One of the most dangerous tastes any British politician can admit to is a tendresse for the Teutonic. During the first world war the Liberal cabinet minister Haldane was compelled to resign because of his pro-German sympathies. It was not that Haldane harboured any political affection for Wilhelmine militarism, or had exhibited any slackness in his war work. He had been one of the most pro-war of Asquith’s divided ministry and as war minister had vigorously prepared British forces for confrontation with Germany. But Haldane was also a sensitive and open-minded intellectual with a deep interest in German culture and philosophy. For that he earned the scorn of contemporary polemicists, with cartoonists depicting him in his library surrounded by volumes of ‘Cant’ and Rudyard Kipling denouncing him as ‘indubitably a Hunnomite’.
One of the many merits of John Ramsden’s superb book is the calm and thoughtful manner in which he charts how British attitudes to our most significant neighbour have changed over 100 years. The British, once inclined to think of themselves and the Germans as ‘fellow Saxons’, have moved from affection and mutual regard through suspicion and enmity, to all-out conflict, before settling, as we have currently, for a posture which combines elements of superiority, suspicion and envy. It is striking that, while there may well be significant pools of anti-French, and indeed a growing well of anti-American, feeling in British society it’s also clear there are still significant reservoirs of warmth and affection for both nations in Britain, whereas it is hard to detect any similar, open enthusiasm for Germany in our national conversation. The Germans are, it seems, a hard nation for any Briton to confess to liking.
But, as Ramsden shows, for much of our history affection towards the Germans was a natural default position. They were our allies in the struggle for Protestant liberty against Catholic absolutism. James I’s son-in-law, the Elector Frederick of the Palatinate, was taken to Protestant England’s heart during the Thirty Years’ War and 100 years later another Frederick, the Great, was the continental champion of our interests against the Catholic French. Our greatest general, Marlborough, fought with Dutch and German allies against the Bourbons and Wellington finished off French dreams of European domination with the indispensable help of Prussian allies.
In the long century of peace which followed, German ideas and learning influenced British thinking on everything from science to theology. George Eliot was a disciple of German thought, as was Matthew Arnold. The impact of Prince Albert on British culture reinforced respect for German creativity, from engineering to music. Perhaps the greatest Germanophile, in a crowded field, was Thomas Carlyle. The sage of Ecclefechan not only developed the cult of Frederick the Great, he wrote of ‘thirty millions of men speaking the same old Saxon tongue and thinking in the same old Saxon spirit as ourselves’.
How could two nations so apparently entwined in affection come to see each other as mortal enemies? The pat answer is, of course, the chauvinistic and rivalrous nationalism of the late 19th century which culminated in war. But that answer evaded the question of why we found ourselves at war with Germany rather than other imperial competitors such as, say, France. There are geopolitical reasons why Germany became our principal antagonist ,but there are also deeper cultural and ideological factors. The Germany which entranced our Victorian ancestors was an advanced and liberal civilisation; the Prussia which was our principal ally defended civil rights and freedom of speech with the same vigour we sought to. But the Germany which came into being after 1870 was a nation which progressively abandoned liberalism in pursuit of its own Sonderweg, or special way. Wilhelmine Germany, and for that matter the Germany of the later Weimar, preserved the form of liberal democracy, but its elites felt little but distaste for messy parliamentary controversy and classical liberal freedoms. An anti-Enlightenment spirit prevailed, with unhappy consequences not just for Anglo-German relations but for European civilisation itself.
John Ramsden is not, primarily, a student of German thought and political development but he is deft and expert at telling the story of how Britain reacted to Germany’s decline, fall and renaissance. He shows sensitivity in recording how contemporary Britain defuses past tensions through humour (Basil Fawlty’s rants, Harry Enfield’s creepily insinuating, then randomly authoritarian German student, the Carling Black Label ads) and how leading Germans react with a rather leaden touch to what are, after all, subversions rather than manifestations of prejudice.
Ramsden is particularly good at analysing how Anglo-German relations have been influenced by football. His work was completed just before this year’s World Cup and may have been written in anticipation of a much tenser tournament than we had. In the end, the World Cup showed Britain a Germany more at ease with itself, and hinted at a future relationship between our two nations less nervous than at any time for a century. In that sense it would be nice to think that John Ramsden’s analysis of Anglo-German tension was, in every sense, pure history.