Archive | October, 2015

A Holiday in Germany — Don’t Mention the War.

7 Oct

I’ve just had a holiday in Germany. I visited Bavaria. This followed up a city break in Berlin about 10 years ago. Germany is regarded as a slightly unusual destination for a British tourist. Even though it is close at hand and is a beautiful, fascinating country, the majority of British tourists ignore it, preferring the delights of Spain, Greece, France and Portugal, as well as being lured across the Atlantic to the States. I believe many British people have a prejudiced view of Germany and thus avoid visiting it. It seems to me that a lot of this derives from the two World Wars in which Germany was our main enemy. These devastating conflicts dominated and shaped the 20th century such that it will take a long time for the Germans to live down their previous reputation as aggressive, war-mongers and authors of the horrific Holocaust. Many older people still carry unhappy memories of  all the suffering, death and devastation caused by  the German armed forces in the World Wars. Even as they begin to fade a little, such memories are constantly stirred up again by the numerous war commemorations that the British seem so fond of. As well as the annual Remembrance day every November, the UK has recently commemorated : 100 years since the start of the First World War, the 70th anniversary of D Day, the 75th anniversary of the Battle of Britain, and, in 2015, the 70th Anniversaries of VE and VJ days that marked the end of the Second World War in Europe and in Japan.  Films and TV programmes also often feature the war and stir-up its memories in the public consciousness. The enduring popularity of the BBC comedies “Dad’s Army” and “Allo Allo” are just 2 mild examples of this persistent trend even though they deal mainly in crude caricatures and stereotypes. Currently we have More 4’s “Resistance” a British/Belgian/French drama about the struggle against  German occupation in the 1940’s.

So the Second World War, in particular, continues to be alive and well on our screens as if it only happened yesterday. “Resistance” follows in the footsteps of countless other programmes over the years such as: “Colditz”, “Hogan’s Heroes”, “Secret Army”,and “Land Girls”, not to mention endless repeat showings of films such as “The Great Escape”, “The Guns of Navarone”, “The Dam Busters” and “Where Eagles Dare” The Nazis are the evil enemies in all these dramas, even in such family favourites as “The Sound of Music”, set in German- occupied Austria. I think that many people still mix up “Nazi” and “German”, even after all these years. So the image of a German in some people’s minds I suspect, is of a goose-stepping, sadistic monster, rather than of a normal person, just like you or me. I wonder if this is a significant reason why more British people don’t consider Germany as a viable holiday destination. Recently an acquaintance expressed nervousness because his relatives had persuaded him to go on a city break to Berlin. I asked him why he was reluctant to go and he replied:”Well, it’s Germany isn’t it?” Just for the record, he told me later that he had had a great time. I even fell into this mind-set myself on a recent trip to Vienna. A waitress in a café came up behind me and suddenly called out “auchtung!” as she struggled past with a tray full of pots. Just for a moment, a shiver slid down my spine as I remembered the German soldiers in my childhood comic, ” The Victor”, shouting the same command  before spraying someone with their machine-guns.

The British seem stuck in a rut in regarding the Germans as our “natural” enemies. The tabloids are quick to label them as “Krauts” or “Huns” whenever England plays them at football. They like to point out the German team’s mechanical efficiency and organisation rather than its skill or flair. This “put-down” has persisted even though the Germans usually beat us in the important matches. The recent Greek debt  crisis generated a lot of anti-German posts on social media, portraying Angela Merkel and the German government as cruel, unfeeling pay-masters 9 a bit like the Nazis perhaps?), forcing the poor Greeks into further austerity, poverty and misery. I think the real reasons for the Greek’s desperate situation  are a lot more complex than simply blaming the Germans. Because of the terrible atrocities they committed in the first half of the 20th century, it will take a long time for such anti-German sentiments to die down and be supplanted by more positive feelings. For many British people, the Germans will always be associated with Hitler and the Nazis. I often think of a  memorable scene from the 1970s TV comedy “Fawlty Towers”. Faced with complaining German guests, the hilariously incompetent hotel proprietor, Basil Fawlty, gets prickly and argumentative. When the Germans politely point out that it was he who started the argument, Fawlty retorts: ” No,you started it! You invaded Poland!” He then proceeds to march around the hotel dining room in goose-step style!

Another apparent negative point about German from a touristic point of view is that much of it lies in the north of Europe, where the climate tends to be cooler and less reliable. In fact, in that respect, it’s very much like the UK. Maybe British people just don’t fancy holidaying in a country that reminds them of their own! High street holiday brochures tend to concentrate on: sun-kissed beaches, bright, blue skies and sparkling seas. This goes a long way to explain the massive popularity of the Mediterranean destinations listed above. Germany spreads into central Europe, but its beaches are exclusively in the north. Here the skies can often be cloudy and grey, while the seas are cool, if not downright cold!. This image persists even though the German coast, like Britain’s, can enjoy many hours of summer sunshine. Naturism wouldn’t be so popular amongst the Germans if their resorts were always freezing cold. Even so, the North Sea ( formerly known as the German Ocean) and the Baltic, rarely, if ever conjure up the sunny, exotic images associated with the south.

