves warm and comforting stories about it – and believing them. In many ways I envy them for this, it is one of the many things I have internalised. I love old houses for instance, Victorian-ish interiors and rustic cottages.The Germans managed to demolish much of what had been spared by the Allied bombing in the years after the war and most seem to be happy living in geometrical boxes. Despite the fact that British history is not always pretty, the English tend to have a strong sense of what it contains, with plenty of positive feelings about it and a great deal of pride, which is supported and reinforced by glossy period TV dramas, historical novels, and documentaries by celebrity historians. 

The Victorian era is particularly interesting in this regard. It conjures up scenes of aristocratic country houses, snowy Christmases, hearty plowmen, steam railways, the British melting in the Indian heat, but running the subcontinent with a stiff upper lip. We know, of course, that colonialism is wrong, that there was great injustice, that working class people were very poor. We know these things to some extent from the same TV dramas and documentaries, from the novels of Charles Dickens, and the TV dramas based on them. And yet there remains a sheen which makes the period approachable and nostalgically lovable. There is a sense of familiarity with Victorian England, although I dare say that if we were suddenly transported back there we would find it shocking. I always thought it was odd when Margaret Thatcher held up ‘Victorian Values’ as something to be emulated. What did these values entail? Children working long days in dangerous factories! Ostracising women for having sex before marriage, but allowing men to take advantage of underage prostitutes openly roaming the streets! And ethnically cleansing parts of Australia of the native population! But the fact remains that the English, for the most part, have an intimate and positive relationship with their past, whereas for Germans it is much harder to understand and accept their own.