Neil MacGregor on Germany: From Wurst to Walhalla

The BBC Radio 4 enthusiasts among you will know that Neil MacGregor, director of the British Museum and professed Germanophile, is currently making a daily appearance. At 9.45am every weekday we are being treated to fifteen minutes of enlightening discussion in his series Germany: Memories of a Nation.

Topics so far have ranged from Kafka to Kaliningrad, Goethe to the Brandenburg Gate. It’s perhaps unsurprising that a series broadcast on Radio 4 and accompanying a British Museum exhibition should focus on high culture, monumental architecture and individuals famous for their literary and philosophical achievements.

Walhalla, hall of fame in Bavaria honouring esteemed German artists, scientists, sovereigns and politicians of the past.

Walhalla, hall of fame in Bavaria honouring esteemed German artists, scientists, sovereigns and politicians of the past.

But as a student of popular culture and with a growing awareness of its importance for a nation’s sense of self, I’m disappointed. In his wonderfully eloquent and undeniably fascinating attempt to piece together a history of German national identity, MacGregor has neglected everyday people, for whom Rammstein and Schumacher are far more important than Walhalla and Kant.


Sausage and beer

One episode bucks the trend. In it, he traces the history of those celebrated German gastronomic exports – sausage (Wurst) and beer. For many Germans (or at least the 91% who aren’t vegetarian), sausage in one of its approximately 1200 different forms is indeed a staple food. And at 106 litres per year (compared to 68.5 in the UK), the average German’s beer consumption also lives up to the stereotype.

Not only is the “sausage and beer” stereotype actually rooted in fact, it’s also a fairly positive one compared to the other weary stereotypes – Germans are over-efficient, Germans are humourless and German women have hairy legs. Every Briton visiting Germany – or one of those half-authentic German Christmas markets that spring up everywhere from Birmingham to Bournemouth – buys a beer and a sausage and, perhaps a little grudgingly, admits that they’re pretty good.

Yet in the popular British films, novels and TV dramas made in the years after the Second World War – surely a time when Germans needed all the positive stereotypes they could get to counteract the negative – I have yet to find a German character eating a sausage or drinking a beer.

Since sausage-eating and beer-drinking have been part of German culture for centuries and were even defined as national activities by the German nationalists of the 1800s, British ignorance of these habits can’t be blamed for the omission. So what’s the reason?

Sink the Bismarck!

Things become clearer if we compare the British and German characters in these post-war films and novels. The 1960 British war film Sink the Bismarck! is a perfect example. The British characters – from admirals to cadets – are regularly seen doing very ordinary English things like drinking tea and eating sandwiches, even in the midst of battle! In one scene, two men on lookout for a German battleship in Icelandic waters discuss quite seriously their crumpet cravings.

Their penchant for stereotypically English food and drink makes these characters seem very ordinary, very human and very English – just like the cinema audience themselves – despite the extraordinary events.

In contrast, the German characters are rarely seen eating, drinking or discussing such basic human needs and cravings. If they are enjoying a beverage, it’s usually an expensive tipple in a fancy glass. They seem either unhuman, almost machine-like, in their lack of any need for sustenance or inhabitants of a luxurious world detached from that of the ordinary British cinema-goer.

Ironically, Sink The Bismarck is now a beer by BrewDog, supposedly the strongest beer in the world.

Ironically, Sink The Bismarck is now a beer by BrewDog, supposedly the strongest beer in the world.

It sounds crazy, but it’s true that more sausage-eating and beer-drinking in these films and novels would have vastly improved the post-war image of Germany among ordinary Britons. Of course, the intention was often to depict truly repulsive Germans and the lack of eating or drinking was a device to emphasise how different they were to the rest of humankind.

So we’ve made real progress to get to a point where two of the biggest stereotypes about Germany are so positive. In his episode on sausages and beer, Neil MacGregor quotes the Roman historian Tacitus writing about the Germanic tribes, among whom “to pass an entire day and night in drinking disgraces no one”. Perhaps such habits, widespread among Britons and an important part of German identity, could be the twenty-first century glue that binds us all together. Or perhaps not.


The question of Britishness: A German perspective

You’ve probably read enough about the Scottish referendum in the past week to last you until doomsday. But my take on the matter is somewhat different and involves a kilted Scotsman called Bosty, a bewigged George II and a murdering Viscount. An intriguing prospect, I hope you’ll agree.

There’s been lots of discussion about Britishness in the last weeks, plenty of agreement that it’s important and worth hanging onto, but no consensus about what it means.

