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Tuesday, 22 February, 2000, 18:08 GMT
The Trouble with Germans: Part One

The BBC's Matt Frei reports in the first part of a two part Radio 4 programme on the Germans' relationship with their fellow Europeans.

It is not true that everyone hates the Germans. Some people love us. Like the Croatian militiaman I met in the freezing wastes of Herzegovina at the height of the Bosnian war.

"Let's be honest. We all hate the Germans."
AA Gill, columnist
Dressed in a black uniform, the man, who must have been in his twenties, stopped my car at a check-point. He asked for my passport and when he saw that it was German he said "Wilkommen", stood back, clicked his heels in the snow and gave me a Nazi salute. He looked dismayed when I didn't return the greeting.

Or the Roman taxi driver, who drove me home one night at the speed of light in his rickety Fiat. "Where you from?" he asked. "Germany" I said. He nodded in appreciation and smacked his lips as of he had just tasted a good wine.

He was smiling and started to fumble in his trouser pocket, one hand still on the wheel. After some feverish rummaging he extracted a large medallion. Taking his eyes off the road he leant back, winked at me and handed me the coin. It displayed the grim square jawed face of Mussolini. "Ci capisciamo''... ''we understand each other", he said. I was speechless.

Shaking off the past

There is nothing more embarrassing for a good German than meeting a closet Nazi from another country. We have all been taught to expect the opposite response. The one so delicately put by the columnist AA Gill: "Let's be honest," he said, "we all hate the Germans."

Auschwitz death camp Germany is haunted by its Nazi past
Britain is one of the few countries in Europe which was not invaded by the Germans last century.

But the British obsession with the Krauts pervades public life far more than it does in Greece, Holland, France or Italy - all countries which have good reasons to hate or at least distrust the Germans. Even the Polish Government has welcomed the reunited Germany as a responsible, democratic neighbour, free of territorial designs.

Meanwhile British newspapers and quite a few politicians warn about the rise of the 4th Reich.

It has been 55 years since the end of World War II and Britain has preserved what the Germans call a "Feinbild" - a stylised image of the enemy - as if the Nazis troops were about to land on the beach at Brighton.

Every country trades in cliches. Most Germans are still convinced that English food is inedible, that all Englishmen are either gentlemen in bowler-hats or hooligans in soccer stripes, that British justice is second to none despite the Guilford Four and the Birmingham Six, that the UK is permanently on strike, and of course that London is mired in pea soup smog.

Last month I flew from Berlin to London. A blanket of dense fog had descended on the German capital. "Terrible", I said to the German tourist next to me on the plane. "Not as bad as London", he retorted, with hurt climatic pride. Two hours later we landed at Heathrow under a crisp blue sky. He looked surprised.

Exploding myths

The point is that German clichés about Britain are on the whole benign. British ones about Germany tend to be nasty: the Krauts or the Huns or just "those Germans" are cold, nationalistic, aggressive, hyper efficient, hard working, unemotional, unfriendly and unfunny. Much of this is just plain rubbish.

German efficiency is another myth: try cashing a cheque at a German bank in less than half an hour.
Take the myth of the German work ethic: in Berlin the rush hour now starts at 1400, because that is when most civil servants go home. Germany has the shortest working hours in Europe.

The UK has the longest. If you measure the number of health centres, spas, tanning studios and tennis clubs per capita of the population those hard working Krauts take their leisure more seriously than any other nation in Europe.

German efficiency is another myth: try cashing a cheque at a German bank in less than half an hour. This is still a cash culture that distrusts plastic money.

Then there is humour. Granted this is a tough one. The Germans will never make me laugh as much as the British. This country is poor on irony. It is frequently too intense to be frivolous.

But the real problem is that there is no such thing as a national sense of humour. Different Germans make different jokes.

This is regional niche humour, much of it based on dialect, which loses everything in translation. After 40 years of Communist rule the Prussians of East Germany perfected a wry wit which poked fun at the regime but did not land them in jail.

The mellifluous, well healed Bavarians, deeply Catholic and geographically closer to Milan than Berlin are infuriatingly cynical.

The bolshy people from the Rhineland, also Catholics, can't stand the deference of Protestant Prussians or the whinging of the surly Saxons.

'Pickled gherkins'

Sometimes the clichés are exposed as false. Sometimes they do not go far enough to describe reality. The former East German Stasi, the GDR's internal spying agency, which employed a staggering 250,000 people - one in 50 East Germans was a spy - is a rich source of what you might call oppression humour.

Take the pickle jars I discovered at its former headquarters in East Berlin on a recent visit.

Pickled gherkins in the cellars of the Stasi? Very strange. The jars were lined up on a shelf in one of the myriad cellars of the Stasi headquarters.

"Not gherkins", Hannelore, the bottle blonde assistant with the nose ring and leather trousers said, turning up the lights. "Smells", she insisted. "Geruchsproben", smell samples".

I took a closer look. Each jar contained a yellow piece of cloth. The kind you use to dust your antiques or clean a glass coffee table.

Apparently it wasn't enough for the Stasi to delve into the minds of people considered "dangerous" or "subversive". It also had to delve into their pores, get under their skin - literally. During interrogations Stasi officers handed people a yellow cloth and asked them to wipe an armpit or groin.

Sometimes this proved a little embarrassing. So the officers of Department 20 - the section that dealt with cultural crime and was particularly innovative in the development of new interrogation techniques - invented "the smell sample chair". A perforated metal chair with a tray underneath the seat. Here they would neatly place the yellow cloth.

