Category Archives: Identities

Reclaiming Community Expression

The fascinating question arises why Adopted Cultural Practices like yoga, samba and salsa are so widespread and popular in contemporary Western societies. From Los Angeles to Athens we can find people who adore these activities and devote much of their leisure time to behaving like imagined people from a far away culture. I am going to argue that this is because the ACPs allow us to reclaim something which our societies are losing or destroying. What I am talking about is complex but I can boil it down to two terms: community, and active art. Contemporary Western societies tend to emphasise the individual and individual lifestyles and choices. They also tend to commodify artistic expression, so that it is something to passively consume alone, rather than something to actively do together. Before I go any further in explaining how Adopted Cultural Practices enable a sense of community and active art, we need to consider some relevant social models.

Sociologists have long differentiated between ‘community’ and ‘society’. Because these concepts were initially discussed in German by Ferdinand Tönnies and then by Max Weber, they are also often referred to as ‘Gemeinschaft’ and ‘Gesellschaft’ respectively. Community in this sense means a traditional grouping, such as a village, tribe, or extended family. In such a community we can imagine a limited number of people, between a few dozen and a few thousand, many of whom know each other. They would share a culture with all its facets: food, music, dance, religion and so on. Within this group there would be certain hierarchies according to attributes such as age, gender, particular skills, knowledge or power, but the hierarchies would be clear and tangible. Leo Tolstoy describes such a community in his short novel The Cossacks. He describes a village of people who are all invested in the same existential work of growing food, hunting and defending themselves against enemies. They are intimately aware of the loves and intrigues of their neighbours, and they celebrate together with pride and joy in their shared life. Clearly, this is an idyll; an idealised traditional peasant culture that is being contrasted with the more urban and modern life of the 19th Century Russian elite, which was heavily influenced by France. It can stand for the many versions of the idea of a traditional community, an idea which can be associated with backwardness on the one hand, or with a more natural life on a human scale on the other. Frederic Jameson sums up the contradiction between nostalgia and disdain that marks the stance of modern societies towards such communities.

‘The dominant white middle-class groups—already given over to anomie and social fragmentation and atomization—find in the ethnic and racial groups which are the object of their social repression and status contempt at one and the same time the image of some older collective ghetto or ethnic neighborhood solidarity; they feel the envy and ressentiment of the Gesellschaft for the older Gemeinschaft which it is simultaneously exploiting and liquidating.’ (Jameson, 1979)

We can see in this the various processes that accompany the social changes of modernisation, urbanisation and globalisation. However, ‘community’ and ‘society’ are simplified snapshots of ways of living that in reality can overlap and are inevitably dynamic, complex and layered. As concepts of human organisation they nevertheless serve the purpose of exemplifying typical features of these different ways of life. I will briefly sketch these out, but to the two already mentioned I would like to add a third: post-industrial society, because what was original meant by ‘Gesellschaft’ when juxtaposed with ‘Gemeinschaft’ was industrial society.

  1. ‘Community’ I have already described above as a small collection of people who share many or their forms of expression and are closely interconnected with each other. 
  2. ‘Society’ refers to a much larger group of people, as we might find in a nation state, many of whom would live in cities and work in big industries. They would be subject codified laws and organised into large segments such as social classes. Their culture could be partially community based, such as the choirs and brass bands of industrial Wales, but would also be largely homogenised, commodified and commercialised in media such as cinema or radio. 
  3. Post-industrial society still exists in urbanised nation states, but it is marked by a progressive weakening not just of community ties of family, neighbourhood and ethnicity, but also of the mass identifications of class and national identity. Their place is taken by a collage of ad hoc communities which individuals can seek out, but which ultimately underline the atomisation of a society in which people have to search for and refashion their own sense of identity and belonging. 

I must reiterate that these are concepts rather than accurate descriptions of actual ways of living. Looking at the contemporary West at the time of writing, we can see that clearly local and national identity are far from dead and are in fact being hotly debated. One example is David Goodhart’s influential The Road to Somewhere in which he talks about the divide between a mobile educated elite, and a more rooted provincial set of people who feel left behind. This dichotomy can be related to recent political battles such as that over Brexit, and the resurgence of nationalism and populism in many places.

