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10 February 2006

The Last of Engerland

Shop front, Invalidenstrasse, Mitte

Yesterday’s Sun front-page looked strangely familiar as it caught my eye at Cologne’s central station. For I’d seen that picture hundreds of times before, the one they invariably resort to as the ultimate expression of the British unwavering spirit and wit:  the iconic still from Fawlty Towers showing Basil goose-stepping and slicing through the air with his long spidery legs in his Hitler impression. The killer headline: Don’t mention the Walk, was superimposed to it rather sloppily in fat, white lettering. What prompted the umpteenth use of this much exploited shot (despite John Cleese's claims that the sketch was a piss-take of British jingoism and fixation on the war) was the German police's avowed determination to crack down on offensive displays of Third Reich imagery and symbols during the World Cup, should it occur to some fans to emulate Basil Fawlty and start giving Nazi salutes whilst mimicking the despotic moustache. As the war is still such a prickly subject to most Germans (National Socialism being strangely enough no laughing matter) the Three Lions, known for their good-natured exuberance and high regard for local cultures, should quake in their boots and expect the harshest punishment for their frivolous treatment of history (irony being a quality that the British are so eager to deny others, especially Germans - who all the same came up with something as devastating and unsurpassable as Dada). The Sun had even sent one of its hacks to inspect the cells at Nuremberg nick and the warning was unequivocal: the boys, who are also feared to fall prey to East German skinheads on the prowl, will have to keep their noses clean if they don't want to find themselves on the wrong side of Hun savagery.

The tabloid’s obsession with all things German is of course not new. Of all targets of its eurobashing frenzy, Germany holds a special place in their heart, France sadly coming a mere second. The reason is quite simple, since the Blitz is still essentially a defining moment in Britain's sense of its historical worth, a climactic narrative around which a modicum of national pride (a notion much mocked and ridiculed in more progressive circles) can still articulate itself: think Vera Lynn, the Queen Mum, Bomber Harris, whose commemorative statue the latter unveiled in Holborn in 1992 to the fury of peace activists. The intervening sixty years of political, institutional, cultural transformations taking place in German society - not to mention the collective, and often tortuous, process of Vergangenheitsbewältigung engaged over the past decades to deal with Nazi crimes - are simply wiped out of the historical record. Never mind the fact that the Federal Republic has in the meantime become one of the most open, democratic societies in Europe, Britain, as fantasised by The Sun’s luminaries, clings on to the handy myth of the repellent other, the face of an enemy who is all the scarier since it has become more difficult to pin down in the EU's diffuse threat to national sovereignty - hence the convenience of an evil, totalitarian figure to keep it identifiable. This tendency transpires even in the most unexpected places. A trip to the German history section at Piccadilly’s Waterstone’s provides a good if very disappointing indication of this selectivity, as nearly all the books available there deal with the Third Reich and National Socialism (hardly anything on Weimar, the GDR, let alone contemporary developments). Borders fares slightly better, though, as far as variety is concerned.

As any British government knows (and this one more than any other), The Sun is still a force to be reckoned with whose potential nuisance remains undiminished. But seen from afar it comes across more as a pathetic anachronism voicing the seething resentment of a tiny, isolated island with a huge chip on its shoulder - in fact all that modern Britain has no longer any reason to be. Like Germany itself the country has over the last twenty years undergone radical changes, becoming in the process one of the most open, vibrant, internationally-minded places on earth. Does the paper still have any relevance in such a context, doomed as it is to be seen as a cringe-inducing embarrassment, the by-product of an era of jingoistic insularity and ignorance of the world, the nasty, little smell that won’t go away. The question is all the more relevant as it seems to have taken an even more reactionary turn under the current editorship (the new depths of recklessness and rabid xenophobia plumbed during the invasion of Irak being but one example). But most of all it’s the question of national identity and of its representation that such nonsense once again brings up, and in this respect Germany, where an impossible return to the past rules out any instrumentalisation of past glories, thus making ordinary forms of patriotism and display of national pride unthinkable, might somehow point the way ahead in the supersession of obsolete notions of collective identity. New forms of post-national consciousness can take shape in the bankruptcy of traditional representations, Habermas’s concept of constitutional patriotism springing to mind for example - a rather complex intellectual formation, but an infinitely more inspiring one than stories of old royalty and pissed football fans. Is it not Britain, with such a brash, antediluvian view of national identity, which is lagging behind in its sheer unwillingness to let go of the past, its reliance on defunct intellectual categories, the impossible questioning of its naff, if cosy, prejudices, its rejection of a certain modernity even?


fast forward To illustrate this point, an enlightening article published in The Guardian (07.09.2004) by German-Irish novelist Hugo Hamilton dealing with the issue of (post)national consciousness and the emergence of a 'global identity' in Germany.


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