Why we need to talk about German attitudes to England

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Dear Reader,

Today we have a piece by Jörg about Anti-English chauvinism and Scottish independence for you…


Jörg & Axel

Share Hochhaus - Letter from Berlin

It was a hot Berlin summer evening in 2016. I had the window open in the Wohngemeinschaft I was living in as I worked late at my desk. Suddenly a huge roar rolled into the room. The whole city seemed to have erupted in one spontaneous moment of joy.

We were in the middle of the European Championships. Had Germany secured passage into the quarter finals? Far from it, little Iceland had just scored an unlikely goal… against England.

Good, I thought, as I read the score. Being of Scottish-Welsh heritage myself, the only sporting joy I get is when the Auld Enemy gets a bloody nose. But I was surprised that the Germans cared that serial underachiever England was once again going home early.

For many Germans though, the English loss on June 27th 2016 went beyond football. I caught the second half in my local bar, and it was clear that everyone wanted the English to get a beating after a result that had come in four days beforehand - the Brexit referendum.

A Remainer myself, I was more than happy to join in the celebrations. They seemed harmless enough.

But the more time that has passed since June 23rd 2016, the more I have become aware of a darker side to the German indignation at Britain’s vote to leave the EU.

As a Scot I’d already noticed a certain prejudice. When I arrived in Berlin in 2014 everyone expected me to support Scottish independence in the referendum of that year. I realized that many Germans see Scotland as occupied territory. And while they have positive stereotypes of the Celts (friendly, funny, generous etc) the English are typecast as arrogant and cold.

As well as having a complete ignorance of the common history of Scotland and England, most Germans who asked me about independence had no understanding of the economics. When I told them that Scotland would face major economic risks if it chose to break away, I was met with uncomprehending stares.

Since 2016 this anti-English chauvinism has become ever more apparent. Interestingly, it doesn’t come from the AfD - several of their leaders seem to hold British parliamentary democracy in awe. And, unlike in Britain, it doesn’t come from the tabloids. The newspapers that feed the anti-English narrative are those read by the middle classes.

These broadsheets make no attempt to understand why a politician like Boris Johnson - despite his obvious failings - could be so popular. Instead, BoJo is simply a cartoon villain who has managed to hoodwink the public by playing the nationalist card. Any successes - like vaccine purchases - are conceded through gritted teeth.

On the other hand, the woman who rules north of the border is given a free pass even though she is just as guilty of populist tricks.

With Scotland holding national elections on Thursday, the German press took to the streets of Britain’s northern nation en masse - with predictable results.

Der Spiegel told its readers that First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has a “stoic self-containment that is reminiscent of Angela Merkel” and speaks with a “delightful directness.” We have her to thank for “positioning Scotland as a cosmopolitan alternative to isolationist Brexit Britain.” 

What cosmopolitanism exactly the magazine is talking about is a mystery to anyone who has watched the pasty-faced Scottish football team play against the multi-cultural English. And of course Der Spiegel makes no mention of the fact that Sturgeon’s job was on the line barely a month ago for an alleged breach of the ministerial code.

One might expect a bit more balance from a public broadcaster. But ARD’s profile of Sturgeon (“A career for Scotland”) doesn’t even mention the Salmond sexual assault fiasco.

Die Welt interviewed a Green party candidate who complained about “the money-grubbing English.” This aspiring politician is part of a generation who pride themselves on being “progressive, green, open to immigration and, of course, pro-EU,” the article informed us without even a hint of irony.

Most cringe worthy of all, the Süddeutsche Zeitung, painted the debate as being between “more courageous and modern” Scots and evil Tories down south, who tell them they aren’t up to the task of self-rule. 

During the 2014 referendum “the Tories said that the Scots would not be able to survive at all without money from London. They still say something similar today,” the SZ reported. “The undertone in London is always the same: Scotland can't do it alone.”

In reality, every serious economic institute in the UK predicts that Scotland would run up a dangerously high deficit without the subsidies it receives through the Barnett formula.

Of course, none of the German articles mentioned the Barnett formula - why bother with boring details about tax redistribution when you can churn out a morality tale about the geldgierige and fremdenfeindliche English?

One honourable exception was a report by Deustchlandfunk which noticed the similarities between Scottish nationalists and the hated Brexiteers:

“It is striking how similar the arguments of the Scexiteers are to those of the Brexiteers. A hard border between Scotland and the UK? Solve it with digital technology. Less structural aid than before? Well, we no longer have to transfer taxes to London. The loss of our most important market? Not so bad, because we'll be back in the EU's single market. It's like that all the time. Only under the opposite banner.”

The constant chauvinism directed at the English from the pages of the high brow press is reflected in wild calls for retribution from some of their readers.

When France threatened to cut off the power supply to Jersey in a dispute over fishing rights this week - something islanders there called “close to an act of war” - and French fishermen followed up by announcing a “blockade” of the harbour, the UK government responded by sending in navy patrol ships. It’s a tense situation caused by Brexit - but the French course has hardly been one of de-escalation.

But on Spiegel Online’s discussion forum it was cause for fevered talk of sanctions.

“The EU should intervene and restrict all car imports from England,” one reader demanded. “The treaty violations that England has committed should come at the cost of a penalty payment to allow the return to reasonable, good neighbourly relations. €50 million would be fine.”

“Europe's reaction to such a border transgression must be very clear - economic countermeasures that cost the British 1 to 2 billion,” another chipped in.

“The British are not so squeamish about their military,” another warned. “Argentina can tell you a thing or two about it, and if you look back centuries, the French will agree.”

Does Der Spiegel - a magazine that places such importance on Germany’s Vergangenheitsbewältigung - worry that its readership are descending into such crass sabre rattling? I’m still waiting for the nuanced type of article that would give more balance to the debate.

Of course British journalism has its jingoism too - although it is generally confined to the pages of the tabloid press.

Reassuring is the fact that the hyperbole doesn’t yet seem to have influenced the German government, who have never been anything other than diplomatic in tone since 2016.

My worry is that, if Scotland does vote for independence, the antipathy in the German media towards the English will reach fever pitch during the tough negotiations that follow.  

German liberals’ unwavering belief in the EU’s mission as a guarantor of peace and civility, while understandable given the country’s history, can easily tip over into a Pax Romana-esque haughtiness. If Scotland votes for independence, those same high-minded people will put pressure on the German government to drive a wedge between London and Edinburgh - all in the name of freedom, peace and cosmopolitanism.


Who we are:

Jörg Luyken: Journalist based in Berlin since 2014. His work has been published by German and English outlets including der Spiegel, die Welt, the Daily Telegraph. Formerly in the Middle East. Classicist; Masters in International Politics & Arabic from St Andrews.

Axel Bard Bringéus: Started his career as a journalist for the leading Swedish daily Svenska Dagbladet and has spent the last decade in senior roles at Spotify and as a venture capital investor. In Berlin since 2011