On a recent trip back to England, my son decided to renounce his German nationality. What happened was, my stepmum put on the film Bedknobs and Broomsticks. It’s a brilliant film. Some cheeky little Cockney kids get evacuated out to the countryside during World War II and Angela Lansbury – yep, Jessica Fucking Fletcher – has to look after them. Only the thing is, it turns out she’s a witch. Then lots of different funny stuff happens, including an animated bit under the sea and a trip to Portobello Road street market. Then the Germans invade, and she uses all her magicky powers to defend our sceptred isle and it’s just brilliant.
So, the Nazi invaders are all shouting and screaming at each other in German, right?
“You’re such a clever boy, aren’t you, Rico?” said my stepmother. “We all have to read the subtitles. Even your mum has to read the subtitles a bit too, I bet. But you’re the only person in this room who’s bilingual. That means you can understand German just as good as you understand English! You are a clever boy.”
Rico’s face grew all sombre and closed.
“I can’t understand what them Nazis are saying,” he said bitterly. “Can’t you?” I asked. “Are you reading the subtitles, too, then? He’s really good at reading, actually.”
“I’m not reading the undertitles and I’m not listening to what the Germans are saying. I am not listening. I hate Germans. I never listen when Germans speak.”
Of course, you know what British people are like. My family just all cracked up. They thought it was the most hilarious thing they’d heard since that one time when I checked with my dad whether the mayor’s wife also had a “china”.
That night, when I tucked Rico into bed, he said to me: “Mum, can you do me a favour? Don’t tell any of the people that I am German, okay? Just say I am English. Coz I’m half-German and half-English and I hate German people.”
“You really shouldn’t hate German people,” I said. “I love German people. Everybody loves German people. They’re really popular in the EU now. Actually, they’re the most popular people in the world; I think Germans and then, like, Norwegians or something. And what about your dad? He’s German. And you love him, don’t you?”
“I don’t really hate all the Germans. I just hate them Nazis, Mum.”
“Yeah,” I said. “Me, too.”
And then, when we got back to Berlin, we started reading an Enid Blyton book – The Adventurous Four. You know what it’s like, when you find an old Enid Blyton book in the bookshop. You’re all happy because you remember it from when you were a kid, and then you get it home and start reading it and pretty soon you’re tripping over evil gypsies and girls having to stay home and decorate the cave while the boys get to go out and hunt out the robbers like there’s no tomorrow. Like there’s not even a later-on-this-afternoon. And the thing with The Adventurous Four is: it’s fucking set during the Second World War. I dunno, the whole Nazi subplot just kind of passed me by when I was eight. But Rico’s more observant than me. Nazi subplots don’t pass him by.
“Mum,” he said sternly. “The bad people in this book are all German.”
“Well, that’s true,” I said. “But that’s because it was written during the War, you know, darling?”
“I hate all German people in books and films,” he said.
“Oh, don’t be silly and paranoid,” I said. “Don’t be silly. There are loads of good Germans in films. Millions of them. It’s just some stuff is set in the olden days, you know? Don’t get too paranoid about it.”
THEN I made a decision which I can only describe as VERY BAD. This was a VERY BAD DECISION. I just didn’t want him to grow up all precious and beleidigt and touchy and stuff. You know? I just thought: he should really see the funny side. I really do love Germans. But I cannot bear it when they make out like the worst thing about the Holocaust is that some kids did a Hitler salute to them in Bournemouth once. It’s even worse than when men start whingeing on about how women have the audacity to wear sexy dresses and yet still expect to be allowed to vote and that. So then I made a very bad decision. So I decided to show him the Fawlty Towers, “The Germans” episode.
If there are any expat parents out there wondering whether to show their kids the Fawlty Towers, “The Germans” episode – just don’t. Just don’t. Don’t do it. Don’t.
It’s not like he didn’t think it was funny. He thought it was hilarious. Especially the talking moose bit. It’s more that he started quoting it, on the tram, or, to be exact, the FUCKING tram, very loudly and very clearly (why are kids always SO loud and SO clear when talking about transsexuality or homosexuality or abortions or their country’s past on public transport?): “That was so funny, wasn’t it, Mum? ‘You started it. No, we didn’t start it. Yes, you did! You invaded Poland!’ That was so funny. Is that true, Mum? Did the Germans do that? Did they invade Poland?”
I nodded tightly. “Erm, yeah,” I said, quietly. “They invaded Poland.”
“Oh, God!” He yelled in exasperation. “Why did they do that? Just to make a war? That was such a bad idea of them! I hate war. I think war is always a bad idea. What did my German great-grandfather do in the war? Did he invade Poland?”
“Erm, I don’t know. You have to ask your daddy. I think he was definitely in the army, yeah. In the Wehrmacht. And Ben’s granddad died in the war. He never came back from Russia.”
“And my English great-grandfather?”
“He was too young for the war,” I said. “He came out to West Germany afterwards, to help them during the Cold War, he was out West somewhere. But he was too young for the war. He tried to sign up. They wouldn’t have him. He was 15 or something.”
“And my Indian great-grandfather? Was he in the war?”
“Yeah,” I said. “He flew a plane.” Rico looked impressed. “He flew a plane? He had his own plane? He was a rich guy? I didn’t know I were related to any rich guys.”
I blushed with embarrassment then. My granddad flew with Bomber Harris and everything. He did Dresden. I felt really guilty. I should never have shown Rico Fawlty Towers. It was a Fehlentscheidung. It was a big mistake.
“Erm. He wasn’t a rich guy, Rico. He was in a plane. He was, erm. He was bombing Germany. It wasn’t his fault. He had to do it.”
“Yeah, I know,” said Rico. “He had to do it, they invaded Poland.”
“Hey, Mum?” said Rico as we got off the tram.
“Was it the Nazis’ idea to invade Poland?”
“Yeah,” I said. “They were in government. They made that decision. It was their idea.”
“God, them Nazis,” said Rico. “You know something Mum? Germany would be a much better country if them Nazis would never of had iggsisted. That’s what I think.”
“Yep,” I said. “You’re right there.”
And then we had to run from the tram stop to school, because we were late. I’m gonna show him the one with the Waldorf Salad tonight. Or maybe even the one where he pretends to forget their anniversary. That’s brilliant.