international analysis and commentary

London and Berlin: close partners, a quarter century after the fall of the Wall


In the past when England played Germany in soccer, fans from the island nation chanted a famous taunt, “One World Cup! Two World Wars!” Not only had the English vanquished their rivals on the playing field in 1966, but on battlefields in 1918 and 1945 as well – and they weren’t about to let the Germans forget it.

But if you listened to Britons this summer, you heard entirely different remarks as Germany tromped toward its fourth World Cup triumph. Few were the complaints about the supposedly well-organized but humorless Germans. More frequent were expressions of esteem for the verve of this team, and admiration for a country that had produced such style. Germany had changed, they said. What they meant was, Britain has too.

Those who might diminish the significance of soccer would do well to recall George Orwell’s remark, “Sport is war without the shooting.” For behind this sport was a long-held hostility towards Germans, inculcated into generations of Britons by those who had suffered so cruelly in two wars. But with the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall and the centenary of the Great War, a thaw is increasingly evident.

Today, the two countries, both run by conservative leaders, move like close partners in the European Union. Even as Prime Minister David Cameron’s moves within the bloc test his relationship with Chancellor Angela Merkel, nobody views it as anything more than dispute among close allies.

Signs of growing warmth are also evident in the cultural world, with Germany present everywhere in London. Among the most significant post-war German artists, Anselm Kiefer – whose paintings directly address the Nazi period and the Holocaust – is the subject of a major retrospective at the Royal Academy. Simultaneously, another major post-war German artist, Sigmar Polke, has a retrospective at the Tate Modern. A third huge name in contemporary German art, Gerhard Richter (himself subject of a Tate retrospective a few years ago), has a show at a private gallery, also in London.

Most striking of all is what you’ll find at the British Museum: “Germany: Memories of a Nation,” a fascinating recollection of the achievements of a country that produced so much for centuries, long before it destroyed so much in the last century. The exhibit uses objects to illustrate German identity over 600 years: the Gutenberg Bible, a portrait of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, the Volkswagen Beetle, and a piece of the Berlin Wall. Also included is a replica of the gate to the Buchenwald concentration camp with the repugnant inscription “Jedem das Seine” (To each what he deserves). While directly acknowledging the Holocaust, the exhibit is remarkable in its attempt to depict German history beyond what most British children learn growing up, namely the Second World War and the defeat of a Nazi regime that arguably marked the last great accomplishment of the British Empire. So, why is Britain now ready to move past this defining moment in its recent history?

Part of the reason is generational: most of the perpetrators of the Nazi regime are dead, as are most of those who fought them on the British side. Part of it is the recognition that Germany has confronted its crimes, with successive leaders doing public acts of contrition for Nazi crimes and with the Holocaust asserted as a central aspect of the country’s past. Another factor is that historical ties between Britain and Germany run deep. Despite the 20th century wars, they had previously fought a common enemy in France. Many also recall that members of the British royal family are of German origin.

“A substantial part of the reason why the British have obsessed about the Second World War is that German post-war history has been much more successful than ours, and there was a feeling of jealousy and resentment,” the British historian and author Tom Holland says. “But, over the course of the past 25 years in Britain, there has come to be a reluctant feeling of admiration for Germany, not just about the economy but also for its liberal traditions and for being a successful democracy.”

Headlines in the UK applying old clichés regarding tactless, obnoxious Germans are less common, even in the notoriously rabble-rousing British tabloid press. And again, soccer may have played a small part back in 2006, when 100,000 English fans travelled to Germany for the World Cup and found “that Germans were not frigid or humorless but party-loving hedonists, the kind of people you would want to share a beer with,” according to The Guardian.

Relations between the two current leaders, however, have been less friendly in recent weeks, although some negative signs should not be exaggerated. Indeed, when Merkel visited London in February, she was given high honors, with an address at Westminster and tea with the Queen. By contrast, President François Hollande of France, visiting a few weeks earlier, was greeted with a drink at a pub – and by a British reporter shouting impertinent questions about the foreign leader’s private life. As Cameron seeks to renegotiate the terms of British membership in the EU, and then hold a referendum if he wins the 2015 general election, he is looking at Merkel for support. Berlin, for its part, is keen to keep London in the club. After all, Britain is a fellow northern European power, which prides itself on a Protestant work ethic and a focus on austerity, all of which could help counterbalance the southern European countries that are more keen on fewer cuts to the state.

But Merkel has made it clear that her support is conditional. The principle of free movement of EU citizens, for one, is non-negotiable. “We won’t meddle with that,” she said, as Cameron announced he wants to limit the number of EU immigrants to the UK. According to Der Spiegel, Merkel is even prepared to see Britain leave the EU, if London insists on the plan. That might sound like open conflict. What it really indicates is a relationship close enough for a German Chancellor to now publicly confront a British Prime Minister without a flood of horrific memories and old resentments leaping to the forefront.

What Ms. Merkel’s stand also shows is that, although Britain defeated Germany in two world wars and one World Cup, it is Berlin that rules in Europe now – just as it does on the soccer field.