When Germany was kicked out of the FIFA World Cup last year many UK commentators gloated, happily reaching for the German word "Schadenfreude" to describe their feelings. So far, so predictable.
But even after Germany’s exit, parts of the media still made frequent reference to the German team, and to their status as losers. This was incomprehensible to me. There was an exciting England team progressing through the competition; there was an inspiring coach; players were doing well. Why divert and detract from that positive story, giving space to outdated anti-German stereotypes instead?
This little episode of football history lays bare something of much wider relevance: the problem of English identity. It is an identity in crisis, upheld not primarily through a positive vision of itself, but instead overly reliant on both an antagonistic, sometimes belligerent, definition against an "other," and by an endless invocation of past glories.
Germany has long since been the most prominent "other," a fact that has now become relevant in the context of ongoing Brexit chaos and the further deterioration of political discourse in the UK.
Unable to develop a positive narrative of England’s place in the world alongside other nations — the focus here must be on England as Scotland, Northern Ireland and, to a lesser extent, Wales are on different trajectories — the EU referendum has consistently been used by Brexit supporters to frame Brexit as a means to return to a more triumphal era.
- The U.K.’s disturbing post-Brexit race-hate scorecard
- German citizenship applications from Nazi-era refugees in U.K. spike post-Brexit vote
- Labour’s decision on anti-Semitism will not solve the party’s existential crisis
- Brexit campaign legitimized the racism now trending in Britain
The desire to recreate glories that are often more imagined than real has been fuelling Brexit for some time. Whether it is the idea of Empire 2.0, or a WWII Spitfire plane restored with government funds embarking on an around-the-world flight, this new so-called "Global Britain," unshackled from mere Europeanness, is as far removed from reality as it could possibly be. The "Brexit means Brexit" slogan is a promise of a time-warp and of a mythical perfect "unicorn" exit deal.
Meanwhile, so-called "Project Fear" - the pejorative term given by the pro-Brexit camp to their Remainer opponents, whom they accuse of "scaremongering" about a post-Brexit Britain - is proving to be what it always was: "Project Fact," as more and more details emerge about the comprehensive damage Brexit will cause.
Faced with that reality, leading Brexit supporters are becoming increasingly shrill in their rhetoric, pushing the blame on to others. While this, predictably, is often directed at the EU, Germany has become an increasingly frequent target this last month, the penultimate before the supposed March 29th exit date.
It all began with the publication in early January 2019 of Conservative MP Greg Hands’s article, "The Power is With Us" in which he writes about two EU officials involved in the Brexit negotiations: "Both happen to be German," he notes, pointedly. He implied they had shady personal connections and were intent on "punishing" the UK, characterizing them as "vengeful." All the article really does, however, is chart some links between two people - hardly breaking news.
But his insistence on the relevance of the officials’ nationality served its purpose: it whistled for the dogs, fuelling the same sentiments we saw splashed across motorways in the UK prior to the EU referendum, apparently guerilla pro-Leave billboards enjoining Brits to: "Halt Ze German Advance." Those nasty Krauts are out to get us.
Since Hands’s article, there have been several other incidents that document how much further commentators and politicians are now prepared to go to feed that anti-German narrative.
From Theodora Dickinson’s incorrectly (but gleefully) quoted Thatcher reference to Germans and the Holocaust ("Germans can’t be trusted: It’s the national character...These were the people who sent Jews to the gas chambers. That national character hasn’t changed"), to Conservative MP Mark Francois’s shameful words about "Teutonic arrogance" and "bullying" on live TV, to his fellow Conservative MP Daniel Kawczynski’s lying tweet about the Marshall Plan ("Britain helped to liberate half of Europe...No Marshall Plan for us only for Germany…Watch the way ungrateful EU treats us now. We will remember.")
All these cases have two things in common: they ignore facts and abuse history.
With their cheap populist jingoism, these politicians and commentators are blowing up bridges built over decades with a single TV appearance or even a single tweet. Underpinned by an entirely misplaced sense of exceptionalism and entitlement, they reveal the nature of that much-heralded "Global Britain" identity.
Instead of being open, it is narrow and exclusive, an identity weaponizing history to serve a specific political narrative, an identity that tries to normalize even the craziest (though increasingly plausible) Brexit scenarios – from shortages to civil unrest - that are now becoming almost probable by still regarding Britain’s "liberation" from the German and EU yoke as the key to a green and pleasant utopia.
In the meantime, even senior Tory ministers regard a no-deal exit from the EU would trigger "turmoil" and be just about "survivable."
What the increase in anti-German rhetoric tells us clearly is that Brexit has nothing positive to offer. If that were the case, Brexit supporters would set out that positive vision. Instead, they are re-running battles fought seven decades ago; they are seeking to freeze time at the point when the world was gratifying morally monochrome, where Germans are the villains and Britons the plucky heroes.
But the future does not work like that. Ultimately, if the only way you can define yourself and your role in the world is by talking badly about another country and its people, abusing history and distorting facts while expecting preferential treatment for yourself, it says more about you than about that other country.
British politicians and commentators can spin as much anti-German rhetoric as they like: it won’t deliver those Union Jack-striped unicorns they promised.
Tanja Bueltmann is a Professor of History and Faculty Associate Pro Vice-Chancellor, Faculty of Arts, Design and Social Sciences at Northumbria University. She is also a citizens' rights campaigner focusing on EU citizens resident in the UK. Twitter: @cliodiaspora