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Escaping the nightmare of history and learning to love Germany

Many of the author’s family perished in the Holocaust and his parents viewed Germany with great suspicion. But today he believes the country that Britons love to hate should be a model for others.

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My father had loud nightmares three or four times a year. They were impossible to avoid in a small, three-bedroom semi-detached house with thin walls. We never talked about them – there didn’t seem much need for explanation. He was, after all, born in 1915 in what was to become the Warsaw Ghetto, and he and his family were doomed to be pulverised; the standard mid-20th-century Polish-Jewish experience.

By the time the Wehrmacht and the Red Army arrived to carve up Poland in September 1939, my father was running the family business as a kosher butcher on the edge of the ghetto. He fought with the Polish army against the Germans and, when the front dissolved, found his way to Lvov in what was then eastern Poland, before being picked up by the Russians for having fake papers. It was, in its way, a fair cop.

A Russian soldier had broken his leg and my father was thought by the injured comrade’s chums, who inspected documents on a regular basis, to be a doctor. He admitted that, despite being a dab hand at the manufacture of goose sausages, he was not so adroit at dealing with the femur and fibula and was thus despatched to the gulag, where he spent two cold and painful years.

He got out when Stalin and Churchill did a deal in 1942 about the Poles languishing in the camps. He trekked through Iraq and Palestine, where as a keen Zionist he might have chosen to stay, but he felt he had a duty to fight the Germans and became part of the Polish corps of the British Army in the Italian campaign.

While he was marching through Italy, his mother, four siblings, all their spouses and all their children were extinguished. His surviving sister was in Belsen and her daughter had already been murdered. After his unit had taken some Germans prisoner he told them, loudly, that he was Jewish. They were convinced that he would shoot them on the spot. He was not that type.

He subsequently came to Britain, resumed life as kosher butcher in north-west London, met my mother at a language school, and acquired British citizenship. And thus, I am British and more than delighted to be so.

My German great-grandparents, on my mother’s side, made a suicide pact shortly after Hitler came to power in 1933. My great-grandfather succeeded, but my great-grandmother didn’t take enough of the Veronal and eventually got to Belgium, accompanied by her cutlery. She was then hidden by a Catholic priest under a cellar for the duration of the war, together with her two daughters and a son-in-law.

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In keeping with most families in Britain, I was brought up with both Germanys, democratic West and communist East, as objects of great suspicion. Yes, West Germany had by the mid-1960s been led by eminently sane types – Konrad Adenauer and Ludwig Erhard. It had been a founder member of the Common Market, and a member of Nato since 1955. Ten years later the Queen had made a successful state visit, offering reconciliation. But none of that was ever going to be enough to suppress those nightmares, nor general anxieties about a revival of German nationalism.

My mother’s first language was German (or, to be more precise, its Swiss-German guttural variant) and both my parents spoke Yiddish. They were quite keen for me to learn German – and not merely as a defensive tactic in case the Germans went mad one more time and tried to invade somewhere. I was encouraged to read Emil and the Detectives by Erich Kästner many times over.

I seemed to be rather good at German in school – but sadly that was in significant part because my mother overhelped with the homework. When the maternal crutch was removed for the summer exams at the end of my first two years, my teacher expressed polite disappointment at the results and pretended it was bad luck.

Improvement was needed and so, in 1968, I went to the Goethe-Gymnasium in Frankfurt for a term on a pupil exchange programme. There was a problem. My parents, not unreasonably, would not have been able to cope with my staying with former Nazis. In the event, the family Nagler was found – and the parents were so young we could all see that they could not have been involved in any Third Reich iniquity.


Clockwise from top left: the author’s father in Warsaw before the war with his niece; his parents in 1950; his father’s 1946 travel documentation; his father (far right) during the Italian campaign; his great-grandparents

My German-born grandmother came over from Zurich to inspect them in their spartan flat – at No 9 Beethovenstrasse, as it happens. They easily passed the test. They took me to Dachau.

Every morning at seven o’clock, I went next door to buy the freshly made bread, and I can smell it still. I remember too that whenever I was in a tram, I assessed the passengers for the likelihood and intensity of their involvement with the Nazis. I found most of them guilty as charged.

The Goethe-Gymnasium had girls, an absolutely thrilling phenomenon for a boy at an all boys’ school with no sister. I was not required to wear school uniform – a surprise. The Germans, I conjectured, had had enough of uniforms. My German improved but this was the moment when I first noticed that they were better at languages than we were. My Frankfurt classmates had started younger, studied English for more hours than I had German, and to greater effect.