Cole Morton writing in the Telegraph on Sunday failed to answer the question in his own headline, “what does it mean to be British now?” commenting only (and fairly obviously) that Britishness is “elusive” and incorporates many types of people and identities. Guardian columnist Madeleine Bunting’s conclusion that Britishness is “by definition a plural identity” is equally vague.

Having read these albeit interesting but somewhat disappointing articles, I was certainly none the wiser. So I turned to my terrible 1950s German novels and even worse 1950s German films to see what insight they could offer. After all, I’m studying German depictions of the British, so perhaps they had a clearer idea what Britishness meant, at least in the 1950s, than we do today?

Yet British characters, it seems, were few and far between in post-war German popular culture (which could be problematic for my thesis…). There are plenty of specifically English characters and a couple of Scots, but no sign yet of any Welsh or Irish, and none who are identified as British.

Still from "Robinson soll nicht sterben"

Still from “Robinson soll nicht sterben”

The 1956 comedy film Robinson soll nicht sterben (Robinson shall not die) is a fictional story based on the absurd premise that Daniel Defoe’s famous novel has inspired so many English sailors to abandon their ships and seek out a lonely desert island that the novel has been banned and Defoe is now penniless. Although the film is self-consciously farcical and over embellished, the depictions of a highly ornate, rather ugly English court inhabited by royals and nobles flamboyantly dressed and bewigged would have been relished by German audiences obsessed with what they saw as an English monarchy and English traditions.

Similarly, post-war German novels and films were riddled with remnants of the English nobility, often depicted as eccentric relics, sometimes as lunatics, but always undoubtedly English rather than British. If their Englishness isn’t being commented on directly, it is always present in their perpetual tea-drinking, discussions about the weather and obsession with their own noble status.

Indeed, Viscount Blair of Menseley in a 1957 detective novel is so fanatical about maintaining the prestige of his noble heritage that he murders his wife in order to inherit her fortune. His Englishness is highlighted not only by his Oxford accent and English furniture but by the very bloodline he is desperate to protect.

The English aren’t coming out of this too well so far, are they? That’s for another blog post though…

"Das Sonntagskind"

“Das Sonntagskind”

Then you’ve got your Scotsmen, like Bosty McMillar in the comedy film Das Sonntagskind, a Scottish soldier in occupied Germany after the war. Complete with kilt, bagpipes and whisky and speaking very bad German, he flaunts all the Scottish stereotypes available to German film producers in 1956.

So for German filmmakers and novelists in the 1950s, Britishness wasn’t terribly ripe with possibility. Even now, there’s a fair amount of understandable confusion among the Germans I’ve spoken to about what Britain is, let alone how it relates to Great Britain or the United Kingdom.

So it seems we’re on our own in working out what Britain is about. We’ve had the word since the Romans arrived, so there’s no excuse really.


Fantasy, farce and folly: Nazis on the big screen

Good news for all you “Iron Sky” fans out there. Filming for the sequel, “Iron Sky: The Coming Race” is due to start next year for release in 2016.

In case you missed the first one – you lucky, lucky people… – it went something like this. Iron SkyAn Afro-American astronaut, landing on the moon in 2018, discovers a city of Nazis hidden there since 1945 and planning a re-invasion of the earth.

Among other intriguing plot points, a mad, racist Nazi scientist turns the astronaut albino and, in search of smart phones to power their space battleship, the future Führer and his fiancé are roped in as advisors for the American President’s re-election campaign.

Baffled? Don’t worry. I am too, and I’ve watched the film myself. What I’m interested in here, however, is not the plot but the characterisation of the Nazis. These men and women, homogenously attired in their field-grey uniforms, are meant to seem absurd.

Their overly rigid rules and regulations, total lack of individuality and spontaneity, and their ludicrous understanding of the world as divided into capitalists and bolshevists render them farcical and the perfect targets for mockery. Seventy-three years after Hitler’s death, they have not quite got the hang of using the name of his successor, Wolfgang Kortzfleisch, in greeting each other. Even Kortzfleisch himself is greeted consistently with “Heil Hitler”, testament to the complete idiocy of these twenty-first century Nazis.

Although a poorly executed example, “Iron Sky” is part of a recent trend of creating and mocking exaggerated Nazi stereotypes in film. “Inglorious Basterds” was a film that did it far more successfully, but the basic premise was similar. The numerous Hitler Rants Parodies on YouTube, based on that famous scene from “Untergang” (“Downfall”), testify to the same idea – that such extremity of character, ideology and behaviour is all too easily turned into farce.

These films and parodies may seem new and radical. But there’s a whole bunch of films made in the 1950s and 1960s that were doing exactly the same thing, often better. Then, too, Nazis were frequently represented as overly obedient, mechanical, homogenous, tunnel-visioned and excessively self-confident.

