The Sunday Times Magazine, May 28, 2006
We want to be loved by you ...
They’re our biggest fans, but knocking Germans is Britain’s favourite sport. In the run-up to the World Cup, is it time we learnt to laugh with them?

By Richard Johnson
When Matthias Matussek of Der Spiegel interviewed the Booker prize-winning novelist Ian McEwan in London, it was meant to be a liberal exchange of ideas -- a salon, if you will. «We had a lovely dinner, then bumped into a famous director on our way out. I won’t tell you his name but he was nominated for an Oscar. When Ian introduced my wife and me as 'friends from Germany', the director gave us a Nazi salute. Then laughed his arse off. I was in the West End of London in f***ing 2006. What the hell was that about?»

It was a joke, apparently. «And I laughed it away,» says Matussek. «What else can you do?» But when Matussek wrote about the episode, McEwan denied it. He said the truth was rather less interesting, and that Matussek should put his imagination to better use and become a novelist. «I didn’t make it up,» says Matussek. «Nor did my wife … [it] was very telling -- McEwan would rather trust an Englishman he happened to bump into than a German he’d been with all evening. Is it any wonder my fellow countrymen think there’s a deep well of anti-German resentment in Britain?»

Matussek worked as Der Spiegel’s London correspondent for two years. He ranted about how the stoicism, education and humour of the British were being devalued by Big Brother, binge-drinking and happy-slapping. When he returned to Germany to become the paper’s culture editor, the diplomatic corps must have breathed a sigh of relief. But in pride of place on the wall of his Hamburg office is the goodbye column he wrote in the Evening Standard. It praises the British character after the London bombings of last summer. And it ends: «Great Britain, I will miss you.»

Matussek’s love for Britain isn’t shared by all his countrymen. In a recent survey to find Germany’s favourite European neighbours, the British didn’t do terribly well. «The French came top,» says Matussek. Well, they have lovely scenery, which is why the Germans are all buying second homes in the Alsace. «England was between the Serbians and the Croatians – No 29 or something.» And with 100,000 football fans in Germany for the World Cup, we’re unlikely to improve on that position any time soon.

Fans who travel to Germany this summer will be singing from the unreconstructed English hymnal. It contains anthemic standards such as Stand up If You Won the War, and Two World Wars and One World Cup. Meanwhile, readers of The Sun have been voting on a new song for the terraces. The winner, sung to the theme from Dad’s Army, is Who Do You Think You Are Kidding, Jürgen Klinsmann? It comes complete with air-raid sirens. Sven-Göran Eriksson (who has been on the wrong end of a few football songs in his time) wants the World Cup -- with its slogan «A Time to Make Friends» -- to be a new beginning. In Free Lions, a guide for England fans, he asks supporters to avoid anti-German songs. Especially Ten German Bombers, which celebrates the RAF’s success against the Luftwaffe. And the lyrics to more appropriate songs, such as God Save the Queen and You’ll Never Walk Alone, have been added to the Foreign Office website. The only problem is, when they’re stuck for lyrical inspiration, England fans don’t tend to think of the Foreign Office.

But they should. The advice about what songs to sing is more than PR. The German police have already warned fans that the Nazi salute and the goose step will not be tolerated. «This simply is a criminal act in Germany,» says Walter Ernstberger, director of police in Nuremberg. And not, as is traditional in England, «a bloody good laugh». And whistling The Great Escape - if it is done with malicious intent -- could actually be enough to get arrested. The message from the German authorities is clear: don’t mention the war.

In a Harris poll last year, 62% of Germans said they never talk about the war anyway. Visitors to Germany won’t find Hitler’s bunker on tourist maps. Colditz Castle is stuck out in a village near Leipzig and requires two bus journeys to get to. And Nuremberg’s tourist office has no information on its Nazi history, except a tiny black-and-white booklet obliquely entitled Germany 1933-1945. It is more interested in pushing the Toy Museum and Business Tower than the Zeppelin Stadium and Courtroom 606.

That’s why, when there was a public vote for the greatest figure in German history, on the German public TV network, the organisers introduced a «no mass murderers» rule. Nobody was allowed to nominate Hitler or anyone associated with the Third Reich. When the votes were counted, Konrad Adenauer, the chancellor during the post-war reconstruction of West Germany, was declared the winner. It showed the lengths Germany is prepared to go to sanitise its past.

