Dr Gunnar Beck
Although born in Düsseldorf, one of Germany’s larger cities, I went to university and subsequently worked and lived in Britain for many years. I now divide my time between Germany and London and am accustomed to and enamoured by many things British. There remain others, which I still struggle to understand. One is the common law which still strikes as most ‘uncommon’ law but which fascinates the sociologist within me as an ingeniously subtle and effective method of social control. Another was brought home to me during a recent telephone conversation with a Canadian friend, who was on his way to Edinburgh for his grandmother’s 105th birthday. To my enquiry as to her health he responded that she was doing fine but that her general alertness had been rather clouded of late by a sudden relapse into Germanophobia. “You know, Andrew”, she apparently confessed during one of their extended telephone conversations, “I am terribly worried about those Germans and what they may do to our boys.” The grandmother, of course, spent all her life in rural England and Scotland, never visited a theatre of war, married a man too young to serve in World War I and too well qualified to serve on the frontline during World War II, never suffered a bombing raid by the Luftwaffe, and had sons who too were spared frontline service in Germany or North Africa. She also did not lose a single close relative or friend in either war. “I’ll try to find out more about those fears,” Andrew said, “if, that is, she’ll back from the trenches.”
World War II ended nearly seventy years ago and most of the remaining war veterans will die in the next ten years. British, like German, society has undergone profound social and economic change in the last fifty years. Such change, many agree, has not been uniformly for the best. British hostility to Germany, by contrast, appears timeless and unchanging. To many it seems to offer all the comforts of an old certainty. My friend’s grandmother, despite her years, thus appears to have her fingers firmly on the nation’s pulse. When I came back from my Christmas holiday two years ago, my minimalist TV choices for the day (I only have the minimum number of channels which I cannot prevent my internet provider from offering me free of charge) included two World War II movies and an all day Nazi special on the History Channel. The all day special consisted of ten hours of “The Nazis – Lessons from History” followed by six hours devoted to ‘Auschwitz’. The next day there was a Holocaust special, followed over subsequent weeks by programmes about ‘Hitler’s women’, ‘Hitler’s animals’, ‘Hitler’s shoehorn’, and so forth. I can barely remember a week of British TV without at least one programme devoted to World War II or the Third Reich, although in November of most years World War I tends to take over for a week or two, and occasionally wartime documentaries are crowded out by more imminent broadcasts of Anglo-German clashes on the football pitch. When the Pope visited Britain two years ago or so, it was not always clear whether media and street protests were fuelled by disapproval of Catholic moral teachings or by the Pope’s nationality. Several television programmes and newspaper articles were devoted to the Pope’s ‘early years’ in the Hitler youth, a time when he was barely in his mid-teens and membership of the Nazi youth organisation was compulsory. An English friend at the Bar told me that some time ago an English trial judge, when faced with a plea of discrimination on the grounds of nationality by a German plaintiff, could not resist pointing out that one had to bear in mind that anti-German feeling and prejudice form part of Britain’s national heritage and cherished national memory. I have not come across this case, but germanophobia, the implication seems to be, is part of what it means to be British.