British anti-Germanism deepens

1st October 2003, Comments 0 comments

For some German students, the experience of living and studying in Britain has turned into a nightmare with many reporting how they have found themselves victims of anti-German attacks.

Stefana Bosse is a German teenager living in London — and in fear. She never sits on the upper level of the city's red double-decker buses, and carefully scans the other passengers before she gets on. And she never speaks German in public. Two years ago on the bus, a group of British kids threw hamburgers and lettuce at her and pulled her hair. One girl spat in her face, she says, calling her a Nazi. "I've learned to hide the fact that I'm German," says Stefana, aged 14.
Germany's image in the UK has deteriorated over the years
Such stories are common among young Germans in the UK. Asked their nationalities, many claim they are Swiss or Scandinavian. Last fall, two teenagers from Guetersloh were beaten up in a London suburb because they were German. That was enough to send Thomas Matussek, Germany's ambassador to Britain, on a campaign to improve his country's image on the most anti-German turf in Europe. His task is a tough one: words such as Nazis, Krauts, Fritz and Blitz are common in newspaper stories. Television is awash with programs about the Nazi era. In history classes, an estimated 80 percent of high school students study the Nazis, yet learn next to nothing about contemporary Germany. The German ambassador, a boyish-looking anglophile who peppers his German with English phrases, wants to change that. "It is in Britain's own interest to know what is happening on the continent," he says. Matussek served in London once before, during Britain's economically troubled 1970s. "When I came back this time, 95 percent had changed for the better — but the image of Germany had become worse." Matussek's mission sheds light on a big stumbling block to an ever-closer European Union. Half a century after World War II, national resentments still abound. Statesmen in Brussels are debating the adoption of a constitution for Europe, but many Europeans don't want such close ties to old enemies. Italian Prime Minister Berlusconi recently likened a German lawmaker in the European Parliament to a Nazi concentration-camp guard. Another Italian official, who has since been sacked, lambasted the Germans as "stereotyped blonds with a hyper-nationalist pride." The English have loathed the French for centuries. The French ridicule the Belgians for their alleged provincialism. The Germans say Poles are sloppy and steal their cars. But one of the few sentiments that unites all Europeans is a suspicion of Germany, the continent's leading power. And nowhere is that dislike as strong as in Britain. "Of course, we don't like the Germans. Why should we? They're awful people. Why shouldn't Silvio make jokes about their Nazi past?" said an article in the London tabloid Daily Mail this month, after the Italian jibes against Germany. Titled "Sour Krauts", the piece showed a picture of two men in Nazi uniforms and said Germans had no style, their women were fat and — a big issue for Britons — they beat them to the best spots on Mediterranean beaches. The Evening Standard sent a reporter to a beach in Majorca to investigate European stereotypes. The result: a large picture of a robust German blonde on a beach chair. "Just 7am and Helga claims the beach," said the headline. "What you find here isn't so much hostility as a high degree of disinterest, ignorance and outdated clichés," says Matussek. The ambassador launched his mission when the German students were beat up in October. At that time, he unleashed his anger in British newspapers and talk shows, protesting what he considers an obsession with Hitler in British classrooms. Since then, he has brought German conductors to London. He helped organise exhibits of German art and got Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder to open one of the shows with British Prime Minister Tony Blair days before the Iraq war. In his office, Matussek keeps a stack of pink and blue postcards from a campaign encouraging Britons to learn German. They carry catchwords designed to evoke a positive image of Germany — including "Autobahn," "Einstein" and "5:1," a self-deprecating reference to Germany's sensational soccer loss to England in a 2001 World Cup qualifier. "Learn German — there's nothing to lose," says the punch line. "We wanted to attack a favorite stereotype: that Germans have no sense of humour," says Nina Lemmens, who heads the German Academic Exchange Service in London and helped create the postcards. Matussek is taking his campaign to British schools. This month in Birmingham, he patiently explained to students why they should learn German, why Germany stayed out of the Iraq war, and that German unemployment isn't caused by the euro. "I realised that I knew a lot about World War II but nothing about modern Germany," says Romony Snape, a 15-year-old student there. Germany's image problem in England began soon after Germany's birth as a unified country and rival power in the 19th century, and peaked during World War II, when German bombs rained down on London. Years after the war came the BBC comedy classic "Fawlty Towers," where hotel owner Basil Fawlty, preparing for the arrival of German tourists, keeps telling his staff "Don't mention the war," only to goose-step around and repeatedly mention the war. ("Don't mention the beach towels," echoed a recent headline in The Times, which devoted an entire page to Italy's German-bashing.) "The truth is that Britain, not Germany, is the nation that is the prisoner of its past," said the Guardian newspaper last fall. When the two countries meet on the soccer field, British tabloids happily evoke military images. Before a game in the Euro '96 tournament, they ran headlines such as "Let's Blitz Fritz." The Daily Mirror said "ACHTUNG! SURRENDER ... For you, Fritz, ze Euro 96 Championship is over." The broadside caused such an uproar that the paper issued an apology, and sent the German team a hamper full of goodies from Harrods. There is another reason for Germany's unpopularity: Europe. Britain has long been reluctant to get entangled with the continent, and observers say its dislike of Germany often masks a dislike of European integration as a whole. " Anti-Germanism is strengthened by Germany's leadership role in a Europe that Britain does not want," says Thomas Kielinger, London correspondent for the German newspaper Die Welt. With such obstacles, Matussek's mission is daunting. A first defeat came in December, when he failed to rally German businessmen to change the image of the country's best-known companies. "We can't change our image but we can try to use it to our advantage," says Dieter Grotepass, general manager for Lufthansa AG in Britain, which declined to join the makeover. Like car companies that stress German engineering prowess, the airline is playing up qualities deemed typically German, such as punctuality and reliability. "We can't try to make Lufthansa French or sexy," he says. This month, Matussek hosted a conference discussing how Germany could turn itself into an alluring brand name, a la the UK's "Cool Britannia" makeover. Unlike other governments, Berlin has never made such marketing efforts, for fear of evoking Hitler and the Holocaust. Like others at the conference, London Times Berlin correspondent Roger Boyes is skeptical. "The last time Germany was good at branding itself," he said, "was under the Nazis." October 2003 DPA

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