Two World Wars and one World Cup? No patriotic Englishman would say anything to the contrary. But while no Englishman has lifted the World Cup trophy since Bobby Moore, yesterday evening marked the fourth time that a German captain has done so. Germany’s victory on the football field will be read by delicate Britons as a sign of dominance off it. And that three of those victories were won by only half the country – West Germany – will simply make that sensitivity more acute.
The story of Germany’s post-war recovery from defeat in 1945 through reunification to its present day position is an astonishing one. The economic success of West Germany was already being compared to the failure of strike-ravaged Britain well before Helmut Schmidt’s speech to Labour’s conference in 1974. What powered German recovery? Three factors can perhaps be highlighted. First, the proficiency and standing of technical education in Germany, in contrast to Britain’s own post-1945 record: the third part of Butler’s vision for schools, secondary technical schools, never took off. Second, the durability of Germany’s Mittelstand model. Roughly half of Germany’s top companies are family-run, and are backed up by a culture in which a high proportion are run by external managers, and German banks are prepared to lend to them – the system has been self-reinforcing. Third, the strength and stability of Germany’s devolved political system, a pro-market bias (stretching from Erhard’s low-tariff, export-focused ideas during the late 19040s to the Schroder reforms of recent years) and good labour relations. (Germany went for industrial unions, post-war, rather than one big union – on British advice.) The Germans have a genius for organisation.
Critics would say that the EU is nothing more or less than the triumph of Germany’s traditional foreign policy by alternative means, that its structure represents the export of the country’s own federalist system, and that the Euro enables Germany to export cheap. The counter-view is that it is the German taxpayer who has to stump up for much of the project – that diligent German workers are toiling away for Siemens or Eon to stump up for Greeks who retire in their early 60s, evade taxes, bribe civil servants, or do all three. As it is, our economy may be nipping at the heels of Germany’s by 2020, which has the second oldest population in the world after Japan. It isn’t all going Germany’s way.
No wonder the Alternative für Deutschland broke through the five per cent barrier in the recent European elections – and now sits, thankfully, with British Tories as members of the Conservatives and Reformists Group in the European Parliament. This new alliance is a reminder of how much Britain and Germany have in common: a bias in favour of free trade, an Atlanticist outlook, a northern European intolerance of corruption. But differences over the EU help to keep going a domestic suspicion of the Germans that stretches in our post-war culture through Noel Coward singing that we mustn’t be beastly to them through Basil Fawlty and Hugo Drax to that Carling Black label advert about Germans and their towels by the pool. Whatever might happen in a referendum, the biases in the two countries remain: Britain wants free trade, Germany wants a zollverein, and the two are not the same thing. It is not clear that the latter’s political elites understand how this difference could take Britain out of the EU altogether (taking our contributions with us), or maybe leave it in a ring of members that don’t use the Euro and have full access to the single market. Germany would be the natural leader of the Euro group. We would be the largest country in the second, as now.
Were it not for our differences over the EU, Germany could be our closest ally in Europe, as it arguably once was before two World Wars engulfed the continent. But perhaps, for all of the good relations between the two countries – including most of England’s support of Germany yesterday evening (for obvious reasons) – both are destined to live together in a kind of amicable tension.
It would be a mistake to peer at Germany simply through the prism of European differences and two conflicts, but Wilfred Owen’s famous poem reaches wider than the war we commemorate this year. The poet greets the enemy he killed as a “strange friend”, and is told in reply that “Whatever hope is yours,/Was my life also”. Britain’s and Germany’s is a strange meeting, strange friendship.