»I men­tioned the war once, but I think I got away with it.« – Basil Fawlty   I can’t believe that after five tran­quil days in Berlin, the sub­ject of the war has come up. I hadn’t expected to write anything about it, but today »Bild«-Zeitung published the asto­un­ding results of a survey of Bri­tish school­children. The German tabloid’s head­line said it all: 

Hitler? War ein deut­scher Fuß­ball­trainer! 

(Hiter? He was a German foot­ball manager!) 

There’s a serious issue to address here regar­ding the edu­ca­tion of Eng­lish school­children, though the fact that when youngs­ters are con­fronted with an elu­sive German name they think of foot­ball is an inte­res­ting one. It shows not only the reso­nance in Eng­lish minds of spor­ting clashes against Ger­many – but perhaps also, that the tra­di­tional ratio­nale behind the rivalry with Ger­many is beco­ming more dif­fuse: if the idea »German foot­ball« is per­va­sive enough to stick in young heads, yet they don’t know who Hitler is, is the war really at the heart of their thin­king about Ger­many any­more?

I guess what I’m dri­ving at is this: would we rather that every school kid asso­ciated Ger­many with a pro­foundly evil dic­tator, or foot­ball? On Monday (and the 20th anni­ver­sary of the wall coming down), the world will be reminded of Germany’s incredible trans­for­ma­tion, its social and poli­tical achie­ve­ments and of Berlin, its bold and striking capital. It is that image, along with images from the 2006 World Cup or 2009 Ath­le­tics World Cham­pi­ons­hips, that must be exported to kids world­wide. An under­stan­ding of the past is abso­lutely cru­cial, but as a sup­ple­men­tary ele­ment in a nuanced view of Ger­many. It is Hitler’s hor­ren­dous crimes that must be remem­bered, not his (adopted) natio­na­lity. 

Para­mount to edu­ca­ting those in both coun­tries, is respon­sible repor­ting from each nation’s media. Sadly, as I men­tioned in my first piece, Eng­land v Ger­many clashes tend to bring out the worst in the Eng­lish tabloids. Will head­lines about Bom­bers, Krauts and Huns, and other such non­sense con­tinue to sell though to an audi­ence who don’t about care who Hitler was? A sof­tening of atti­tudes must surely be around the corner. 

Mean­while, I was sur­prised to learn from the resi­dent 1. FC Köln fan, that the signi­fi­cance of the ele­venth hour, of the ele­venth day, of the ele­venth month, is quite dif­fe­rent here to the one I’m used to. In Bri­tain, that time is reserved for a minute’s silence in remem­brance of sol­diers killed in battle, ori­gi­nally those from the First World War, hence the adop­tion of the time the 1918 armistice was signed. Here, I under­stand it signals the start of the car­nival period and is the cue for the par­tying to start in ear­nest. Two more dif­fe­rent events kicking off at the same time I could hardly ima­gine, yet I’m glad to being seeing the German reverse of the coin. I’m now sat here ima­gi­ning the tiny per­sonal subt­le­ties of history that are beyond our know­ledge. Was there for example, in that railway car­riage in Com­piègne, France, on a bleak November morning, a German solider even momen­ta­rily and invol­un­ta­rily dis­tracted from the task at hand, by memo­ries of car­nival, of fri­endship, of euphoria? 

History is a dif­fi­cult thing to grasp with a myriad of subt­le­ties that can all to easily elude us. It can never be reduced to a head­line, or to events on a foot­ball pitch. We cannot under­stand it all, yet we must be informed of it. It must not cons­train our thin­king, yet we must learn from it. Hitler would have spat blood at such a rigo­rous edu­ca­tion, and though we must never forget him, we can do much to exor­cise his legacy by tea­ching children about the world around them today, pre­pa­ring them better for the world of tomorrow.