However, there are many features of post-industrial society that militate against the features of community living. For instance, families are less stable and smaller than they used to be. In most Western countries more people are getting divorced and more live in single-parent families or single-person households than fifty years ago. Worklife is less stable, with people having to change their profession more frequently due to technological and economic changes than before. And in the realm of leisure, there is a great deal of domestic entertainment such as TV, social media, and computer gaming, which has taken people away from places such as pubs, cinemas or theatres, where they would formerly have congregated. 

In terms of culture, we are very far removed from sharing a body of songs and dances with our neighbours. Music is a matter of personal identity and taste, rather than something that binds a community together. Furthermore, artistic expression is largely left to specialists, to experts or celebrities, rather than being something for everyone. Sure, there is a lively amateur dramatic scene in the UK, but most people will watch stories served up to them by professionals on a screen. Dancing is particularly specialised and individualised; we dance our own individualistic dances, mostly with a peer group rather than an intergenerational community.


All the aspects of life which are strong in communities, but weak in post-industrial societies, are offered by Adopted Cultural Practices. Here we meet a knowable group of people on a regular basis. We share an interest with them, the interest in yoga, belly dance or another practice. We learn to move in the same way, we follow a teacher who we all defer to; this provides a tangible hierarchy. We become members of a cultural community, albeit a purely leisure-time one. But like a full-time community it can tie people together, it gives us a kind of identity, which is expressed in music, movement, dress, words and more. ACPs are not the only way that people in our contemporary societies reclaim these things, but they have come to provide accessible, enjoyable and effective types of communal expression for many.

What Are ‘Adopted Cultural Practices’?

I think it would be useful, before I go any further, to name and describe some of the activities which I would count unequivocally as Adopted Cultural Practices. Of course, there are myriad examples of people ‘borrowing’ music, clothes or food from cultures in which they have not grown up. What I want to address is something rather more specific and a working definition which I have been using is this:

  • Group activities involving music and/or movement
  • Popular in the ‘West’
  • Originating in ‘non-Western’ cultures

Each word is important here. For instance ‘group’. These are practices people generally do together, so this would include samba, but exclude playing the shakuhachi. Also crucial is the word ‘activities’, meaning that people are actively taking part in something rather than passively consuming it. This means it would apply to belly dance, but not to listening to Mongolian throat singing on Spotify. The concept of the ‘West’ is contentious and could be replaced by ‘European and North American’, but more on that later. What this part of the definition points to however, is that we are talking about practices which come from cultures which are distant in several senses from that of the adoptive participants. This is to say that yoga is included but Morris dancing (in England) cannot, since it can be interpreted as people reclaiming an aspect of their own culture rather than someone else’s. Of course, there will be commonalities between forms of cultural adoption which I would include in my definition, and those I would not. For instance, questions of understanding the meaning of an ‘alien’ culture arise whether one is participating or merely spectating. However, I am specifically interested in the former, because it requires a fuller engagement and commitment from the individual, and this is what we tend to find in the group activities I am focusing on. 

To take the definition a little further I will detail some of the usual components of Adopted Cultural Practices. The fact that they are mostly practiced in groups is important because it means that they have a significant social dimension. Participants are often not simply interested in the activity itself, but also in going to a place where they take part in it with others. There are varying levels of interaction at these ‘classes’ but the group dimension is usually present and has a number of important effects, such as counteracting loneliness and forming what has been called an ‘ad hoc community’. That the practice should involve music and/or movement sounds rather imprecise. I have worked for a considerable time as an ethnomusicologist. Ethnomusicology is an academic discipline which attempts to walk a tortured line between studying music and seeing that music as part of a culture. The fact is that music does not exist in isolation, and in most cultures is inseparable from dance, religion, festivals, parties and so on. In other words, music is embedded in other aspects of culture and inextricably bound up with them. Furthermore, music is a form of physical, indeed of bodily expression, and so is dance, or expressive movement. Therefore, I tend to regard any separation of music from movement as arbitrary. We move our bodies to create music, and dancing is moving our bodies. Both are ways of expressing ourselves and communicating. Thus, tai chi usually does not involve music, but it is expressive movement, so I would include it in my definition. Singing songs from other cultures in a community choir does not necessarily involve dancelike gestures, but it is sound produced by movements of the body (lungs, larynx, mouth) so I would include it as well. 

