William Cook

Why most Brexiteers actually love the Germans

Why most Brexiteers actually love the Germans
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‘We didn’t win two world wars to be pushed around by a Kraut.’

Do you find this statement:

a) Funny, and rather pertinent

b) Unfunny, and a bit embarrassing

c) Conclusive proof that Brexiteers are reactionary xenophobes, whose desire to leave the EU is driven by hatred of Germany

If you answered c) you may well be one of the many people who took to Twitter to denounce this Leave.EU tweet, which was accompanied by a photo of Angela Merkel with one arm held aloft:

Leave.EU's Arron Banks subsequently issued a tepid apology, but the damage was already done. At a time when reasonable Britons on both sides are searching for some common ground, this tweet (and the angry reaction to it) made the Brexit chasm even wider. Memes like these make it easy for some Remainers to tar all Leavers with the same racist brush, rather than wrestling with more complex questions. But is British dislike of Germany really a big driver in our current kulturkampf? Is Brexit merely just another way of being beastly to the Germans?

As the worst sort of Remoaner (a metropolitan member of the mainstream media and a German citizen to boot) it’d be very comforting for me to dismiss Brexit as a purely Teutonophobic phenomenon, but as a fairly frequent contributor to The Spectator these last ten years my experience doesn’t bear this out. On the contrary, as British antipathy towards the EU has increased I’ve found that British antipathy towards Germany has actually diminished. I wouldn’t quite say the two things are inversely proportional, but during the last twenty years or so they’ve certainly been moving in opposite directions.

Although I’ve been reporting regularly from Germany for thirty years I’ve never actually lived there, so I’m always wary of pontificating about what Germans think of Britain. However having lived in Britain for half a century, I reckon I’ve acquired a pretty good sense of what a fairly wide range of Britons think of Germany, and how those views have changed. I didn’t really think about it at the time, but now I realise that I’ve been a kind of undercover reporter, keeping my sympathies for Germany hidden while I listen in on what Britons are saying about those pesky Krauts.

In the 1980s, in my late teens and early twenties, British views about the European project were extremely relaxed compared to nowadays, yet British dislike of Germany was intense. The German language was dismissed as ugly, German food was dismissed as revolting and the German people were dismissed as bossy and humourless. German products were called ‘Continental’ for fear no one would buy them otherwise. German culture of any kind was almost entirely absent. If you told people you had German relatives, or went to Germany on holiday, the news was greeted with an awkward silence. Even right-on comedians felt quite comfortable cracking nasty jokes about Germans which they never would have dared to make about any other nation.

Not anymore. Since the fall of the Iron Curtain, Berlin has become party central for countless Brits, who invariably return with a view of Germany that’s a world away from the old stereotypes. Partly, that’s because Germany has changed (modern Germans are less uptight; modern Germany is more laid back) but it’s mainly because British exposure to Germany has increased exponentially. We watch German football on Sky Sports. We watch German films on Netflix. Munich and Hamburg are now familiar weekend destinations. Whether they’re Leavers or Remainers, most Brits don’t fear being pushed around by Krauts, whatever Leave.EU may say.

Most Brexiteers I know are positively Teutonophile, full of admiration for the moral and economic renaissance of postwar Germany. Indeed, the more conservative they are (with a big or small 'c') the more they tend to like Germany and enjoy going there. They respect its capitalist values, its traditional social structures. It’s lefties who look cross when I tell them how much I like Bavaria and how I’d love to live there.

There is an anti-German strain in British culture and it’d be daft to dismiss it entirely, but I don’t believe it’s intimately bound up with Brexit. Indeed, I reckon it was far more prevalent in British politics thirty years ago than it is today. I can’t imagine Boris Johnson sharing Margaret Thatcher’s mean-spirited reaction to German reunification. Even Leave.EU haven’t gone quite so far as Nicholas Ridley, in that interview with The Spectator in 1990, saying that Britain might as well give up its sovereignty to you-know-who. During the last decade, as Brexit has moved from the margins to the mainstream, anti-German feeling has moved from the mainstream to the margins. If Boris Johnson wants Brexit to remain a mainstream movement, he needs to cut Leave.EU adrift.