In the numerous films set in German POW camps and on wartime battlefields, such characteristics leave ample room for quick-witted, spontaneous, cynical and witty British individuals to run rings around dull-witted Germans.

Norman Wisdom (right) as a German general in "The Square Peg"

Norman Wisdom (right) as a German general in “The Square Peg”

For brilliant and wonderfully simple comedy – without the excessive special effects that are sadly “Iron Sky”s best feature – I’d recommend those early post-war films. Norman Wisdom impersonating a German general in “The Square Peg” is utterly hilarious, as are the ludicrous Nazis scattered through the hit POW films “Very Important Person” and “The Wooden Horse”.

“Iron Sky” lacks the tongue-in-cheek attitude that makes those films so enjoyable. In fact, it behaves rather like a stereotypical Nazi, so convinced of its own greatness that it fails to see its own fatal flaws. In the novel “The Wooden Horse” – based on a true story – the German camp officer is so self-satisfied and convinced of his own superiority that he misreads the derisive roar from the British prisoners in response to his morning greeting as enthusiasm: ‘He was popular with these wild-looking British, was he not?’ Such idiocy is exactly the kind being mocked in the films I’ve been discussing.

Similarly, despite the derisive roar from critics and public alike, the makers of “Iron Sky” blindly proclaimed the film a success and forged ahead with a sequel. Such absurdity will surely, rightfully, spawn its own cynical parody and the cycle of mockery will continue.

The language of remembrance

In a year of important anniversaries, today marks another. One hundred years ago, Britain declared war on Germany, marking the beginning of what became known as the ‘Great War’.

European leaders have gathered in Belgium, flags have been lowered, monuments unveiled, prayers spoken and candles lit and extinguished. It’s a far cry from the unsuitably celebratory atmosphere of the D-Day commemorations that I wrote about in my last post. And rightly so – there is some validity in celebrating the beginning of the end of a war, while any form of celebration today would be absurd and wholly inappropriate.

Yet the knowledge that we, the British, were the victors in the war that began on 4 August 1914 is tangibly present in the British speeches and media coverage of today’s events. And the knowledge both that they were the primary aggressor and the defeated nation is no less evident in the words spoken and written by Germans.

Over and over again, we hear and read the verbs “commemorate”, “remember”, “think”, “reflect”, “mark”, “salute”. Time for reflection is rare in our often hectic lives and days like today force us to find that time, to remember what has passed and to mark a moment in history.

But what will happen tomorrow? We’ll return to our everyday lives, for most of us increasingly distant in every way from the realities of the ‘Great War’, and the words we’ve heard and thoughts we’ve had will fade into nothing. That cenotaph, grave or memorial in our village, town or city will return to its customary function as a barely noticed pile of stone, useful certainly for a posed snapshot or a meeting place, but little more.

The problem is one of passivity and complacency. Despite David Cameron’s insistence in a speech today in Belgium that the principles that determined Britain’s entry into the First World War should still be our guiding principles today, there was little in his or other British speeches to inspire real action. As the military and moral victor, we need do no more than mourn, remember and salute, it seems. These may be verbs but they have little to do with action and do nothing to engage or inspire.

German President Joachim Gauck also made a speech in Belgium today. Representing the nation that both initiated and lost the war, his speech was appropriately different to Cameron’s but need not have deviated too far from the language of remembrance and mourning. Yet he spoke boldly of the “bitter, terrible lessons” of the war, of Germany’s responsibility for it and of ever-present shame.

He demanded the active advocacy among Europeans of freedom, justice and tolerance and made explicit reference to current conflicts that necessitate such action. He appealed to European political leaders to show not only with words, but with actions too, that they have learned the lessons of the First World War.

Gauck’s plea for action and his call for all countries, not just those that carry the most blame, to actively learn from century-old events are a long way from Cameron’s passivity and the British media’s insistence on presenting the First World War as an interesting and saddening historical event to be remembered and marked but no more.

Yet this complacency is misplaced. Just because we play the (somewhat dubious) role of moral victor in this one chapter of history, why can’t we still learn from the mistakes that others made in that same chapter? If nations victorious in wars were to descend from their moral high ground in order to study the moral and military errors of their opponents (and themselves), thereby acknowledging that every nation has the potential to err, rather than seeking lessons only in defeat, humanity might progress a little faster.

Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, Berlin

Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, Berlin

The Germans have a special word for a monument that serves as a warning to future generations – Mahnmal. It’s different to their standard word for monument or memorial – Denkmal. The first word contains part of the word for ‘warning’ – Mahnung – while the second comes from the verb ‘to think’ – denken.