I got through O-levels and my German has been stuck at the same level since. By then I already considered the West German state a considerable success. The great Willy Brandt, who had fled Germany under the Nazis, had become, in 1969, the first Social Democrat chancellor for 40 years, and to my family’s delight initiated “Ostpolitik”, which involved closer relations with East Germany and what seemed like a tacit acceptance of a separate East German state. The calculation of the times was that this would diminish the chance of German reunification and any consequent eruption of German muscular power.

Then, in the mid-Seventies, things went sour. The economy was European top dog but the Baader-Meinhof gang was busy terrorising the state. There were bank robberies, kidnappings and 34 people were murdered by the far-left group. Not a large number, but West Germany had a wobble. (Later it emerged that the neighbours, in the form of the Stasi, had been giving the terrorists a helping hand.)

In 1977, the peak Baader-Meinhof year, I was interviewed for a scholarship to study in the US. I was floundering – and then the crusty on the panel asserted that West Germany was going down the drain. I responded that more interesting than the tension was the extent to which hardly 30 years after total defeat and wickedness it had become a poster child for a certain type of liberal capitalism; a pluralist democracy with an economy that could normally be relied on to outperform not only ours but most others. And that little oration swung it my way.

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All the while Britain was awash with many justifiably proud memories of two world wars. British historical sensibility was becoming less shaped by revulsion about the Western Front – Oh! What a Lovely War and the poets – and more by a reappraisal of the war’s many causes that placed German expansionism and militarism at the heart of the matter. Not uninterestingly, the reconfiguration of the debate was adorned by a piece of scholarship from a German historian, Fritz Fischer.

We had played two – won two. The Germans were widely lampooned and we all know the staples: steel-helmeted shouty Krauts, beach-towel kleptomaniacs, humourless automatons. But by now, we were also increasingly aware and fretful that they had “won the peace”.

I bought my first car in 1981 – a Volkswagen Polo. I had not consulted my father and he was not best pleased. And when the Berlin Wall fell eight years later, my parents’ joy at the defeat of communism was accompanied by the same fears about German unification that animated Margaret Thatcher.

I was not much worried – convinced that 45 years of success was neither a fluke nor fragile. The political aspect of the European project had worked both for the Germans and their neighbours, even if our understanding of our own particular history, then and now, meant that we could not – did not – want to share everyone else’s sense of achievement.

Helmut Kohl, the German chancellor in 1989, was easy to poke fun at – huge, fat, ponderous, dull. Thatcher, whether or not you agreed with her, was, after all, so much more charismatic and exciting. But – category error – a country’s success is not a linear function of charismatic leadership. The dullards can work out quite well. Kohl knew what he was about. He wanted one big thing: German reunification. And yet he wasn’t playing much of a nationalist game: “In German history we don’t have many reasons to be proud.”

Thatcher’s fears were pushed aside by President George Bush and, with German unity now achieved, we looked on as the dull man bet the farm, or more precisely the Bundesbank, on allowing East Germany’s Ostmark to be exchanged, one for one, with the Deutschmark – the great totem of West German postwar success.


Divided we fall: East German border guards on top of the Berlin Wall as the first section is torn down by crowds on the morning of 10 November 1989. Credit: Tom Stoddart/Getty

It could not work. There would be political turmoil, rampant inflation and social upheaval leading to heaven knows what. I was editor of the main BBC News bulletin at the time and Germany, for once, got a lot of air time as these challenges were dissected. And there were problems – unproductive East German labour was priced out of the market for quite a while – but 30 years on it’s hard not to conclude that they pulled it off.

We are not at ease about their success – no matter that virtually none who actually fought the Germans are around. One of the many strands in the Brexit campaign was, to put this generously, a suspicion of Germany’s role in the EU. Boris Johnson, no dullard he, having cited both Hitler and Napoleon as champions of a united Europe, yoked these scary historical precedents to the idea that the EU was trying for the same outcome, merely via different means. A racy analysis of contemporary European affairs.

On drier terrain, the euro is perceived by many as a German project, run on cruel fiscally conservative lines, that has allowed them to export the living daylights out of everybody else. And it is true that the dual forces of German productivity and a fixed currency have served the Germans very well. But the euro was not born in Germany – it was a French project. The Bundesbank hated it, but Kohl, ever the good European, forced it through. And long before the euro was invented the Germans knew how to run up an export surplus.

Of course, modern German statecraft is open to strong criticism. Should they have been more generous to southern European countries after the 2008 crash? Was it sensible to close nuclear power stations after the Fukushima disaster and burn more dirty coal? Was Angela Merkel’s decision in 2015 to open the border to hundreds of thousands of migrants sufficiently thought through? Should she have been more accommodating when a desperate David Cameron tried to get her support for his shopping list of requests to help him win the 2016 referendum? Is Germany too soft on China?

