Dresden

Yesterday I was asked to do an interview with Radio Cymru about the 75th anniversary of the destruction of the German city of Dresden by British and American bombing. The event is iconic because of the intensity of the fire storm that sucked people into the inferno and deprived them of oxygen in their shelters, because of the internationally acknowledged beauty of the baroque city centre, and because of the questionable military value of the raids in the final months of the war. It was immediately weaponised by the Nazi propaganda machine which characterised it as “terror” and has been used with renewed vigour in recent years by the hard right to detract attention from German crimes by emphasising this massacre of Germans (25,000 died). Every year there are solemn ceremonies and peace vigils, but also a right wing protest, which is in turn countered by anti-fascists.

Innocent victims of war are just that and should be remembered, but without using them to excuse or downplay unprovoked (Nazi) military aggression and genocide. War is messy and it is hard for a country to come out of it without being morally compromised, even if it was on the right side. But we should try to understand our history, even if it is uncomfortable and complicated. The war between Germany and England was carried out largely in the air. First the Battle of Britain, which prevented Germany from gaining the air superiority which would have enabled an invasion and thus a clean sweep of serious European contenders, and then the incessant waves of air raids that destroyed German cities one after another. Three aspects of the war are etched on the German consciousness: firstly, the hellish Eastern Front, where Hitler and Stalin outdid each other in their callous hubristic incompetence, leaving millions of dead in their wake; secondly the experience of 12 million (mainly German) refugees flooding into Western Germany from the Eastern Europe, fleeing the Russians and never to return to their homelands; and thirdly, the razing of German cities by allied bombing.

Dresden was not the only or even the worst conflagration of the bombing campaign. Most German cities of any size or importance were hit, and many largely destroyed. Hamburg, Cologne, Essen and Berlin to name but a few. This was not an aberration but a consistent campaign of erasure, not just of industrial capacity, military communications and transport infrastructure, but of churches, hospitals and homes; of the civilian population. This kind of warfare was used by Germany from the beginning of the war, against Coventry and London, Warsaw and Leningrad. But if they sowed the wind they certainly reaped the whirlwind and the productive capacity of the US meant that they could not resist the bombers coming from England night after night, day after day, like flocks of huge migrating birds. Around half a million people were killed, millions made homeless and a whole urban culture basically wiped out. The postwar reconstruction was in most places soulless and modernist brutalist. Only in the most important historical centres, like Dresden, were old treasures reconstructed, and in some places the odd enlightened architect managed to leave something noteworthy, such as the Dortmund opera house, which was built on the site of a splendid synagogue built at the turn of the century. The latter was destroyed by the Nazis, a fact not given prominence in the new building until the final decade of the century.  

There have been many debates about whether the blanket bombing of German cities should be considered a war crime, whether it was justified or excessive, whether the Chief of RAF Bomber Command, Sir Arthur “Bomber” Harris should be honoured or condemned. His nick name in the RAF was apparently “Butcher” Harris, perhaps more because of the high death toll of bomber crew (over 50,000) than the German population. This was the era of “total war”. No longer were troops just dispatched to the front to fight from trench to trench far from home, or to engage in set piece battles. Hitler had unleashed the Blitzkrieg against France in the West: a fast moving attack that struck deep into enemy territory with motorised units, and the war of total destruction in the East, against Russia: where civilians were routinely terrorised and killed. Air raids meant that nowhere was safe. Also, the entire economies of the combatant nations were pitted against each other. So, it seemed to Harris and many commanders in the war that everything and everybody could be a legitimate target. If crushing German cities and towns into dust weakened the ability of the country to fight, then it seemed justified. To civilians on the receiving end of huge nighttime air raids with incendiary and explosive bombs, they inevitably appeared arbitrary and devastating.

Today We Leave.