«You Brits dwell on the war because it was your finest hour,» says Matussek. «The war defined modern Britain.» After the London bombings of 2005, a YouGov poll asked Britons to choose from a list of phrases that might be used to describe or define what it is to be British. In first place was «Our right to say what we think». In second place was «Our defiance of Nazi Germany in 1940». Matussek says, when England fans chant about the war, they are simply reliving their glorious past. «Which is a healthy thing to do,» he says. «But for us Germans, it’s sometimes tedious.» Don’t expect the German fans to sit in silence. Chanting, after all, still offers them another chance to practise their English. When Bayern Munich came to Manchester United, they ran through their entire repertoire -- in English -- including Zing Ven You’re Vinning and Stend Ap If You Heit Man U. And if Germany meet England, they will make sure to chant about BSE (with mooing noises) and «Inselaffen». They should save their breath: England fans don’t understand insults in a foreign language. But do ordinary Germans really think of us as «island monkeys»? And do we really care?


The Inter City Express from Hamburg to Berlin has recycling bins, and Wi-Fi, and self-cleaning toilets. But it’s still a minute late leaving the Hauptbahnhof. Since trains and punctuality are so important in the German world, the Deutsche Bahn hands out official certificates of train tardiness (Bescheinigungen über Zugverspätung) if a train is late. A minute doesn’t count as Zugverspätung, not even in Germany, but you can use the certificates as an official explanation of why you’re late for work or school. Or keep them as a souvenir of living the German way.

My guidebook says, to greet strangers in Germany, simply knock twice on the table. It means: «Hello, everyone.» I try it, but everyone on the train turns round to find out what all the knocking is about. I figure my guidebook is out of date and try another approach. «Hallo, jeder,» I say. Everybody looks surprised at an Englishman speaking German. As one man says, «We have a joke in Germany:?if you speak three languages, you’re trilingual. If you speak two languages, you’re bilingual. If you speak one, you’re English.»

The conversation is hesitant at first -- like my German. So we start to talk about Anglo-German relations in English. The Germans will speak English at any opportunity. There are about 450 English words in the German vocabulary. They use them as often as possible, mainly to prove how sophisticated and educated they are. Many English verbs are «Germanised» and absorbed into the language -- for instance, «managen», «involvieren», «e-mailen» - and it doesn’t seem to create a scandal the way it does in France.

Talk on the train is in «Denglish» -- that wonderful mix of Deutsch and English, such as: «Hello, Sir! How goes it you?»

«Oh, thank you for the afterquestion.»

«Are you already long here?»

«No, first a pair days. I am not out London.»

«Will we now drink a beer? My throat is outdried.»

But there’s nothing self-conscious about it: they are just happy to practise their language skills. They dislike the undemocratic concept of private hospitals or public schools. But they talk, openly, about needing a German Margaret Thatcher to deal with the country’s unions. They declare undying devotion to the German republic but, secretly, they love our monarchy. It represents continuity to a country full of discontinuity. They loved Princess Diana (or «Lady Dee», as one passenger calls her), and German TV still screens the «Queen’s Birthday Parade» (Trooping the Colour) every June.

When the train pulls into Berlin Zoo, the station newsstands are full of one story. A picture of the chancellor, Angela Merkel, in her swimsuit appeared in The Sun – under the headline «I’m Big in the Bumdestag» – and the German press are furious. «You are rotten to the core,» says the Bild-Zeitung columnist Franz Josef Wagner. In Britain the picture was accompanied by stories about Germany’s much-improved «bottom line», but in Germany it has been seen as something else. An act of gross disrespect. As Wagner writes, «Where does this hatred come from?»

Germany’s ex-minister of culture, Michael Naumann, experienced the hatred of the British newspapers first-hand. His comment in an interview about Anglo-German relations («There is no other country in Europe that hinges [its] identity as strongly as Great Britain does on the second world war. And she has every right to do so») was badly edited -- the second sentence was missed out. «But my German sense of humour failed utterly when the paper followed up with the headline 'That is why we won’t forget, Herr Minister!', showing a picture of Bergen-Belsen.» Naumann insists he doesn’t need a lesson on the Holocaust -- his Jewish relatives, who barely escaped the Third Reich, returned to Germany in British and American uniforms. And he doesn’t need a lesson in the ways of the British -- he counts his time at Queen’s College, Oxford, as the happiest of his life: «I enjoyed the absence of the bureaucracy,» he says, «and a generally highly cultured tone of political discussion, much more tolerant of other people’s views than over here in Germany.»

Dr Ulf Poschardt, political columnist for Die Welt, has suggested we talk about Anglo-German relations over tea. Germans think we still drink afternoon tea. Heidi Klum, married to an Englishman -- the singer Seal -- is in full agreement: «What can I say? My husband shows me how to make a good cuppa. And as for 'No sex please, we’re British,' it just doesn’t apply.»

