A national problem

My devoted blog readers will remember that I outlined my approach to my research in my last post. I phrased it like this: 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?

I looked into the first part of the question in that post, so now it’s time to look at the second. Since then I’ve discovered that, despite their apparent literary appetite, the majority of Germans weren’t too interested in books in the post-war years (just like their British counterparts).

When the Germans or the Brits were reading – and it did become more popular with the 1950s German Wirtschaftswunder (‘economic miracle’) and the end of British austerity and rationing – they weren’t reading much about each other.

Romantic tales and adventure yarns were top of most people’s reading lists. Trashy war novels did exist but mostly focused on the heroic British/German soldier with little consideration for detailed representations of the former enemy.

So literature as my starting point hasn’t got me very far. As I perhaps expected, cinema and radio were far more popular forms of entertainment between 1945 and 1960 than books. This discovery leads me to ask: what was influencing the Brits and Germans perceptions of each other? and, more fundamentally, what is it that has the most influence on our perceptions of “others” in another place and/or time?

Do we form our impressions of, say, South Africans from representations in novels and films? From news stories? From stereotypes and hearsay? From the individual South Africans we meet? It’s probably a mixture of these and other factors, many of which will have an influence on us of which we are unconscious.

I happen to think that personal contact with individuals of different nationalities should be the most important factor. I’ve recently been scouring the post-war diaries of some Brits and Germans for their thoughts about each other. It seems that those Brits who had no or little contact with Germans in the post-war years clung to the simplistic stereotypes encouraged during the war (and by much of the press afterwards too).

Fraternisation between British civilians and German prisoners of war was forbidden until the end of 1946. Fraternisation with Germans was also forbidden in the British occupied zone in Germany.

Yet meetings – usually unofficial, often unplanned – between Brits and Germans in either country frequently yielded a welcome appreciation of the other as a complex, nuanced human rather than a caricature.

Many Germans recognised that extensive contact between the occupiers and occupied was an absolute necessity for the occupation to be a success. One diarist wrote: “Wir freuen uns über jede Gelegenheit, um Verständnis zu werben, jede winzige Chance, die Sieger davon zu überzeugen, dass deutsche Menschen keine anderen Menschen sein müssen als sie”.

[Translation: “We’re glad of any opportunity to promote understanding, any tiny chance to persuade the victors that German people don’t have to be any different to them”.]

We’re all guilty (myself included… in this post) of talking expansively about “the Germans”, “the English” or “the Iraqis”, despite our modern awareness of the meaninglessness and potentially dangerous nature of concepts such as ‘national character’ or ‘racial essence’.

Implicit in the quotation above is the belief in humanity (human-ness) as far more significant than nationality. And I’m becoming convinced that nationality actually gets in the way of the meaningful human contact that can be had if we see each new person firstly as a human like ourselves, and secondly as a unique individual with a character and a history, hopes and fears.

To get rid of the concept of nationality entirely would (a) be impossible, and (b) ruin my project(!). But it might be good to take the attitude of that diarist, who wrote excitedly about the founding of the UN: “Vereinte Nationen! Verbrüderte Völker! Wahrhaftig, die Musik dieser Botschaft klingt uns lieblich in den Ohren.”

[Translation: “United nations! Peoples allied! Truly, this message is like music to our ears.”]