Striking an attitude: Tishbein's portrait of Goethe, on show at the British Museum's "Germany: memories of a nation"
London has been enjoying a German Autumn this year, with retrospectives for the leading contemporary artists Anselm Kiefer and Sigmar Polke, plus the first major show of the great Viennese Expressionist Egon Schiele, culminating in the Germany: memories of a nation exhibition at the British Museum. The occasion for this remarkable British celebration of Germanic culture is actually a political one: the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, the significance of which for the rest of the world was both vast and benign — perhaps the first event in modern German history of which that could be said.
The German Autumn has also been the occasion for a good deal of scolding of the British for having hitherto harboured prejudices against Germany, in particular for having focused on the Nazis to the exclusion of the rest of German history. The charge of Germanophobia is not new: more than a century ago, there were complaints about Anglo-Saxon attitudes towards the Germans from none other than the Kaiser, whose mother was Queen Victoria's eldest daughter. In 1908 he told an American journalist that "Great Britain looked upon Germany as her enemy because it was the most dominant force on the continent of Europe . . . His eyes snapped when he spoke of England, his bitterness was so intent." Wilhelm II never forgave the British. In May 1940, as the Nazis swept into Holland, the exiled emperor was offered asylum in England by his cousin George VI. He replied that he would rather be shot.
The Kaiser, like Hitler, belonged to another age. But the last of the German dictators, Erich Honecker, who built the Berlin Wall and ruled East Germany until shortly before it fell, died only 20 years ago. The party he led has reinvented itself and sits in the Bundestag as Die Linke, "The Left". And one of the KGB colonels who helped to prop up Honecker's regime was Vladimir Putin.
Against that background, present Anglo-German disputes seem rather petty. In any case, not all Germans think alike about Britain, any more than all Britons think alike about Germany. Recently, the German press has been ruder about Britain than the other way round. Last June Der Spiegel claimed that David Cameron had threatened to leave the EU over the appointment of Jean-Claude Juncker as Commission President: "For years Britain has blackmailed and made a fool out of the European Union," the magazine claimed. "It can play by the rules or it can leave." The British media, by contrast, has been so impressed by Angela Merkel and her economy that the latest German downturn took many in the City by surprise.