In Britain, we only have Denkmale, memorials that invite us to think, and only that on special anniversaries. Germany has many of these, but also many Mahnmale, monuments that can’t be ignored, that demand our attention, our reflection, our action, monuments that ask of us, ‘how are you going to make sure that this atrocity doesn’t happen again?’

We need a more active rhetoric on our commemorative days. We need a greater willingness to confront today’s realities and to actively use the lessons of the past to better ourselves as nations and as individuals. And we need more than Denkmale that invite us to think – we need Mahnmale to provoke us into action.

Some thoughts on D-Day

Last weekend’s D-Day anniversary made me more than a little uncomfortable. The commemorations were meant to be acts of sober remembrance and a chance to reflect on how far we’ve come as a (more or less) united Europe since 1944.

There were indeed plenty of solemn moments, but these were sandwiched between re-enactments featuring paratroopers, men in jeeps and military uniforms and Spitfires painted with invasion stripes. The stone villages surrounding the Normandy beaches were packed with World War II-era jeeps, children excitedly waving American flags and signs across storefronts welcoming the liberators: “Merci a nos liberateurs!”

There’s no doubt that D-Day was a hugely important milestone on the road to defeating D-Day_landingNazism in the Second World War. There’s no doubt that it should be remembered. But 20,000 men died that day and, however just the cause for which they were fighting, we must continue to mourn that tragic loss of life. Yet Friday’s events showed just how easily sober commemoration can turn into celebration.

It’s easy to remember the things that went well, the victories. The war as a whole, and D-Day and the Blitz in particular, have acquired a special place in the narrative of British national identity. As Jonathan Freedland discusses in an article in ‘The Spectator’ back in 2012, the events of 1940 ‘have acquired the status of a creation myth, the heroic and finest hour in which modern Britain was born’. That myth was cemented by the actions of over 83,000 British men on June 6th 1944.

But nations are formed by more than just victories. Germany is a country that knows this perhaps better than any other and has refused to shy away from the horrors of its past. Every year on 27th January, Holocaust Memorial Day is marked by a moment of silence in the German Parliament as well as lectures, theatre performances and church services across the country. German cities are pockmarked with monuments, statues, plaques and sculptures memorialising the Nazi crimes. Some are vast and intimidating, others almost hidden, but each embodies a city’s awareness of the need to make the Holocaust a part of the everyday reality of today’s Germany.

There were many Germans at Normandy last week too. They came despite fear of hostility – one group recounted how locals refused to serve them at the 65th anniversary in 2009 – and despite the inevitable emotional difficulty of facing both the increasingly frail Allied veterans and the sea of gravestones, the many thousands who died that day in the fight against Nazi Germany. They came because they know they should, because they know the importance of continuing to confront their nation’s past, even (perhaps more so) as it recedes out of living memory.

Britain’s history, too, is blotted with acts of horror. But we’re much less good at confronting this. Where is the day commemorating the violence perpetrated by Britain in north America and Australia in the name of colonisation? Where is the day to remember Britain’s role in the deaths of 250,000 people during the Indian partition in 1947? Where is the day to commemorate the almost total destruction of Hamburg, Dresden, Cologne and many other German cities during the Second World War?

In his study of British area bombing of Germany during that conflict, philosopher A.C. Grayling looks in detail at that policy and its effects and concludes that it was neither necessary nor proportionate, that it contravened humanitarian principles and general moral standards. ‘In short and in sum: was area bombing wrong? Yes. Very wrong? Yes.’

Immoral actions remain immoral even when fighting a just war. And to point out that the Allied record is not unblemished does nothing to diminish the enormity of the Nazi crimes, as some seem to fear.

Rather, to acknowledge the less admirable, even abhorrent, aspects of our nation’s history is to say, “this must never happen again”. Michael Gove wants “British values” to be taught in our schools. Let’s follow Germany’s example and make sure this includes real examination of Britain’s history, warts and all.  Only then can the rose-tinted image of our past be replaced with a humbling narrative that inspires future generations to build a better “Great” Britain.

Cats, Dolphins and Miley Cyrus

‘Popular fiction can be a useful indicator of popular attitudes and obsessions’, argues one academic. I’ve spent the last couple of weeks trying to justify in a written document exactly how popular fiction – and films and comics and radio and TV dramas – reflect how we think and feel. It’s difficult to do – and it feels like I’ve written several thousand words beating round the bush.

