Do mention the war (if you're German, that is)

While Brits may still seem obsessed with the war, it is as nothing compared to our former enemies


Who can forget the hilarious Fawlty Towers episode from 1975, in which Basil goads his German hotel guests about the war with his mocking jokes and goose-stepping, until they are reduced to despair? Basil's line, "don't mention the war", has become a sardonic catchphrase in our language, precisely because we do mention the war rather a lot, to the dismay of the Germans.

They are especially un-amused by the antics of our tabloids. There was the notorious Achtung! Surrender headline in the Daily Mirror the day before England played Germany in a semi-final of the Euro '96 football championships. (The Sun went with Let's Blitz Fritz.) And earlier this year the Daily Star ran a piece entitled Return of Ze Blackshirts, referring to Germany's new World Cup football strip, which is black. The article was illustrated with a photo of the German captain Michael Ballack beside a mugshot of Hitler. Crass indeed.

But here's the curious thing. If it appears that we are still obsessed by the war, the Germans might be even more so. My (Hungarian) father lives in Munich, so I go to the city fairly often. While visiting last month, I was interested to see that they are about to construct a vast new documentation and education centre to house the documents relating to the Third Reich.

The intention is to aid historical research and "embed memories of the Nazi era topographically into the city", to better understand Munich's role as the cradle of Nazism.

Most aptly, the centre is being built on the site of the Brown House, the one-time national headquarters of the Nazi Party, destroyed by Allied bombs in 1945. It has been an empty lot ever since the rubble was cleared away.

This new project fits right in with the Germans' constant spotlight on their warmongering Nazi past. Their television channels are full of it. This was our TV viewing on my recent visit: one evening we saw a documentary about Edward VIII's relationship with Hitler in the 1930s; the following evening we saw a programme comparing the Soviet medical experiments carried out on American POWs during the Korean War with Mengele's experiments on inmates at Auschwitz; the evening after that, there was a film about the Mossad operation to capture Eichmann. And, believe me, this is typical fare.

There is a major difference, of course, between the German obsession and ours. In a penitent country which has criminalised Holocaust denial and the trade in Nazi memorabilia, they want to make sure everybody knows about and remembers the evils of Nazism. They are proclaiming before the world that they have changed, and learned.

We want people to know and remember, too, but as victors of the war we enjoy revelling in our triumph, through our feature films, TV shows, books --- and cocky tabloid newspapers. Even Prince Harry thought it a jolly jape to don a Nazi costume for a fancy dress party.

Every so often, a German government spokesman publicly expresses his consternation over our tasteless jokes and persistent gloating. Like Basil Fawlty, we can be so unkind. But we need not worry too much about mentioning the war, for however often we do so, the Germans will have got there first.

Monica Porter is a Hungarian-born writer based in London

    Last updated: 2:24pm, August 13 2010

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