Bookshops and bakeries

What were Brits and Germans reading (and watching and listening to) just after the end of the Second World War and how did this influence their perceptions of each other and of themselves?

This question was the rather vague starting point for my research. But I’m less than three weeks in and I’m realising that it assumes far too much. Really, I need to ask two much more basic questions. Were Brits and Germans reading/watching/listening to anything just after the war? If they were, did it have any influence on their perceptions about each other?

Some thoughts on the first question…

A survey of 1000 Tottenham residents in 1946 revealed that almost half never read books at all. Of course, a small sample from Tottenham isn’t representative of the British population, but this somehow fits with what I’ve learned about post-war Britain.

Family and social life was in chaos as soldiers returned (or didn’t) from war and bombing had caused widespread destruction, to say nothing of extensive food rationing, fuel shortages, and high unemployment: amidst all of this, who had the time, money or inclination to read books?

Yet this common sense explanation fails when we look at post-war Germany. The political, economic, physical, moral and social destruction there far surpassed the worst of post-war Britain. 26 million people (1/4 of the population) were homeless, 10 million were displaced, 80-90% of some towns were destroyed, survival on 700 calories a day was common and the nation was occupied by enemy forces.

It’s hard to imagine. Despite such conditions, however, the German people were hungry for books. Eyewitnesses spoke of queues outside bookshops as long as those outside bakeries. “A more virginal, even ‘amorous’, receptive readership there has hardly ever been”, wrote one American officer, rather bizarrely likening the years of Nazi censorship to sexual deprivation.

This description does however do justice to the intense desire among Germans to read, and not be picky about it – they welcomed anything and everything and were often frustrated by the severe paper shortages.

The contrast between voracious German readers and apathetic English ones is striking. Reading had been shunted down the English list of priorities by poor material and social conditions. Conversely, in a nation prevented from reading freely for 12 years, the mental nourishment offered by books was now almost as important as physical nourishment.

It’s a classic case of not knowing what you’ve got ‘till it’s gone. When they got it back, the Germans really did take advantage of their new-found freedom. It’s difficult, but perhaps we should be grateful for the freedoms we have now, without having to lose them first.

What is it about ‘zee Germans’?

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While making the film Sea of Sand in 1958, the fictional story of a group of British soldiers fighting in North Africa during the Second World War, actor Michael Craig turned to director Guy Green and said: ‘I think it’s pathetic. Here we are more than ten years after the war has finished and we are still making pictures about it. Why aren’t we making pictures about what’s happening now?’

It’s easy to smile at Craig’s apparent naivety. More than six decades after the war finished, we are making pictures, novels, comics, computer games, headlines and comments about it on a scale far greater than 1958.

The last four years alone have seen a flood of successful British films about the conflict, including The Reader, Age of Heroes, The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas and Defiance, with at least three more currently in production. American films Inglourious Basterds and Valkyrie were also box office successes in Britain.

Wikipedia lists twenty-four wars in which Britain has fought since 1945. What is it about that one that fascinates us?

Is it, as some people suggest, a case of gazing fondly through rose-tinted binoculars at a time of national unity and superior morality, a time when Britain rose with honour to fight and defeat the “beastly Hun”?

Is it a way of inflating our sense of national grandeur by offering Nazified Germany as a negative foil?

Is it a means of usefully ignoring those atrocities in our own nation’s history which would rapidly puncture that sense of grandeur if inspected too closely?

Or is it a harmless obsession with a piece of ancient history between two nations who are now close allies?

Whatever the reason (and I’d welcome your comments…), can it be right that a ten-year-old German boy is subjected to taunts of ‘Nazi, Nazi’ in his English school playground by kids who don’t understand the word’s significance? For despite knowing that the Nazis were German and beaten by the British, many young people in Britain today are ignorant of the “details” – 80% don’t know what Auschwitz was about.

SpitfireThere are some great war films and novels out there, don’t get me wrong. But perhaps, when laughing at a clever pun in an advert for Spitfire beer or killing Germans in an early Call of Duty, it’s good to think twice about why we’re enjoying ourselves.

The events of that war should never be forgotten, but let’s not confuse hackneyed references to Hitler and ‘zee Germans’ with ‘remembering’.