Jonathan Meades, in his fascinating television documentary “Magnetic North”, persuasively points out that northern European countries have for a long time failed to have the glossy allure of their southern counterparts. He suggests that the vast majority of us have been seduced by the attractions of the south. Wine seems more carefree and celebratory than beer, which often is more associated with drowning one’s sorrows or obliterating one’s worries. Gently swaying palm trees seem more exotic and romantic than the stolid ranks of oaks or beeches in dark, northern forests. Blue skies of course are nearly always preferable to grey. Even the architecture of the south, the graceful, classical columns of Ancient Greece or Rome, are usually preferred to the gloomy Gothic style that originated in the north. The wealthy young aristocrats of yesteryear, set off on their “Grand Tours” to Italy, Greece and the Ottoman Empire of the Balkans and Turkey, rather than to Germany, Poland, the Low Countries or Scandinavia. As I look out of my window today, at the leaden, sodden skies of northern England ( in October), I can fully understand this preference for the sunny south.

For students of History though, it seems very strange that the British and the German peoples don’t have a much closer affinity because the ties between the two countries have been quite intimate over the centuries. The original “English”, as opposed to the Britons who were conquered by the Romans, were the Anglo- Saxons. They invaded British shores from the 6th century AD onwards and gradually took it over. The Saxons came from Saxony in Germany and the Angles came from what we now call Denmark, which is next door to Germany and well within German sphere of influence. Thus one can argue that the original ” English” were in fact Germans. Later on in the 17th century, England had a Dutch King, William III, and Dutch is technically a form of German. Then in the 18th century, Great Britain had a string of German Kings, the Georgians, who spoke limited English and preferred their native German. They were the Electors of Hanover ( also known as Brunswick-Luneburg.) and spent much of their reigns in Germany rather than England. When the last Stuart monarch, Queen Anne, died without a direct heir in 1714, the next 50 people in line for the throne were all Roman Catholics who were banned by law from succeeding. The 51st person in line, and the first protestant, was Georg Ludwig, the Elector of Hanover, in the loose mosaic of German states known as the Holy Roman Empire. He became King George I. The Hanovarians  ( 4 Georges and a William) ruled until Queen Victoria succeeded to the throne in 1837. She promptly went and married the German Prince Albert. It seemed a very appropriate choice at the time as the Germans had been our close allies in the wars against the Revolutionary and Napoleonic French.  The Duke of Wellington usually garners most of the credit for the final defeat of Napoleon Bonaparte at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815. However it was the late, decisive intervention of General Blucher’s Prussians ( i.e. Germans) that turned the tide in the Allies’ favour. Prince Albert had a great influence over British life, including introducing Christmas traditions such as decorated Christmas trees. Queen Victoria’s eldest daughter, the Princess Royal Victoria, followed in her mother’s footsteps and married a German prince. At that point, in the 19th and early 20th centuries the British Royal Family’s surname was the German Saxe-Coburg-Gotha (Sachsen-Coburg und Gotha). The German Kaiser in first World War, Wilhelm II, was actually the first cousin of the British King, George V. The war must have been a great embarrassment for the British Royal family as all other people with German sounding names were being rounded up and interned, because they might be potential fifth-columnists. Finally, in 1917, the Royal family officially adopted the name of Windsor, so they could hide their German ancestry. The only connection they had with the very English sounding “Windsor” was that it was the name of one of their castles.

I could go on and on about  the Anglo-German connections that have brought the 2 nations close together. What about all those classical musicians and composers that have had enduring popularity in Britain? — Mozart, Brahms, Beethoven, Hadyn, Mendelssohn, Bach and Wagner — all Germans or German speaking Austrians. I could do similar lists from the worlds of : literature, drama, art and philosophy. It was in Germany that Martin Luther launched the Protestant revolution which eventually resulted in Great Britain becoming an officially Protestant country. Yet all these important and numerous connections between Britain and Germany have been clouded by the 2 devastating World Wars of last century and Germany’s culpability in both ( although the first world conflict can be blamed on a whole host of countries including Britain.) Everyone loves a scapegoat — someone to blame. Germany has fulfilled that role for many years. They must have been relieved when the Soviet Union, then Russia largely took over that role. Now the Germans are officially our friendly allies. We are in NATO together. We are both long term members of the EU. We work and trade together in many ways. We have German players in the Premier League and Liverpool Football Club have just appointed a German manager, Jurgen Klopp. Yet I fear that anti- German prejudices linger on. I wonder how many people have been recently rubbing their hands in glee at the recent troubles of Volkswagon?

So what was it like entering the lair of the “enemy” — sorry, “friend”? Well the best word I can use to describe Germany and the Germans is “civilised”. At my very first meal in Berlin, when  I was struggling with the menu, the German gentleman on the adjoining table leaned over and said, in perfect, English ” If you need me to translate anything, I would be delighted to help.” Berlin itself was exciting with stunning modern architecture, great museums and art galleries and a whole host of fascinating history. I know it’s a cliché, but everyone was really friendly and helpful. This autumn’s trip to Munich and southern Bavaria was equally interesting and enjoyable. This time we saw: gorgeous mountain scenery, beautiful lakes, the fantasy castles of King Ludwig II ( made famous by Disney), medieval buildings decorated with illusionist paintings from the 16th century, spectacular Baroque and Rococo churches and palaces and so on. We even found vegetarian sections on most restaurant menus, a bit of a surprise in a big meat eating country. All the trains and buses ran on time. We never saw a speck of litter until we arrived back at London Stansted airport. Welcome back to England! Yes Germany was very “civilised”, picturesque, interesting and enjoyable. And, even though it was September and no- where near to the Med, the sun shone nearly every day. As in Berlin, everyone we met in Bavaria was helpful, friendly and spoke pretty decent English. It was a very enjoyable holiday and I’m glad I ignored the anti-German prejudice which unfortunately still lingers in Britain. I plan to return next year to visit the World Heritage listed Hanseatic city of Lubeck near Hamburg. It should be really good so long as I don’t mention that long ago war. But then again, why should I?