Often Adopted Cultural Practices involve using another language. Thus, invoking the Sanskrit names of yoga postures is common, as is the use of Spanish terms for salsa moves. This emphasises the foreignness of the practice. It is something which reminds us that it comes from another place and another cultural sphere, and for most participants this will be a kind of barrier, but also something which lends a sense of the exotic to the activity. There may be a style of clothing which is preferred or required. This can be traditional, such as the white of capoeira, which recalls the ritual dress of Afro-Brazilian religion, or modern, such as the various tight-fitting yoga clothes. In all cases they serve to mark people out as part of a kind of tribe. 

An important dimension of Adopted Cultural Practices is what we can loosely term spirituality. Sometimes this is foregrounded, such as in certain types of yoga, while in practices such as salsa and belly dance it may be less obvious, but is there in the background nevertheless. This is a key element of the practices I am concerned with and something which clearly differentiates them from other kinds of sport or music-making which have no spiritual or philosophical dimension.

Below is a table which summarises the defining features of Adopted Cultural Practices using some examples.


Group activityMusicMove-mentOriginates inPopular in ‘West’Spiritual/philosophy connectionLanguage used
CapoeiraBrazilCandombléPortuguese
Yoga(✔)IndiameditationSanskrit
Tai Chi
ChinaBuddhismMandarin
SambaBrazilCandombléPortuguese
SalsaCuba etc.SanteríaSpanish
Belly DanceMiddle Eastancient/ female deitiesArabic

There are other practices which can be included and the boundary between what should and should not be considered part of this category is certainly fuzzy. Interesting discussions can be had about whether a particular practice is an Adopted Cultural Practice in the sense proposed here. One group of practices I am myself uncertain about is Eastern martial arts and I intend to go into this more fully in a later post. If anyone has suggestions about practices that could be included, feel free to post a comment.

Why do Salsa, Yoga and Samba Matter?

There is a collection of activities which are very widespread in European and North American societies, which tell us a great deal about people’s interests, hopes, fears and attitudes. They provide huge benefits, and some risks, but are little studied and discussed by academics and the media. I have been calling them Adopted Cultural Practices, meaning activities which have their roots outside mainstream ‘Western’ cultures, but are widely practiced by Westerners. Examples would be yoga, salsa and capoeira. They can be viewed as hobbies or recreational activities, even sport. However, they differ from other such pastimes in a number of particular ways. For instance, they all combine several modes of expression or intention. Yoga is used for physical health benefits; to keep the body supple and strong, but it is also considered to be a form of meditation, a type of mental unwinding and cleansing. Salsa is a way of moving to rhythm, but also provides opportunities to interact with others, particularly people of the opposite sex. These facets are inherent aspects of the practices, rather than random byproducts. Compare this to going to a gym, or jogging, which are much more focused on a single goal. The skills involved in learning an Adopted Cultural Practice usually require expressive, physical and ludic (game-playing) engagement, they challenge the whole person, rather than just one aspect of our being.  

Another feature of these kinds of activities is that they always come with a good deal of what you might call cultural baggage. When you are learning the ways to move your body that are involved, you are also exposed to a foreign vocabulary, often describing those very physical movements of positions. This might be in Portuguese, Arabic, Chinese, Sanskrit or another language, depending on your chosen practice. This opens up the idea of an underpinning culture which will also include music, beliefs, ways of interacting, food and so on, in short, all of the many interwoven things that make up a culture, so that when you get more involved in one of the practices, you find out more and more about another part of the world and another way of living. This is obviously not compulsory, and for many people, going to a weekly yoga or salsa class is just an enjoyable but relatively minor part of their lives. But very often, these activities start to take over; people become somewhat obsessed. One class a week is no longer enough, and they practice more often, go to social dances, in the case of salsa, weekend workshops, and festivals. The activity can become a major, even the defining aspect of one’s life — again, just like a culture that one is part of. 

As such, the influence that the Adopted Cultural Practices have on our society is, I believe, profound, especially considering all the different types that exist. As ways to socialise, to exercise, to define oneself, to relax, to think, to feel, these activities affect millions.

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.