Today the UK leaves the EU. A momentous moment, an unprecedented event, a tragedy even. Sure. We like to think of countries and international organisations as stable and immutable, but of course they are not. Since the UK joined the EU another 20 odd countries have done so. Much of this happened because the Soviet Bloc broke up, which resulted in the creation, independence and reshaping of many countries including the land of my birth, Germany. The fact is, that if you take the long view, the world changes, alliances change, borders change, unions are formed. They grow, they shrink, like Boris’ hairdo, and sometimes they disappear altogether. Unfortunately, when this has happened in the past it was mostly as a result of wars involving untold bloodshed and suffering. What the European Union has achieved is that now we can have the map of Europe changing without anyone having to go to war over it. When the Eastern European countries joined; Poland, Hungary, Latvia and so on, it was not because the EU invaded them, but because they wanted to join and were admitted. Now Britain is leaving, and although it has been traumatic and is, in my opinion, like walking into self-imposed exile, there has been no bloodshed over it. No insurgency, no civil war, no repression. This is a sign that despite the disagreements, we have managed to behave in a civilised way, and that there has been real progress. It shows that the UK and the EU are both democratic bodies that can sort out even difficult issues by negotiation. We’re lucky, because there are places today where such disputes are fought out with cluster bombs, torture and drone strikes. 

When Britain joined the EU in the 70s it was the sick man of Europe. My father used to bring candles and bog roll from Germany because these things were hard to get in England due to strikes and power cuts. People who are nostalgic for pre-EU days seem to forget this. The growth in prosperity of the UK in the last 40 years has gone hand in hand with the growth of the EU, and many countries have been transformed by their membership: Ireland and Portugal to name but two. We achieved the freedom to travel, study and work throughout our continent. We can use our phones and the same money in many countries without being ripped off by banks and telecoms companies every time we cross a border. Businesses can trade without tariffs and quotas. We don’t even have to stop at many of the borders inside Europe. The environment is protected and workers cannot be made to work unreasonable hours. The benefits have been legion and mostly Europe has prospered. Even when during the financial crisis, Europe managed to hold together and help its weaker members weather the storm.  

But what of the future? Will Britain go backwards now? Let’s hope not. Will Britain break up? It’s looking more likely now than before and that may not be a bad thing. But it will be more disruptive now, because in all probability Scotland would want to rejoin the EU and then have the same issue as Ireland with a hard border to England. Certainly things will not stand still. The EU will now be able to forge ahead with greater integration, making it a formidable competitor with a huge economy, a single currency and fully integrated markets. We need this Europe as a counterweight to China, Russia and yes, even the US. Britain looks likely to move closer to America now, which may be fine. But whereas we can see that the Europeans are genuinely sorry to see us go, are the Americans really as bothered about us? We like to think that we have a special relationship with them, but we are like a teenage fan in love with a pop idol; we think we have a unique bond with them until we go to a concert and see many others just as enthralled. Japan, South Korea, Germany, Saudi Arabia, Israel; these are all key allies of the United States, and Britain is just part of the list. In Europe, Britain was an equal partner in some ways and in reality it was one of the big 3. So, it held a position of great influence. Can we really hold our own with the US in the same way? Or will we ultimately have to bend to their will? America is certainly not above pushing other countries around when it comes to promoting her interests. And it is obvious that we really need to do a deal, which will not put us in a strong position.

But let’s not be pessimistic. There seems to be a will to remain close to the EU and hopefully not too many of the gains will be lost to us. And there are plenty of people in Britain who cherish their relationship with Europe and will continue to make it as close as they can. Let us remember our friends from all over this wonderful continent and stay connected with them, so that the bonds we have prevail against the forces of division, isolation and populism.