The English-language textbooks in German schools, which now focus on America, last focused on England in the 1960s. So they imagine we’re all Miss Marple and «How d’you do?» They take their pronunciation from the same books, which is why Germans still pronounce the A as E. At McDonald’s, a German will order a Big Mec and say «Thenk you,» and sound like a Bavarian Brian Sewell.

Poschardt studies the film Notting Hill to improve his English, and his diction has a Hugh Grant quality about it: his friends call him «Posh». His tailoring is bespoke, and he drinks sparkling water with lemon. Recently he wrote a column for Die Welt from a wooden bench on Hampstead Heath. «The bench was inscribed 'in loving memory of Sarah' and nobody tried to deface it,» he said. «Everybody respected it, no matter what their culture or background was. I thought that was a miracle. In Germany someone would have drawn a swastika or a penis on it.»

But in other ways Germany is more respectful than Britain. Politicians' private lives are strictly off limits. And so is Angela Merkel’s bottom. Poschardt says educated Germans completely understand the humour of our tabloid headlines, «but there’s no such culture in the tabloids here in Germany. And because of our history, we don’t offend other countries like that. Or put them down. The only people we put down are anti-Israel. And pro-fascist».

One German joke, circulated recently on the internet, compares two sets of photos. The first, taken at a club in Stockholm, shows fresh-faced young women celebrating their vitality -- the vitality of just about anybody they can get their hands on. The second, taken at a club in Newcastle, shows sallow-faced young women celebrating the two-for-one offer on Bacardi Breezers. All the men have black eyes. All the women have black eyes. The caption at the end asks: «And where would you have gone this evening?» The Germans clearly aren’t quite as frightened of causing offence as they once were.

Bild-Zeitung is the only tabloid in Germany. It regularly features pictures of topless women on the front page. But when it reprinted the pictures of Merkel, it covered up the chancellor’s backside with a red square. A big red square. But that’s because courts in Germany tend to rule in favour of privacy. Merkel’s predecessor, Gerhard Schröder, successfully sued a news agency for claiming he dyed his hair, and obtained a court injunction to prohibit newspapers from publishing rumours about his marriage.

Germany has had its share of sex scandals: the latest involved Michel Friedman, a talk-show host, in cocaine binges with prostitutes. But the country’s politicians have always managed to stay clean. Der Spiegel takes great pride in the fact it has forced leading ministers to resign after unearthing shady dealings. «But the revelations were about money or power,» says Matthias Matussek. «Never sex. That was taboo. Everyone, for instance, knew that Chancellor Kohl had a mistress -- but nobody wrote about it.»

The Germans think British tabloids reflect our arrogance. Matussek reckons we’ve got more arrogant since the British economy improved – and the Germany economy stagnated: «The best way to improve your image with us is to lose your money. If we want to cheer ourselves up, we look at your NHS. And your education. But give us something new to laugh about, for goodness' sake. How about a recession, or Beckham hitting the bar during a penalty shoot-out against the Germans? Or, worst of all, Bridget Jones: Part III.»

When he was the London correspondent for Der Spiegel, Matussek enjoyed dinners with leading British intellectuals. But one in particular – with A. S. Byatt -- sticks in his mind. «Over dessert, she asked me for my opinion on the European constitution. I said, 'It’s interesting -- I think all states should agree on common principles. What about you?' 'Well,' she said, 'we British are the oldest democracy in the world. We don’t need constitutions. But for young nations like yours it might be very helpful.'
I could have killed her. So arrogant.»

It was British arrogance that prompted Matussek to write a book about what Germany has given the world, called Wir Deutschen: Warum Uns die Anderen Gern Haben Können (We Germans: Why Other People Should Like Us. The subtext is, Why They Can Kiss Our Arse If They Don’t.) «The title of my book expresses how I feel about the British,» says Matussek. «You have good reasons to like us, because we brought something to mankind.

Like the car. And the computer. And Heidi Klum. And it’s not very funny when my son’s chased through Richmond Park by British teenagers yelling 'Nazi! Nazi!', or Prince Harry wears a swastika to a party. My good-humoured book says, &Mac226;Please stop with that Hitler thing -- or you can kiss our arse.'»

