Last week, Prince Charles addressed the German Parliament: Angela Merkel’s home from home, the locus of power in the European Union and increasingly beyond.
The occasion was Volkstrauertag, the Day of National Mourning, commemorating the victims of war, a reminder of the devastating loss and destruction wrought upon all those unfortunate enough to experience it. The subtext to the Royal visit, however, was another: it was a call to cease fire.
I would like to think anyone who lived in Germany at the height of Brexit hysteria would have noticed the rampant hostility towards the UK from the German media and political class.
But this was not the case.
German friends hadn’t noticed anything while members of the British Europhile brigade thought that it was just me being over-sensitive, or, more speciously, that we had it coming to us.
By this time, I had been living in Germany for fifteen years, married to a German. We had a child in school, a nice house, an established life.
The change in the weather first struck me in February 2016 (so a few months before the referendum), whilst accidentally tuning into a dire comedy programme, Die Heute Show, hosted by Oliver Welke: one of the most obnoxious characters on German television.
I remember feeling slightly nauseous as the show segued into a section on how British women all look like men, a lecture on the gruesomeness of the British staple diet – fish and chips, etc. When my incensed husband challenged the show’s editors about the content, an unrepentant editor told him that, as a Brit, I would fully appreciate satire (so button it and suck it up).
Welke’s later offerings (six years’ worth) included:
- “Planet of the Island Apes”, with the British personified through the medium of a tea-drinking, bowler hat-clad gorilla;
- the Manneken Pis fountain in Brussels urinating on the Union Jack, telling us to “Manneken piss off”;
- the image of a mist-shrouded Big Ben, with the exhortation that we should “fog off”; and
- an obese, topless, football fan with man-boobs and the Three Lions tattooed on his chest symbolising British indecisiveness and degeneracy.
After Leave won and Trump was elected, the two events were conflated by the Europhile forces which dominate Germany and the rancour became stratospheric.
The media seized on any and every story which could demonstrate what a backward, navel-gazing bunch of racists we were, that our entire economy was built on Empire and dirty Russian money, that we were going to sink without trace beneath the North Sea on leaving Mother EU and how everyone, but everyone, now regretted the referendum result.
The wording of live interviews was mistranslated to subtly alter meaning, information was selectively applied and hand-picked Britterati talk-show guests appeared, always with the correct attitudes that suited the media narrative . . . anything to discredit Britain.
The messaging worked.
Attitudes shifted. I started to become subjected to endless interrogations about Brexit, basically as an excuse to lecture me on how nationalist and xenophobic the British were (a theme that had already reached fever-pitch when we refused to accept whatever terms Merkel was dictating during the 2015 migrant crisis).
I sat through countless meetings of the Berlin International Women’s Club which descended into UK-trashing, where I was required to recant my pro-Brexit heresy. However, I wasn’t alone. The Russians and Americans got it in the neck too, regardless of their politics.
Dinner parties and family gatherings (which I eventually refused to go to) became a trial. I remember in one instance sitting silently through an extended conversation on how laughable the British were (including their tendency to dress small boys in short trousers!!! Guffaw!) in which the interlocutors were sublimely unaware of my presence until I reminded them.
Then there was the time in the posh deli, where, on hearing my husband and I speaking English, the guy serving other customers adopted a faux Brit-speaking-awful-German accent, reminiscent of Basil Fawlty circa-1975, unaware my husband was German and that I understood every word he was saying.
It was relentless. I felt like the German public was basically being groomed. The parallels to propaganda tactics used in much darker times – repeated denunciation and cultural dehumanisation – I found shocking. Even more so: the fact that none of it was questioned.
The tipping point, however, came with the bullying my daughter started to experience at school. Constant jibes and ridicule by classmates, usually involving every conceivable negative stereotype about the UK, the increasing exclusion, the complicity of teachers, and my distress at it all (in addition to what is actually a pretty dire education system) eventually became too much for her.
We decided to leave Germany.
We moved back to the UK in summer 2019, and I have not regretted it for a second. The type of wholesale attack on another culture by the public media which I witnessed in Germany would be unequivocally condemned in today’s UK – just ask Nigel Farage – especially in the 2020s climate of paper-thin skin on all things pertaining to ethnicity.
We have moved far beyond the tabloid thuggery of ‘80s and ‘90s Kraut-baiting, thank God.
Sadly, this is not the case in Germany.
So, despite Prince Charles’ admirable attempts at bridge-building, the German media’s conciliatory tone, or all the diplomatic sweet-talk, I fear irreparable damage has been done to German relations with Britain, particularly amongst the young.
We can only pray it does not take another generation to heal the wounds.