The above statement might seem odd in the light of the following facts: I wasn’t born in Germany, I’ve never lived there and one of my parents can’t speak a word of the language. Nonetheless, I do have a German surname and look slightly teutonic, to the extent I can get away with being a local whenever I visit. After all, Germany is literally mein Vaterland. My dad was born in Verden an der Aller in the auspicious year of 1933. His father was a local politician, but unlike the newly-ausgeschissen Alternative für Deutschland MPs, he was by no means a Nazi.
Sadly my dad didn’t make much effort to pass on his language to me, so every few years I go through a phase of gamely trying to verbessern mein Deutsch. This has usually taken the form of drilling myself on hilarious but grammatically perfect utterances which I could trot out when speaking to German speakers in order to buy myself credit to subsequently make shitloads of mistakes. For various reasons I’m starting, as we/they say in German, to have a goat to start making an effort again, maybe because trying to teach 28 iGCSE students at a time reminds me of the time I myself spent in a GCSE German class in eine Industriestadt in dem Nordengland bored out of my Kopf. It wasn’t because of that particular class that one teacher in our school took their own life (such was the level of resistance to learning); our class was disciplined by being forced to copy out verb tables and doggedly repeat stolid conversational dialogues. Dafür ist mein Gramamtik viel besser al meiner Vokabeln. I have no idea ob I passed the GCSE or not, but I did learn enough to acquire my first ever proper foreign girlfriend an der Universität with the outright haplessness of my attempts to communicate in her language.
Then, in 2000, having survived the Millennium-Bug, sort-of mastered Portuguese and got to grips with Spanish, and having realised in the process that learning languages was ENORMOUS! FUN! I decided to get my German up to speed. This was purely a matter of choice rather than necessity, of course; I very rarely met any German-speakers whose English didn’t far outmatch my German. I certainly didn’t need to laern foreign languages to find a job – after all, es ist geil, ein Inselaffe zu sein. I made friends with the German teachers in my school (in Lisbon), who firmed up my command of the grammar by helping me remember syntactically and morphologically instructive phrases like Ich habe gerade den Pimmel meines Lehrers im Spiegel gesehen (the toilet door was awkwardly placed in relation to the men’s bathroom). That, along with an steady stream of German-speaking friends and an occasional succession of deutschsprachige girlfriends, gave me confidence to embark on a solo trip to northern Germany to connect with my German relatives, who’d I’d only fleetingly met as a child. My sort-of stepgrandmother, bewailing the unfortunate series of personal and historical circumstances that had led the family to separate, sighed and repeatedly exclaimed ‘Mensch!’. (Thankfully she was long dead before that ridiculous bloody woman started abusing social media. If only she was just called Louise Troll.) I spent a week or so only speaking German, as ever relying on my tried-und-trusted method of just using English words in a German accent when I was short of vocab; people either got the point or were too polite to point out that they didn’t have a verdammte Idee what I was on about. As on subsequent visits, people rarely switched into English and just let me witter on. I rarely had anything other than a positive reception and good impressions on my travels, and felt an affinity with the sometimes morbid humour of the locals. I also felt quite at home around New Germans and appreciated the absolutely positive impact they have had on the national culture, especially in terms of cuisine and music (such as this classic early 2000s Berlin tune). I picked up useful new chunks of language: es ist gefuckt, das flascht. That last bit of street argo came from a video I saw one starry night amongst other shorts in a courtyard in Berlin. It consisted of a monologue from a local guy out of his head outside a metro station enthusing about various aspects of his fettes Leben, breaking off suddenly in full flow only to exclaim with consternation the immortal phrase Ach scheiße, ich habe den Baby im U-Bahn verlassen!. Being able to get to grip with the jokes meant that I started to identify and, to slip briefly into German English, feel myself quite a deutschophile. In a curious inversion, I attempted to read a book in German about what a bunch of weirdos the British are. The proudest moment of my German-speaking life was when, in response to a question from my flatmate about how difficult the book was to get through, I replied that it was Ein Kampf. Or maybe my proudest moment was that time in Costa Rica I was able to impress my then-girlfriend-now-wife, who had previously been sceptical of my claim to speak better German than, erm, Goethe, by giving some monolingual Austrians detailed instructions as to where they might be able to see eben mehr monkeys.
