Don’t mention ze vor

There’s only one thing the British hate more than being hectored, and that’s being hectored by Germans. Yet that’s precisely what the outgoing German ambassador Peter Ammon did in his valedictory interview.

His Excellence is upset about the frequent references to the war made by Brexiteers, who draw an unwarranted parallel between the Third Reich and the EU:

“History is always full of ambiguities and ups and downs,” he said, “but if you focus only on how Britain stood alone in the war, how it stood against dominating Germany, well, it is a nice story, but does not solve any problem of today.”

Herr Ammon should have got out more when in London. Had he visited, for example, any international football match, he’d know that such sentiments transcend political boundaries.

When England plays Germany, many an English fan holds the index finger of his left hand across his top lip, while raising his outstretched right arm in a well-known salute. And when England plays any other European team, tens of thousands sing as one: “If it wasn’t for England, you’d all be Krauts”.

In fact, before the 2006 World Cup held in Germany, the departing England fans had been briefed on this sensitive issue and told not to mention the war. In compliance, during the opening ceremony many of them sported T-shirts saying “Don’t mention the war”.

One can always rely on any EU ideologue to intersperse truisms with banalities, bromides and platitudes. So yes, history is indeed full of ambiguities. But Germany’s quest to dominate Europe isn’t one of them. It’s an observable fact rooted in national psychology.

The Germans seem to think that their indisputable talents don’t get the recognition they deserve. Western music, for example, is practically all German, which is an unparalleled cultural achievement.

While one can’t say exactly the same thing about Western philosophy, the Germans arguably contributed more to it than anyone else. They also hold their own in literature and science, while their ability to mass-produce premium products is second to none.

Germans do have much to be proud of, but here’s the rub. People in general, and the British in particular, don’t like high achievers who flaunt their accomplishments too openly. They admire such people only if their success is leavened with diffidence and self-deprecating humour.

Germans aren’t exactly known for these traits, which is why they’re more often mocked than praised. To be sure, envy has a role to play there as well, but it’s not nearly as prominent as the Germans will have you believe.

I’d venture a guess that the Germans’ desire for respect, which they felt they merited and weren’t getting, was a contributing factor in both world wars. It’s also possible that, had, say, Italy been the defeated aggressor in the First World War, the peace treaty imposed on her would have been less harsh than Versailles.

When Nazi German and Vichy French bureaucrats were drawing the blueprint for the EU towards the end of the Second World War, they were both driven by their national desiderata. Having experienced a de facto single European state, they felt the concept was promising.

France, having lost two wars to the Germans in the preceding 70 years, and won a Pyrrhic victory in another, wanted some guarantee of a lasting peace – and a chance to mend her badly dented pride by riding the resurgent Germans’ coattails .

Germany, having lost any possibility of launching military conquests in the foreseeable future, welcomed the chance of rising to a highly predictable economic, and therefore political, dominance in Europe.

Things have panned out as the two parties planned, especially for Germany. She has emerged as the most politically powerful, and the only economically virile, country on the continent. And Germany foots the bill for most EU members in a sort of supranational welfare state.

Here it’s useful to keep in mind that, all the touchy-feely noises aside, the real objective of any welfare state, national or supranational, is to increase the political power of the state over the individual (or country). And Germany does much to vindicate this statement.

In common with all fire-eating ideologues, the good ambassador is adept at denying obvious facts. Hence he mocks the very idea that the EU is basically a German fiefdom:

“When I tell people in Germany I am confronted by this narrative occasionally in public debates they say, ‘This cannot be true. You are joking. This cannot be true. That is absurd.’.” Well, they would, wouldn’t they.

“I spoke to many of the Brexiteers, and many of them said they wanted to preserve a British identity,” laments the ambassador.

Shame on those retrogrades. Preserve a British identity when they could have a German one instead? There’s no understanding some people.

Being a German, he probably doesn’t realise how much political sovereignty determines the British national identity. Germany, after all, became a single political entity barely a century and a half ago, while Britain has been just that for more than a millennium.

Hence Germany has made a rather understated contribution to the art of politics, and what she has made is largely negative. She has been much more successful at churning out food processors and electric shavers.

Neither is France fit to teach politics to the world – any more than a man divorced several times is fit to offer marriage advice on the basis of that experience. While England has had roughly the same constitution since 1688, France has had 17 different ones since 1789.

