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Anglo-Saxon divide

25 February 2012

10:45 AM

25 February 2012

10:45 AM

Keeping Up With the Germans Philip Oltermann

Faber, pp.304, 12.99

Philip Oltermann has set himself an almost impossibly ambitious task. In 1996, when he was 15 years old, he moved from Hamburg to London, so he has close experience of both England and Germany. In due course it occurred to him, as a man of wide cultural sympathies, that he ought to be in a position to write an interesting book about Anglo-German relations.

But how to structure such a work? Oltermann is too polite to say so, but a great part of the problem is that modern English readers are abysmally ignorant of Germany. This used not to be the case: before 1914, to be educated was to be able to read German. But today, with rare exceptions — Miriam Gross, Daniel Johnson, Timothy Garton Ash, Norman Stone — we know next to nothing about Germany, except for a detailed knowledge of the period 1933-45. We have no wider frame of reference; no perspective that is not distorted by the Nazis.

Oltermann decides, quite understandably, that he does not want to mention the war. He sees the Nazi era as ‘a historical black hole, sucking up everything interesting that happened before or after’. So he confines himself to a whimsical epilogue about Unity Mitford’s friendship with Hitler, which ends with Oltermann and his wife Joanna wandering round the Englischer Garten in Munich and wondering where Unity sunbathed naked in August 1937, and where she shot herself, without quite managing to kill herself, on 3 September 1939.

Instead, we get a lot of football: too much for those of us who are not greatly interested in the game. When I lived in Germany in the 1990s, it seemed to me that people talked about football in order to avoid controversy. The Germans tend to beat us at football, but there is not much insight to be gained from the tasteless anti-German headlines in the British tabloids at the time of the 1996 European Cup semi-final at Wembley. Oltermann regards the trouble that surrounded this match, which England lost on penalties, as one sign of ‘an all-time low in Anglo-German relations’. It would be more accurate to describe the discontents of the 1990s as a feeble echo of the genuine all-time lows which had occurred earlier in the century.

It is more profitable to glance, as Oltermann does, at the reactions to England of such figures as Heinrich Heine (upset by William Cobbett’s ‘impotent howling’), Theodor Fontane (bored stiff by the English Sunday), Theodor Adorno (making polite requests at Merton College, Oxford for a new supply of cards with the college crest) and Kurt Schwitters (who reports shortly before his death in the Lake District in 1948: ‘England in particular is idyllic, romantic, more so than any other country’).

Perhaps the best chapter in the book opens in Blackpool in August 1962, where two men from German television discover Freddie Frinton performing a music-hall sketch called Dinner for One, which remains unknown to British television viewers but became an immense hit in Germany, where it is broadcast every New Year’s Eve.

Oltermann has a less happy touch when he turns to politics, which he does with reluctance. He is repelled by ‘the pantomime theatrics of Prime Minister’s Questions’, but concedes that ‘it is not easy to get people excited about German regional politics’. In his last chapter, he suggests that ‘a revolution of the mind’ has taken place in Germany: that society is much more liberal than it was in 1968. But we get no real sense of why the Germans or the English have changed.

And the problem of structure recurs. Oltermann does not quite solve it by interweaving his own experiences as a schoolboy in London, displaying as he does so a rather English evasiveness by declining to tell us which school he attended. In order to fit into England, he ‘invested a large amount of time in becoming more ironic and less serious’. Many middle-class Germans have done this: their knowledge of our culture puts us to shame. But perhaps the most interesting thing one of them could now do is to make a serious and unironic study of England.

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