Detectives and road sweepers

I’ve written a lot about British attitudes towards the Germans, but what, I hear you ask, were the Germans writing about the Brits? Since my early posts when I was struggling to find anything, I’ve stumbled across a bunch of German novels, films and television programmes that are all to do with Britain.

Butler Parker, British detective created by Günther Dönges, was never seen without his trusty bowler hat and black umbrella.

Butler Parker, British detective created by Günther Dönges, was never seen without his trusty bowler hat and black umbrella.

The genre is crime and the settings are Sherlock Holmes-esque foggy London streets and quaint English villages reminiscent of Miss Marple stories.The detectives all wear bowler hats, carry umbrellas and drink copious amounts of tea, and the villains are East End fraudsters or snooty aristocrats.

German readers, cinema-goers and TV audiences loved these stories. So much so that between 1959 and 1965, an astonishing twenty-four film adaptations of Edgar Wallace novels were made. Who’s he, you’re wondering? Wallace was one of Britain’s most prolific and popular crime writers in the 1920s and 30s. By the 1950s British readers thought his plots, characters and settings old-fashioned and his works soon disappeared from libraries and bookshops.

But these novels epitomised all that German audiences sought and loved in 1950s crime fictions. Eccentric aristocrats, Dickensian rogues and dotty old ladies, along with shady Thames-side warehouses and thatched countryside cottages – an England that only ever existed in the imaginations of Britain’s crime writers but one that captivated post-war Germany.

Eddi Arent, who played the Jeeves-like butler, in a similar role in another Edgar Wallace film.

Eddi Arent, who played the Jeeves-like butler, in a similar role in another Edgar Wallace film.

The directors even added extra nostalgic details: a comic Jeeves-like butler, a young dashing detective heir to a great fortune, oversized portraits of the Queen adorning the walls of Scotland Yard offices, and additional lords and ladies at every turn.

The Wallace films proved so popular that many other similar films were made in the early 1960s – similar plots, characters, music and cinematography. Several TV series in the same genre also appeared and became known as Straβenfeger or ‘road sweepers’ for their ability to clear the streets of people when they were broadcast. They were watched by up to 90% of the West German TV-owning population! (That’s compared to around 20% of the UK who watched the last series of Downton Abbey… hardly a Straβenfeger!)

British crime fiction had been popular in Germany since the 1920s when all things England-related acquired a new fashionable status. Masses of English crime novels were translated and enjoyed by millions of Germans. The Nazis were so concerned that these novels were acting as propaganda, popularising “British institutions and the British way of life” (according to an official government report), that they were banned!

Their resurgence after the war is hardly surprising. These novels (and their film and TV adaptations) allowed their readers to retreat to a time and place far from their own. A time and place where murderers and fraudsters were hunted down and eliminated, and order restored. A time and place far from post-war Germany where questions of crime, guilt and punishment were in no way limited to fictional contexts. Where each and every German was being forced to contemplate their own guilt or responsibility for the crimes of the Nazis. Where mass murderers were still at large and seekers of justice thin on the ground.

Crime stories set in romanticised Britain offered a refuge. The German reader could hate the villains and cheer the heroes without having to ask themselves which category they belonged to.

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