If France taught the world how to build cathedrals and make wine, and Germany how to compose music and make toasters, England has shown how to run a state without too much social conflict. Germany and France are glued together mainly by culture; Britain mainly by politics.

Hence, throughout their political flip-flops, France and Germany preserved their national identity. France managed to do so even when being part of Germany. As the Nazis were rounding up Jews, Jean-Paul still held court at Les Deux Magots, and his plays were still produced at the Théâtre du VieuxColombier.

Conversely, Britain without her political sovereignty is no longer Britain. But the good ambassador is either insufficiently bright or too German to understand this.

Such failings don’t prevent him from patronising the British: “If you say the words ‘single market’ or ‘customs union’, probably 99 per cent of the population would not understand.”

Let’s see if I can pass the test. Customs union is like the Zollverein, isn’t it? That devious stratagem Prussia used to coerce other German states to come together under her aegis, am I getting it right? Well then, it’s hard not to notice that today’s Germany has absorbed this lesson of history rather well.

And British football fans, for all their supposed ignorance, have absorbed others much better than the good ambassador. They may not be able to define a Zollverein, but when they see it they know it.

11 thoughts on “Don’t mention ze vor”

  1. Another intellectual well from which to draw arguments…

    The football fans T-shirt anecdote reminds me that we have a lot in common with the Spanish, with regards to political irreverence and the joy in ‘piss taking’. (full disclosure – my girlfriend is Spanish). Their, recent, experiment with dictatorship has left them even more cynical than the us Brits.

    When I tease my girlfriend that Spain is officially the most politically corrupt nation in the EU, she responds by saying: “No, we’re just the best at discovering and publicising it!”

  2. . “As the Nazis were rounding up Jews, Jean-Paul still held court at Les Deux Magots, and his plays were still produced at the Théâtre du Vieux–Colombier.”

    One madame of a famous Parisian brothel reputedly said she was ashamed to admit she never had so much fun as she did during the years of Vichy.

  3. “When England plays Germany, many an English fan holds the index finger of his left hand across his top lip, while raising his outstretched right arm in a well-known salute.”

    Black manikins are hung from ropes in a Russia stadium when a foreign team plays Dynamo or Red Army [do they still it that?].

  4. Your title is an obvious reference to…Basil: Is there something wrong?
    Elder Herr: Will you stop talking about the war?
    Basil: Me! You started it!
    Elder Herr: We did not start it!
    Basil: Yes you did — you invaded Poland.

  5. Interesting discussion of the national mindsets of the British and Germans and their continuity from the end of WWII to today. Hope you do more of this in future columns and extend your analysis to the Russian and Polish psyches. Would also be interested in your thoughts on the extent to which 70+ years of Bolshevism did or did not change fundamental aspects of the Russian personality. It seems that Communism in the former East Germany from the end of the War to the fall of the Berlin Wall has had little effect on the German psyche.

  6. This reminds of the story of the German ambassador, in London.

    He thought it would be a good idea to try to get the British to forget their ‘obsession’ with the war and move Anglo-German relations on to a more modern footing.

    To achieve this noble aim he sought an interview with Britain’s most widely read newspaper and explained, at length, that our two countries were now modern, outward looking partners in the EU and perhaps it was time to consign this ‘war nonsense’ to the dustbin of history. The newspaper agreed and promised that the interview would lead the next day’s edition.

    The next morning the ambassador picked up a copy of the newspaper and was greeted by the headline:


      1. Ha! Ha!

        …or the Australian tabloid headline during a national beef shortage when a proposal to start eating kangaroo meat was facing fierce opposition from environmentalists:


  7. “When I tell people in Germany I am confronted by this narrative occasionally in public debates they say, ‘This cannot be true. You are joking. This cannot be true. That is absurd.’.”

    Here’s a home grown example of the narrative that Herr Ammon surely must have seen.
    The cover of Der Spiegel from March, 2015 which backfired magnificently.
    I believe the editor got into a bit of hot water over this.

      1. The attempt by the Conservative Party at an Ubermacht a few years ago was greeted by a small headline saying ‘Don’t call us Tories say Tories’. I will leave you to guess which obviously non-tabloid organ it was.

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