But why should Britain not take some satisfaction in the bigger story, which is one of palpable success. It is completely right to celebrate and commemorate our part in the military victory. It was the essential precondition for the re-emergence of a civilised Europe and the birth of modern Germany, but we played a huge part in the peace. For a start, it was the British military government that laid the foundations of a free press and a public broadcasting system not beholden to the government – contrary to German traditions.

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The Germans have every reason to be neurotic about their 20th-century history, but after a shaky beginning in the immediate postwar years they have been confronting their crimes for decades. President Frank-Walter Steinmeier’s speech on 8 May, for the 75th anniversary of VE Day, was the latest in a long line of thoughtful reminders to the Germans about their history. It included this moving passage: “The liberation of 1945 was imposed from outside. It had to come from outside – this country had descended too far into the evil, the guilt it had brought upon itself. Likewise, the economic reconstruction and democratic renewal in the western part of Germany were only made possible by the generosity, farsightedness and readiness for reconciliation of our former foes.”

It makes a contrast with the guff written recently by the Cambridge historian Robert Tombs. In a supremely patronising piece, he proclaimed “Germany is a cultural vacuum”. He interprets a constitutional court ruling apparently inhibiting Merkel’s power to provide more German aid to EU countries badly affected by Covid-19 as “reflecting the mentality of a defeated and shamed nation – perhaps a resentful one”. But no sooner had Tombs decided that Merkel was maimed, and Germany shamed, than she found a political and diplomatic way out. The Germans are behind a new EU fund that will give grants to the countries worst affected – to the tune of €500bn – and a further €250bn in loans. The Germans will put up the largest amount of money.

There is much more of Tombs’s sophomore stuff. Germany, he writes, is “a lesser country than it was in 1890”. I wonder, in his own shrivelled terms, what constitutes greater and lesser. Britain in 2020 stacks up as obviously less great and powerful compared to Britain in 1890. But in any event, both countries are in any number of ways a great deal better now than they were then. I doubt many Germans pine for the “greatness” of Bismarck’s Prussian version of Germany – characterised in part by a scorn for legislatures and a love of the martial spirit. Whether Britain suffers from too much misplaced nostalgia about some aspects of its own history is another matter. Let’s just say – it is not an uncommon view.

As for culture, when I was head of an Oxford college, it was striking that many of the most promising music students looked to Germany when they graduated. There are far more professional orchestras, 130, and far more opportunities – and they are spread across the country because Germany is so much less centralised than the UK. We need a northern powerhouse in part because London, love it as I do, makes England so lopsided.

There’s more to German culture than the music. The German theatre tradition did not die with Brecht; Daniel Kehlmann is a great playwright. Berlin – with much lower rents than London – is a magnet for creative talent. We have a thriving arts festival circuit and so do they. Never mind about Bayreuth – there’s the Berlin Film Festival, the Frankfurt Book Fair, the Berliner Theatertreffen, Rock am Ring. And on.

It is true, as Tombs says, that English is more widely spoken than German (largely courtesy of the US) – and tens of millions of Germans learn to speak it. But it should be our national embarrassment that we are so feeble at learning other tongues, rather than a reason to look down our linguistically challenged noses at those who master English. When the great German footballer Jürgen Klinsmann, an ex-apprentice baker, gave his first interview in English after his Tottenham debut in 1994 it turned out that he spoke it better than most English managers or players. (He also speaks fluent French and Italian.) This is often the case with other German footballers and managers (think Liverpool’s Jürgen Klopp).

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he Germans have a realistic sense of where they stand in the world and they don’t want world leadership. If they did, Robert Tombs doubtless would find other reasons to sneer. They are more prosperous and more equal than we are. Britain has struggled for well over a century to devise an education system that respects academic and technical achievement and excellence. The Germans had better answers to that problem a long time ago. They normally invest more and they train their workforce better. They don’t even seem to have to work as many hours a week to sustain their generally higher standard of living.

They, like us, are a democracy with the rule of law, they have a well-ordered state, and yes, they have done better with Covid-19. It’s time we grew up about Germany.

I don’t believe I qualify for German citizenship – should I ever think of applying. My grandmother left Germany several years before 1933 and not because she had a premonition that Hitler would come to power. Nor do I believe my great-grandparents’ suicide pact gives me the right to a passport. At least I don’t have to lose sleep wondering what my father would make of it all. But that would be a better thing to lose sleep about than his Holocaust nightmares. l

Mark Damazer is a former head of BBC Radio 4

This article appears in the 24 July 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Summer special