The new German ambassador in London hasn’t finished unpacking; he only left his posting in Washington a few weeks ago. But Wolfgang Ischinger has decided to leave the Bismarck portrait up on the wall. Given the sensitive nature of Germany’s relationship with England, it feels as if he’s got a tough job to do. But he reckons he’s had tougher. He arrived in Washington just before 9/11. And was there throughout the Iraq war. So London is a walk in the park. «Yes, I like to walk in your parks in London …» he says. He has just judged an essay competition for British students called But Don’t Mention the War – an obvious reference to Fawlty Towers. Thirty years after the comedy was first screened, Britons still find it hard to talk about the Germans without mentioning the war.

When Richard Desmond wanted to buy the Telegraph Group, he was in competition with Axel Springer. He ended up goose-stepping round the room, asking Telegraph executives if they were looking forward to being «run by Nazis». Only John Cleese has managed to make the goose step funny.

Ischinger is aware that ambassadors have an image of being earnest, formal government types. «And not only am I an ambassador,» he says.
«I happen to be the German ambassador, representing a country that has an image of being disciplined and not much fun.» He can’t help being ever so slightly jealous of the Italian ambassador («Everybody thinks of spaghetti and red wine»), but he does things his way. He’ll be the first to take off his tie or show up without one, and he doesn’t rule out the use of the joke.

Germans know the problem with German humour. They make fun of it in their adverts. In one, a young blond man walks on stage at a dimly lit comedy club. He walks up to the microphone and says in a dull German accent: «Good evening, ladies and gents, I just flew in from Berlin. And, boy, are my arms tired.» Silence. He flaps his arms like a bird. More silence. As he prepares to continue, the voice-over intervenes, sparing the audience any more routine. «Germans don’t do comedy,» says the voice-over. «They do beer.» It was an advert for Beck’s.

Mark Twain said: «German humour is no laughing matter.» A little unfair, maybe. After all, Schadenfreude -- humour that comes from the misfortunes of others -- is a German invention. So are the oompah band, Werner Herzog (who ate his shoe, after it was cooked in hot oil for 24 hours) and 1,500 different varieties of sausage, so it’s no surprise Germany has its own, unique, take on the world. But the English have their own version of jokes they think Germans might tell:

«Knock, knock.»

«Who’s there?»

«The police. I’m afraid there’s been an accident. Your husband is in hospital.»

Or: «A man walks into a pub. He is an alcoholic whose drink problem is destroying his family.»

When the first ever laughter school, HumorCare Germany, opened in Berlin, it was considered enough of a story to make headlines around the world. It employs humour trainers to teach Germans to discover the art of being funny. There is a World Cup joke doing the rounds at the moment. Dr Titze, the school’s founding president and the author of 10 books about therapeutic humour, found it interesting on two counts. First, it’s a joke about the English, which is rare in Germany. Germans don’t make jokes about the English because of what’s called war guilt. Second, it shows that whatever the rest of the world might think, the Germans do appreciate irony. «England is going to play against Germany,» says Titze. «Beckham says to his comrades, 'Go to a pub – I’ll win the match on my own.' So they go to a pub and listen to what is said about the match in the radio:

2nd minute: 1:0 for England.

8th minute: 2:0 for England.

21st minute: 2:1 for England.

27th minute: 2:2.

33rd minute: 2:3 for Germany.

67nd minute: 2:4 for Germany.

«The surprised English players leave the pub and go to the stadium. After arriving there, the match is finished. They go to the dressing room where Beckham is sitting. «We thought you were going to defeat the Germans,» they say. «I would have done so,» Beckham replies. «But I got the red card in the 15th minute.»

The Germans didn’t take easily to satire. «It was difficult,» says Maren Kroymann, a German cabaret artist. «German people were used to these huge carnival parades in Cologne, where everyone claps in time. They’re funny, but on a basic level, and appeal to the lower instincts. That’s what one would associate with German humour. I love the British for the variety of their humour. You have foreigners, intellectuals, women, everyone doing humour. And that’s normal. Not in Germany. Well, it’s become more normal, but only in the last 10 or 12 years, and that’s because of British and American comedy.»

If anything sums up German humour, it’s Dinner for One. This black-and-white English-language sketch, filmed in Hamburg in 1963, is screened on German TV on December 31 every year. It features Freddie Frinton as the drunken butler, James, and May Warden as his elderly employer, Miss Sophie. It is her 90th birthday party, but all her guests are imaginary friends who have died. So the pair get more and more sloshed, and the sketch ends with James taking his boss to bed and delivering the immortal line: «Same procedure as last year, Miss Sophie?»

A professor at Bremen University reckoned Dinner for One would upset the British class system. What he was actually saying was: we don’t have a sense of humour. «You don’t,» says Matussek. «Not about yourselves. The British are rude. But you don’t like it when people are rude about you. When I wrote about the Olympics being awarded to London, I said it was the path to war. I said, 'The Brits are so full of themselves now, they’re going to attack Schleswig-Holstein.' It was funny. But the result was a page in the Daily Mail -saying, 'German envoy savages Britain.'»

