When I moved abroad for a semester, I was excited to meet people from different cultures that I could learn from. However, it soon made me realise how ignorant I was, not because I couldn’t always follow the dinner time discussions on the Euro, but because the majority of my expectations when meeting others was influenced by their country’s stereotype and history.
While this was not a major issue, I could not help but be embarrassed when befriending German people initially because my first association would be with the war. So it turned out that over 65 years on, the task of moving on still is incomplete and I was very conscious of attempting to follow Basil Fawlty’s advice of not mentioning it. However, once it was brought up by one of my German flatmates, it soon became not only a topic of discussion, but also something we joked about.
Obviously, these jokes did not belittle the events that happened, but I did wonder about their acceptability. One friend highlighted that I was rather prone to bringing it up, which made me speculate whether this was particularly an English trait. Many British TV comedy shows still use it as a source of humour, but at what point is the line crossed? Having now interviewed several German people, I have found that their interactions with English people have varied wildly.
Marvin Bartcsh said that an English person had never personally brought the matter up with him, but that “there are plenty of rumours told about German travellers in England… [who]got in an argument because of [their]origin.”Another friend Dana had told me that she had discussed it, but only with people that she had known for a while. However, one friend, Juli Zett, said that not only was the subject brought up frequently with her, but that most of the “jokes aren’t acceptable” and that she “felt unwelcome in England due to [her]nationality for quite a long time.”
I like to think of myself, and England, as quite friendly so the latter comment was hard to hear. It made me feel ashamed to be English and the only comfort was that given the other responses, it wasn’t representative of everyone’s experiences. Nevertheless, the fact that Germany’s history still vehemently affects how its population is perceived today is worrying.
Moreover, when interviewing for this article, it also came out that one person had been called a Nazi during an argument, and others had met individuals who assumed that all Germans believed, even now, in the Nazi ideology. One friend Martin Wolentowitz told me he had recalled how some even believed that Hitler was still in power. Linda Lindstrøm remarked that it could be “creepy” as “people in general ask very carefully what I personally think about all of this Nazi stuff. Sometimes, I have the impression that they expect us to like what happened in the past.”
Dana recounted how she had to tell some children three times that simulating Hitler moustaches was offensive before they believed her. Luckily, one friend, Helge, summed up the mature response by arguing that it simply “shows a lack of sensibility and knowledge of the German culture today.” However, the fact that such comments are still made challenges the belief that we have moved on, as seen by the tensions that arise in England when a football match is played against Germany.
Helge’s comment also made me rethink what I know about German modern culture, which is very little apart from the stereotype. When I conjure up the image of a German person in my mind, I see lederhosen, beer, bratwurst, a lack of humour and them rushing to put their towels on the sunbeds first when on holiday. I was curious to see how much of this had any basis in fact. There was a large consensus that the German passion for beer was true, with Dana stating that, “beer is a big tradition in Germany.” However, many of the other counts were inaccurate or restricted to a certain group of people, the most common misconception being related to lederhosen, which is only really worn in Bavaria.
It was also argued that the art of sunbed-stealing was not specifically a German trait, but belonged to many nationalities. In regards to Germans having no sense of humour, I can myself refute this as my German friends are also some of my funniest.
It’s clear to see that Germans do have the ability to laugh and love drinking beer; unfortunately the basis for their entire stereotype is not fully founded and is still mired in the past.