‘Don't mention ze var!’ Germans, Brits and Europhobia
Relations between peoples and nations are based on an odd mixture of ideas, comparisons and stereotypes. So it is difficult to speak of a uniform "picture" which people have of one another. Nowhere in Europe does this appear more than in relations between Germany and Britain.1
The geography and the histories of the countries as well as business aspects are important points to illustrate the evolution of stereotypes and prejudgements. Germany and Great Britain are classical opposites.
Germany is a country situated centrally in the continent and Britain is an island. The island as a symbol of independence and security in contrary to the central continental situation of Germany has produced a strong sense of national identity of British people. Until 1871, when Bismarck brought them together, Germany was subdivided into many small states. Great Britain in comparison to Germany has never had a real army in its country, but the Royal Navy, to secure the nation and has never been occupied by a foreign power since 1066. Whereas the Germans have fought many wars with the result of various borderlines. This is one point to explain existing stereotypes like ambition for power and militarism.
Another important reason for the special relationship between the two countries is the attitude towards Europe. The British people's anti-European attitude has its causes in history. Britain, the island, with his colonies were relatively independent from trading with other European countries. It is of importance that the Industrial Revolution began about 1848 in England. While other countries were involved in several wars, Britain had time to develop new technologies and innovations. In the 1870´s the Industrial Revolution came to Germany and the fear of industrialisation began. This caused negative attitudes towards the British. Around the beginning 20th century Britain was an important export market for German products. The quality of these products were rather bad than good, but cheaper than the British. Therefore the government decided to mark all German products with the label Made in Germany. Today the meaning of these three words have completely changed. It stands now for typical German characteristics like diligence, hard working and precision.
In World War I Great Britain's economic blockade over Germany caused a German anti-blockade for Britain. Under Hitler's dictatorship a lot of financial restrictions followed and the trade was considerably reduced. Britain felt guilt after World War I, because of the Versailles treaty and during the Second World War old resentments were brought up again. In reference to Wilhelm II and Adolf Hitler, the two "ugly" Germans, typical German characteristics like aggressiveness, assertiveness, egoism and inferiority complexes arose. After WW II Great Britain decided to give Germany a helping hand. The motivation for such a decision was to avoid concentration of power. The British wanted to re-educate the German people, make them aware of their guilt and failure, integrate Germany into a peaceful European order and return it into a Rechtsstaat. Since that time Great Britain and Germany are connected by several relationships, like NATO and later by the European Community. Great Britain developed into an international finance market. The responsibility for World War II is up to now the leitmotif of the British attitude towards the Germans.
Prime Minister Macmillan made an application for entering the European community in 1961, but it was rejected by de Gaulle. Years later in 1973 Great Britain became a member of the community. In 1992 the Vertrag von Maastricht was signed. Great Britain excluded itself from the additional clause about social policy. Tony Blair, the new prime Minister, signed that additional clause after the end of Margaret Thatcher´s and John Major's government in 1997. An important fact for Great Britain towards the European Union and towards the integration of Britain in Europe. In the last 20 years attitude towards Europe has changed. In the 1970´s Europe, the Commonwealth and America is voted with the same importance (about 30 %) for British, but 20 years later America and the Commonwealth has lost its positions. Europe's rating has risen to about 54% of importance. But a distinction between those voters has to be made, in the group of the 35-54 years-old people 63% , 15-34 years of age 55% and among the 55 and elder people 46% voted for Europe. People who are do not take notes of happenings in Europe are not the same as those who are interested in European politics. A political distinction shows that more Conservatives than Labour supporters rated Europe most important: 58% to 53%. Young people were less tending to believe that Britain's integration had effected disadvantages for their country than people over 35 years-old.
The unification of West Germany and East Germany caused much doubt and scepticism but also hope in Britain. The economic strength of Germany brought up again the fear of economic and political dominance of the Germans in Great Britain. Because Germany as well as France is a country that has a great influence on the European Union, the British exaggerated the danger of a dominant Germany. The fear of loosing the national identity and being pushed on the edge of Europe appeared in Britain again. Britain is afraid of an increasing heteronomy by the European Union. Most of the stereotypes refer to period of the Kaiserreich and especially to Second World War. These are the stereotypes of Germans aggressiveness, assertiveness, egoism, inferiority complex and sentimentality. In June 1996 the answer to the question what the British youth among 10 and 16- years- old thinks of when they hear the name Germany was Second World War (78%). Germany as the "most boring country" leads the list with 57% before France (26%) and Italy (10%). The country is also pointed out as a country which the young people least like to visit (43%). A great influence on such opinions are created by the mass media.
Caricatures play an important role in Great Britain. The fear of a new German hegemony is one of the dominant features. A typical element to show this is the use of iconography like the swastika, Hitler salute, spiked helmets, Wehrmacht boots or the goose step. In the print media there are certain linguistic stereotypes. As reaction of a visit of the German Ambassador in London, Freiherr von Richthofen, who gave an explanation to the unification in 1990, the Sun wrote "THE SUN MEETS THE HUN". Also the Daily Mirror wrote a five pages article full of praises for England in 1996 when EURO ´96 , the European football championship took place. This occurred two days before the semi- final between Germany and England happened on Wednesday, 26 June. In the Daily Mirror pictures of two players wearing First World War helmets and laughing were printed and the front page's headline was "Achtung! Surrender!". This created such a furore and the Prime Minister John Major warned against national excesses and xenophobia.
Stereotypes of all kinds are used in everyday life, but besides of international relations. It comes from a deep- seated phobia from the 1940`s. The experience of the past is mixed up with the present. The stereotypes are mainly the same in the present days as those of former ones. They have to make fun to avoid becoming self-defeating. If someone could not laugh at them it would indicate a deficient sense of humour. Most German people could not laugh at the stereotypes that exist of them. This creates the very common stereotype of Germans- they have no sense of humour. People love the stereotypes because they are familiar and well jokes.
H. Boldt. Die Europäische Union.Geschichte, Struktur, Politik. B.I. Taschenbuchverlag, Leipzig 1995
E. Jacobs and R. Worcester. Typically British. Bloomsbury, London 1991
T. Kieling. Crossroads and Roundabouts. Bonn/ London 1997
S. Pollard. Die deutsch-britischen Wirtschaftsbeziehungen, Geschichte, Gegenwart, Zukunft. 1988
1 T. Kieling. Crossroads and Roundabouts. Berlin / London 1997