Whether or not the humourless German stereotype is accurate, the stand-up comic Henning Wehn has made a good living playing up to it -- on the London comedy circuit. The character he plays says he’s not good enough to cut it in Germany. «You need singing, dancing, magic and juggling over there; the jokes don’t really matter.» He wears a cardigan and has a stopwatch around his neck to time, exactly, the two minutes of audience interaction before comedy can begin. He then explains every joke. Only then does he like the audience to laugh.

Wehn doesn’t get offended by British humour. Well, he’s heard all the jokes before. «I used to work next door to a Polish restaurant. Every day, when someone asked, 'Where shall we go for lunch?' someone else would say, 'Not the Polish place – Henning will never leave.' And if I go to the pub, it’s always, 'Ah, does mein Führer fancy ein pint?' This is every single day. The jokes aren’t bad-natured. Tedious, yes. But not bad-natured.»

And by making jokes about Nazi Germany, on stage, Wehn shows attitudes are changing. «Why did my grandfather cross the road?» he asks the audience. «To occupy France.» Or: «My grandfather died in a concentration camp, fell off the watchtower. Only kidding. He broke his leg.» That sort of thing. Henning isn’t laughing at Nazi Germany, or making jokes about the Final Solution, he’s laughing at the fact that we should not be laughing. The way we laugh at flatulence.

The dying out of the Nazi-era generation – over 80% of Germans today were born after 1941 -- has given the country a more detached view of its past. First there was the intimate -- if unsympathetic -- portrayal of Hitler in the film Downfall. And soon we’ll be able to watch Mein Führer: The Truly Truest Truth about Adolf Hitler. In this Chaplinesque parody, by the Jewish director Dani Levy, Hitler lives and tells the story of what he was really like: a weakling who only made it to the top with a Jew’s help. The idea would have been unthinkable until recently.

Ariadne von Schirach is one of the younger generation who think differently about the war. She loves to visit her friends in London to see the way they gossip, and ask for directions. «To be honest, the beer festival and the World Cup are more of a topic than the second world war. Young people these days are very global. A generation that has liberated itself from clichés.» And she’s more sensitive than most because of her family. Her grandfather Baldur von Schirach spent 20 years in Spandau as a prisoner of war. «It’s important to make jokes about the Nazis,» says von Schirach. «The Prince Harry thing [Germany’s newspapers all carried front-page photos of the prince in what they described as his 'El Alamein look'] was a bit tasteless, but he has to rebel somehow. I can understand.»

Somehow Nazi jokes are more acceptable when made by Germans. Like the 1940s comedy To Be or Not to Be, directed by the émigré Ernst Lubitsch. Set in occupied Poland during the second world war, the comedy tells the story of a troupe of actors (led by Carole Lombard and Jack Benny) and their tussles with the Nazis. In 1942, when it was released, some critics declared Nazism an inappropriate subject for comedy. «This is a matter of debate,» Lubitsch said, «but it’s a far cry from the Berlin-born director who finds fun in the bombing of Warsaw.»

The merchandise for the World Cup 2006 isn’t all official. There are orange plastic Stahlhelme -- steel helmets -- with Dutch flags and «Attack!» printed on the side. And fake Hitler moustaches. The Germans are a formal, law-abiding people. Their public transport in the big cities is run on the honour system. And most people stand at traffic lights until the man turns green, because they want to set a good example for children. My out-of-date guidebook says they would never be rude to foreigners. In the World Cup 2006, that may be about to change.


* After the Americans and the French, the Germans top the league table of visitors to the UK. They spend more than the French, but less than the Americans

* 2.5m British people visited Germany in 2005. 13.8m went to Spain and 11m went to France

* Britain received 3.3m German visitors, who accounted for 11.1% of the total number of tourists to Britain


* 243,554 people living in England and Wales were born in Germany (this includes those born on army bases)

* 96,245 Britons live in Germany

* Half of all Germans speak English, but under 1 in 10 Britons speak German


Germans who prefer to live in the UK:

* Wolfgang Tillmans, photographer

* Lord Dahrendorf, philosopher and academic

* Gisela Stuart, Labour MP

* Dr Franz-Josef Paefgen, chief executive, Bentley Motors

* Claudia Schiffer, supermodel

* Dr Gert-Rudolf Flick, collector and art expert

* Jens Lehmann, Didi Hamann, Robert Huth, footballers