Tuesday, 29 June 2010

The world cup and the war

I was in rural England this past weekend, on a little road trip through the Cotswolds, and it was definitely an interesting time to be there. The Germany-UK world cup match that took place Sunday afternoon literally dominated the media the entire weekend. You couldn’t get away from it, it was all anyone could talk about. Even in the tiny villages we stopped in as we drove through the countryside, everyone had World Cup. The English flag was literally everywhere, something you normally never see in England.

Being American I don’t have too much interest in soccer…er…“football”, so I have to admit I didn’t understand what all the fuss was about. But I do know that however worked up you get about football, there’s really no excuse for the vile clichéd headlines I saw in British newspapers last week.

Right from when I stepped off the train in London Thursday night they were everywhere. “ "It's war - we will fight jeering Jerries on the pitches," screamed the Daily Star. "Get ready for germ warfare!" shouted The Sun. Even TV personalities were getting in on the constant World War II references. Apparently the actual reason for the significance of this game is a history of close and controversial world cup games between the two nations in the past. But you wouldn’t know it from the British newspaper headlines, which gave the impression the nation was gearing up for World War III.

I wasn’t the only one who thought the British media hyperbole was extremely bizarre. On Friday German interior minister Thomas de Maiziere told the BBC he was perplexed by the British tabloid coverage. Yes Germans were psyched up about this game as well, but they were focusing on the football, not bringing out all these old clichéd references to a war that was fought 60 years ago. "I don't know who needs it, we definitely don't," he said. "This is a thing of the past, it doesn't help in the present and future and we should just ignore it."

I was talking to some German friends who live in London about this, and generally their response was the same: “Welcome to the life of a German in the UK”. One friend told me that he doesn’t experience it so much in London, but elsewhere in the country he is expected to silently endure a barrage of ignorant taunts. He introduces himself as a German and he immediately gets joking references to Nazis and goose-stepping. It’s just an aspect of life in the UK he’s gotten used to, he told me.

It’s one of the many things that divides continental Europe from the British isles. I don’t think I’ve ever heard such clichéd comments about Germans on the continent. It might be because for them, the war was actually fought on their soil and is still a painful memory that shouldn’t be referenced so lightly. Or perhaps it’s that, being right next to Germany, they come into contact with Germans too often for them to think that trotting out WWII stereotypes is either amusing or relevant. And not surprisingly, in Germany itself the war is only talked about in the most serious terms – one would never make a joke out of it. It’s history – not to be forgotten, but not to be dwelled on either. It won’t be too long before there won’t be anyone alive in Germany who lived through World War II.

Now of course the British won the war, so it’s perhaps not surprising that they would want to bring it up more than those on the continent, who either lost the war, spent it occupied after putting up a pitiful resistance, or sat it out in cowardly collusion. But I suspect there is more going on here than that. I think the British take a lot of their cues in the way they think about continental Europe from the Americans, who are by far the worst offenders in this regard.

It’s often been observed that the only history Americans know is that of World War II. For Americans, it was the “good war”, one which had clear moral imperatives and in which the Americans were victorious. It was also not fought on American soil, which makes it easily turn into a romantic and distant adventure in people’s eyes. Having gone through the American education system I can assure you, knowledge of World War II and the holocaust is drilled into our heads basically from the time we learn to read. Almost every American could tell you who was in the Axis powers, the years of the war, etc. But I’m sure only a small minority could tell you the combatants and circumstances of World War I.

Now of course World War II is incredibly important – it was the defining conflict of the 20th century and its recentness makes it more accessible, and more frightening, to people today. But the way its taught and discussed in the United States, you’d think it was the only war in European history, and that the holocaust was the only genocide that was ever committed by man. In fact, it wasn’t even the largest (not even close).

Because World War II is the only European history most Americans know, they tend to understand modern Europe only in the context of that knowledge. So to Americans, Germans are war-like and aggressive, the French are “cheese-eating surrender monkeys”, and the British are the “stiff upper lip” symbol of perseverance. Every time Americans come to visit me in Europe they start trotting out these old stereotypes, and it just makes me cringe. But I can understand it. When I moved to Prague in 2002, the first time I lived in Europe, I noticed myself doing the same thing. In fact, when I would go on trips to Germany, I found myself feeling quite intimidated and uneasy. And I realised that the reason was because the only context in which I had ever heard the German language in America was in movies about the holocaust.

Even though they are part of it, I’ve noticed that the British have a tendency to understand “Europe” through an American-influenced lens. Culturally, Britain’s ties (and obsession with) America dwarfs their relationship with the rest of Europe. In fact, some of my British friends in London have never even been to continental Europe, but they’ve been to the US several times. And with 60% of television content in the UK coming from America, many young Britons gain an understanding of their European neighbours through American eyes. That is, through tired old stereotypes born out of an obsession with one moment in time - the years between 1939 and 1945.

And so, you get the ugly stereotypes trotted out in British tabloids and signs at pubs during a World Cup grudge match. Apparently these types of headlines are splattered across the front pages every time the two teams play each other. In 1996 The Daily Mirror (photo above) called on England to "Blitz the Fritz". In 1990 The Sun declared, "We beat them in '45, we beat them in '66, now the battle of '90."

But there was an important difference this time – the Germans fought back. As Germans become more confident on the world stage, they’re starting to stand up to this kind of thing. It was good to see the German interior minister call the British tabloids out for their offensive rhetoric. Too often, Germans have been taught that the shame of what the nation did during the war means they have to forever endure in silence the taunts of the British and Americans. Germany is a different nation now, and these old clichés need to stop. Germans are just now becoming comfortable taking pride in their country again, and after decades of humility, they’ve earned that right.

So watching the game at a pub in a village in the middle of the English countryside, I rooted for Germany. I don’t really care about football, but after seeing distasteful arrogance displayed by the British tabloids in the run-up to the game, it seemed like they were just begging for a humiliating defeat. And in the end that’s what they got, defeated 4 to 1. Perhaps it was karma.


Anonymous said...

One would have thought the British to have gotten past such a behaviour by now, especially after it being so thoroughly ridiculed in the Fawlty Towers episode The Germans 35 years ago...

Eurocentric said...

I've always just taken it as a sign of insecurity - always harking back to WWII because the UK doesn't have any positive imagery of itself for the post-war period (or at least not one that they value enough).

Eddie Izzard, on one of his French gigs, commented that the French, Welsh, Scots, etc. seem to cheer out for liking countries, while the English readily cheer hating them (comparatively; when asked to cheer for liking or hating a certain country - obviously in the context of a stand-up show, though). I think it's generally light-hearted joking, but it can very rapidly change to crass and insulting messages that it's depressingly easy for the press to mobilise people behind.

Perhaps having some French/German/Spanish channels on Freeview would encourage language-learning and greater understanding, even if the numbers of people watching such channel wouldn't be that high?

Captain Kid said...

it's being a very bad world cup for us europeans. only germany, spain and the netherlands are left. and i don't think, anyone of these nations is going to win the cup.