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Germany's UK image

Anja Kueppers, LondonMay 9, 2013

In the UK, Germany has long been derided as a nation of humorless sausage eaters. But British authors, businesses, cultural institutions and sports fans seem to be having a change of heart.

German and British flags flap in the wind (Photo: Soeren Stache dpa/lbn)
Image: picture-alliance/dpa

"Hitler," said one British woman walking near the Baker Street underground station in London, when asked what her first thought was upon hearing the word "Germany."

"Seriously?" asked a reporter.

The woman shrugged and hurriedly walked away.

Such has been the British image of its European neighbor - even if often in a teasing, deprecating way - since the end of the Second World War.

Germans and Brits alike know the satirical adage, "Don't mention the war!" as well as comedian John Cleese's ultra goose-stepping impersonation of Hitler in the BBC sitcom, Fawlty Towers.

For many Brits, it's tradition to make fun of the Germans and their military past - often without knowing much at all about modern-day Germany.

"Typical," says Peter Watson, a British author and journalist who's written extensively about Germany's cultural and intellectual history.

"There was a recent article [in a well known UK tabloid] by a modern historian saying that ‘Germany's finally got what it wants - it controls Europe under Kaiser Merkel.' And that's a pitiful approach, I think," Watson told DW.

Dressed in a business suit, Peter Watson smiles at the camera
Watson's 1,000-page book has been called a "cultural encyclopedia"Image: Bert Hulselmans

In his book, "The German Genius: Europe's Third Renaissance, the Second Scientific Revolution and the Twentieth Century," Watson mentions a 2005 annual report by Britain's Qualification and Curriculum authority. Its authors were concerned that the average history lesson in the UK "continues to be dominated by Hitler." When Britons were surveyed in 1977 as to whether "Nazism or something like that" could occur again in Germany, 61 percent had said no, with 23 percent answering yes. When asked again in 1992, 53 percent answered yes, and 31 percent no.

There's so much focus in the UK on Germany's role in the First and Second World Wars, Watson says, that few are aware of Germany's immense cultural contribution to the world and the links between the two nations.

The 2006 game-changer

Although negative stereotypes still exist in the UK about Germany, Watson says, soccer is helping to revamp the nation's image. He calls the World Cup in 2006 a turning point.

"[It] was in a sense a coming of age, not just of Germany becoming more content with itself, but a lot of people could see it - that they could have a good time in Germany, and that each game isn't a war all over again," Watson said.

Germans are again the envy of the UK this month, with two Bundesliga soccer teams due to meet in the final of the wildly-popular Champions League of European club teams. This recent soccer success is no bad thing for Germany's image abroad.

"I was in Munich about seven weeks ago, and I was really impressed with the food and everything out there," Arsenal football club fan Paul Wheeler told DW. "Having never been there, I wasn't sure what to expect. But I thought it was really nice. The people were really good… friendly. I said to my girlfriend 'We'll go back there.'"

For London resident Peter MacDonald, a different stereotype is fading. "We might have said Germans were more machine-like before," he told DW. "But I think that was just a bad opinion and probably not based on much, because I hadn't visited before, and didn't really know many Germans."

Business model

Now, even the critical British media have picked up on Germany's allure. The cover of a recent edition of The New Statesman, a respected British political and cultural magazine with a circulation of nearly a quarter-million, asked, "Why can't we be more like Germany?"

Titelseite der Britischen Zeitschrift The New Statesman
The May 2013 edition

A few British businesses already are. The Guardian newspaper recently took on Wolfgang Blau, who had successfully revamped the online presence of Germany's "Die Zeit" newspaper, to manage its own online strategy. Luxury car manufacturer Bentley Motors is headed by German CEO Wolfgang Schreiber; the company itself was purchased by Volkswagen in 1998.

Professor Martin Roth, the German director of the very British Victoria and Albert Museum in London, is another case-in-point. Still, he feels there are some reasonable grounds for Brits to not wholly embrace Germany and its culture.

"I think Germany has this mix of an insecurity complex, and always believing, 'We are the best, the greatest, the fastest.'" he told DW. "And I think that mix is sometimes a little difficult to understand for people coming from abroad."

And yes, sausages, too

Beyond the boardroom, even German food appears to be seducing the British.

The German Deli, started by two German chefs in 2004 in London's thriving Borough Market, seems to be perpetually busy, selling frankfurters, sauerkraut and German mustard to Brits and tourists.

But Philipp Dahmen, the shop's German manager, and who has adopted London as his home, thinks his countrymen and women back in Germany need to take British provocation with more of a pinch of salt.

"There's something about the Germans being very, very serious all the time and taking themselves far too seriously," Dahmen told DW. "But it's not only us, you know - it's everybody else as well. I mean have you seen what they say about the French?"

Dressed in a business suit, Martin Roth looks seriously at the camera
Martin Roth can understand critiques of his home countryImage: Peter Kelleher

Clichés in general, it seems, are slow to fade in the UK - as are the images of war that continue to be associated with modern-day Germany.

But a younger generation of Britons may now be embracing the image of a more modern Germany. And with Bayern Munich due to play Borussia Dortmund in the Champions League Football final this month, German and British football fans may even find themselves cheering for the same side.