By David Osland
What British people hear when a British politician accuses a German politician of wanting to make Britain “crawl over broken glass” is not the point. The point is what German people hear. And to German ears, the allusion to the Night of Broken Glass will be the first thing that comes to mind.
This is a country still consumed with collective guilt for the deeds of their grandparents’ generation, to an extent only those who know the country well will fully comprehend.
The anniversary of the 1938 Nazi pogrom known as Kristallnacht – and the hundreds of Jewish deaths and the tens of thousands of Jewish internment camp incarcerations that followed – is still routinely covered on the main national news broadcast, each and every 9th November.
What Johnson has said should not be casually written off as another ditsy ‘Boris will be Boris’ moment. The degree of cultural insensitivity on display here, on what should have been Brexit negotiation deadline day, is off the scale.
This one was a real lulu, capping even his best previous efforts, such as the prospects for the Libyan tourist trade once the bodies are cleared away.
His defenders have been quick to point out he was using a standard English idiom, and the principle of charity dictates we treat this as simple subconscious error. But even that says something about Britain’s national psyche.
Johnson and I both grew up in the 1960s, when the events of World War Two were a recent memory for most adults, and anti-Germanism was one of the most powerful themes in popular culture.
The comedy Dad’s Army and the drama Escape From Colditz were among the most popular programmes on television, in an era of only three television channels, while tales of Spitfire pilots shooting down Jerry kites were a staple of children’s comics.
When Sex Pistols bassist Sid Vicious sported a Swastika armband, nothing could be better calculated to piss off the parents.
I even played on a bombsite that had not been cleared two decades later, a markedly different experience from playing on the playing fields of Eton.
But what I didn’t tell the other kids, in the interests of avoiding a likely good kicking, was that I was of part-German descent.
Johnson’s notions about the beastliness of the Hun will have been inculcated by his education in much the same way as his kitsch sub-Kipling imperialist disdain for ‘Piccaninnies’.
That’s a poor Weltanschauung – if that choice of word can be forgiven – for a former foreign secretary who now has the final say on Britain’s most important diplomatic negotiations since, well, World War Two.
In contrast, Angela Merkel remains the human face of Europe’s centre-right, as seen by her willingness to face the electoral consequences of accepting a million Syrian refugees in 2015.
The reason for Germany’s generosity – unparalleled by any other country in Europe – was precisely the obligations it feels it carries as a result of a tragedy in which Kristallnacht was one of the first acts.
The Brexit talks, it has been announced today, will go the extra mile. But on Britain’s side, the sign-off is in the hands of a man nobody can trust not to double down with a Stasi joke.
It’s not just Tory incompetence that’s letting Britain down: it’s antiquated Tory nationalism some 75 years past its sell-by date, too.
David Osland is a member of Hackney North and Stoke Newington CLP and a long-time leftwing journalist and author.
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