German and Exotic

So, why did I, a German coming from England to Wales, feel the need to learn Welsh? I could easily have thought ‘well, I’ve already had to learn English — that will do’. I think there was a part of me that regarded it as just going through the same process of learning and integration as I had when I was dropped into an English primary school, like a goldfish into a tank of piranhas. Perhaps something deeper in me identified with the underdog. In Germany we kids had played ‘cowboys and Indians’, rather than ‘war’ as they did in England at the time. I always identified with the Indians: their interesting dress, their brave resistance against the odds, their incredible horsemanship and their closeness to nature. In Wales, I saw something intriguing and exotic in this strange language that had survived under the nose of the most powerful empire in History. Also, I made a connection between the Welsh and the Jews, as minorities that others had tried to obliterate, if not physically in the case of the Welsh, then at least culturally. As a German intent on being the opposite of a Nazi, it was obvious to me that I should take up their language, and their cause. I would say that the language is so central to Welsh culture, that it is their cause, certainly in Welsh speaking areas.

In those areas the Welsh-English divide has been the major cultural issue in the time I have lived there and probably for centuries. The Welsh speakers there mostly see the language as crucial to their identity, whereas the non-Welsh speakers are often painfully aware that they lack the deep connection to place and history that the language provides. (The situation is probably somewhat different in areas where Welsh is not spoken as much). Coming into this context meant that being German took on a different significance. Rather than being a contemporary representative of the enemy of Wars and football games, I was now something rather exotic myself; a German Welsh learner. Any incomer who embraced the language and actually used it for real was something of a rarity, but someone from outside the UK who did so was seen as something close to a miracle by Welsh people. Furthermore, I could be weaponised against those English people who did not show a similar respect for, and interest in, Welsh. Mostly, Welsh people reacted to me with fascination and approval, rather than the mild shock, unease and even prejudice I had been used to in England.

Second Time Immigrant – Wales

It is not just Germans who can be ambivalent about their background. Questions of identity are among the most vexing and widely debated of our time. One of the distinctions that could be drawn is between people who look to affirm their inherited identity, and those who are more interested in a fluid existence amongst multiple identities. A number of well-established dichotomies can be set alongside this; remainers and leavers, locals and cosmopolitans, somewheres and anywheres. I am not trying to put a value judgement on either side of these divides, since neither perspective has a monopoly on virtue or evil. When indigenous communities are bulldozed aside by a more numerous and ‘modern’ culture, I find myself on the side of the ‘locals’. When people are suspicious of anyone different and treat them unfairly, I side firmly with those who are mobile, whether by choice or by circumstance. Perhaps the mobile, cosmopolitan, hybrid people can be divided again into those who are happy as a composite of a number of cultures, and those who throw themselves wholeheartedly into a single culture that is not the one in which they grew up. But then the division is probably never that neat, and once you begin to consider it more carefully it begins to disintegrate. 

I have been something of a cultural butterfly, perhaps I got a taste for it by being moved as a child and never quite stopped. Perhaps I’m just inquisitive by nature. In any case, for one reason or another I found myself at university in Bangor, in a strongly Welsh-speaking area of Wales. Most of the students there are from England and I blended in quite well with them. But I was intrigued by the strange looking Welsh-English bilingual signs and the snatches of Welsh one heard spoken around the town and the University. I think partly I was going into immigrant mode, i.e. remembering how I came to England and had to learn English in a hurry, and thinking: I’m in Wales now, so I should learn Welsh. I know this is not how most English people react when they arrive there. I think they tend to think of Wales as part of England and can be a little surprised and even irritated by this strange tongue they find there. In any case, even though I was interested from the start, I found it was not nearly as easy or quick to learn Welsh as it had been to learn English. For a start, the Welsh students were engaged in a political struggle to promote the language and tended to keep themselves apart. Then there is the fact that Welsh speakers are bilingual and will tend to speak English to you if they think you are not local. I did go to a couple of lessons in the beginning, but soon got distracted by the local music scene and student life. I had a Welsh friend at the time but he seemed to be as keen to hide his identity as many Germans are to hide theirs.

