Germany is the most popular country in the world – and I can see why

Glosswitch has always had a love for all things German, so she's happy to learn that everyone else agrees.

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…

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of three who works in publishing.

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Martin McGuinness's long game: why a united Ireland is now increasingly likely

McGuinness died with his ultimate goal of a united Ireland arguably closer to realisation than at any other time since the island’s partition in 1921.

In late 2011 Martin McGuinness stood as Sinn Fein’s candidate in Ireland’s presidential election, raising all sorts of intriguing possibilities.

Raised in a tiny terraced house in the Bogside, Derry, he would have ended up living in a 92-room presidential mansion in Dublin had he won. A former IRA commander, he would have become supreme commander of Ireland’s defence forces. Once banned from Britain under the Prevention of Terrorism Acts, he would have received the credentials of the next British ambassador to Dublin. Were he invited to pay a state visit to London, a man who had spent much of his youth shooting or bombing British soldiers would have found himself inspecting a guard of honour at Buckingham Palace.

McGuinness would certainly have shaken the hands of the English team before the Ireland-England rugby match at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin every other year. “I’d have no problem with that,” he told me, grinning, as he campaigned in the border county of Cavan one day that autumn. Though a staunch republican, he enjoyed the “Protestant” sports of rugby and cricket, just as he supported Manchester United and enjoyed BBC nature programmes and Last of the Summer Wine. He wrote poetry and loved fly-fishing, too. Unlike Gerry Adams, the coldest of cold fish, McGuinness was hard to dislike – provided you overlooked his brutal past.

In the event, McGuinness, weighed down by IRA baggage, came a distant third in that election but his story was astonishing enough in any case. He was the 15-year-old butcher’s assistant who rose to become the IRA chief of staff, responsible for numerous atrocities including Lord Mountbatten’s assassination and the Warrenpoint slaughter of 18 British soldiers in 1979.

Then, in 1981, an IRA prisoner named Bobby Sands won a parliamentary by-election while starving himself to death in the Maze Prison. McGuinness and Adams saw the mileage in pursuing a united Ireland via the ballot box as well as the bullet. Their long and tortuous conversion to democratic politics led to the Good Friday accord of 1998, with McGuinness using his stature and “street cred” to keep the provisional’s hard men on board. He became Northern Ireland’s improbable new education minister, and later served as its deputy first minister for a decade.

His journey from paramilitary pariah to peacemaker was punctuated by any number of astounding tableaux – visits to Downing Street and Chequers; the forging of a relationship with Ian Paisley, his erstwhile arch-enemy, so strong that they were dubbed the “Chuckle Brothers”; his denunciation of dissident republican militants as “traitors to the island of Ireland”; talks at the White House with Presidents Clinton, George W Bush and Obama; and, most remarkable of all, two meetings with the Queen as well as a state banquet at Windsor Castle at which he joined in the toast to the British head of state.

Following his death on 21 March, McGuinness received tributes from London that would have been unthinkable 20 years ago. Tony Blair said peace would not have happened “without Martin’s leadership, courage and quiet insistence that the past should not define the future”. Theresa May praised his “essential and historic contribution to the extraordinary journey of Northern Ireland from conflict to peace”.

What few noted was that McGuinness died with his ultimate goal of a united Ireland arguably closer to realisation – albeit by peaceful methods – than at any other time since the island’s partition in 1921.

The Brexit vote last June has changed political dynamics in Northern Ireland. The province voted by 56 per cent to 44 in favour of remaining in the European Union, and may suffer badly when Britain leaves. It fears the return of a “hard border” with the Republic of Ireland, and could lose £330m in EU subsidies.

Dismay at the Brexit vote helped to boost Sinn Fein’s performance in this month’s Stormont Assembly elections. The party came within 1,200 votes of overtaking the Democratic Unionist Party, which not only campaigned for Leave but used a legal loophole to funnel £425,000 in undeclared funds to the broader UK campaign. For the first time in Northern Ireland’s history, the combined unionist parties no longer have an overall majority. “The notion of a perpetual unionist majority has been demolished,” Gerry Adams declared.

Other factors are also working in Sinn Fein’s favour. The party is refusing to enter a new power-sharing agreement at Stormont unless the DUP agrees to terms more favourable to the Irish nationalists. Sinn Fein will win if the DUP agrees to this, but it will also win if there is no deal – and London further inflames nationalist sentiment by imposing direct rule.

McGuinness’s recent replacement as Sinn Fein’s leader in Northern Ireland by Michelle O’Neill, a personable, socially progressive 40-year-old unsullied by the Troubles, marks another significant step in the party’s move towards respectability. As Patrick Maguire recently wrote in the New Statesman, “the age of the IRA old boys at the top is over”.

More broadly, Scottish independence would make the notion of Northern Ireland leaving the UK seem less radical. The Irish republic’s economic recovery and the decline of the Roman Catholic Church have rendered the idea of Irish unity a little less anathema to moderate unionists. And all the time, the province’s Protestant majority is shrinking: just 48 per cent of the population identified itself as Protestant in the 2011 census and 45 per cent Catholic.

The Good Friday Agreement provides for a referendum if a majority appears to favour Irish unity. Sinn Fein is beginning to agitate for exactly that. When Adams and McGuinness turned from violence to constitutional politics back in the 1980s they opted for the long game. Unfortunately for McGuinness, it proved too long for him to see Irish nationalism victorious, but it is no longer inconceivable that his four grown-up children might. 

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution