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Stereotyping Germany

Will Germany's longstanding Nazi image ever be removed from Britain's minds?

August 4, 2003

Will Germany's longstanding Nazi image ever be removed from Britain's minds?

To quote a line from My Fair Lady, “Why can’t the Germans be more like the English?!” Why is there a problem with the image of Germany in Britain?

I think the honest answer is that we don't quite know. Aside from an uneasiness about this subject, in some quarters, why does it matter at all?

As a German diplomat, I have the great fortune of serving in London for a second time. I worked here in the 1970s — and have now come back after 25 years. Back then, I enjoyed popular TV shows like Dad’s Army, Colditz or Corporal Schulz enormously.

All the old clichés from the Second World War and about the Nazis were still out there. And every time a soccer game between British and German teams was on, you would see the cartoon “We’ll blitz you, Fritz!”. Most of it was for fun — but for some of us it became a bit boring after a while.

I am fully aware that at the time — in the 1970s — you had a politically active and aware generation of Britons who had experienced the war. Many of whom knew Germans from their past experience during or after the war.

Many had served with the occupying forces, or later as part of NATO and the British Army on the Rhine. So that generation always knew that what they saw back home was just a caricature — and did not reflect reality.

Twenty-five years later I find there are fewer and fewer people, particularly among the younger generation, who have a direct experience with Germans and Germany. And it is on this fertile ground of ignorance that clichés and stereotypes sometimes can be taken for reality — and drift into subconsciousness.

Let me give you some figures: About 1% of Britons spend their holidays in Germany as tourists. And only about 1% of British students at the A-level learn the German language in school. In British history classes, virtually no mention of Germany is made after the Holocaust and World War II. For all practical purposes, references to Germany stop in 1945.

Why is this important? Why do we need to know what the other person thinks — and what are they like? For instance, how do they solve their problems?

Now you can argue that this lack of understanding of other countries is true for all countries, not just Germany. And you can say that this lack of understanding is especially true among the younger generation. All of this is true, but there is still an imbalance in British-German relations.

A recent opinion poll found that, in the group of 16-24 year olds in Germany, 64% knew about Britain from their own experience. In contrast, in Britain, only 35% knew about Germany from visiting the country directly.

The question is how do you make people curious enough, how do you get them interested? In Germany, we have a long, long waiting list of schools that would like to establish school links with counterparts in Britain.

But British interest in Germany is virtually non-existent — with the exception of Berlin. Berlin is considered interesting, Berlin is considered cool.

Against this backdrop, I am delighted that British Education Minister Charles Clarke has taken the initiative to review history teaching in his country — so as to make people more aware of the enormous developments in continental Europe since the war.

And this history is — after all — a great British success story, as many of our democratic institutions were established with British help after the war.

What can be done? Somebody recently said: If David Beckham — the world famous football star — could speak German, we wouldn’t have this problem with our “learn German campaign.” But beyond Mr. Beckham, what suitable means and methods are there to reach out the youngest generation?

Let me make a confession here. For generations, German diplomats — who I suspect are not too different from diplomats in other countries — have had a wariness and an uneasiness in getting too closely involved with PR firms and their methods.

After all, a country, a nation is something very complex — and you can’t sell it with slogans. It seems ridiculous to think that you could sell a country like laundry detergent. “Germany washes whiter”? What an awful thought! And what is the product we want to sell? Are we actually trying to sell something, or do we just want to give information about who we really are?

But then again, the work of PR firms should not be dismissed out of hand. Ten years ago, when I served in Washington, there was a huge clash in the bilateral relationship between Norway and the United States. The Norwegians got clobbered in the media every day. Why? Because they were killing whales.

There were demonstrations outside their Embassy and on Capitol Hill. The protesters even tried to get sanctions passed against Norway. My Norwegian colleague was quite shaken. But then they did something they had never done before. They employed one of the quite powerful PR magicians in Washington.

In four weeks flat, the whale issue was gone. Nobody raised anything more about it. So I thought that perhaps there might be a situation where such PR work can make a difference.

But you see, I am always asking questions. I don’t have answers. Maybe, at the end of the day you just come to the conclusion, “It’s better as it is, we just have to roll with the punches.”

The one thing I have learned is that this is an incredibly complex issue — to which there aren’t any simply fixes. In the end, it is up to every individual to do their best. As far as Germans are concerned, we have to show that there is more to us than the simple stereotypes that are still so prevalent.

Likewise, the British must try to be more open and willing to look beyond the caricature of us Germans that has become so stubbornly ingrained in their popular mind. The world changes — and so must our attitudes toward one another.

Adapted from German Ambassador Thomas Matussek's opening address at the Branding Germany Media Bash on July 2, 2003.