Many Germans have been glued to a television series, “Where We Come From”, that explains Germany’s long, complicated and often tragic history. The “we” in the title, however, is deceptive, for the host and narrator is Sir Christopher Clark, an Australian historian knighted for his services to Anglo-German relations. His academic credentials are excellent. His book on Prussia, “Iron Kingdom”, may be the best on the subject. His tome on the first world war, “The Sleepwalkers”, became a bestseller. But Germany has plenty of its own historians. Why Clark?
The answer starts with the dappled bow tie he wears as he drives around Germany in a red cabriolet vw Beetle: the quintessential Brit (Aussies are close enough) in the quintessential German vehicle. Then there’s the language. Clark speaks grammatically flawless German, but with enough of an English cadence to sound cheeky, witty and incisive. Occasionally he uses humour, which can still be shocking on German public television. Sometimes he even says nice things about the country’s past, which to Germans is truly shocking. He does not seem full of himself. To Germans that is refreshing.
German Anglophiles consider such attributes “Anglo-Saxon”. The term is stretchable in this context and includes anybody English-speaking, whether Celtic or Saxon, pale or brown, from down under or beyond the pond. Clark is not an isolated case. The late Gordon Craig, a Scottish-American historian, achieved similar success. So has Timothy Garton Ash, a historian at Oxford and Stanford, who wows Germans with pithy insights delivered in sophisticated German.
Then there is Neil MacGregor, a Scot who was director of the British Museum until the end of last year. With an exhibition, book and podcast called “Germany: Memories of a Nation” he captivated Brits and Germans alike. He so impressed Angela Merkel that she personally wooed him to move to Berlin to conceive Germany’s most prestigious cultural project. Called the Humboldt Forum, it will be a new kind of museum experience housed in a reinterpretation of the Prussian kings’ castle that is now going up in the city centre.
This popularity of Anglo-Saxon storytellers “really is astonishing”, says Hermann Parzinger. He is a German archaeologist (best known for his work on the Scythians) and president of the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation, which owns museums, libraries and archives in Berlin. He is working with MacGregor in dreaming up how to curate the Humboldt Forum’s exhibits.
German academics, Parzinger says, write books to impress the five most important experts in their field. Popularity is suspect in German academia. The German word unseriös, etymologically the same as “unserious”, in fact means “lacking credibility”. But Anglo-Saxons, Parzinger thinks, “have it in their blood to make these things suspenseful and interesting even for lay people”. In particular, they know how to integrate into their storytelling “both the high and the low, without anything being banal”. Thus MacGregor effortlessly mixes Luther and Goethe with sausages and garden gnomes into one analysis that makes Germans feel they’ve understood something about themselves.
The Anglos also come across as likeable rather than belehrend, says Parzinger. That German word means “lecturing”, and is often used by Germans of Germans. The greatest fear of intellectuals in Germany and other continental countries is to appear shallow. The greatest fear of Britons is to seem pompous, says MacGregor. So they enliven their knowledge with good delivery and showmanship.
That is the supply side of the explanation. But the demand side is equally interesting. Britons “wouldn’t dream of being told about their own country by a German”, says Garton Ash. But Germans are fascinated by outside views. Starting in the 1950s, a popular television show was the “Internationaler Frühschoppen”. A Frühschoppen is a stiff drink before noon. And indeed the show consisted of foreign correspondents drinking and smoking profusely while giving their impressions of Germany to Germans.
But even among outsiders the Anglos have the edge in Germany over, say, French, Polish, Dutch or Danish intellectuals. These neighbours were often part of German history – as enemies, victims or collaborators. German audiences expect them to reflect that perspective. A French historian talking about the 1940s, say, should probably also expound on Vichy and French collaboration.
The Brits, however, were always “geographically more outside”, says Parzinger, which makes them appear credible. Since the 1960s, for example, it has been all but taboo for German writers to argue anything other than that Germany bears sole responsibility for starting the first world war. Clark gleefully ignored that taboo in “The Sleepwalkers” – and outsold all the Germans, even in Germany. Clark can say the question of guilt is complicated, says Parzinger, but hearing it “from a German would have been more difficult”.