Stolz kommt befor einen Fall. Or, in this case, afterwards. In a bar in Munich in 2010 or so, struggling through that day’s Bild newspaper (I would like to try TAZ or FZW but…) I came across a report of a survey into alcohol consumption in Europe. Litauen (Lithuania) was number 3, Rumänien (Romania) number 2, but in first place was…Iren. Some mistake, I thought, and took a sip of Löwenbräu*. Iran is not even in Europe, and in any case they’re mostly Muslims, so they don’t…soon enough my friend turned up, having steeled herself for several days of really annoying question about her language, and thus it was that I learnt with an equal mix of relief and embarrassment how you say ‘Irish’ in German.
On the same trip, surrounded by southern Germany’s ubiquitous BMWs and other dazzling symbols of conspicuous consumption, I read up on Konsumterror: Ulrike Meinhof’s word to describe the perpetual existential crisis caused by the insane and insatiable desire to consume more. Thoughts of consumerism, ultraviolence and nazifascism playing on my mind, and with a spare afternoon in Nuremberg ahead, I happened to notice in the guidebook that Dachau is not all that far away. Ich war noch niemals in einem…Konzentrationslager, I mentioned to my companion. She wasn’t keen on the idea, I gathered, as she ranted spectacularly for a full ten minutes on the subject of bloody foreigners and their bloody obsession with the bloody Holocaust and all they ever bloody think about when they think of Germany is the bloody war, which was 65 bloody years ago fffs. Fair enough, I thought, and we talked instead about more innocuous subjects, such as…music, which was fine, but then it turned out that she liked the group Queen, so I embarked on a tortuous Zunge in der Wange explanation of how, for me, Queen were like the Japanese in the popular Chinese expression ‘worse than the Japanese’**, in that I simply can’t conceive of anything I disliked more. What, I asked her, was ‘worse than the Japanese’ for her? Well, she said, a lot of her friends (mostly in their early 20s) would say ‘schlimmer als die Juden’ – worse than the Jews. Would you say that?, I asked, horrified, recalling with confusion what she’d said about the bloody Holocaust a few minutes earlier. Of course not, she answered. But loads of people hate Jews. Wie furchtbar; vielleicht ändert sich etwas, I thought, several years later, with the help of Google Translate.
The thought that antisemitism could ever make a comeback amongst young Germans would have horrified the two previous generations. Just like white supremacists in the US and the lifelong fascist activist Farage in the UK, the heirs of the Nazi tradition are having some success appealing to young people’s sense of alienation and their need for a role and an identity in a society which, like Zygmunt Bauman wrote of the London rioters of 2011, pressures them to consume but denies them the means of doing so. Of course, nowadays it’s Muslims who, even more than the traditional scapegoats, are vilified and set up for (we really can’t afford to pretend we don’t know what the AFD, Pegida etc have in their diseased minds) explusion and extermination. Nonetheless, I have to be grateful to the neonazis of a German town . It’s thanks to their protests against a concert by a left-wing singer that I was able to track down via Google a song I’d heard and loved many years ago during one of my German-learning stints but subsequently forgotten the title of: ‘Vaterland’, by Konstantin Wecker. It’s a song about an awkard conversation between a son and his father, uncomfortable questions being addressed about history, compromise and commitment.
I barely knew my grandfather. My dad left Germany at the age of 17 or so when his mum ran off with a British serviceman. Except for a period stationed in the Rhine as part of his British military service, he rarely went back and they were never really reconciled. My opa was a stern and intimidating figure whose life history was hard for my father to live up to. He had been a soldier in the First World War and then ran, amongst other things, a chemist’s, a shop and a travel agency. Already in his 40s during the Second World War, he was drafted as a fireman. In the wake of the war, the fact that he had saved several Jewish families by facilitating their escape was a factor in his being appointed head of the town’s anti-nazification committee. He subsequently became Bürgermeister (mayor) and was elected member of the regional parliament. He thus became a minor figure in post-war German history. Although the family schism meant his relationship with his son more or less ended very early***, he did pass on a distinct set of values particular to post-war Europe.
This is what I learnt from my own father and from my encounters with Germany and its people: to be German in the wake of the Third Reich was to be committed to a European project based on peace and mutual cooperation****. That encompassed a welcoming attitudes towards non-Germans, including immigrants. I’ve never lived in Germany nor held a German passport, but its my affinity with those values which makes me more German than the – to coin a phrase – falsche Deutschen who are currently taking up their seats in the Bundestag.
* Which, at the risk of sounding smug, I know how to pronounce very properly.
** This phrase recalls the treatment of the locals by the Japanese occupying army in the 1930s.
*** I wrote about my own father’s history here.
**** On reading this a German friend introduced me to this concept, apparently very influential in the development of the EU.