Book Review: Don’t mention the War!

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John Ramsden argues that the modern Briton in general, and the Englishman in particular, has a deep-seated prejudice towards Germany and all things German. In Don’t Mention the War, an account of Anglo-German relations since 1890, he sets out to find why. He finds that the workaday 21st Century Brit is obsessed with “the war”, that is World War Two as is the island’s media and popular culture.

 

It can be amusing. A sporting loss, especially on the soccer field, against Germany inevitably results in reminders that “if Germany beat us at Wembley this afternoon at our national sport [soccer], we can always point out to them that we have recently beaten them twice at theirs [war].” Or so the Daily Mail says. No surprise then that the tabloids dripped with paranoia when German equipment was brought in to demolish the stadium. They had to be appeased with assurances that the crews would be British.

But jingoism is not always funny. The prejudice creeps in everywhere. A French refusal to dance to Britain`s tune will often see a rejoinder about a lack of Continental gratitude. “We English liberated you from the Nazis; and this is the gratitude we get!” This type of rejoinder, Ramsden finds these retorts often accentuate the English, editing out the role of the Welsh, Scots, the Commonwealth and the US, as well as that of Europe itself in its liberation.

This type histrionics is a new phenomenon. Ramsden first notes it in the 1970s, the decade of Fawlty Towers. John Cleese`s Basil Fawlty certainly caught the Zeitgeist with a sketch called “the Germans” hence the title of the book. “Don`t mention the war” was Fawlty`s mantra, but try as he might, he could not live up to it. Just so, the British today – and the English in particular – seldom stop mentioning the war when the subject is Germany.

There is a deep-seated “Germanophobia” at work, a prejudice expressed to the reviewer at Eurosatory a few years ago: in conversation with a British colonel about “soldier systems”, the reviewer asked the officer what the Germans were up to. His pithy reply: “No-one knows but you can bet your bottom dollar it involves invading Poland.”

Anglo-German relations were not always like this. For centuries, Spain and France were England`s enemies, an enmity that required the English to safeguard their natural frontiers by occupying Scotland and Ireland. On the continent, England`s allies were nearly always German, most famously Prince Eugene (Prinz Eugen), Metternich and Blücher.

The unification of Germany triggered change, with the Kaiser`s bluster and the growing German export economy stoking British fears of job and market losses. This was accentuated by two World Wars in which the English perceived themselves as victims, Germany`s post WW2 economic resurgence and German re-unification in 1990s. By then fact and fiction had blended in the average English mind, as had cause and effect, something George Orwell had warned about in his famous 1946 essay, Politics and the English Language.

But why should this worry us? It should. London is the heart of the English language and the English press. A skewed educational system there results in the same here. The slanted popular novels, television programming printed there appears on bookshelves at your closest shopping mall. If Nazism is a reminder that a cultured people can be seduced by evil, Don`t Mention the War, is a timely reminder that one can end up living the present through the lens of the past. Ramsden believes this is the case with the English –and that is alarming.        

         

John Ramsden

Don`t Mention the War

Abacus

London



2006