‘Don’t mention the war’: Are the days of England-Germany jingoism behind us?

As many British migrants in Germany know, the "old rivalry" isn't exactly what it seems - and it's often a tale of two perspectives, writes Imogen Goodman.

'Don't mention the war': Are the days of England-Germany jingoism behind us?
England manager Gareth Southgate playing in the now-legendary Euro '96 game that saw England knocked out of the tournament by Germany. Photo: picture alliance / dpa | Bernd Weissbrod

When Germany scored their late equaliser in their nail-biting final group game against Hungary on June 23rd, my dad was unusually quick off the mark.

“Next stop, Wembley,” he wrote to me on WhatsApp. “The question is: who are you going to support?”

As someone who has had to consider relinquishing my British passport in favour of a German one due to Brexit, “which side are you on?” questions are not ones I relish – though I have to admit I’ve played the same game myself. 

I moved to Germany from England in September 2016, and given how the dates match up, I often find myself talking about the move as a tiny piece of post-Brexit rebellion, a vote by plane ticket.

If Britain is leaving the EU, I tried to imply to anyone who’d listen, I’m on the side of Europe. 

In reality, my decision probably had a lot more with where I wanted to be at the time: my love of Berlin, and the quality of life I felt the city could offer me. And if I’m being really honest, I made the decision way ahead of the June 23rd vote on Brexit. 

In reality, I love the UK, and I love Germany. Both things remain true.

And unlike the knock-out stage of a football tournament, identity is not a zero-sum game. 

A tale of two commentaries

The internal battle of a fair-weather football fan is not, of course, a particularly big deal.

But the fact remains that, as a migrant in a foreign country, you see the commentary from both angles – and it can sometimes feel like two parallel universes. 

READ ALSO: ‘Irresponsible’: Germany urges UK government to reduce Euro 2020 crowd sizes

As the Germans celebrated narrowly clearing the group stages, I braced myself for the onslaught of Faulty Towers references – “Don’t mention the war!” – and evidence of triumphant ‘thrashings’ that England had doled out to ‘the Boche’, dug straight out of the dustbin of sports-trivia history. 

Writing in The Guardian a few days ago, Anglo-German sports journalist Barney Ronay pointed out that, while the English media’s response to a play-off against Germany is often reminiscent of the Daily Mirror’s infamous “Achtung! Surrender!” headline at Euro ’96, the German response to these games is generally quite positive.

Anecdotally, the people I’ve met at screenings of the Euros around Berlin have supported this view – though the Germans I’ve talked to aren’t quite so positive about their performance in the tournament so far.

Sitting outside a pub in the district of Lübars over the weekend, one man lamented Germany’s chances against England on Tuesday.

“We didn’t even properly qualify for this tournament,” he told me, adding that he’d be pleased to see England go all the way. 

“I’d like to see a small team win it,” he said. “They haven’t won anything for ages.” 

Writing about the upcoming match, Philip Oltermann, The Guardian’s Berlin bureau chief, made a similar point to Ronay about the obsession of the British press with the so-called “old rivalry”. 

READ ALSO: Remembering the time Brits turned sleepy spa town Baden-Baden into Germany’s party capital

“Germany’s real grudge matches are against teams that have inflicted painful defeats, like Italy or the Netherlands,” he wrote.

“Matches against England, by contrast, tend to produce happy memories: England have won only six out of 24 matches against West and reunified German teams since 1966.”

In response to the age-old English football chant of “Two World Wars and One World Cup,” Oltermann has an idea for a stinging German counter-attack: “Four World Cups and three European Championships”. And it’s probably a fair retort. 

A more respectful tone? 

While it doesn’t seem like the Faulty Towers and 1966 World Cup references will ever be avoided in a fixture like this, it seems like international football tournaments are increasingly taking on a different dimension.

Like many other people in our globalised world, German midfielder Jamal Musiala – who could play this evening – is the holder of two passports: a British and a German one. 

