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Don’t just mention the war

From Bratwurst to Brecht, the BBC’s German season was a welcome change from British TV’s obsession with Nazis.

Patrick West

Patrick West
Columnist

Topics Culture

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The television comedian Harry Enfield used to have a character called Jurgen the German, a tourist in England who in every sketch unexpectedly took it upon himself to apologise for his country’s behaviour during the war, much to the embarrassment of his hosts.

It was one of Enfield’s most memorable and incisive creations, inverting and mocking the propensity of the English always to mention The War. Yet it was simultaneously dishonest, in that while ridiculing our country’s anachronistic, small-minded nationalism, it gave succour to it, by reinforcing a mental association of our Teutonic friends with bellicosity. If you think about it, John Cleese in Fawlty Towers had done precisely the same thing: we didn’t just laugh at Basil Fawlty, we laughed with him, too.

I had anticipated Al Murray’s German Adventure (BBC4, Wednesday) to take the same approach – of slyly mentioning the war by saying ‘don’t mention the war’ a lot. After all, Al Murray’s alter-ego, the Pub Landlord, does mention it a lot, and it seemed that the programme’s mission – to inform the viewer that Germany has created many great scholars and artists – was a reverse way of conveying the message: you know what, they’ve actually done other things than start wars.

But I suppose this can’t be helped. Because for many English people (less so other peoples of the UK) all we know about Germany is its bellicose history. We learn about it via Britain’s Nazi-obsessed school history syllabus, Remembrance Day, Holocaust Memorial Day, and television programmes – from The World At War and Band of Brothers to James May rambling on about the Airfix models of his youth.

Thus, Murray could not help but make the obvious allusion at the start of the programme. But he alone wasn’t guilty. Both Matt Frei in Berlin (BBC4, Monday) and Christopher Clark in Frederick The Great and The Enigma of Prussia (BBC4, Tuesday) mentioned Hitler within minutes of their programmes’ opening credits. Which seems a funny way to go about educating the British public that there is more to Germany than moustachioed genocidal maniacs and men with pointy helmets, as BBC 4’s German Season has been aspiring to do. I suspect it’s the equivalent of putting a swastika on the front cover of a paperback: it’s guaranteed to grab one’s attention.

Murray declared it his intention to inform the viewer that there was more to Germany than ‘sausages, beer, ruthless organisation’ and having no sense of humour. Unfortunately, it brought to mind Alan Partridge’s suggestion to RTE executives that ‘de’re’s more to Oireland dan dis’ – but I needn’t have worried. In the first of two programmes, Murray was, or played, the perfect innocent abroad, with a genuine non-partisan interest in unearthing and disseminating the wonders of German culture, from Brahms to Bauhaus. It didn’t matter that, as someone who holds a history degree, he was probably ‘discovering’ less than he was letting on; all documentaries of this ilk require artistic licence. He was like a bearded, chubbier version of Michael Palin or Bill Bryson: evidently learned, enquiring and incurably affable.

So maybe his whirlwind tour of the northern part of the country was too ambitious in the amount of subject matter it sought to squeeze in. But there’s nothing wrong with a programme acting as an educational primer from which the viewer can proceed later. And on his lightning journey he furnished us with vignettes and entertaining anecdotes: that Thomas Mann wrote three of his novels by the seaside in Lübeck, and that when he said ‘I am Germany’ it wasn’t a declaration of arrogance, more a rebuttal to the Nazis who claimed to have ownership of ‘Germanness’; that Brahms used to play salacious songs in Hamburg bars; that before 1914 the Hamburg-to-Hull shipping route was the main one taken by European immigrants heading on to America; that the progressive Bauhaus movement sought to ‘unify all arts’, but wouldn’t allow women to undertake metalwork.

Some of Murray’s observations provoked, I suspect, unintended reactions. For instance, he reminded us that all the great German musicians were dependent on patronage from very rich people as ‘there was no Arts Council’ then. Which begs the question: what if there had been an Arts Council before the unification of Germany? Isn’t Germany’s cultural legacy a good argument for not having one?

Elsewhere, there were passages on Goethe, Brecht and the Grimm brothers. The programme concluded with that great man of contradictions, Frederick the Great, aesthete and warmonger. Yes, it was bitty, but it was at least a good-natured attempt to convey to the audience the sheer weight of German genius in the arts. It made me ashamed to realise, besides Beethoven, Nietzsche and Mein Kampf, how little German music and literature I have heard or read, which is what these programmes should make you do.

At the conclusion on Frederick the Great, I had expected a reference to a later painter and soldier for which Germany is far better known. But Murray left us concluding that Frederick epitomised the Janus-faced nature of German culture. I don’t quite buy this. I’m more persuaded by Professor Clark’s argument earlier in the week that the idea of ‘Prussian militarism’ was a myth created by the Allies after the Second World War to explain away the Third Reich. In truth, Prussian and German nationalism is patriotic Romanticism incarnate, and Romanticism has always simultaneously celebrated the violent and ethereal aspects of human nature. There is no contradiction.

The highlight of the documentary was Murray in attendance at a recital of Beethoven’s seventh symphony in Leipzig. This, particularly its rousing, tragic, majestic, mournful Allegretto movement, encapsulates for me what Germany is all about.

Patrick West was formerly spiked’s TV and radio columnist. Read his blog here. Follow him on Twitter @patrickxwest.

David Bowden is away.

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