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
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
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
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
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