It was not until I had finished my degree that I renewed my efforts to learn Welsh. I had bought a house with my partner so we were already quite settled and began to make Welsh friends at the local pub. When a band project I had been working towards fell through and I used the demo songs to get music commissions for the newly set up Welsh TV channel S4C, I also came into contact with the language professionally. By now I had realised that learning Welsh would be nothing like learning English had been for me. For one thing, I was older, and it is more difficult to learn a language as an adult. Furthermore, it was difficult to replicate the same level of immersion and imperative to learn as I had experienced as a child in an all-English playground. But learning became an obsession. People would tell me ‘oh, you’re good at languages’ implying that it was easy for me. No. It is hard. I think my determination was the main factor in succeeding. One thing I needed to accept was that to learn a language as an adult is a journey rather than a destination. I am fluent and comfortable in Welsh. But I know I am not perfect. Very few adult learners of a language ever entirely lose their accent or make no grammatical mistakes. It goes to show how deeply the culture we learn a children marks us.

This brings me back to being German. After all, this blog series is about my experience of living in the UK as a German rather than about learning Welsh per se. It is just that Wales became my home and Welsh became a key part of my experience. In going to Wales and learning Welsh I became an immigrant for the second time. Of course, many English people live in Wales and don’t really engage with Welsh language and culture, but once you do, you are embarking on a significant process of integration which is by no means straight forward. Here I have to emphasise the distinction between learning a language and actually interacting with the people who speak that language naturally in their mother tongue. Many people take lessons or courses in a language, or practice it using an app. But only a fraction of these actually use it in everyday life. The second of these steps is harder, it takes some courage in terms of getting out of your social comfort zone and being prepared to make an idiot of yourself, but ultimately it is the best, I would say the only way, to really get to grips with a language. And, it is great fun and very rewarding when you make progress.

We Don’t Like Each Other Either

I assume that the ambivalence about their German identity felt by the post-War generation is the reason they tend to be standoffish towards each other abroad. Not for us the delight of meeting a compatriot far from home, the immediate interest and enjoyment of shared language and culture which is typical of many other nationalities in such situations. We tend to avoid each other, to be rather cold and uninterested. We observe each other with a critical eye, are quick to judge and slow to praise. As in so many things to do with my divided identity, I am split on this. On the one hand I find it ridiculous, and on the other I am exactly the same way. 

Years ago, I was walking off a hangover on a beach in Wales. I had been out for a good while and wanted to know the time. For some reason I had no watch or phone one me so I approached a couple who were also walking on the otherwise deserted beach. As I came within earshot, I heard them speaking German, so I asked them the time in German and they answered me in our shared language. No other words were exchanged. They went off in one direction and I in another. This may seem a little odd, but OK, the wind was blowing hard and perhaps it was not a conducive situation for striking up a conversation. However, after my hangover had begun to recede, I started to feel ravenous, as one does, and when I got back to town I went into a cafe and ordered a hearty breakfast. Who should come in and sit at a table near me, but the same German couple I had encountered on the beach. Not a word passed between us. No ‘so are you on holiday here?’, or ‘wasn’t it windy out?’ or ‘where are you from?’; nothing. I find this very strange, and yet it was not only they who were keeping their distance, it was me, too. I can’t imagine Welsh people, or Americans, or Spaniards behaving in this way. It is almost as if we have internalised some of the prejudices and suspicions about us that undoubtedly exist. I sometimes say, half jokingly, that ‘nobody likes us; and we don’t like each other either’.

Inside Germany this kind of attitude can express itself in damning criticism of the way things are done there. Whether it is the bureaucracy (no worse than in France), or the lack of decent dance music (definitely not true since the techno boom of the nineties) many Germans love to knock their country. This is not a uniquely German habit, but it is quite common and I think again is a way of demonstrating what an un-German German you are. Perhaps the most obvious form of this is the readiness with which we use languages other than our own. Of course it is nice that Germans tend to be keen on learning other languages, and it is quite a contrast with many English people. But again, I feel it often borders on the absurd. 

