I don’t know why I should be so pleased, but the exit of both France and Italy from the World Cup is strangely cheering. No idea why – I like the French and the Italians. Maybe it is just the confounding of expectations or hubris that warms the English heart. Unless we are next, of course.
But, with a quarter-final battle with Germany ahead on Sunday, we can look ahead with depression to the singing by the English of such poetic epics as “Two World Wars and one World Cup, na na na na na…” There is something weird about the British obsession with the Second World War – as if it was the last ‘competition’ we won. A selective Hollywood-backed romantic remembering doesn’t help, but the problem goes deeper than that.
My younger son has just graduated (I hope…) in History and Politics at the University of Liverpool. Before he got there he seemed to exploit the preoccupation of every History syllabus at every school level with options to study Hitler and Stalin. Ask any reasonably educated kid in England about German history or culture and most will know little or nothing before 1933 (plus, maybe, the origins of fascism from 1918) – and certainly little or nothing after 1945.
OK, it isn’t hard to see the attraction of focusing on the dramatic, the catastrophic and the uniquely enormous human cost of Hitler’s adventures, but it has its dangers. Germany’s post-war history has been equally interesting and evokes admiration at the overcoming of cataclysmic defeat and humiliation. Yes, there are people who will never forgive the Germans and who will resent their reconstruction and reunification; but, Germany’s post-war division and subsequent reunification present important and instructive material for understanding the modern world (which is, I suppose, partly the point of studying history in the first place). Not least, the reconciliation in Europe led by French moves towards Germany is a story rarely told and little appreciated.
Helmut Schmidt addresses from a German perspective the problem of focusing too much on 1933-1945. In his wonderful book Ausser Dienst: Eine Bilanz, he gives specific attention to the problem of modern German history in a chapter headed Die schwerste Hypothek (in a section on the lessons of history titled Es gab nicht nur die Nazi-Zeit). Having briefly and lucidly described what it was like to be German in the post-war years (individually and collectively trying to understand and cope with both individual and collective guilt), he writes about the paralysis and fear of change that characterised the German psyche:
The more we limit our historical consciousness to the Nazi period, the failure of the Weimar experiment in democracy, Hitler’s instigation of the Second World War (with its catastrophic consequences), and the more we concentrate on the Holocaust and the other crimes of the Nazi era, the more strongly we Germans react with nervousness and even fear to changes.
He goes on to illustrate his point, observing that post-war Germans always feared ‘the return of fascism’. He then goes on to say:
I doubt that it is right or sensible to focus school and university teaching on the Nazi era; on the contrary, I think this sort of education is actually harmful. Concentration on the twelve year Nazi dictatorship leads to neglect of other periods of German history. Above all, however, it conveys the impression – however unintended – to our young people that prior to and subsequent to the Nazis everything was relatively unproblematic here. In fact, the ideological ground was laid a long time before 1933. For generations education had messed up: particularly education about the value and freedom of the individual person, about humanity and about democracy.
Schmidt is not saying that the horrors of the Nazi era shouldn’t be taught, but that they shouldn’t be taught in isolation from other parts of German history. If we are to understand the Germany of today and tomorrow, we must do so with reference to more than just Hitler.
What this really says, therefore, is that any History syllabus must be rigorously tested in order to demonstrate that it is truly about helping students understand and not simply reinforcing some convenient stereotype or prejudice about other people. For this reason the Meissen English Committee of the Church of England (which I chair in conjunction with the German Committee chaired by the Bishop of Braunschweig, Dr Friedrich Weber) is looking at doing some research into the teaching of German history in English schools.
Our concern is not, however, simply about history – it is about the desperate drop in language learning in England, especially German. How is it possible that in today’s world the learning of foreign languages is so dismissed and undervalued in Britain? The only conclusion I can come to is twofold: (a) that we are so arrogant as to assume that everyone else will speak English, and (b) that we do not understand Schmidt’s point that we cannot know our own culture unless we see it through the eyes of a different culture… which means knowing something of the other language.
It’s a bit like our football: we keep hoping that England is the best team in the world… and are always disappointed to find that our pride actually lies in a romanticised past which we are unable to surrender to contemporary reality.
I filmed an interview today for the German TV channel ARD. As usual, the Germans spoke perfect English. Most German fans watching tomorrow’s game will understand everything the English sing. The same will not be true of English supporters. And that is not a cause of pride – whoever wins.