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Long out of fashion in GermanyImage: AP

Just Don't Mention the War

Kristine Ziwica
October 28, 2004

Ahead of the Queen’s visit to Germany, Foreign Minister Fischer accused the British of clinging to antiquated stereotypes of Germans. Exchange programs and innovative campaigns are supposed to tackle the problem.


While in London last week to finalize details of Queen Elizabeth’s upcoming state visit to his country, German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer sounded an alarm over the state of German-British relations. Speaking to BBC radio show "The Today Program," Fischer said relations were excellent on an official level, but on a person-to-person level things were in a terrible state -- and getting worse. He blamed the British media for perpetuating antiquated images of Germans.

"My children are 20 and 25. When they watch Germany in some of the British media, they think this is a picture they have never seen in their whole lifetimes," Fischer said.

He added: "If you want to learn how the traditional Prussian goose-step works, you have to watch British TV, because in Germany, in the younger generation -- even in my generation -- nobody knows how to perform it."

British press offers explanations

Fischer's comments prompted a wave of articles in the British press, many giving credence to his claims and attempting to explain why Brits cling to outdated stereotypes. Like Fischer, many British columnists took aim at the media and at history teachers, who they claimed all too often favor the shock-inspiring WWII-era chapter in German history over more recent events.

Some even hinted at a more insidious motive. “The root problem is not the media so much as an ingrained tendency, even -- perhaps especially -- among young Britons, to affirm their national identity by crowing about old victories and doing a defeated enemy down. Do we really have nothing better, nothing more recent to feel good about?” one journalist wrote in an editorial that appeared in The Independent.

Reason for alarm?

There is undoubtedly an element of truth to such allegations, Ulrich Sacker, the director of the Goethe Institute in Berlin, told DW-WORLD.

Joschka Fischer und Jack Straw
German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer and his British colleague, Jack Straw, during a 2003 meetingImage: AP

However, unlike Fischer (photo), he doesn’t think it’s necessary to sound an alarm. “I wouldn’t call it a crisis,” he said. “It’s an ongoing debate, but it doesn’t help to declare a state of emergency. That only gives a media platform to those who want to restart the discussion. It’s the same with prejudices: the more you talk about them, the less you achieve.”

Instead, Sacker and many of his colleges at German cultural and educational institutions are opting for a less heavy-handed approach. Rather than taking on the stereotypes directly -- as Fischer did -- they are coming-up with increasingly innovative, slick, and media savvy initiatives.

War off limits

Nina Lemmens, the director of the London office of the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD), is one of the originators of such an approach. Following the success of the DAAD’s “Learn German” campaign, which featured catchy slogans making light of German stereotypes, she is now looking ahead to the launch of an essay contest for British university students in two weeks called “But don’t mention the war.”

John Cleese Porträtfoto Komiker
Comedian John Cleese in a 1987 photoImage: AP

Undergraduates at UK universities will be invited to share their personal experiences of Germany and things German as long as they “don’t mention the war.” Lemmens has even lobbied for the support of John Cleese (photo), the originator of the infamous goose-stepping German parody featured on the British comedy "Fawlty Towers."

"I'm delighted to help with trying to break down the ridiculous anti-German prejudices of the tabloids, and clowns like Basil Fawlty, who are pathetically stuck in a world view that's more than half a century out of date," Cleese said in a statement released by the DAAD.

No substitute for youth exchanges

However effective taking on stereotypes with innovative and humorous campaigns may prove, they are no substitute for good-old-fashioned exchange programs, say some experts.

Uta Pätzig, the program director of Voyage, an online British-German youth portal funded by the British Council and the Goethe Institute, is one of them. As part of her job, she has worked with British students en-route to Germany on cultural exchanges.

Bube beim Trachten-und Schuetzenzug des Oktoberfestes in München 2003
Germany isn't just lederhosenImage: AP

“When we send young people over there, the kinds of preconceptions some of them have are astonishing,” she told DW-WORLD. “Sending them there is the only way they can overcome them. They come back with a much more positive -- and better informed -- impression.”

Reviewing progress

During the Queen’s visit to Germany in November, both British and German officials are expected to announce a review of youth exchange programs with an eye towards increasing their efficacy and looking for areas where additional resources may be needed.

It remains to be seen whether the British and German governments will eventually launch something akin to the French-German Youth Office, a multimillion euro government-sponsored program that has been promoting exchanges between French and German youth since the 1960s.

In the meantime, the German embassy in London has come-up with an unusual twist on the exchange idea. Twenty English history teachers were invited for an all-expense paid six-day trip to Germany -- including a stay at a five-star hotel in Berlin -- in the hopes of giving them a positive impression of the country to incorporate into their lesson plans. Having arrived in Berlin on Monday, they will also visit Dresden and Bonn.

The total cost of the project comes to a whopping €52,000 ($66,581). It seems that de-Hitlerizing Britain’s history curriculums doesn't come cheap.

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