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 two who works in publishing.

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Unlikely sisters in the Gaza Strip

A former Jewish settler in Gaza recalls her childhood friendship with a young Palestinian.

It was well after midnight, one summer night in 1995, when Inbar Rozy, a 13-year-old living in the former Israeli settlement of Alei Sinai in the northern Gaza Strip, heard her parents answer the phone. Sitting up in bed, surrounded by potted plants, candles and fairy dolls lit by shafts of light from a nearby security outpost, Inbar listened closely.

“I could hear everyone talking around me, making calls,” Inbar said when we met recently in Nitzan, southern Israel. When she got up to find out what was happening, her parents told her to make up a second mattress. As dawn broke, they led into the room a young woman carrying a small bag and wearing a black shirt and jeans. “She had shoulder-length dark hair dyed with red henna and beautiful eyes – big, black with thick eyelashes,” Inbar told me, smiling. “[She was] quiet. She looked scared.”

The woman was Rina (her surname cannot be given for security reasons), a talented artist in her early twenties studying at a local art college, where she had fallen in love with a Christian boy. For Rina, coming from a traditional family, marrying a non-Muslim would be strictly forbidden.

When her parents found out, they were furious and forbade her from seeing her boyfriend. But her male cousins felt this wasn’t enough. Earlier on the day the girls first met, Rina’s cousins had attempted to kill her in retribution for her perceived “honour crime”. Seeing that another attempt on her life was likely, Rina’s father called a relative, who in turn called Inbar’s father, Yossef, a friend of many years. There was no doubt she had to leave. Ironically, a Jewish settlement protected by the Israel Defence Forces was the safest place in Gaza for her to be.

In 1967, Israel seized the Gaza Strip from Egypt during the Six Day War. In time, it settled 21 communities on a third of the land, with a population of 8,000 by 2005. Soldiers guarded the settlements from 1.5 million displaced Palestinians, tens of thousands of whom were displaced in 1967 and moved to live in nearby refugee camps. In Gaza, before Israel’s ultimate withdrawal from the Strip in 2005, relationships between Israeli settlers and Palestinians were fraught. True, many Palestinians worked in Israeli settlements, earning wages higher than elsewhere in the Strip, but the two communities lived largely separate lives.

In the mid-1990s, even after the Oslo Accords, violence was simmering. Israeli military incursions increased with the outbreak of the Second Intifada in 2000. Thousands of home-made Qassam rockets were launched by Palestinian militants at settlers and those living in southern Israel. Security measures hardened. The veteran Israeli journalist Amira Hass, who spent several years living in Gaza, describes neighbourhoods that were “turned into jails behind barbed-wire fences, closed gates, IDF surveillance, tanks and entry-permit red tape”.

And yet, in spite of the forced segregation, Inbar’s family enjoyed close links with their Palestinian neighbours. Inbar’s father worked as an ambulance driver, and on several occasions he helped transport those who lived nearby for emergency medical treatment in Israel. “Every Tuesday, my father’s Jewish and Arab friends would come to our house and we’d eat lunch together,” Inbar remembered.

Given the gravity of Rina’s situation, she couldn’t leave the house. Secrecy was paramount. The girls spent weeks together indoors, Inbar said, chatting, watching TV and drawing. “I’m not sure that as a child I actually understood it for real,” she said. “She taught me how to paint and sketch a face from sight.”

Almost as soon as Rina arrived, Inbar’s family began receiving anonymous phone calls asking about her. “My dad told me, ‘Don’t mention anything about Rina. Say you don’t know what they’re talking about – because otherwise they’ll come and kill us,’” Inbar said.

While the girls got to know each other, Inbar’s mother, Brigitte, found a women’s shelter in East Jerusalem for Rina. Whereas today Gaza is closed off by a military border under heavy surveillance, at that time it was porous. Brigitte drove Rina in to the capital, where she was given a new name and identity that would enable her to begin a new life, on condition that she contact no one in Gaza.

Today Inbar, who is 33, works at the Gush Katif centre in Nitzan – a museum dedicated to the memory of the Israeli settlements in Gaza. Despite her parents’ objections, the family was evacuated in 2005. Unlike most settlers in Gaza, some residents of Alei Sinai were determined to stay on, even if that meant forfeiting their Israeli citizenship. “I have no problem with living as a minority in a Palestinian state,” one of Alei Sinai’s inhabitants, Avi Farhan, told the Israeli daily Haaretz at the time.

Inbar now lives in Ashkelon, a city of 140,000 in southern Israel, and finds the big city alienating, especially when she recalls the warm relationships that once existed in Gaza. “I’ve never felt less secure,” she told me.

Years later, she learned that Rina had developed cancer and died. “The day before Rina left . . . she drew a portrait of me,” she said, describing how her friend had outlined, in charcoal strokes, the features of the teenager. Her parents packed the portrait with all their belongings in a shipping container the day they left Gaza. Soon after, the container was destroyed in a fire.

“I think if people had given it a chance . . . they would have had these kinds of friendships,” Inbar said, looking back. “We’d get along fairly well if we didn’t look at others as the monsters over the wall.” 

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Isis and the new barbarism