Germans love England, but in a patronising way. They like the funny people, but they would definitely not like to live there. To the Germans, England is a bit like Poland.
Germans think England is rubbish compared to Germany. And they are right. All that hilarious sarky banter somehow does not, in the end, make up for living in a crime-ridden choke-hole where nothing works, and people are content to vote for arcane institutions and social inequality. In fact, England now occupies the same space in the German collective psyche as Poland – a sort of backward, introverted country neurotically obsessed with its own military history and/or penis size.
George Orwell wrote this in the middle of WWII: “When you come back to England from any foreign country, you have immediately the sensation of breathing different air… The beer is bitterer, the coins are heavier, the grass is greener, the advertisements are more blatant. The crowds in the big towns, with their mild knobby faces, their bad teeth and gentle manners, are different from a European crowd.”
Of Orwell’s four elements of English life – beer, coins, grass and adverts – three are still dead on a century later (I think the grass is basically the same in Europe), and my favourite is the coins. The English love their thick pound coin and their big, eccentrically shaped 50p, and even the liberal end of the English press could not help but sneak a grin when that effeminate, two-tone euro went tits up because it was tied to a Mediterranean fiasco.
The Germans, for their part, regard things like monarchies and Tories as deeply uncivilized. They looked on the recent general election in Britain and shook their heads in uncomprehending pity as they watched the British vote for their own serfdom again. “Ah! I suppose das ist warum they went to Irak! They were just so frustrated. I’m afraid they haf very deep sexuelle Probleme. This would not happen if they had a healthier attitude to nudity.”
In lots of liberal ways, Germany is more advanced than its conservative island neighbour – its constitutional court, its welfare system, the checks and balances of its electoral system. But all that stuff has its own limits, and does not guard against all kinds of human barbarity. Constitutional safeguards are at best porous condoms, through which the seed of human bitterness eventually dribbles.
Britain, it turns out, is the only country in Europe that regards all this talk of a burqa ban for what it is – an issue only interesting for right-wing extremists. Continental Europe thinks differently. The legislation for banning burqas is currently being drawn up or being put before parliament in France, Austria, Denmark, Belgium, Netherlands – all the most organised and democratic political systems – and Italy. This, more than the euro’s near failure, is a disgrace to the European Union and its “project.” (Only a few politicians have pointed out that the EU’s constitution rules out banning burqas). According to this article comparing the wave of anti-burqa sentiment in Europe, Britain has remained the most level-headed.
In his essay ‘The Lion and the Unicorn,’ Orwell says the English distrust of abstract thought – the kind that might frame a constitution and organise a fair voting system, for example – has something to do with the privateness of English life (the English love of gardens, stamp-collecting and owning – not renting – property). Privateness is how the English think of personal liberty, Orwell says, and that, I say, includes the liberty to walk around with a big sheet over your head. There is true freedom in wanting to be left the fuck alone and still be able to do your shopping.