Midfielder Jamal Musiala, who holds a both a British and a German passport, training ahead of the England-Germany game. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Christian Charisius

While he was born in Stuttgart and plays for the national German team, he’s also had stints as a youth player for England. 

The thing is, Musiala’s international background and ‘Auslandserfahrung’ (experience of living abroad) isn’t particularly exceptional anymore.

Like many expats in Europe, footballers these days have experience of living a split existence: they play for clubs in different leagues and countries around the world, before jetting back home to fight for the home team when the international tournaments kick off.

In a sign of the changing times, the paper which ran the notorious Euro ’96 headline – The Daily Mirror – decided to not to mention Fritz this time around, opting instead for the much friendlier-sounding ‘Hans’. 

In a small column about Anglo-German couples, they predicted that, despite the footballing rivalry, most of them would still be able to “shake Hans” afterwards. 

Slowly but surely, the migrants and international families around the world are transforming ‘us’ and ‘them’ into a slightly more complicated ‘us’ and ‘us’ – and some, if not all, of the football coverage might be starting to reflect that. 

Given what we’ve seen in the tournament so far from both teams, I wouldn’t be brave enough to place a bet on the outcome of the England-Germany game tonight, but I do have one prediction (or ‘Tipp’, as the Germans would say). 

While jingoism may not crash out of the Euros with a bang tonight, it could slowly but slowly be petering out of the England-Germany discourse. Though we’re not quite there yet.

Having left my dad hanging on the “who will you support” question, I finally think of a response that feels right. 

“Whoever wins,” I tell him. Which feels like a win-win scenario. 

Member comments

Log in here to leave a comment.
Become a Member to leave a comment.


Will Germany’s motorists and cyclists ever learn to live with other?

It's more important than ever that Germany's two distinct tribes - drivers and cyclists - learn to accept each other rather than being stuck in constant road rage, explains Brian Melican.

Will Germany's motorists and cyclists ever learn to live with other?

Another week, another discussion about whether Germany has become too bike-friendly or, on the contrary, is still a country where the car is king – a cruel monarch who, day in, day out exacts a deathly toll on cyclists, pedestrians, and indeed anyone who likes to breathe air. To those of us with a high proportion of Germans in our Twitter feeds, this debate is nothing new; now, thanks to the fact that the populist think-pieces of Bild are now available in English (Who knew?), the long-running ideological slanging match between drivers and riders is now there for all to follow. Oh, joy!

For many who move to Germany, the country appears, at first sight, to be firmly in the grip of cyclists. Especially in the university towns of the flat north such as Münster, Göttingen, or Braunschweig, the sheer number of visible bikes is remarkable, and even in Hamburg and Berlin, there are cycles lanes seemingly everywhere along which a constant stream of ruddy-cheeked individuals plying their pedals, making liberal use of their bells. Coming fresh from London or Paris, the contrast is striking – and you run a not insignificant risk of being mowed down when standing on the wrong bit of the pavement.

Yet to those who move here from Amsterdam or Copenhagen, Germany looks like a place where cyclists are treated as an unwelcome nuisance by traffic planners and as fair game by unscrupulous motorists with a pronounced taste for speed. The very fact that most cycle lanes are on pavements, for instance, strikes them as strange. Surely the best place for bicycles is well away from pedestrians? What is more, the large amounts of the carriageway space taken up by cars – either in motion or stationary – seem jarring coming from countries which have long prioritised cycling over driving in built-up environments.

As ever, the truth of the matter lies somewhere in between. And, as so often, we Germans have a marked tendency get into endless, cyclical arguments about points of principle and prove unable to learn to live with our contradictions.

READ ALSO: Road rage in Berlin as cyclists clog streets in pandemic

Cyclists at a demonstration in Düsseldorf in May.

