The Germans – almost always the baddies

English: Imperial Coat of arms of Alsace-Lorraine.
Image via Wikipedia

Another night in the giant multiplex at Westfield, watching Sherlock Holmes. In the first few frames of the movie, I see that familiar gothic typeface, known in Germany as Frakturschrift, and my heart sinks.

The scene is Strasbourg in 1891, and the German inscription says something like “1. Jubiläum Elsaß-Lothringen” – which means “first anniversary of German Alsace”.

That historical storyline is a great backdrop to paint these martial warlords in all the glory of their staccato orders, and great black coats with too many buttons. It was a clever move, simultaneously looking at the great Franco-Prussian conflicts of the 19th century, but also looking forward to to what modern warfare really meant; how physically damaging and powerful infantry warfare was.

It is the laziest narrative context for a power-crazed despot whenever the script requires it, but that image of Germany will never, ever die. I went to the bagel shop up the road last Saturday, and the headline on the Jewish Chronicle outside said that one-fifth of Germans are anti-Semitic. I find that hard to believe on the one hand, but on the other, it still seems to be acceptable even in this country to come out with quite amazingly judgmental comments like, “he walks like a Jew” – someone actually said that at work the other day.  What the hell does it mean? I guess it’s the same universal human desire to slot their fellow humans into frameworks that require no nuance, and allow no room for ambiguity, but it so very intellectually low; a pathetic attempt to differentiate oneself from everyone else, putting oneself in the “majority” view.

In a big meeting some time ago, I was talking about the difficulties we were having with a project plan, and said something vaguely along the lines of, “the problem is, I don’t have a final solution to this either without additional budget”. Someone laughed, and said “Yeah, you’re German, so I guess you would say that”. It took me quite a long time to make the connection, and even longer to fully grasp that he did indeed mean to make a flippant remark not only about the death of 6 million people, but about the very tangible fact that my grandfather could for all he knew have been involved. All he saw was a witty opportunity to make someone feel very uncomfortable, and to effectively silence me for the rest of the meeting. I was so angry I could not have remained at all professional, or for that matter avoided crying, if I’d made any sort of reply. There were another 12 people around the table, and not one of them said anything.

When Germans find out that my mother is English, they will say that they could always tell I wasn’t “100%” German, which is pretty funny, since up to that point they generally talk about how I look quite Eastern European. In fact, one particularly ancient old lady once helpfully informed me that I was the kind of girl Hitler would have liked. I informed her that this was not a compliment.

When English people find out I’m German, they will variously claim that I sound a bit German – very unlikely, since it isn’t my first language – or that with blonde hair and pale blue eyes, they had assumed I must be of some sort of Nordic origin. It’s frustrating. I’m just me, the same way everyone else is, and I love the erudition and artistry of my country that seems forever at arms’ length now. Goethe, Thomas Mann, Kafka, Nietzsche, Rilke, Möricke, Hölderlin, Schiller, Dürer, Kleist, Mendelssohn, Bach, Beethoven, Otto Dix, George Grosz, Luther, Handel, Einstein, Lucas Cranach, Fritz Lang, Leni Riefenstahl, Engels, Marx, Kant, Schopenhauer, Lessing.

When I ran out of instantly recall halfway through writing that list, I flipped through a list of famous Germans in Wikipedia; the number of entries in the “prominent Nazis” category is longer than the list of artists or scientists, and I don’t think any of the ones born in the last century stayed in Germany after the war. I probably talk about this topic a lot, but the creative poverty of such a rich nation makes me so sad, and so worried about people’s failure to learn the lessons of history. Next thing we know, some EU bureaucrat will be coming back from Budapest, having injected a huge wodge of cash in a frighteningly corrupt regime, and perhaps waving a bit of paper stating “peace in our time”….

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