12 December 2008

'I Think I Got Away With It'

Basil: So, that's two egg mayonnaise, a prawn Goebbels, a Herman Goering, and four Colditz salads....
German: Will you stop talking about the war.
Basil: Me? You started it.
German: We did not start it.
Basil: Yes you did, you invaded Poland.
Yes, it's John Cleese as Basil Fawlty sending up the British obsession with Germany and 'the war' with one of the greatest jokes ever.

And having myself indulged in this great British tradition in an earlier post, I thought I might attempt an explanation for any bemused German readers of this blog.

I believe there are two main reasons for this particular obsession - nostalgia and envy.

While Britain was able to align itself with the winning side - 'Who won the bloody war anyway?' - the country was much diminished by 1945. Exhausted after six years of constant war, the country was also deeply in debt. Having entered the war as a great power, Britain ended it as a junior partner to the Americans and the Soviets. The years that followed were marked by political and economic decline.

Hence, nostalgia. Not for the war, but for a time when Britain was 'Great'. The harking back to the war is not about hostility to Germany, or Italy or Japan, but about nostalgia for an imagined era of national greatness.

Post-war Britain life in Britain was immeasurably better than it was in Germany, but it was still tough. Plenty of cities were scarred by bombing, returning soldiers struggled to find work. Rationing of the bread, meat, tea, soap and other basics was the norm. Rationing only ended in Britain in 1954.

Britain's industrial and economic decline throughout this period was in startling contrast to (West) Germany's economic miracle. I grew up at a time when it was taken for granted that 'Made in Germany' was a guarantee of quality, and when Britain seemed, if anything, to be trapped in a never-ending cycle of decline. Britain finally began to recover in the 1980's, but economically the country is still dwarfed by Germany.

Hence, envy. The British tells jokes about the Germans and the war because ever since (apart from 1966) the Germans have been on top.

The other key thing to keep in mind is that for the British, this is theatre, this is pantomime. There are stock characters, heroes and villains, performance conventions, and everyone knows their lines.

Two famous British television comedy shows about the war have this character. Dad's Army and Allo, Allo are often cited as examples of the British obsession with Germany and the war, but neither show is particularly anti-German.

In Dad's Army, Germans rarely make an appearance. It is the British men of the Home Guard who are the butt of the gentle and affectionate humour. In Allo, Allo everyone is sent up - the French Resistance , the Germans, the Italians and again the British. Carstairs and Fairfax, the British airmen and Officer Crabtree, the bumbling secret agent, are as much caricatures as anyone else in the show.

David Croft, the writer behind both of these shows also wrote another wartime comedy, It Ain't Half Hot Mum, set in India and featuring a Royal Artillery concert party. No Germans involved and once again it is the British soldiers who provide the humour.

Does it ever turn nasty? Yes, occasionally. Is it ever embarrassing? Yes, from time to time. Should we 'move on'? No thanks. Apologies to any German readers, but I'm all in favour of poking fun at national stereotypes, and before you object I have heard Bavarians talking about Austrians.

Finally, in the interests of challenging at least one British stereotype of the Germans you might take a look at the website of Henning Wehn, a German stand-up comedian (!) who makes his living in the UK poking fun at British stereotypes of Germans. His website has some good pieces he has written on the subject and brief excerpts from his stageshow and his television and radio appearances. Here's an example from 2006, the year Germany hosted the World Cup:
Having lived in the UK for the past four years, I am so used to the British stereotypes about Germans that I had expected to find locals wearing Lederhosen, goose-stepping up and down Hauptstrasse, eating huge amount of bratwurst whilst singing David Hasselhoff’s latest songs. This is ludicrous of course: we prefer the Hoff’s old material.

So it took me a few days to rediscover Germany as a country blessed with natural beauty and populated by pleasant people; not the grotesque version of popular British folklore.

This message seems to hit home with the travelling England contingent. All the supporters I spoke to were impressed by German hospitality. Not that it’s too difficult to provide better service, food, and transport than what they get at home.
Henning Wehn is also responsible for possibly the most tasteless joke I have ever heard - though I did laugh. You can find it here, at the end of this brief clip. You have been warned.

Did I say finally? So, finally again in the spirit if European unity and Anglo-German harmony here are a couple more samples from the Spitfire website.

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