We Don’t Like Each Other Either

I assume that the ambivalence about their German identity felt by the post-War generation is the reason they tend to be standoffish towards each other abroad. Not for us the delight of meeting a compatriot far from home, the immediate interest and enjoyment of shared language and culture which is typical of many other nationalities in such situations. We tend to avoid each other, to be rather cold and uninterested. We observe each other with a critical eye, are quick to judge and slow to praise. As in so many things to do with my divided identity, I am split on this. On the one hand I find it ridiculous, and on the other I am exactly the same way. 

Years ago, I was walking off a hangover on a beach in Wales. I had been out for a good while and wanted to know the time. For some reason I had no watch or phone one me so I approached a couple who were also walking on the otherwise deserted beach. As I came within earshot, I heard them speaking German, so I asked them the time in German and they answered me in our shared language. No other words were exchanged. They went off in one direction and I in another. This may seem a little odd, but OK, the wind was blowing hard and perhaps it was not a conducive situation for striking up a conversation. However, after my hangover had begun to recede, I started to feel ravenous, as one does, and when I got back to town I went into a cafe and ordered a hearty breakfast. Who should come in and sit at a table near me, but the same German couple I had encountered on the beach. Not a word passed between us. No ‘so are you on holiday here?’, or ‘wasn’t it windy out?’ or ‘where are you from?’; nothing. I find this very strange, and yet it was not only they who were keeping their distance, it was me, too. I can’t imagine Welsh people, or Americans, or Spaniards behaving in this way. It is almost as if we have internalised some of the prejudices and suspicions about us that undoubtedly exist. I sometimes say, half jokingly, that ‘nobody likes us; and we don’t like each other either’.

Inside Germany this kind of attitude can express itself in damning criticism of the way things are done there. Whether it is the bureaucracy (no worse than in France), or the lack of decent dance music (definitely not true since the techno boom of the nineties) many Germans love to knock their country. This is not a uniquely German habit, but it is quite common and I think again is a way of demonstrating what an un-German German you are. Perhaps the most obvious form of this is the readiness with which we use languages other than our own. Of course it is nice that Germans tend to be keen on learning other languages, and it is quite a contrast with many English people. But again, I feel it often borders on the absurd. 

I once went to a party in the UK thrown by an immigrant academic and as it happened the first guests to arrive were all German academics, including me (far be it from me to confirm a stereotype about punctuality here!). There were four of us, and we were chatting together, but not a word of German passed between us. Again, can you imagine, four Italians, or Arabs, or Chinese doing this? I don’t think so. It’s just unnatural and it shows how ill at ease we are with ourselves. One of the guests in question actually refused to speak German to me, ever, and I met him in a few different contexts. This is by no means uncommon. People claim to have forgotten their mother tongue in a year or two, avoid speaking it, or simply refuse to, even with another German. I am keen to learn languages myself and like to practice them. But I am not talking of situations here where anyone needed to practice English. These are people who live in an English speaking country, but would be perfectly capable of speaking German, if they were not embarrassed about who they are.