I once went to a party in the UK thrown by an immigrant academic and as it happened the first guests to arrive were all German academics, including me (far be it from me to confirm a stereotype about punctuality here!). There were four of us, and we were chatting together, but not a word of German passed between us. Again, can you imagine, four Italians, or Arabs, or Chinese doing this? I don’t think so. It’s just unnatural and it shows how ill at ease we are with ourselves. One of the guests in question actually refused to speak German to me, ever, and I met him in a few different contexts. This is by no means uncommon. People claim to have forgotten their mother tongue in a year or two, avoid speaking it, or simply refuse to, even with another German. I am keen to learn languages myself and like to practice them. But I am not talking of situations here where anyone needed to practice English. These are people who live in an English speaking country, but would be perfectly capable of speaking German, if they were not embarrassed about who they are.

Let’s Talk About the Holocaust

OK, let’s bite the bullet. Let’s talk about the Holocaust. Let me preface this by saying that the genocide of Jews perpetrated by the Nazis in the name of Germany is a crime and a tragedy of gigantic proportions and nothing of what follows is intended to take away from that. The pain and loss of that mass murder is borne primarily by the victims and their families and this is first and paramount in the memory and understanding of those events.

The killing of millions of innocent people by the Nazi death machine casts a long shadow and has had a huge impact on much beyond the story of Jewish people. I am tempted to say it has affected everything, but perhaps it is more accurate to say it has had far reaching effects in Western politics and culture. I believe that everyone should be aware of that history, but every German absolutely must. It is really impossible to understand post-war Europe without understanding something of the Holocaust. If you are German you are inevitably confronted with this history. If you live abroad then this is one of the primary facts that people associate with your country. If you live in Germany then there is plenty in education and the media to tell you about and remind you of the Holocaust. The days of ignoring the Nazi past came to an end in 1979, the year I happened to be back in Germany for my gap year. The Broadcast of an American TV series about the genocide, called Holocaust, opened the floodgates and that year the media were full of reports, pictures and discussions of it. It was the post-war generation waking up to what had really happened and being appalled and shocked. 

The thing is that the Shoa, as Jews often call it, is really difficult to comprehend, even if you are prepared to face up to it. It is harder if you are German, because it inevitably makes you feel guilt by association. The mere facts of it defy one’s imagination. How does one murder six million men women and children? That’s a huge city of people. How can that happen? How could people take part in this? How could people want this? How could people accept this? The more you think about it, the more impossible it seems. And yet it happened. There are Holocaust denyers who would prefer to believe that it is simply not true. I can see why they would prefer to believe that, but they are wrong. One of the dreadful things to come to terms with (beyond the tragedy itself) is that it was done by people like us. Firstly, I want to say that by that I mean everybody. For anyone to think that this was done by people who were fundamentally different to themselves, is a cop-out. Prejudice and hatred can exist everywhere, as well as elements of the suffocating weave of conformism, bureaucracy, authoritarianism and violence that made it possible. But it all came together in a perfect storm in Germany in WWII. There have been other genocides and mass murders. Some probably bigger. But the Nazi Holocaust is the best documented and the most inescapeable, and the most chilling. It is of course least escapeable if you are German. I am sure that for people from other countries there is a sense of distancing themselves from the crimes when they watch a film about them because, well this is something the Germans did, other people, not us. We don’t have that luxury. Of course, there are Germans who tell you that this is nothing to do with them… a long time ago, they had nothing to do with it. They are wrong. It was done in our name, it happened in our culture, we bear the legacy. 

And just as with African slavery in the New World, the present day effects and connections with the Holocaust can be found in a myriad of situations. Whether you work for a company that profited, or you look at artwork that was stolen, or live in a street where the Jewish presence was erased, or you are linked to people who lived through that time, or died in it, you are connected to the Holocaust. Once you have accepted that you have to face this calamity as a German it has profound repercussions in your sense of self. It makes it impossible to simply be ‘proud to be German’, in the way that other people casually pat themselves on the back for their accident of birth. If I am going to bask in the glow of great Germans like Beethoven and Kant, do I not also have to acknowledge a connection to Himmler and Mengele? If I am going to claim some credit for the achievements of the Reformation or of the Economic Miracle after the War, do I not also have take some of the blame for the inhumanity of the death camps?