I have no doubt that popular culture and popular attitudes are somehow linked. Many others have felt the same. But there’s no definitive description of the relationship, and academics have spilt a sea of ink seeking the elusive words that would clinch it. Some, like the scholar quoted above, find sneaky ways round the problem. Read it again and you’ll see that the unassuming words ‘can be’ allow him to avoid having to define the relationship exactly. We’re left asking, ‘but how do we know when fiction reflects popular attitudes?’ ‘Is it sometimes completely off-beam?’ Only silence greets us.

Outside of the rigorous academic world, I’m happy to say ‘there’s a link’ and move on. This has got me thinking. Assuming that academia (or indeed, the planet) is still thriving in 50 years time, what will our children and grandchildren be studying as they plumb the depths of our own culture? What books, films and TV shows will they analyse, pen and notebook (or virtual tablet) in hand, to discover our attitudes and obsessions?

They’ll see us eagerly devouring violent detective novels and dramas from Scandinavia; they’ll see our penchant for superhero films and tolerably erotic novels; they’ll see our relentless appetite for increasingly fantastical Second World War fictions; they’ll see our relish for thieving, fighting and murdering in games like Call of Duty and Grand Theft Auto.

They’ll also see our YouTube obsessions with cats in boxes, talking dogs and naked kittens-in-boxpopstars. They’ll see that our favourite news stories from 2013 included a telepathic dolphin, the death of a cartoon dog and a horse doing its business in a Manchester McDonald’s.

So what are the trends? Sex, death and funny animals? It’s not too tempting to delve into what this says about modern Britain. I’ll leave that to the lucky future academics.

Generation War?

Generation War, a three-part German drama showing the lives of five young Germans from the invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941 to the end of the war in 1945, was recently shown on the BBC. The idealistic Charlotte happily goes to nurse the wounded on the Eastern front, while her friend Greta remains in Berlin and starts a love affair with a high ranking Gestapo officer in order to get papers for her Jewish boyfriend Viktor to leave the country. Instead, he is captured but, en route to a concentration camp, he escapes and joins the Polish resistance. Friedhelm and Wilhelm are brothers fighting on the Eastern front. Friedhelm, convinced that the war will “only bring out the worst in us”, partakes only begrudgingly but, soon numbed to the violence, he becomes a brutal soldier. Wilhelm, however, increasingly doubts the war’s purpose and deserts, escaping a death sentence by the skin of his teeth.

Controversy has been rife. Germans are falsely shown as innocent victims of the Nazi regime, some claim. Others criticise the representation of anti-Semitic Poles and barbaric Russians. This has led to protests outside the BBC, outrage in the USA and a court case in Poland.

No one challenges the quality of the drama – it’s thrilling, emotive, wonderfully acted and wholly engrossing. Yet the show’s producer Benjamin Benedict has had to work hard to defend it.

Discussing the show along with two eminent British historians and a Polish academic, he faced accusations that aspects of the series were “absurd”, “implausible to the point of being ahistorical” and “frankly preposterous”.

Firstly, Benedict rightly pointed out that there is no simple distinction between German victims and despicable foreigners in the series – there are some downright nasty Germans and some admirable Russians.

Secondly, this television drama was about individuals, not nations. War between countries drives the question of nationality to the fore. It determines the ideology you’re supposed to hold, the uniform you wear, the people you’re allowed to love and asked to kill, whether you’re tortured or rescued by strangers.

Yet Generation War was trying to show that war does not create nations of homogenous individuals. Greta and Viktor, Alina and Sonja are still the unique human beings they always were, not representatives of ‘Germans’, ‘Poles’ or ‘Russians’.

Benedict’s research for the series was based on the study of individual experience – testimony, diaries and letters by those who lived through the war. Yes, it’s implausible that every Berlin friendship group had a Jew in it. Yes, it’s unlikely that every German soldier was as sceptical as Friedhelm. But fictions are not intended to give us the big picture – that’s what historical accounts are for.

The five friends

The five friends

Most of the controversy arises from the assumption that viewers will generalise from these individuals – Friedhelm is shown as a victim, therefore all Germans were victims; a Russian soldier rapes Charlotte, therefore all Russians were sexual abusers.

My research is based on the same belief – that we generalise from the individuals in the fictions we watch and read to categorise whole cultures or nations. But we shouldn’t. Yes, historical dramas have a responsibility not to stray too far from the probable, which Generation War may have done on occasion. But their primary aim is entertainment not education. They tell stories of individuals not nations. If you want the latter, go and read a history book.

The drama’s original title was Unsere Mütter, unsere VäterOur Mothers, Our Fathers. It was intended to provoke discussions between Germans who lived through the war and their descendants. The hope was that this intimate story of individuals would prompt the telling of more such stories. The English title however invites us to generalise by claiming that the drama represents an entire ‘generation’. In doing so, it totally missed the point.