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Last Updated: Tuesday, 6 June 2006, 07:33 GMT 08:33 UK
Can Germany escape its war past?
By Laura Smith-Spark
BBC News

John Cleese as Basil Fawlty in Fawlty Towers episode The Germans, 1975
Actor John Cleese has urged England fans: "Don't mention the war"
England fans have been warned: goose-stepping, mock Nazi salutes and impersonations of Hitler are not only not thought funny in Germany, they can get you arrested.

The very fact the warning has been spelt out - some 60 years after the end of World War II - suggests how hard it is for Germany to avoid its history.

Of course, it is not only Britain that has reason to recall the war. The Netherlands, the Baltic nations and Poland, among others, have strong memories of Nazi occupation.

However, it seems a peculiarly British tendency to identify the events of 60 years ago with present-day Germany and, most particularly, with football.

Recognising this, Germany has, in the run-up to the World Cup finals, tried to be as frank as possible about its past.

Storm troopers take part in a mass Nazi rally in Nuremberg, 1936
The World Cup is an opportunity for us, one we must use, to tear down any prejudices
Ulrich Maly
Mayor of Nuremberg

The country's main football authority, the DFB, held a conference in April on "soccer under the swastika", examining its role during the Nazi era.

And in Nuremberg, where England v Trinidad and Tobago will be among several matches played, information boards detailing the city's Third Reich history have been put up around the stadium.

Mass Hitler Youth and Nazi rallies were held on nearby parade grounds, while the city's name is inevitably associated with the war crimes trials that followed Germany's 1945 defeat.

"The World Cup is an opportunity for us, one we must use, to tear down any prejudices," Nuremberg's Mayor Ulrich Maly told reporters last month.

"Nuremberg will present itself as a modern, tolerant and cosmopolitan city."

Britain has also done its bit, with the British Embassy in Berlin setting up a World Cup website giving advice on how to get along with the Germans and dozens of UK officers travelling to Germany to help police English fans.

'Bad taste'

To many people, Britain's apparent determination to view Anglo-German relations through the prism of World War II is increasingly out of kilter with the times.

Even comedian John Cleese, whose scene as goose-stepping hotelier Basil Fawlty is firmly entrenched in Britain's collective cultural psyche, has appealed to English fans to move on, in a song called Don't Mention the World Cup.

A young England fan at England's friendly against Jamaica at Old Trafford, Manchester
England fans have grown up with negative stereotypes of Germany

Prof Christiane Eisenberg, of the Centre for British Studies at Humboldt University, Berlin, blames the British media, particularly the tabloids, for perpetuating anti-German stereotypes based on its war record.

"The Second World War is a serious affair in Germany, as it is associated with the Holocaust and defeat," she told the BBC News website.

"It is not thought to be good behaviour to combine football and the war - it's not an issue you are supposed to make jokes about."

The way the British tabloids act is "regarded as bad taste" in Germany, she added.

"In other countries of Europe or overseas there is quite a different image of Germany now. The war has been over for 60 years."

This does not stop there being fierce rivalry between German and Dutch footballers, Prof Eisenberg said, but "there is no connection made between football and the war".

Dutch jibes

This may seem debatable. A Dutch company's decision to market replica World War II German helmets - in orange for Dutch fans and white for the English - has sparked controversy.

A girl models a replica German World War II helmet, aimed at a Dutch market
The Dutch have been snapping up mock German helmets in orange

And a T-shirt with the slogan "I want my bicycle back", referring to Germany's seizure of Dutch property under occupation, has reportedly been selling fast in the Netherlands.

However, according to Perro de Jong of Radio Netherlands, while memories of the war still rankle among the older generation in particular, the Dutch have recently recent re-evaluated their relations with Germany.

"There have been various opinion polls over the past two years where people seem to think that actually the Germans aren't too bad," he told the BBC News website.

He believes most war jibes made by an estimated 20,000 Dutch fans travelling to the World Cup will be meant in a spirit of fun and "nothing deeper than that".

And if the two teams meet, the Dutch will be more focused on a history of football rivalry dating back to 1974 - when a contentious 2-1 defeat by Germany in the final cost them the World Cup - than the war.

'Glorious past'

For Peter Beck, professor of international history at Kingston University in the UK, the attention paid to Germany's war past will depend largely on whether England meet them on the pitch.

Geoff Hurst's controversial third goal in the 1966 World Cup at Wembley
England's victory over Germany in 1966 is never far from fans' minds

"It's very difficult to change people's attitudes because these things are deep-seated and the media, particularly the tabloids, keep reinforcing them," he said.

"In Britain we haven't done as well as the Germans and there's a kind of harking back to the 'glorious past' rather than looking at the present situation."

Over the decades, the link between soccer and enmity with Germany has become part of the English sense of identity, he said.

And although England famously beat West Germany in 1966, a German team has all too often seemed to stand in England's way at major tournaments.

So will the English manage to hold back from refrains of "Ten German bombers" and "Two World Wars and one World Cup" over the next month?

"If there is a match, it will depend whether Germany or England wins what kind of match it will be," predicted Prof Eisenberg.

"If the Germans lose the game, maybe it might improve relations."

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