The other evening I went to a party where everyone had to dress as a country, naturally, given my degree subject, Germany was an instant choice. All I needed to do was add a hat which only vaguely resembled a Bavarian hat, make sure to order some beer, make countless Bratwurst references on our way to Klute and my outfit was sorted. I didn’t think any more about it.
After a couple of pints, we all started to mingle a bit more and the costume choices were handy conversation starters. Generally I received praise for my somewhat lacklustre outfit, but in one case a fellow partygoer (with American-themed face paint) had a somewhat different reaction. He had thought about going as something German, but could not for the life of him work out how to dress obviously German without donning inappropriate swastikas, jackboots, a moustache and anything else Prince Harry might deem appropriate fancy dress. I was appalled and continued to lecture the poor guy about how German heritage was far more extensive than an unfortunately dominant decade.
The following day, I got to thinking (in a rather more sober fashion) about how he could have been so ignorant. But it occurred to me that I am not exactly looking at Germany from the same viewpoint. I am studying German at university and taking courses which focus as much (if not more) on the time of Goethe as on the Third Reich. Even when they do, they are often consumed by how this has affected the Germans’ own sense of identity and self, and the colossal challenge that they face in having to deal with the past. My new-found friend, on the other hand, had not… Could I really expect him to think otherwise? After all, if I were to go to the party as Vietnam, my costume would have had something to do with the war; and had I gone as Russia, I would have had a hard time choosing between Lenin and Stalin.
So whereas in my eyes Germany has made huge strides in respectfully overcoming negative aspects of its heritage (no doubt aided by intense study of the language, culture and history), general opinion probably hasn’t changed that much since the Second World War. Simple, you say, it’s all about educating people about the current Germany. We need to establish a German identity which is so radically different from that of storm-troopers in brown shirts.
Perhaps not. If you think about it, since the end of the Second World War, Germany has been divided into two separate countries and then glued back together again. It has played two radically different roles on the world stage, with two diversely contrasting political ideologies and the fall of the Berlin Wall is arguably as significant a turning point as D-Day. Since 1945 Germany has gone from occupation by four countries to currently holding the leading role in the Eurozone. What could we possibly suggest that would change the face of Germany in our eyes, if it hasn’t been achieved by these events?
The other solution, one which is far harder to accept, is time. Those who follow current economic affairs probably already view Germany in a radically different light to those who immediately think of the Nazi regime. In fact this solution has historical proof, for a hundred years during the medieval period Britain was at war with France, yet that’s not a thought in anybody’s mind in the present day, is it?
However, the role which France plays in British popular culture can be summarised far more accurately by ‘Allo Allo’ than by France’s current role in the Eurozone. It’s exactly the same with Germany, in that our perception of Germany as a nation is more The Great Escape than Merkel’s economic policies. In my opinion, it is only here that Germany’s cultural significance can change. If you ask me, it is only by showing Germany in a different and more positive light on television, in films and the wider media that anything can progress amongst a nation of coach potatoes. But even that’s unlikely, right? For the general public, the likes of my costume will never make better television than moustaches, storm troopers and intense fascism.