The British problem is not superiority, but a sense of inferiority - to their wartime ancestry

Some of my best friends are German. But then, I'm half Italian and though my grandfather fought in the resistance, you couldn't live in Italy during the sixties and seventies without absorbing the sense of guilty complicity that was Mussolini's legacy.

There was no basking in self-righteous triumphalism for us wops. Not for us the strutting of the British and Americans who had vanquished the forces of evil. We were forbidden the collective celebratory fever that for decades cast a warm afterglow over the allies; forbidden - or, rather, spared. Spared the self-righteousness of the moral high ground; the arrogance of the victor; the smugness of a glorious ancestry. In short, we were spared the British burden of victory - a burden that may be different from, but is as heavy as, the German burden of guilt.

For decades, the ball and chain of victory sank Britain into an economic slump: as the historian Antony Beevor has noted, the British expected recompense for having saved Europe from the Nazis. The Continent instead stood by as Britain almost went bankrupt and - worse - those former foes, Germany and Italy, underwent economic miracles that turned paupers into captains of industry.

Yet the shadow of the war cannot be measured in euros alone. Michael Naumann, the German minister of culture who claimed that Britons' interest in the war had become the spiritual core of their national identity, was right: the glory that was brave Britain in the Blitz has fed every schoolchild's sense of self. It has also placed a gigantic chip on their shoulder. While a new generation of Germans, led by Gerhard Schroder, ask themselves why the sins of the fathers should be visited upon their children and grandchildren, a new generation of Brits ask themselves whether they are worthy heirs to their glorious forefathers.

As handicapped as the ordinary children of extraordinary (or extraordinarily famous) parents, the British under 45 face each day their inadequacy: the courageous campaigns, principled stands and heroic endeavours that bound ordinary citizens in the war years have given way to the lone exploits of an oily-haired Swampy or the group rantings of animal welfare activists; while the soldiers who fought in the Falklands or who will intervene in Kosovo, recognise (or are unceremoniously told) that, in their battles, the lines between good and evil have become blurred.

Even those with only the most rudimentary knowledge of history (whose image of concentration camps stems from Schindler's List and of the French occupation from 'Allo, 'Allo) look over their shoulders at the moral and military might that was England, and fear they may not be up to scratch. If the Germans feel inferior to the rest of Europe, the British feel inferior to their glorious ancestors.

Their geography hems Britons in Naumann's spiritual straitjacket. Unlike the Continent, where every corner turned and every monument approached marks a fallen soldier or a burned-down synagogue, Britain (with a few exceptions like London, Coventry and the Channel Islands) bears few physical war scars. To relive their heroic era, its people must look elsewhere.

That is why they need their German scapegoat: the past is a foreign country, and for Britons it is Germany. Revisit the Kraut and the Panzer, the squarehead and the cabbage-cruncher, and you resurrect the more heroic times of Winston Churchill and Mrs Miniver. Laugh at the humourless Hun (an entire programme on Radio 5 Live was devoted to poking fun at the Germans' new laughter clubs) and you can boast of the British sense of humour. Cultivate German guilt with tabloid reminders of jackboots and Jawohl, Herr Kommandant, and Little Englanders don't have to feel guilty about being so little any more. If the Brits didn't have a Germany to kick around, they'd have to invent one.

This article first appeared in the 19 February 1999 issue of the New Statesman, We are richer than you think