»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.