One response to this is to dissociate yourself from your identity, and many postwar Germans tried to do this. I have met many abroad who after only a few months in another country claim to be forgetting their fluency in German. They try to blend in as much as possible, they don’t associate with their compatriots. Even in Germany these Germans try to be as un-German as possible, by identifying primarily with other cultures. I have great sympathy with this stance, and so some extent I share it. But, unfortunately, I also believe that it is problematic and fundamentally dishonest. It is not just that when you try to make other people believe that you are not really German, you are lying to them, but you are also lying to yourself. There is a German saying that ‘you cannot jump over your own shadow’. And you cannot simply renounce your heritage, no matter how uncomfortable it is, because it is part of you.  

Fish Swimming in Chablis

There is no doubt that coming to England initially made me much more aware of being German and what that might mean. Living in a culture is a bit like being a fish swimming in an aquarium; the fish is not aware of the water. Moving to another culture is like suddenly being transferred to another liquid, say Chablis. If a fish were to survive such a move, it would suddenly feel a number of differences between swimming through water and swimming through white wine. Growing up in West Germany was particularly transparent because any expression of nationalism or patriotism was totally taboo and did not really occur in my orbit. This was, of course, because there had been a surfeit of all that under the Nazis and it was the last thing anyone wanted to hear after that disaster. My generation, however, did not remember that and there was pretty much an information blackout on the matter, as I have said previously. Therefore, I had only the vaguest sense of what it might mean to be German when I arrived in Britain, where I was confronted with a population whose idea of Germanness was only too clear – and it wasn’t good. 

Not only did the English kids I went to school with have a strong Idea of what being German meant, but they were also much more forthright about Britishness than I could be about my own background. There was the obvious sense of pride and superiority about winning ‘two World Wars and one World Cup’, but there was also still an idea of the Empire, or at least the Commonwealth, of traditions like cricket, ancient schools and other institutions. Wider British society nurtured an impressive sense of continuity which contrasted markedly with the turbulent and fractured history of my country, and that of most other European countries. I attended two English schools which were named after a monarch from the 1500s, and apparently dated back to that time. The Gymnasium I attended briefly in Germany was named after the Scholl siblings, who were guillotined for resisting the Nazis. Germany had 7 different kinds of government in the 20th century: 

1) Monarchy under the Kaiser

2) A period of anarchy and revolution after WWI

3) The democratic but unstable Weimar Republic

4) The Nazi dictatorship

5) Occupation and administration by the Allies after WWII

6) Divided Germany: communist East and democratic, capitalist West

7) Reunified, federal, democratic, capitalist Germany

This made it difficult to have a sense of the place and its history. Earlier in the 19th Century, Germany was not even a nation state as such, but a crazy-paving of little independent territories, loosely presided over by a shadowy Holy Roman Emperor. Somehow, there seemed to be any number of obstacles to getting a sense of Germany as an entity, including its constantly changing borders. But the main problem was Hitler. In order to approach some kind of comfortable relationship with the German past, you had to get past him, and you don’t get much more uncomfortable than that, so most of it remained amorphous or out of bounds. 

The English, by contrast, seemed to have a way of loving their past, of telling themselves warm and comforting stories about it – and believing them. In many ways I envy them for this, it is one of the many things I have internalised. I love old houses for instance, Victorian-ish interiors and rustic cottages.The Germans managed to demolish much of what had been spared by the Allied bombing in the years after the war and most seem to be happy living in geometrical boxes. Despite the fact that British history is not always pretty, the English tend to have a strong sense of what it contains, with plenty of positive feelings about it and a great deal of pride, which is supported and reinforced by glossy period TV dramas, historical novels, and documentaries by celebrity historians. 

