Don’t Mention the War? Brits Can’t Help Themselves

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Leon Neal / AFP / Getty Images

British Foreign Secretary William Hague, left, listens as his German counterpart, Guido Westerwelle, speaks during a press conference at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in London on Dec. 19, 2011

Schedule clashes are inevitable during the festive season, and on the evening of Dec. 19, the mayor of London, Boris Johnson, and Britain’s Foreign Secretary, William Hague, held Christmas drinks at opposite poles of the city center. Diplomats clustering at Hague’s bash, in the gilded pomp of Lancaster House, conferred. Might it be possible to dash from one event to the other? Georg Boomgaarden, Germany’s ambassador to the Court of St. James’s, demurred. The mayor had just authored an offensive article about Germany, Boomgaarden grumbled; he had no intention of gracing Johnson’s party.

London’s mayor is an ebullient blond with a history of dropping diplomatic bombshells. Papua New Guinea’s emissary to the U.K. demanded an apology after Johnson linked the country to “cannibalism and chief killing” in his weekly column for the Daily Telegraph. Johnson’s journalism also got him in trouble at the height of the 2009 credit crunch, when he dismissed his £250,000 annual fee for the columns — about $390,725 — as “chicken feed.”

But what irritated Boomgaarden in Johnson’s latest dispatch wasn’t a throwaway remark or ill-considered view. The piece — “E.U. Crisis: The Frogs Do Love Us — They’re Just Hopping Mad with Germany” — was a classic exercise in Continental baiting, a tradition as central to the British cultural mainstream as vinegar on chips, sticky-floored pubs and that little clicking noise Brits make if you elbow ahead of them in a queue.

Johnson’s article achieved a crowd-pleasing twofer, tweaking German and French noses by pointing out that a recent exchange of hostilities between the French and British over efforts to stabilize the euro masked deeper tensions between France and Germany.

That’s true enough. But Johnson, like John Cleese’s hapless hotelier Basil Fawlty when confronted with German guests, couldn’t resist mentioning the war — or a clutch of wars and battlefields: Waterloo, Verdun, Mers-el-Kébir and Suez. Despite these “misunderstandings,” France and Britain remain “indispensable allies”; France, however, “is facing up to the reality that the European experiment has failed to contain German economic might, and that the Germans are unwilling and unable to help other countries cope with the agony of the euro,” Johnson argued. For Britons to tease the French is “pantomime xenophobia … essentially innocent,” he added.

Many of his compatriots take a similar view of teasing the Germans — that it’s all good, knockabout fun — and this weltanschauung sometimes gets them in trouble. In 2005, at age 20, Prince Harry donned a Nazi uniform to attend a fancy-dress party. Earlier this month, Aidan Burley, 32, a rising star among Conservative MPs, joined a stag weekend at a French ski resort alongside a guest dressed as an SS officer. In their enjoyment at rubbing German noses in the past, Prince and politician evidently forgot that they might seem to be making light of Nazism or even condoning it. They later apologized, and the MP was removed from his position as a ministerial aide.

That both men were born decades after World War II helps explain their mistake, but it also begs a bigger question: Why are generations of Britons too young to remember the war against Hitler, much less earlier conflicts, still reliving those battles? One answer is that there haven’t been many victories to celebrate since then. And while the vanquished Germans grew rich and the quisling French regained their self-assurance, Britain endured a soul-sapping decline that in 1976 saw the WW II victors beg a loan from the IMF, funded, in part, by Germany.

When the economy recovered, and especially during the boom times starting in the late 1990s, a new Europeanism took cautious root. Soccer remained a proxy for old enmities — England’s 5-1 defeat of Germany in a 2001 World Cup qualifier set off days of revelry — but the scale of the national binge may have been mitigated by Britain’s growing desire to emulate Continental traditions like drinking for pleasure rather than to obliteration. The more trade within the single market flourished, the more concerns about an interfering European superstate receded. Europe’s unity fractured as the U.S. looked for allies in wars that nobody would win, but although the U.K. joined the “coalition of the willing,” a substantial chunk of British public opinion shared France and Germany’s opposition to the Iraq war.

And Britons liked the euro. The single currency simplified transactions for exporters and importers and meant you only had to carry one kind of tender on Continental holidays. Most Britons didn’t want to join the euro, but as recently as a year ago, a poll showed a majority in favor of closer collaboration among the U.K. and the 26 other E.U. member countries to speed economic recovery and solve the financial crisis.

The turbulence in the euro zone has fostered a resurgence of older sentiments. Britons bridle at the efforts of Continental leaders to ask them to shoulder some of the burden of fixing problems for which they feel little or no responsibility. Prime Minister David Cameron’s decision to opt out of an E.U. plan boosted his standing among British voters and his party colleagues. Polls show growing support for a complete retreat from the E.U. Britain’s island mentality is reasserting itself, no matter that myriad investments and liabilities enmesh the nation’s fate in wider Europe’s.

These conditions provide the perfect agar jelly for Britain’s Fawlty culture. Expect more jokes about the frogs and the Hun, more nostalgia for a mythologized British past and more than a tinge of xenophobia, whether pantomime or something deeper-seated.

Germany’s Foreign Minister, Guido Westerwelle, on a Dec. 19 visit to London attempted during a joint press conference with Hague to break through these barriers, with an emotional, deeply personal explanation of his convictions about the importance of the E.U. He talked about his memory, as a 13-year-old, of standing at the Berlin Wall and realizing that his country and Continent were divided. He recounted a trip, as an older teenager, to Brittany, during which a French shopkeeper, widowed by the Nazis, burst into tears at the sight of the Teutonic blue-eyed, fair-haired boy. “For us,” he said, “Europe is not only our destiny. It’s our desire. It’s the lesson we learned. Please understand. For us, Europe is much more than a currency or a single market.”

For a moment, it seemed Westerwelle had found the words to reach, and convince, Britons. But then he continued. The U.K. and Germany must work together because “we share the same destiny,” he said. Ben Brogan, deputy editor of the Daily Telegraph, responded on his blog:

Students of Basil Fawlty will know the perils of mentioning the war. But we should listen carefully. Mr Westerwelle’s sincerity is genuine, but also revealing. The point is that we do not share the same destiny, that we are not part of the project for national merger that Mitterand and Kohl launched and that the single currency is forcing. We should be grateful that democratic Germany has such a keen, even painful, awareness of the terrible historical burden it bears. But it does not follow that the answer lies in perpetuating a currency union that enforces austerity on the weakest, and protects the wealthiest from the fiscal consequences of that union. Whatever Europe is, it should not be something that the rest of the E.U. has to endure to help Germany assuage its guilt.

That was one very British response to Westerwelle. Another came from a British friend who watched the press conference. “You should have asked him where he parked his Panzer,” he said.

Catherine Mayer is the London bureau chief at TIME. Find her on Twitter at @Catherine_Mayer or on Facebook at Facebook/Amortality-the-Pleasures-and-Perils-of-Living-Agelessly. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.

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