On my way back from Berlin a week ago I bought a big Der Spiegel special edition called simply The Germans, subtitled Sixty Years After The War. All in English. Excellent stuff it was too, especially a hard-hitting piece by their London correspondent Mattias Matussek on "How the British See The Germans". Mattias is brother to the German ambassador, Thomas, who was quoted widely at the weekend as saying that it is about time the British grew out of their fixation with the War and stopped thinking of the Germans as Nazis, and Mattias says exactly the same thing, except less diplomatically.
Indeed, he says that thanks to our current boom we are now showing symptoms of Teutonic behaviour ourselves. ‘With their daily diet of car and homebuyer shows on the telly and the entire gamut of Better Cooking, Better Living, Better Shopping programs the Brits - after long years of frugality - are now imitating the inane German Mercedes drivers and hung-over boozers of caricaturist infamy from the reconstruction years. And loudmouthed Brits have long since gotten the upper hand in the battle of the beach chairs on the Algarve… ‘
The indictment, briefly, is that we tend to be ignorant, especially of history, too loud, usually drunk and trapped in ancient stereotypes about the Germans.
I don't think you can argue with that.
What both Matussek brothers also say is that we British seldom go to Germany and therefore don't know the place and the people, and we don't learn the language, so we don't know the culture.
You can't argue with that either.
There is quite a good reason why we don't go to Germany, of course, and it was first explained to me by the man who taught me German at school, Mr Hayward. God, he said, had played a practical joke on the English by putting us twenty miles away from the French, a race so very different from us that we immediately adopted a love/hate relationship with them. But whether we loved or hated them, we found them very different and eternally fascinating.
You then move along the coast of mainland Europe, and you come to Germany. The Germans, said Hayward, are much more like us. The language, the cooking, the beer, the lifestyle are all much more like ours than the French. And because they are like us, we find them boring. So we don't go there on holiday. What's the point of going somewhere like home?
In fact, my father was very pro-German and found France and the French rather tiresome ) so he took us to Germany on holiday quite often, and sehr gemutlich it was too, but I hadn't been to Germany for years till I went to Berlin a fortnight ago with Julia Adamson, a BBC Radio 4 producer, to interview people for a Radio 4 programme about recordings made in German prisoner-of-war camps in the 1914-1918 War.
They were no ordinary recordings, either. A small task force of German linguists, musicologists and anthropologists had gone into the camps during the First World War with their primitive recording machines to preserve the sounds of different languages and dialects, and folk music, and come back with a rich treasure of 3-minute sound-bites. Yorkshire fishermen, Ukrainian singers, Jewish fiddlers, Irish countrymen - they and thousands more were given their short chance to sound like themselves for as long as a wax cylinder or shellac disc lasted. Almost unknown to the public or indeed to historians, these recordings now sit in two big archives in Berlin, and it was the task of myself and my producer, Julia, to trace their history, listen to them and along the way to speculate on why such a wonderfully batty project had ever been undertaken.
In one sense, it's quite obvious. All these Germanic students of language and culture had been quite happily swanning around the world recording stuff on location when suddenly the European War starts and they are confined to barracks, far from the nearest African language or Georgian part song. But then a miracle happens! The German armies start capturing soldiers who speak African tongues and sing Georgian music! So what is more logical than to continue their studies in the prisoner-of-war camps? It makes a lot of sense.
It also makes little sense. I have never heard of any other wartime project like it. POWs are often questioned about military matters, and the state of morale of the folks back home, but about regional vocabulary and local fiddling techniques?
Julia and I could never quite make up our minds if this extraordinary project was due to the thoroughness and efficiency of the Germans, and if we thought so, whether we could say so. Can you utter a flattering national stereotype? Would any other nation have documented its prisoner of war population like that? Are the Americans recording Afghan folk songs in Guantanamo Bay?
I somehow doubt it.
BBC Radio 4
11th May 2005