‘Don’t mention the war!’
Anglo-German relations were back in the news last week, when UKTV (temporarily) removed that classic ‘Germans’ episode of Fawlty Towers from its playlist. In the end it turned out to be much ado about next to nothing, but it was a reminder that for Britons of a certain age, Germany will always have a special frisson. Anyone old enough to have seen Fawlty Towers first time around tends to be preoccupied with the place, and for all the usual reasons. If you were raised on comics like Warlord and war films like Where Eagles Dare, you were bound to be intrigued by Germany – but, unless you were a bit odd, you were unlikely to consider it as a holiday destination.
I was the odd one out. I’ve been on countless holidays to Germany, and I’ve had some great times there. My wife loves going there too, and so do our two children. Yet we always knew it was an eccentric choice, and when friends asked us where we were going for our summer holidays we were often greeted with an uncomfortable silence. People didn’t disapprove, but they clearly thought we were rather strange. To fill that pregnant pause, I generally felt compelled to tell them my father’s family came from Germany, as if our choice required some explanation. Their relief was palpable. ‘Oh, so that’s why you like going there! I knew there had to be a reason.’
However after all those years of awkward alibis, times are changing. Until the coronavirus crisis brought international tourism to an abrupt halt, visitor numbers to Germany had been on the increase for a decade – and the United Kingdom has been one of the biggest drivers of this upward trend. Britain is now the biggest market for tourism in Berlin, and the second biggest market for Germany as a whole. According to Abta, the Association of British Travel Agents, Germany has been shooting up the list of UK holidaymakers’ favourite overseas destinations. And as travel becomes easier and borders reopen, Germany looks set to resume this trend – especially since its handling of Covid-19 has been so exemplary.
So why has Germany been becoming more and more popular with British holidaymakers? Well, as a fairly frequent visitor these last 30 years, I reckon the fall of the Berlin Wall was by far the biggest factor. Virtually overnight, Berlin became the gateway to Eastern Europe. Britons saw the footage on TV and wanted to see the reunited city for themselves.
During those 30 years since the wall came down, Berlin has transformed British impressions of Germany. The city is rebellious and anarchic – a vivid contrast to the goosestepping clichés most Brits grew up with. The 2006 World Cup reinforced Germany’s new upbeat image. British football fans expected the tournament to be run with Teutonic efficiency. They didn’t expect the street parties, the blazing sunshine, the feel-good vibe.
But the biggest change has been generational. Time is a great healer, and for anyone under 40 Germany is no longer primarily associated with the war. Naturally Hitler’s tyranny remains a crucial chapter in German history, but although the Third Reich and the Holocaust are remembered in museums and memorials throughout the country, Germany no longer feels overwhelmed by dark memories. My children’s generation are far better informed about the Nazis than we ever were, and yet they have a far broader view of Germany than my generation did when we were young.
The ‘Germans’ episode of Fawlty Towers is a landmark in British comedy, which deserves to be enjoyed by Britons (and Germans) for another 40 years. However like a lot of classic comedy, it’s a portrait of an era which has almost vanished. Seventy-five years since VE Day, we’re finally ditching the crude generalisations which have plagued Anglo-German relations for generations, a set of clumsy caricatures left over from the Second World War.
You know the sort of thing I mean. You’ve heard all the jokes and you know they’re just jokes, but they’ve still shaped the way we think about a people the Edwardians used to regard as kindred spirits – people with whom we have far more in common than we suppose. I’m half German but I grew up in Britain so I understand why some Britons are reluctant to go on holiday to Germany. However I also understand why my children’s generation see Germans as friends, not foes. So to set the record straight, here are some of the most familiar stereotypes about Germany – and some surprising facts.
How much?! That’s not too bad…
Before the Germans ditched their beloved Deutschmark Germany was a costly place for British travellers, but since they adopted the Euro prices have levelled out. If you’re used to holidaying in Britain you’ll be pleasantly surprised. Even with our awful exchange rate, accommodation, eating out and public transport are all noticeably cheaper than they are in the UK. Train tickets and supermarkets are especially good value. Rooms and meals are even cheaper in rural areas, especially in the east. Even in the cheapest places you can be sure of decent standards, which means you can travel on a tight budget and still have a nice time.
This food is… really tasty
German food has always had a bad reputation in Britain, and even as an ardent Teutonophile I have to admit that reputation isn’t entirely undeserved. It’s true that in German bierkellers, the food is generally fairly heavy. However it’s untrue to assume that in Germany that’s the only grub there is. Germany has more than 300 Michelin-starred restaurants, and even in the everyday places standards are uniformly high. In a rural gasthaus your meal may be hearty but it’s bound to be good quality – freshly cooked, locally sourced and served in convivial surroundings. In the big cities there’s a growing emphasis on healthy eating, with lots of young international chefs bringing a lighter twist to traditional German recipes. When it comes to vegan food, moreover, Berlin is a global trendsetter.
Here comes the sun (sometimes)
‘When it rains in London, Hamburgers put up their umbrellas.’ So say the Hamburgers, with a nod to the many things London and Hamburg have in common – not least the same wet and windy weather. However most of Germany enjoys a considerably better climate than Hamburg – or London, for that matter. Even along the Baltic coast summers are warm and sunny. Further south it can get very hot, as the England football team found to their cost in the 2006 World Cup Finals. Berlin and Munich both enjoy midsummer temperatures of over thirty degrees. Freiburg, in the Black Forest, is the sunniest place in Germany, with the Rhineland and Bavaria not far behind. Winters can be fierce, especially in the south and east, but with a good deal of snowfall guaranteed winter days are often crisp and clear.
