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Does the British press have it in for Germany?

Samira Shackle
July 20, 2015

The UK tabloids have softened their attitudes to Germany, after years of mostly poking fun at the country. But Germany's taskmaster attitude during the Greek crisis might change that. Samira Shackle reports from London.

Newsstand in England Photo by Dan Kitwood/Getty Images
Image: Getty Images/D. Kitwood

Britain and Germany have a long history of fraught relations; from World Wars to, more recently, World Cups. This is often reflected in the media coverage of Germany in Britain's vociferous tabloid press.

Yet last year, after Germany's World Cup victory, the British changed their tune. The "Daily Mirror" published an article headlined "Official: It's cool to be German now – and it's okay to love them too." This came a year after a 2013 poll by the BBC, which found that Germany was the most popular country internationally, with 59 per cent of those questioned saying its influence in the world was "mainly positive." In the same year, the "Sun" published a piece titled "Not nein… but TEN reasons we should love Germany."

But as the Greek crisis has unfolded in the last few weeks. it is perhaps little surprise that Germany, as one of the main creditors of the eurozone, has come in for criticism across Europe. Newspapers in Greece and other southern European countries have taken a particularly anti-German stance. But there has also been criticism in the British press. Has the UK media got it in for Germany?

Greece leading attack

"If it were possible to measure the comparative 'harshness' of various national media in the EU in the recent Greek crisis, I doubt that the British news media would emerge as especially harsh. British journalists come nowhere near their Greek counterparts in being rude about German politicians," says George Brock, professor of journalism at City University and author of "Out of Print: Newspapers, Journalism and the Business of News in the Digital Age."

Caricature of Wolfgang Schäuble in Greek newspaper AFP PHOTO / LOUISA GOULIAMAKI
Greek papers have been virulent in their attacks on German politiciansImage: Getty Images/AFP/L. Gouliamaki

Readers of British news in Germany may disagree, but Brock argues that this perception can be attributed to a cultural difference.

"The British media sometimes seem harsh for two reasons: English is more read and spoken than any other EU language and British popular papers are prone to hyperbole, exaggeration and insult. What Germans often miss is that British tabloids do this to everyone: Germany and Germans are not singled out for special treatment. That is not to justify all that is written and said about Germany: some of it is indefensible. But every target - British politicians in particular - is sprayed with the same scorn. This goes down well with readers, who expect those papers to hold people with power to account."

'Don't mention the war'

A 2006 report for the Reuters Institute noted that British coverage of Germany "more often than not [invokes] the Second World War," but that tabloid attitudes towards the country had softened. Yet the tradition of poking fun at Germany is still alive. "German bashing goes down well with a British audience. It's funny and it makes us feel superior, even when the reality of our situation is very different. This is a classic British trait," explains James Crisp, deputy news editor at Euractiv and a former reporter for the British tabloid, the "Daily Sport."

Like Brock, he feels that the British press hasn't been unduly harsh. "I think in terms of Greece, the British media has been largely sympathetic towards Germany. It's been far worse in the past - like during World Cups."

Not all British newspaper readers enjoy German bashing. "As a rule, I find it tedious when newspapers play on anti-German or anti-French feeling for laughs," says Tess Parker, a marketing manager from London. "When it comes to something as serious as the Greek crisis, I'm more interested in the facts of what's happening than a rehash of our World War Two obsession, which is no longer relevant."

Others feel that Germany should not be immune from criticism. "Perhaps some of the response to the eurozone crisis unfairly references Germany's history of Nazism - particularly on social media but also in sections of the press," says James Clark, a researcher from London. "But that shouldn't detract from criticisms of the German government and its agenda - those conversations need to be had."

Resentment of power

Anti-German sentiment has extended beyond traditional media to social networks across Europe, where users have circulated images that directly reference Germany's Nazi history. These include a photograph of German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble daubed with a Hitler mustache, a doctored image showing the blue European flag's gold stars rearranged into a swastika, as well as photographs from Germany's World War Two occupation of Greece.

"The hate and distrust comes from the two World Wars - which is understandable, if not fair on the current generation," says Crisp. "When Greece gets hung out to dry, those old stereotypes are reinforced. Germany reasserting itself as a disciplinarian power brings all that stuff back into people's minds."

Brock argues we should look to more recent history. "Opinions about Germany are basically formed by more recent events such as the decisions about the management of the euro. Historians of any era know that there is always resentment at states which wield power and influence. Germany, largely because of its recent economic success, wields more power in the EU than it used to and anti-German feeling has risen with that change, especially in states using the euro. When the euro was being designed, a significant minority of commentators in Germany and elsewhere warned that the euro might be the source of division and tension between EU states rather than something to bind them closer."