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Thursday, 24 May, 2001, 16:20 GMT 17:20 UK
The German view of Britain
Funeral pyre for cows struck down by Foot and Mouth disease
Visions of modern-day Britain?
One of Germany's most popular news magazines, Der Stern, has published a savage critique of modern-day Britain - describing pockets of abject poverty, a decrepit health service and school system, a disorganised civil service and bungling politicians.

BBC News Online's Tim Weber investigates whether the article reflects the views of many Germans:

If Tony Blair stood for elections in Germany, the typical Stern reader would be his natural voter.

The centre-left magazine - a cross between Hello magazine, the Economist and glossy Sunday supplements - sells more than one million copies a week, and was once one of the most influential newsmakers in the country.

Tourist bus at Tower Bridge, London
Do German tourists see the real Britain?
Its good reputation was shredded in 1983, when the magazine published what it described as the diaries of Adolf Hitler, which turned out to be fake.

Stern has worked hard to win back its readers and regain its reputation. Its news reporting - sandwiched between glamorous picture features, gossipy articles and consumer advice - is opinionated and can be hard-hitting.

UK who?

But do Germans share Stern's view of the UK as a country with a crumbling infrastructure and poor public services?

The fact is that most of them have little first-hand knowledge of the UK in the first place.

And the headlines they read in the newspapers are grim.

These days, the UK is known less for idyllic rural scenes or Sherlock Holmes, but for BSE, Foot and Mouth crisis, the decline of Rover and its politicians' sometimes hostile attitude towards the European Union.

As a matter of fact, Stern is not the first paper to publish an all-out condemnation of modern Britain.

Four weeks ago, at the height of the Foot and Mouth crisis, Stern's more high-brow and even more influential rival, Der Spiegel, published a damning survey of the UK with the same headline: "Der englische Patient" - the English patient.

Cultural changes in Germany have played a role in changing perceptions as well.

Most Germans learn English at school. Back in the 1960s and 70s all educational material was focused on the UK.

Mad cow
Mad Cows and Englishmen... UK beef is feared by German consumers and tourists
Today, teenagers learn mainly about the United States. The UK features more as a curiosity, in chapters about bi-lingual Wales and the British music scene.

"Most of my students know hardly anything about the UK, and wouldn't want to go there for a visit", says Veit Wagner, an English teacher in Weiden, a small town in Bavaria.

London is the only place that generates any excitement he says. "My pupils would love to visit the big city and check out the music scene."

Run-down Britain

And the rest of the UK?

"Run-down" is probably the impression that most would have, Mr Wagner says.

Many Germans who visit the UK or live there agree.

Many of the complaints are familiar to UK residents: Poor public transport. A crumbling infrastructure with potholed sidewalks and lousy roads. Long waiting lists for operations that are routine in Germany.

English cooking is another popular complaint, and some ingredients, especially beef, are positively feared.

And little things irk. Many Germans feel that bathrooms in most UK hotels and B&Bs have a 1970s feeling about them - even if they were built in the 80s or 90s.

Another popular view is that the UK is still a class-ridden society, with a small but rich upper class living the good life, while the majority is poor and somewhat downtrodden.

The anglophiles

But there are anglophiles in Germany as well. Some, donning their Barbour jackets and drinking Scotch Malt Whiskey, have a romantic image of foggy evenings spent in front of an open fire.

Others have a more realistic view, and love the UK for its ethnic diversity and rich cultural life.

Scottish countryside with sunset
Anglophile Germans love the British countryside
Mr Wagner himself is an old anglophile. He studied at Reading University, travelled extensively across the UK, and believes Der Stern's accusations are overblown.

But even he has a feeling of unease. A few years ago he visited a state school in London, to explore a possible partnership with his grammar school at home.

He was taken aback by what he saw. The class room were more like barracks. The toilets were from the 1960s, and looked and smelled as if they were rarely cleaned. Teaching material was either out-dated or lacking or poorly maintained.

His colleagues and his students, he says, would be shocked to work or study in such an environment.

"Just down the road was a private [i.e. public] school", he remembers. "They had everything, I was envious of some of the equipment they had".

"This stark contrast between rich and poor was a surprise", he says.

Ultimately, most Germans don't know a lot about modern-day Britain.

They either harbour nostalgic visions of the English countryside - remembered from the days when they learned English at school.

Or they know the country from the headlines, dominated by visions of mad cows, burning pyres and British europhobes.

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