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Kraut-bashing: the British disease

It is always the fault of the bloody Germans. From the sterling crisis to the shortage of poolside sunbeds, from football to fascism, the British establishment seems to lay the blame for everything at Germany's door.

The latest outbursts by British politicians have raised the art of Kraut-bashing to fresh heights. The Conservative Party was fighting them on the beaches once more during its conference at Brighton, the most xenophobic Tory gathering for years. John Major and Norman Lamont blamed the Bundesbank for shooting down the pound. Margaret Thatcher warned more pointedly of the threat of German domination. The tactful Teddy Taylor simply said that the Boches were getting 'too big for their jackboots'.

The anti-German propaganda is partly an obvious attempt by the British authorities to deflect criticism of their own economic failures. The idea is that, when your boss hands you your P45 or the bailiffs bang on your front door, you should blame the Bundesbank rather than the real culprits closer to home. But the ploy was so transparent and tired that few people outside the Tory conference were entirely taken in by it.

There is also, however, a more sinister aspect to these British attempts to rerun the Second World War against Germany.

The explanation for the anti-German outbursts cannot be found in current economic developments alone. After all, there are three dominant economic players in the world today: Germany, Japan and the USA. Yet the British authorities do not rail against the Japanese car manufacturers who have helped to wipe out the British motor industry; indeed, in his speech to the Tory conference, chancellor Norman Lamont boasted of how Japanese plants in this country were producing more British cars!

Nor have the British government and its allies conducted a campaign of criticism against the huge American debts and low American interest rates which have helped to destabilise the international financial markets. Instead, it seems, the villains are always the Germans (even when, as we now know happened in September, the Bundesbank does more than the Bank of England to try to prop up the pound).

So why do the Tories and the media focus their complaints on Germany all of the time? The key lies in understanding the special place which Germany occupies in the patriotic mythology of Britain's past.

The formal victory over Hitler's Germany in the Second World War was Britain's last act as a true world power. As such, it remains the British establishment's most precious asset in the international prestige stakes. The weaker Britain gets in the present, the more important becomes its glorious past.

This is why there is more discussion of the Second World War in Britain in the 1990s than there was 20 or 30 years ago. It is why, for instance, the annual number of references to the Nazi Holocaust in British newspapers has soared from less than 20 in 1984 to more than 750 in the past year. Whether it's the Queen Mother unveiling a statue to Bomber Harris in the Strand, or Percy Sugden banging on about the fiftieth anniversary of El Alamein in Coronation Street, the war is hardly ever out of the news today.

Those who are still trying to keep the home fires burning would no doubt say that they talk about the Second World War only to foster a positive sense of pride in Britain's achievements. Even leaving aside the small matter of whether we should take pride in the fire-bombing of cities packed with German civilians, that is a spurious argument.

Reworking the wartime legends is an attempt to feed off the negative residues of British nationalism. It is about demonstrating that, although Britain is now the most rundown of all the major capitalist countries, it is still somehow superior to Germany.

The pound cannot keep up with the deutschmark any more than a British-built mini can match a BMW. But never mind all that: 'we' can still bash the Krauts, Gerry, the Boches, and the Hun on the battlefields of history. And they better not get too big for those jackboots again, because, as John Major warned them at Brighton, 'You cannot bully Britain.'

The practice of German-baiting is generally considered to be harmless in this country. The consensus is that the Germans are big enough and ugly enough to take care of themselves, and can cope with a bit of witty British stick. So the running anti-German commentary which accompanies life in Britain is allowed to go on more or less without censure.

Even such an English gentleman as St Gary Lineker feels able to say on national television that he likes to see the Germans get their come-uppance. Kraut-bashing is considered to be in perfectly good taste. And that is itself a symptom of how serious the British disease has become.

The truth is that Kraut-bashing is a harmful habit. It is rather unhealthy for British capitalists, since it undermines their chances of being bailed out by German wealth and power in the future. Much more importantly, however, it is dangerous to the rest of us.

Anti-German feeling underpins and exacerbates what we might call the Daily Mail mentality, an outlook which dominates politics in this country. The Daily Mail mentality is petty, narrow, and parochial. It is prejudiced against anything new, different or foreign - and especially anything foreign. It is a pungent concoction of bigotry and conservatism. Nostalgia for the Second World War and hostility to everything German are among its most powerful ingredients.

By endorsing the Daily Mail mentality, the British disease of Kraut-bashing helps to create a poisoned political atmosphere in which all manner of racial and chauvinist ideas can readily breed.

Many in Britain may not necessarily believe that the Bundesbank caused the pound's specific difficulties in September. But the dominant response to Black Wednesday will have strengthened the general impression that Germany is as much to blame as Britain's rulers for the problems facing ordinary people over here.

More broadly still, rhetorical onslaughts against Germany can only strengthen anti-foreign feeling on every front. The higher profile of anti-German sentiment in Britain today is closely tied in to the rise of the dangerous political trends which are identified in our Manifesto Against Militarism (see page 16): national chauvinism, racism, and the right's 'cultural war'. Which is why the 'innocent' British pursuit of Kraut-bashing is really a destructive force that needs to be confronted whenever it rears its ugly, Blimpish head.

All of this makes it ironic to see so many anti-racists in Britain joining in the jamboree of German-baiting. In a bid to win easy public approval, many of those concerned to combat racism in this country have tried to connect their arguments with the prevailing climate of opinion. This they do by emphasising the allegedly alien, and usually German, origins of racial politics.

From the Anti-Nazi League to the Education Guardian, British anti-racists spend much of their time going on about German fascism and the danger of Britain becoming infected by Nazism. They seem almost oblivious to the threat of home-grown British nationalism and racism - and entirely ignorant of the way that their own anti-German emphasis is adding fuel to those dangerous home fires.

Opponents of racism who adopt the narrow anti-Nazi approach are effectively appeasing British nationalism. The consequence is to create an unholy anti-German alliance, encompassing everybody from Dennis Skinner on the left of the Labour Party to Norman Tebbit on the Tory right. It is impossible to imagine anti-racists going along with Tebbit on his 'cricket test' campaign against Indians and Pakistanis. Yet when similarly chauvinist sentiments are turned against the Germans, many on the old left will line up with the Lord of Chingford.

No amount of talk about 'our' glorious triumph in 1945 should be allowed to distract from the fact that Britain is a clapped-out country where jobs, homes and living standards are in mortal danger in the here and now. No amount of Kraut-bashing propaganda should be allowed to disguise the fact that the responsibility for this disaster lies squarely with British capitalists and the politicians who support them. And no confusion between anti-German politics and opposition to racism should be allowed to expose more people to the Daily Mail mentality.

A first step towards curing the British disease would be to isolate the carriers from the rest of society. If Major, Lamont & Co want to fight the Germans on the beaches of Brighton, let us leave them to it and hope the tide is in. Those of us living at the sharp end of the slump have other battles to fight.
Reproduced from Living Marxism issue 49, November 1992

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