Britain vs Germany: The Topography of Experience
This article attempts to examine the contrasting yet concurrent ways Britain and German have attempted to deal with their historical traditions. Britain despite its irrelevant status in the international order is still deeply contextualized within notions of empire and monarchical rule. Germany in lieu of Nazism has de-contextualized itself from its traditional Teutonic past. The consequences of this have seen a revanchist rise of a ‘new’ Germany and the slow, ebbing decay of a once ‘Great’ Britain.
The Second World War was represented, in the public imagination, as the last in a war between ‘good’ and ‘evil’. The carefully choreographed narrative, of the Nazi crimes and allied victory at Nuremberg designated a “rupture of civilization” between Auschwitz, Dachau, and Buchenwald and the new epoch of pan-Europeanism. The fabrication at Nuremberg of the events leading to WWII delineated, via the film, “the Nazi Plan” a series of events starting from the German desire to conquest, to Auschwitz and the death camps. The anachronism of Nuremberg showed Nazism not as an aberration of history, a product of Versailles, depression and societal anomie, but as a “logical consequence of the German tradition”. In light of this there was an effort by allied administrations to rid Germany of its historical past, thus preventing it of the emblems and cultural signifiers that, supposedly, enabled the outbreak of war? They called this program de-nazification. What the allies neglected was the fact the Hitler and his henchmen, notable Goering, had conjured up a mythical, rarified vision of Germany, one founded on the great Teutonic Knights of the Middle Ages. They used these emblems and cultural artifacts to instill and manipulate the populace, imbibing them in the all governing and all encompassing entity of the “body national”.
Winston Churchill, ironically, no, perhaps more coincidentally, used the same historical view of Britain in order to defeat the Nazis during WWII. He conjured up the filiopietistic, Arthurian legend of England, invoking a memory, provoking a nation not to fall in a time of national crisis. “And not by eastern windows only, When daylight comes, comes in the light; In front the sun climbs slow, how slowly! But westward, look, the land is bright!” These words roused a nation depleted, having lost a whole generation 20 years previously, into a British “body politic” fighting and winning a war. They were, however, fictional, based on the same amalgam of myth, legend etc that Dr Goebbels and Goering used to create the Third Reich. I am not equating the two. Churchill’s ostensibly was for far more benign purposes. The consequences for the third Reich were death camps and mass extermination for Britain victory but the bankruptcy of a nation.
Germany’s bifurcation into west and east invariably aided a “sanctioned amnesia” about the Nazism and the Holocaust, as the German public perception of the atrocities were dichotomized- with each segment tempered to the needs of its corresponding citizenry. The GDR inevitably, owing to the deeply disturbing tendency in communism of only honoring the left or “international resistance” movements, veiled the deaths sites of their racial significance. Buchenwald’s racialist motivate existence was expressively hidden. Similarly, the interment at Ravenbruck was disguised as a women’s camp rather than a death camp for lesbians and other “a-socials”. Moreover, in west Germany, the FRG failed until the 60s to turn death camps into commemorations- arguably due to the camps used to the imprison Nazi war criminals. This, however, was only in place till 1952. The reason following was that Germany, for economic reasons, no longer wanted to be associated with its Nazi past. Dachau situated in the cultural centre of Germany- the Weimar- would have ended up a desolate, disused wasteland like the site of the Nuremberg rallies if it had not been from external political pressure. Moreover, there was a strong correlation between designations of memorial sites and the number of survivors. Where there was a total extermination there was no room for protestation.
While Germany was forgetting its past Britain was monumentally honoring it. Queen Elizabeth’s coronation in 1953 was an a-historical phantom, cloaking a country impoverished by two world wars and a crumbling, costly empire. But it was a spectacle, it enrapture a national psyche within the thralls of myth, unreason and irrationality. Churchill’s romanticized; Blake view of England was instilled within vast swathes of the populace. The myth even if once true, perhaps early 19th Britain was based on thin foundations. The Conservative MP Alan Clarke has stated, “the appearance of glory was all there… the saluting sentries… but underneath it the whole thing had been washed way. Moreover, on his deathbed Churchill himself spoke of wanting to “sleep for a billion years…. I see stupendous issues unfolding before our eyes, and we are only specks of dust settled in the night on the map of the world”.
The de-contextualization of Germany from its Teutonic past, due to the Nazi and the Allied deracination of post-war Germany culture and the malfeasance of the FRG and the GDR disabled the German people’s chance of reconciliation. Since the fall of the Berlin wall this has changed somewhat. Misremembrance enabled Germany to contextualize itself with the Europeanism of the 20th and not to mourn the recent past. Britain on the other hand was still and is still imbibed with the glories of its Imperial past. The Queen’s jubilee, the Iraq and Afghanistan war, the lack of Governmental reform e.g. House of Lords has meant that the institutional ethos is circumscribed by imperial tradition. Britain’s place within the EU is one of indecision, isolationism- not quite in it but bound by law. Britain still sees itself as a independent sovereign caught up in the power politics of the 19th century rather than the participant in an inter-dependent system. After the debacle at Suez Enoch Powell spoke that “when we shed our power, we omitted to shed our arrogance. The same is true still, transmogrified into the psyche of a nation.