During the interrogation the smells would percolate down, presumably helped by a strong dose of fear. The cloths were filed, indexed and shelved. Ready to be given to sniffer dogs should the need arise.

In East Germany evil was banal but it was also very inventive. And its spies were an industrious lot. By 1989 they had collected more than 6m files - in a population of only 17m. Even after an orgy of shredding, ripping and burning documents they still bequeathed the Western authorities 100 miles of files.

The files themselves are a surreal example of German Gruendlichkeit or thoroughness. Take the file of Petra Weyer, a student of German literature. Grounds for suspicion: Watches West German television for more than two hours every night. May be planning to flee the republic.

Stasi files opened to public view The Stasi kept very detailed files
The officer in charge trailed her for three weeks. Here is an example of his diligence: October 14th 1987. Subject enters the Kafe Rose at 3pm. Sits by herself. Eats a piece of cake (cheese cake with cherries). Drinks three cups of coffee. Cream. No sugar. Stays one hour six minutes. Leaves. Goes home by bus (Number 15b).

"You may laugh", my guide said. "But the devil is in the detail. The detail, however absurd, was what counted. It unnerved you during the interrogations. It proved that they knew everything. That you couldn't hide."

In West Germany that famous Germanic attention to detail went into the car industry. In the East it had clearly gone into the spying business. The absurd genius of the Stasi was to use Prussian duty, Protestant guilt and a petit bourgeois to mould a nation of spies and curtain twitchers.

German character

It is widely said that one of the reasons why the Germans followed Hitler so slavishly was an unquestioning respect for authority, a blind sense of duty, a lack of self confidence. What Thomas Mann, the Nobel prizewinner and the father of modern German literature called the "a-political German", an unquestioning, uncritical creature who believed that our leaders knew best.

This is clearly no longer true. German democracy is vibrant. Turn-out figures at elections are some of the highest in Europe. The far right-wing parties are tiny compared to the French National Front, the Italian neo fascists or Austria's Freedom Party. German students are far more politicised and rebellious than their British counterparts.

Faint echoes of the 1968 student revolution still ring through the corridors of power. Germany has a foreign minister Joshka Fischer who is now protected by the very police he used to pelt with cobble stones as a youth leader.

So far so rosy. But what about the corruption scandal, currently sweeping through the Christian Democratic Party, the party that has ruled Germany for most of the post war period?

No day goes by without another seedy detail or new disclosure: bundles of cash from arms dealers in suitcases; an illustrious suicide; numbered Swiss bank accounts, used to finance an election campaign here, a party gathering there.

Former German chancellor Helmut Kohl Helmut Kohl united Germany but is now disgraced
The Bonn republic was rotten to the core, we now discover. But the German public's response to the scandal has been encouraging. Not a collective shrug of the shoulders but outrage.

People are exasperated by Helmut Kohl's refusal to reveal the names of the secret donors who plied his party's coffers with millions. The CDU is bound to be punished at the polls. King Kohl, the hero of German unity has been toppled.

Reversals of fortune are the hallmarks of a healthy democracy.

But I suspect the history books will be kinder to Kohl than today's newspapers. He did after all unite Germany and re-draw the political map of Europe. And the personal patronage and back slapping intimacy which are now blamed for corrupting party ranks were once hailed as the diplomatic skills of a chancellor who persuaded Gorbachev to allow a united Germany to stay in Nato.

The bitter irony which must now be spoiling his legendary appetite is that Helmut Kohl laid the historic foundations for his own demise: he helped to end the Cold War. Today German democracy can no longer hide behind the anti communist barricades. There are no more excuses.

One cannot underestimate the importance of 9 November 1989, the day the Berlin Wall was breached.

As Joachim Gauck, one of many East German priests turned politicians put it: "For the first time in history the Germans have launched a successful bid for freedom without shedding anyone's blood.

"With our own revolution we can now face our French, Dutch and Polish neighbours with pride."

British prejudice

Germany is still overshadowed by its past, how could it not be: it started two World Wars, committed, arguably, the worst crimes in history and produced what the magazine Der Spiegel called "the monster of the century" - Adolf Hitler.

How can you deal with a nation that produced both Auschwitz and Goethe, two extremes of humanity? This is the German riddle that still haunts Europe.

But even Germans can change. To say that they cannot is to say nations are pre-conditioned by historical genes. And when it takes weeks of agonising debate to send even a small contingent of Bundeswehr soldiers to Kosovo, Germans are puzzled by their bellicose war mongering image abroad, especially in Britain.

I suspect British prejudices towards Germany say as much about Britain as they do about the Germans. In 1945 Germany's worst hour was Britain's finest. Since then Germany has been annoyingly successful at becoming a good neighbour and a wealthy nation.

Former UK prime minister Margaret Thatcher Margaret Thatcher: Controversial views on Europe
The UK meanwhile has seen its role in the world diminish. As the rest of Europe grows closer together Britain is sinking further into an identity crisis; Europe is pulling it in one direction, the special relationship with America in another.

"Every misfortune encountered by Britain this century has come from Europe". Thus spoke Lady Thatcher at the Conservative Party Conference last autumn. She received rapturous applause.

She might have added: "And especially from the Germans."

There speaks a Lady possessed by the past. Until she and her fellow travellers in the British public and media can overcome their dislike of the Germans, Britain will never find peace in a united Europe. That would be a shame.

Because like it or not the Germany we have now, warts and all, is the best Germany we have ever had.

Click here to read the second part of Matt Frei's report
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23 Feb 00 |  Europe
The Trouble with Germans: Part Two
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