The Victorian era is particularly interesting in this regard. It conjures up scenes of aristocratic country houses, snowy Christmases, hearty plowmen, steam railways, the British melting in the Indian heat, but running the subcontinent with a stiff upper lip. We know, of course, that colonialism is wrong, that there was great injustice, that working class people were very poor. We know these things to some extent from the same TV dramas and documentaries, from the novels of Charles Dickens, and the TV dramas based on them. And yet there remains a sheen which makes the period approachable and nostalgically lovable. There is a sense of familiarity with Victorian England, although I dare say that if we were suddenly transported back there we would find it shocking. I always thought it was odd when Margaret Thatcher held up ‘Victorian Values’ as something to be emulated. What did these values entail? Children working long days in dangerous factories! Ostracising women for having sex before marriage, but allowing men to take advantage of underage prostitutes openly roaming the streets! And ethnically cleansing parts of Australia of the native population! But the fact remains that the English, for the most part, have an intimate and positive relationship with their past, whereas for Germans it is much harder to understand and accept their own.

England is much closer to Australia than to Holland

It was obvious during the 70s and 80s that whenever an English person realised I was German, there was an intake of breath and they had to try and reconcile the extremely rich store of German war images and stereotypes with – me. This usually took a few beats, long enough for me to interpose a comment such as, “yes, I left the jackboots at home today”. Postwar images of Germans in the media tended to be of unattractive or hateful; fat, harsh women; vain, pompous men; desperately uncool tourists and so on. The constant diet of negative images of Germans as ugly, ridiculous, humourless, unsubtle or downright evil often made my Mother feel defensive and ashamed. As for my teenage self, it simply made me want to integrate into English culture. Not that I simply wanted to blend in. When I arrived in Grammar School my English was up to speed and I was on my way to forging a personal identity which incorporated some of the popular culture of the time: progressive rock, hippie clothes, etc. Being German just made me different in a way which could be OK as long as I could explore being a kid in England without being hemmed in. 

Knowledge of contemporary Germany was very sketchy in the UK and paled into insignificance in comparison to the all-pervasive War imagery. While the Brits were still basking in the glory of victory, Germany had rebuilt and West Germany was forging ahead economically. Britain was fast becoming the sick man of Europe, with archaic nationalised industries riven by multiple strikes. Ironically, the Germany I knew was also more liberal than the UK. In school for instance, in Germany we had no school uniforms, corporal punishment was not an official sanction, whereas in the UK it still was. German school kids took days out to protest about issues and had genuinely independent school councils. In Britain the school regime seemed to me to have a kind of antiquated quasi-military organisation and discipline, with uniforms, calling teachers ‘Sir’, canings meted out by the headmaster, prefects who could punish younger kids, and so on. The scouts, which I did not know about in Germany but were a common sight in England, were shocking to my family because they reminded them so much of the Hitler youth. 

The lack of knowledge about modern Germany, and in fact continental Europe as a whole, is something which I have often found frustrating. Of course all countries are first and foremost interested in themselves. But it is obvious that the British media are much more concerned with what is going on in the predominantly white English speaking world than they are in their nearest neighbours. There is a cultural proximity which creates an easy flow of music, TV and films, particularly between the UK and the US. Culturally, England is much closer to Australia than to Holland. This is despite the fact that many Brits travel to and work on the Continent, and despite the many visitors and immigrants from those countries that come here. I think that apart from the history and politics of European countries what is very much missing in the UK is European trivia. Stories of everyday life and celebrities that populate the mind with a sense of what life is like in a place. We get plenty of this from the States, but hardly anything from Europe. More often than not, the stories that do come through conform to stereotypes. For instance, neo-Nazis in Germany have been a favourite topic in the UK media over the years. Don’t get me wrong: there is an extreme right in Germany and they are disgusting and of course we should be on our guard against them. However, for much of the last half century they have been marginal. The Greens (Green Party) on the other hand have been and are a powerful force. They began as a grass roots organisation and pressure group and eventually became a strong political party which was in coalition government from 1998 to 2005. They have been instrumental in bringing about the discontinuation of nuclear power in Germany and have been part of a transformation of attitudes which has been highly influential in other countries, and is of course at the heart of global discourse today. I don’t remember ever seeing a report on the rise or the influence of the German Green movement in the British media. I’m not saying that this was never mentioned, but it certainly was not something of which the British public were generally aware.