Cyclists at a demonstration in Düsseldorf in May. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | David Young

Speeders’ paradise and cycling favourite

For Germany is, in traffic terms, contradictory. It is at once Europe’s automobile mecca, with the continent’s largest car industry and famously speed-limit-free Autobahns. It’s also one of Europe’s foremost cycling nations in which families routinely bike miles for weekend recreation and the country that gave the world Standlichtfunktion (rear bike lights which remain on when stationary). It’s home to various premium and mass-market manufacturers, behind only China, Taiwan, and the Netherlands in terms of bicycle production and export.

This becomes clear when comparing the bikes Germans ride to those of our European neighbours. Generalisations being odious, the average UK bicycle is a mountain bike poorly suited, in typical British fashion, to the use its owner is making of it: that’s why London businessmen ride into work with their suits in grubby rucksacks with tell-tale streaks of mud up the back and why they are continually scraping around for batteries to put in clip-on lights which inevitably fall off and smash halfway. French households, if at all, have sleek, spotless racing bikes reserved for sporting use in the evenings and at weekends. Otherwise, city-dwellers use widely-available rental bikes – unless it is raining, too warm, too cold, or too windy, or in any other way preferable to not do so. On the other end of the scale, the Dutch and the Danes have workhorse bikes which can fit everything from small children and large dogs through to IKEA flat-pack furniture.

READ ALSO: German state ministers push for Autobahn speed limit

The average German bike, meanwhile, is an all-in-one mountain-cum-city-bike (“Trekkingrad”) with the attention to practical detail for which the country is famous: fitted dynamo-driven lights as standard, a frame over the back wheel onto which weather-proof saddle bags can be clipped, and mudguards over both wheels; it will have at least 21 gears, the highest of which will enable someone in good physical health to do at least 15mph on flats and, increasingly, an electric motor to help it go even faster. Germans build bikes like they build cars: to get you and your stuff comfortably and speedily from A to B. This, by the way, explains the increasing popularity of the pedelec cargo-bikes at the root of the current controversy: they do more or less all the things a car does.

High standards – whatever the transport mode

And this is the nub of the issue: Germans – whether in cars or on bikes – have high standards when it comes to transportation and are congenitally impatient (see also queuing behaviour and ALDI cashiers). When in our cars, we expect to be able to bomb down pot-hole free roads at a minimum of 30mph (and preferably more) and then immediately find a parking space wherever we end up; any impediment to our right of way is taken as a personal insult; pedestrians must cross at designated points or risk death.

READ ALSO: Is it ever acceptable to cross the road at red light in Germany?

People drive on the Autobahn in Laichingen in Baden-Württemberg.

People drive on the Autobahn in Laichingen in Baden-Württemberg. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Stefan Puchner

And when on our bicycles, we Germans exhibit exactly the same traits: we expect absolutely obstacle-free cycle paths and bike lanes, ample stands and racks wherever we dismount, and are genuinely angry when anyone – on four, on two wheels, or on foot – gets in our way. To give you an idea of just how exacting we Germans are of each other here: I was once, in the driving Hamburg rain, tailgated all the way down the bike lane along Glacischaussee by a woman who, when we stopped at the lights, told me that my mudguard was “antisocial” (asozial) because it, in her opinion, didn’t go far down enough over my back wheel, meaning that she was getting spray in her face. It simply didn’t occur to her to just ride further back or overtake me.

Unfortunately, of course, there is nowhere near enough space in German cities for both those in cars and those on bicycles to be able to drive and ride exactly the way they would like to at all times – without, that is, getting rid of pedestrians entirely (potentially one thing the two groups might agree on). And so we are stuck with groups of road and pavement users shouting abuse at each other (“Verkehrsrowdy!” – road-hog; “Schleicher!” – slowcoach) rather than learning to show consideration, adapt to sub-optimal conditions, and react to unforeseen circumstances. In my own view, the sooner we ban cars entirely from city centres and reclaim the streets for those of us using healthy, emissions-free transport, the better; in the meantime, however, life is too short to be shouting at each other – and could be even shorter for some of us if we all keep trying to do top speed in the same spaces.