The ruined east… is risen
When the Berlin Wall came tumbling down in 1989, a forgotten hinterland opened up to British travellers – a land that time forgot. Travelling around East Germany in those first few years after reunification was fascinating, but it was sad to see how 40 years of communism had reduced a hardworking, law-abiding populace to a state of abject poverty. The older buildings were derelict and the newer ones were cheap and nasty. The big cities were ugly and filthy; the small towns were rundown and deserted.
How times have changed! Thirty years since the wall came down east Berlin is booming, and this remarkable renaissance has spread far beyond the reinstated capital. Weimar is a cultural hub again, Dresden’s baroque Altstadt has been restored, and dirty old Leipzig has been transformed into one of the most dynamic cities in Germany. The Hanseatic Ports along the Baltic coast attract cultural tourists from all over Europe. After half a century behind the Iron Curtain, Eastern Germany is open for business again.
The bland west… has been a bit bold
While the antique landmarks of East Germany were inadvertently preserved by poverty, West Germany enjoyed an economic boom. For West Germans this was a godsend, but for tourists it was a mixed blessing, as its bombed out cities were rapidly rebuilt, in a bland, modernist, functional style. Yet since reunification these cities have been reinvigorated by some spectacular modern architecture, and some inspired renovation schemes. Big cities like Munich and Frankfurt combine the best of old and new; smaller cities like Freiburg have retained their medieval charm; Regensburg and Heidelberg are almost ridiculously picturesque. For art, music and fashion, Hamburg and Düsseldorf are among the leading cities in Europe, and even rustbelt cities like Essen have found a new lease of life, as its redundant mills, mines and factories have been converted into galleries, theatres and concert halls.
Brace yourself… there are beaches
The German coastline is one of Deutschland’s undiscovered glories, virtually unknown to British travellers. In fact it consists of two separate coastlines, each distinct in mood and character. The North Sea coast is wilder and more windswept. Its highlights are the chic beach resort of Sylt and the atmospheric island of Norderney, which inspired Erskine Childers’ pioneering spy story, The Riddle of The Sands. The Baltic Coast is calmer and more intriguing. It boasts a string of historic ports, shut off behind the Iron Curtain until reunification and only now emerging from hibernation. Between them are miles and miles of sandy beaches, and some charming bucket and spade resorts. Kühlungsborn is the nicest beach resort on the mainland. Heiligendamm is the grandest. For a real adventure head for Rügen, Germany’s biggest island, with its spectacular chalk cliffs and the spooky ruins of a colossal holiday camp built during the Third Reich.
Bossy… or just matter of fact?
OK, I admit it – Germans can sometimes seem rather rude. In a way, they’re a lot like New Yorkers. They like to get straight to the point. Maybe that’s what makes them so good at business. Once you start seeing them this way, you’ll find yourself warming to their matter-of-fact, no-nonsense style. Yes, they can sometimes seem a bit abrupt, but the upside of this approach is that you can rely on them to get the job done. I remember one time I was travelling to Herringsdorf, a seaside town in Eastern Germany. The best way to get there was by express train from Berlin, connecting with a local train at an obscure junction in the middle of nowhere. My express train was delayed en route, and I realised I was going to miss my connection. That local train was the last one of the evening. I’d be stranded at that godforsaken junction. I needn’t have worried. When I arrived at that junction the last train had gone, but there was a taxi waiting for me, courtesy of Deutsche Bahn. The driver took me to Herringsdorf, free of charge, and dropped me off at my hotel.
Dullards… or dreamers?
After the Wagnerian calamities of the first half of the 20th Century, Germans spent the second half of the 20th Century striving to be deathly dull. If you’ve been to Germany on business, you’ll know exactly what I mean. ‘Ordnung muss sein’ (everything must be in order) is a familiar workplace mantra. Yet however hard they try, Germans can’t quite rid themselves of their endemic weirdness – a deep romanticism that’s reflected in their almost paganistic love of nature. You never need to travel far in search of wilderness. Here, a walk in the woods isn’t just a Spaziergang (stroll) – it’s a Wanderung (wandering). Germany is famous for its philosophers and composers, not its businessmen. The forest, not the office, is where Germans feel most at home.
A German joke… is a laughing matter
This one is harder to refute since humour, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. If you think Germans are humourless, who am I to say you’re wrong? However I should mention that I only began to understand German wit when I began to speak the language. If you’ve only ever heard Germans speaking English, it’s hard to work out how humorous they really are. After all, how witty do you tend to be when you’re communicating in a foreign tongue? In fact, German humour is very dry, often so dry it can escape your notice. When you finally tune in, however, it can be very funny indeed.
Super efficient… er, maybe not
Traditionally applied to German football teams who grind out one-nil wins against more entertaining yet more erratic opposition, this myth was finally put to rest during the last two World Cups. In 2014, Germany were the flair team, beating Brazil 7-1 in the semi-final. In 2018, they were abject, losing to Mexico and South Korea. Likewise, German society has never really run like clockwork. Its big cities are chaotic, its villages are quaint and sleepy, and life in the countryside moves at a slow and steady pace. Before the calamities of the 20th Century, Germany was widely regarded as a land of dreamers and eccentrics – and, beneath its modern veneer, not a lot has changed. Yes, the trains really do run on time, but airports are another matter. Berlin’s new airport was due to open in March 2011. After countless problems and delays, it’s now due to open this October, nine-and-a-half years behind schedule.