Don’t let’s be beastly

Keeping Up With the Germans: A History of Anglo-German Encounters, by Philip Oltermann, Faber, RRP£12.99, 320 pages

In the realm of national stereotypes – especially those minted in England – Germany still commands a special place. From the latest agonies of the eurozone crisis to the football pitch, from the factory gate to the stage and library, the role of the overbearing, successful-yet-dull, intellectually heavy-going German is well-rehearsed.

Attempts to counter such perceptions are a mug’s game, fraught with the risk of ending up sounding reproachful or – horror of horrors – humourless. The list of those who have penned hand-wringing treatises, organised dusty seminars or made pained early morning appearances on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme in a bid to overcome Anglo-German misunderstandings is a long one.

Philip Oltermann is the latest person to venture into this perilous, churned-up no-man’s land. Keeping Up With the Germans avoids anything too heavy-handed and yet still manages to offer an intelligent, entertaining and, at times, surprising take on relations between the two nations once memorably dubbed northern Europe’s “terrible twins” – wreaking havoc in the neighbourhood and rubbing up against each other while also having much in common.

His approach is that well-established journalistic technique of telling the story through people. In this case, a motley crew – from screen diva to Oxford don, from urban terrorist to football star – come together in a series of “encounters” through which particular themes are debated.

And so a pub meeting between Heinrich Heine, the poet who aimed his pen at the heart of reactionary Germany, and William Cobbett, the campaigning pamphleteer and rambler, unfolds as a tale of differing histories of politics and philosophy – the otherworldly thinkers and poets supping with the pragmatists. Contrasting business and economic models are revealed through the people behind the Mini and the Volkswagen Beetle. For those whose knowledge of German history is book-ended by the Beer Hall putsch and the rubble of the Berlin bunker, there is much illuminating stuff.

The tale also moves into the present day, taking in Oltermann’s personal journey as a German teenager whose parents suddenly up sticks and move to London. There Philip becomes “German Phil”, who goes into journalism and whose British-born wife finally observes that he does not seem German at all. She meanwhile confesses to feeling quite at home in Germany.

If there is a conclusion, this is it. Yes, the two are different, but then again not that different. And for all the sniffy Anglo-Saxon common-room dismissal of Germany’s “belated” development, he writes, recent history and experience point to a mature country more at ease with itself. Anyone looking for evidence that something is changing in Anglo-German relations should consider the omission of what many might consider to be the big, defining “encounter”: that between Churchill and Hitler. Oltermann (almost) didn’t mention the war – and got away with it.

Frederick Studemann is the FT’s analysis editor

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved. You may share using our article tools. Please don't cut articles from and redistribute by email or post to the web.