Long time ago, at the European Cup soccer game between Holland and Germany, an incredibly funny incident took place. The Dutch were leading and after the goal celebrations had died down, someone shouted “Fritz, geeft me mijn fiets terug!”.
OK, it’s not that funny now. You have to know the context. After the Second World War, when it was clear the Germans were going to lose, members of the German army grabbed everything they could get their hands on and left Holland almost overnight. Bicycles were among the most commonly appropriated items, hence the lingering resentment about Germans lifting stuff on their way home.
But that was many years ago. Now practically no one in Holland gives much of a toss about the war and all the war prejudices and jokes are long gone. Yet, in the Anglophone world, they seem to linger.
Some of that narrow history was visible this week in response to the German demand that South Africa review its security arrangements after three members of the Togo football team were killed in the Angolan enclave of Cabinda. German football league president Reinhard Rauball and German Football Federation counterpart Theo Zwansiger apparently questioned the security around the World Cup. The controversial bit was Zwansiger saying: “We can’t simply say that SA is something else than Angola”.
The South African twitterverse went apoplectic. The typical responses in South Africa were along the lines of, “Do Germans not own maps? Do they not know how far Johannesburg is from Angola? Why is it that we don’t say when there is a terrorist incident in Spain that Europe is a dangerous place?”
In fact, World Cup CEO Danny Jordaan said almost exactly that. “We did not condemn Germany when there were bombings in Kosovo.”
To be honest, these kinds of comments make me a bit ill. It’s not that they are strictly untrue. The distance between Cabinda and Johannesburg is far, and God knows, it irritates me too when I hear Europeans or Americans talk about Africa as though it were a single country.
Yet, there are generalisations you can make about Africa and one valid generalisation is that the continent is almost uniformly dangerous because it’s almost uniformly law-lacking.
The writ of law runs light in Africa. This is not, in the first instance, to make a judgement. It is in the first instance to state a fact. Obviously, from my personal perspective, and I suspect many others, it is to make a judgement too: it sucks.
To suddenly now get defensive about this terrible failing may make us feel better, but it doesn’t change the fact that Africa is still very wild and dangerous. It may be improving. Some countries are certainly better than others. But the point is: we are not one of them.
The second part of why these comments make me nauseous is because by claiming that Germans are prejudiced and stupid, we reveal our own prejudice and stupidity.
Security at sports events is no small issue for Germans. Some of the most searing events in the post-war German psyche took place at sporting events where the security failed, notably the Munich Olympics. The lack of appreciation for German sensitivity over the question is as ignorant as we are in claiming that Germans are ignorant about geography. I am willing to lay an extremely large sum of money on most Germans having a much, much better understanding of geography than most South Africans.
But there is a deeper problem too. South Africans seem to have inherited the Anglophone view of Germans that is so rooted in cartoonish, simplistic Second World War stereotypes, in which the only dialogue ascribed to the villains of the piece is “achtung, achtung, schnell, schnell”.
Many South Africans, perhaps mostly English-speaking white South Africans, have a view of Germans which assumes German national character is somehow indelibly linked to the characteristics of the leadership of Nazi Germany. Just stating this, in a way, reveals its pathetic small-mindedness.
I happen to have visited Germany more times than I would guess most South Africans have. I have been there six times, and have visited many German cities including Berlin, Munich, Bonn, Frankfurt, Hamburg and, very emotionally for me, Dresden. I have drunk beer in the English Garden in Munich, driven up the Rhine and explored the university town of Heidelberg. I’m not Jewish, but I have a Jewish surname and some Jewish blood, so obviously the Holocaust has a kind of close to me so I have visited the war-time extermination camps.
Every time I visited, everywhere I went, I found Germans considerate, thoughtful, funny and friendly – markedly more friendly than almost anywhere else in Europe, distinctly more friendly in general than the English. They are also, and this is the crunch, much less prejudiced, generally interested in the world, well travelled and considerate. And, by the way, much less anti-Semitic.
Contrast that with the rest of Europe. You really get a rude shock when you hear anti-Semitic comments made at English dinner tables. And the rampant anti-Semitic graffiti in Poland, where there are precious few Jews anymore, is a distinct wake-up call.
I have experienced some, what you might call, Teutonic tendencies in German businesspeople, which are, as it happens, very comparable with the Teutonic tendencies of French, British, Japanese and American businesspeople. I have also met German yobs. They’re pretty similar to South African yobs.
Overall, however, Germans have approached their terrible history in the first half of the last century with the kind of dutiful consideration I sometimes wish white South Africans would bring to their apartheid past. No responsible German I have ever heard would claim they didn’t know, even if they didn’t know, or that they are not in some way responsible for the Holocaust, even if they were not. No responsible German tries to proffer excuses about the war or seeks to defer blame.
Neither do they indulge in luxury of self-pity or cringing apologies.
Anyway, while the first half of the 20th century was terrible for Germans, the second half was a triumph. West Germany anchored Europe and the European Union, solidified Nato, grew prosperous, and generally acted like a model global citizen. Reunification was handled with generosity and principle.
It’s true, German companies did not support sanctions against apartheid South Africa (they worried, not unreasonably, about what their employees would do without jobs), but they did step up their investment in South Africa after apartheid, something almost everyone else forgot to do. German technology and partnerships have been crucial for South African business and some German constitutional law is, many people may be surprised to know, included in the South African Constitution (sadly, not the good bits).
So when German soccer officials worry about security, South Africans could do themselves a favour and get a grip. What Angola does show is that sports stars are targets and keeping these people safe is a legitimate issue, particularly in a country with one of the highest murder rates in the world.
As for the German issue, such as it is, I’m slightly with Jeremy Clarkson, who said his heart fills with pride whenever he sees a Land Rover because it’s made by Germans who are basically British, but with less of a sense of humour.
Cohen is a business and political journalist and commentator of more years than he likes to admit. His freelance work has included contributions to the Wall Street Journal and the Financial Times, but he spent most of his life working for Business Day.After a mid-life crisis that didn't include the traditional fast car, Cohen now divides his time between Johannesburg and a house situated almost exactly in the middle of nowhere in the Karoo. Recent columns:
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