It was this cultural distance from Europe that made being German here such an effort at times. I felt like an ambassador and sometimes like a sole representative of a country about which so little was known in its present form, but about which historical narratives abounded, that the pressure to be a good example of a modern German was always there. The lack of closeness to the experience of life on the Continent also contributed to the antipathy to the EU. These people with whom one was supposed to be sharing the running of things now? The English simply did not know who they were. 

Oh What a Lovely War

When I landed in England in the 70s, the War was very present in the culture. Indeed it had ended less than 30 years ago, which does not seem very long now, but to a 10 year-old is like an eternity. But there was another time-distorting aspect to this. In Germany, at the time, the War was out of sight and out of mind, Basil Fawlty’s ‘don’t mention the War’ was actually not far from the German reality. People had suffered immensely; my Mother’s family were bombed out, my Grandfather was shot through the jaw, we know people whose parents had starved to death, or been swallowed by the Dresden firestorm. There must also have been huge guilt and guilt by association. Although they did not become widely publicised until the 80s, people knew of the horrendous Nazi crimes well enough. But also, the country had been transformed completely. From a strutting aggressive dictatorship with imperial ambitions to a divided country, each part beholden to a different superpower, one affluent and democratic, the other oppressed but at least stable and well fed. In between had been blanket bombing and destitution. It is not surprising that it seemed like a different world.

England in the seventies lived and breathed the War. In films, TV, novels, children’s comics, toys, comedy. The memory was brought out daily like a talisman, polished, enjoyed and passed around. Whereas kids in Germany played cowboys and Indians, in England they played WWII. When I arrived in my primary school in King’s Lynn, almost the only immigrant and certainly the only German, with hardly a word of English, the kids went crazy. The enemy had appeared in their midst. On the first day my mother had naïvely sent me out in Lederhosen, because that’s what German children wore to school at that time. At break time, for my first few days at the English school, I was followed around the playground by a mob of kids screaming ‘Sieg Heil!’, a phrase with which they were a great deal more familiar than me.

Is Liking Pickles a German Thing?

Why do I still think about being German? What’s the big deal? I have lived in the UK since I was ten years old, apart from a curtailed gap year back in the old country. I’m not particularly fond of the place, though I think it has a good deal more going for it than many Brits realise. I don’t make a point of hanging out with my compatriots, although they do seem to get everywhere so I meet them from time to time. I go back regularly to see my family but don’t have many other friends there and don’t usually stay for more than a few days. If it was not for my angular mouthful of a name I could certainly pass for English, and have been able to since I was 12, but I decided long ago not to try and hide my identity, although it is not always a comfortable one to wear, or should that be ‘bear’?

But for a number of reasons I find that being German in the UK in 2020 is something that I do want to write about. One of these reasons is obviously Brexit, which now seems inevitable with the leaving date due in less than a month. However, I do not want to go over the ground that has been so well trodden since the referendum, and which will no doubt be further churned in the coming months and even years. Rather, I want to offer a more personal account of a relationship between two countries, two cultures and of my own compound identity and experience. There has been much writing by people who look different about how they have negotiated the issues surrounding their identity, fitting in to a culture that does not always accept them, while trying to understand how to relate to another culture which they may or may not have direct experience of. I do not look different, but the difference is there, sometimes I feel it, sometimes I am made to feel it, and despite the proximity of our cultures and countries, the differences and frictions are, well, let’s say considerable. And whereas things have changed a great deal since I first came to these shores, Brexit is a rude awakening for anyone who thought that the old divisions were behind us. So, from now until the end of this month, when Britain is due to leave the EU, I am going to blog about Germany and the UK, and about being German in the UK.