Perhaps my love of all things German started out as form of teenage rebellion. Age 16, I was packed off on a school exchange with the parental exhortation to “tell them who won the war”. Over twenty years later, I’ve still not done it. To be honest, I suspect “they” already know.
My family’s attitude towards Germany – a kind of knee-jerk, pseudo-moralistic xenophobia – is neither original nor amusing, but it’s one of those “jokes” that certain people of a certain age feel obliged to keep on making. Ever since it was granted cultural legitimacy by that episode of Fawlty Towers, comedy German-hating has felt less wartime throwback, more timeless British tradition. We don’t really mean it (at least, one hopes not; “one world cup” has started to sound increasingly pathetic as the years go by). But we do it all the same.
Or at least we have done up till now. Perhaps the recent news that Germany is the “most popular country in the world” should give us pause for thought. According to a poll conducted by the BBC World Service, which involved interviewing a random selection of people across 25 countries, Germany’s influence is viewed more favourably than that of any other nation. German-bashing is starting to look stale. Gut gemacht, Deutschland! I knew you had it in you!
I can’t help but feel a sense of personal vindication in this. I’ve always been down with the Germans, me. Ever since my first visit to the country – when my school was partnered with one in the newly “former” East – I’ve felt we had a special relationship (regardless of whether or not the Germans appreciate my devotion). I studied German at university, spent a year teaching English in Sachsen-Anhalt, wrote a doctoral thesis on German literature, edited several German textbooks for schools – none of which is the same as actually being German, I know, but it demonstrates a degree of commitment. What’s more, it’s not been easy.
We teutophiles have been through lean times in the UK. Uptake of German as a foreign language at Key Stages Three and Four has now been overtaken by Spanish. University German departments have been closing down. I remember sitting with a friend of mine – a lecturer in a slowly dying faculty – and discussing ways to make German more attractive to the young, who might not have remembered the war but still believed the words were in the wrong order and the food was too sausage-heavy. “Franke Potente and Daniel Brühl – they’re cool, right?” we’d say desperately, in the hope that some semi-alternative actors would save the day. “And what about Love Parade? That’s a good one! And maybe if he says a few more surreal things in the commentary box at Wimbledon, Boris Becker could become a national treasure!” Then we’d look up German text-speak, deluding ourselves that words like N8 (N + acht = Nacht – geddit?) were so unbelievably witty and happening no one would be able to resist. Funnily enough, none of these things have actually worked.
Maybe we don’t need to do this now. I’ve always thought we should tug on the heartstrings – play up the Dichter und Denker, the fall of the Berlin Wall, maybe even Guildo Horn’s 1998 Eurovision entry – when all along it seems relative economic strength and “tough love” are the order of the day (what kind of masochists are we?). In what appears, on one level, to be a world playground popularity contest – life imitating Peppa Pig’s International Day – Germany are doing okay, danke. I’m starting to feel a bit redundant. But then again, perhaps I that’s all I deserve.
It’s very hard to love an entire country without patronising every single inhabitant, whether this be on the grounds of their humour, their spirituality, their fine beer-making skills etc. It also feels ever so slightly self-serving, a declaration of intellectual superiority disguised as open-mindedness. Look at me, look at how cosmopolitan I am, better than all the narrow-minded cultural pygmies who don’t go anywhere if English isn’t spoken. Then there’s the historical airbrushing, the rather presumptuous decision to come to terms with a country’s past regardless of whether those more affected by it are ready. All of these things put would-be foreigners – those who’ve never lived the lives they fetishize – on shaky moral ground, at least when no space is left for curiosity and qualification.
But anyhow, Germany, as my father would say, you may have lost the war, but you won the BBC World Service poll. Good für Sie (or dich, if I may be so familiar). Now, about the next stage of the popularity plan – I really think ultra-extended compound nouns could be the next big thing…