How I discovered Germany
Daniel Johnson on how he found a lost love for the Germans
As a child of postwar England, I found that there was no love lost for the Germans. So I set out to find that lost love. I don’t remember how many times I encountered unthinking hostility towards them, but it was often enough to make me think there must be something to be said for them.
“Don’t let’s be beastly to the Germans,” Noël Coward had jeered in 1943. “It was just those nasty Nazis who persuaded them to fight.” It hadn’t been true then, of course, and the wartime generation still hadn’t quite forgiven the Germans, not only for their crimes against humanity, but for bouncing back faster than the British in the 1950s.
Erhard’s “economic miracle” had rubbed salt in the wounds of a nation that had sacrificed its status as a great power in order to save Europe. And now that same Europe had cold-shouldered the British, excluding us not once but twice from their new “economic community”. In the 1960s and 70s it was often the British, not the Germans, who felt despised and rejected. After 1966, Germanophobic football fans would chant “Two world wars and one World Cup”, but that was mere bravado. Everyone knew that the boot was now firmly on the other foot — and in many British eyes, it was a jackboot.
This was the atmosphere in which I discovered Germany. It was a minor act of defiance to choose German instead of Latin for O-level, but with hindsight I was extremely fortunate to have the choice. There were two German teachers in my grammar school of just 600 pupils. Today, even the best state schools seldom offer the subject; not one of our four children has had the opportunity that I had to study German language and, especially, literature up to the high standard that was then expected at A-level.
Today, the texts are almost all recent and appear to be chosen partly with the film of the book in mind. In particular, Goethe has disappeared from the syllabus, presumably because the language is considered too archaic. Yet I recall the immense pleasure and satisfaction of mastering a Goethe play — Egmont. The story of the dashing Dutchman and his martial defiance of the sinister Duke of Alba, the courage of his beloved, Klärchen, who fantasises in song about how wonderful it would be to be a man and fight the Spaniards — “ein Glück sondergleichen ein Mannsbild zu sein”. Somehow I even obtained an LP of Beethoven’s incidental music for Egmont: seldom heard apart from the overture, but brilliantly evoking the grandeur of the drama.
It is tragic that educated people so seldom encounter Goethe even in translation. We might get on better with Germany if we did
Like Homer, Dante and Shakespeare, Goethe belongs not just to German literature, but to world literature, Weltliteratur — a term he coined. I am told that even in German Gymnasien, Goethe is little studied now. He is certainly a rare bird in English schools — or even universities. It is tragic that educated people, including students of literature, so seldom encounter the greatest of Germans even in translation. We might get on better with Germany if we did.
Egmont wasn’t, of course, our only set text. There was plenty of 20th century stuff too, most of it postwar, including Friedrich Dürrenmatt, Heinrich Böll, Siegfried Lenz and Günter Grass. The last two even appeared, along with the East German poet Peter Huchel, at a reading on the South Bank to which we were taken by our teachers. I had never been to a public reading by English authors, let alone Germans, before. They made an impression on me, Huchel in particular: he had only recently emigrated, leaving behind his beloved Sinn und Form, the highly intellectual and independent journal of which he had been the founding editor. Perhaps, as this prematurely aged septuagenarian signed his slim volume for me, I already dimly anticipated my own editorial vocation. It was no accident that, a few years later, the first article I had published in a national title was a review of Huchel’s latest collection in the TLS. I have its omniscient and omnivorous editor, the late John Gross, to thank for giving me my break. Fortunately, the new Editor of the TLS, Martin Ivens, is deeply versed European, especially German, culture and history.
But the German writer whose work I enjoyed most was one who is even less fashionable today: Carl Zuckmayer. His play, Der Hauptmann von Köpenick (“The Captain from Köpenick”) mocked German militarism at a time, 1931, when to do so meant risking retribution from the nationalist paramilitaries who abounded in the Weimar Republic. Based on a true story, the play (made into a successful film in 1956) depicts a tramp dressing up as an army captain and commandeering the town hall of a small town near Berlin. On the eve of the Third Reich, Zuckmayer gave teeth to the cliché of Germany’s blind obedience (Kadavergehorsam) to the man in uniform. He was, of course, forced to flee in 1933 and shared the fate of many Jewish writers in exile. Unlike most of the latter, however, Zuckmayer was able to resume his career in Germany after the war. He was welcome if only because his ready wit challenged another cliché — the German lack of a sense of humour — and he also wrote a powerful play, Des Teufels General (“The Devil’s General”) on a third: the moral dilemmas surrounding the excuse, so often made by war criminals, that they were only obeying orders.
I happen to have an association copy of the first edition of Zuckmayer’s last dramatic work before he went into exile: Der Schelm von Bergen. The play is based on an old legend, which Heine had already used in his similarly titled ballad. An empress (or duchess) unwittingly dances at a masque with the town executioner (“der Schelm”), who has taken advantage of the anonymity of the masque. When he is unmasked, the lady is disgraced and the executioner’s life is forfeit. In order to restore her honour, however, the hangman must be knighted by the emperor (or duke).
Zuckmayer wrote his play in Austria after emigrating. The title page reads “Propyläen Verlag, Berlin 1934”, so at that date he was still being published in Nazi Germany, but the drama could not be performed until after the war. When Hitler annexed Austria, Zuckmayer fled again, first to Switzerland and then to America. My copy has an inscription: “Für Engel, herzlich, Zuck”. It’s dated September 1934. “Zuck” was Zuckmayer’s nickname. Erich Engel was a prominent theatre director, best known for his collaborations with Bertolt Brecht, but who also worked with Zuckmayer. Der Schelm is a comedy, but there is an ugly undertone of mob violence that evokes the atmosphere of Nazi pogroms. The hereditary taint and shame endured by the executioner’s family evokes the deep-seated anti-Semitism of German society at the time.
My discovery of Germany wasn’t limited to literature. Aged 13, l went to Trier for an exchange trip. It wasn’t a success. Nothing daunted, three years later my family tried again. This time I was sent for three months to a small town in the heart of Hesse. Not much happened there. Family life revolved around Kinder, Kirche, Küche. The Kinder were both girls, one sister who was nice but much younger than me, the other a year older, for whom I was dust beneath her chariot wheels. The most exciting thing the parents did was to drive to Stuttgart to collect a new Mercedes. But the Gymnasium (grammar school) I attended was excellent.
The high point was a school trip to Munich, where we saw a performance of Die Dreigroschenoper (Threepenny Opera). This was “theatre with music” to which I instantly responded and, despite my loathing of Brecht’s politics, I have loved his collaborations with Kurt Weill ever since. I jumped at the chance, many years later, to act as an assistant to the singer Milva as she recorded some of these songs in English. While in Munich I visited my elderly German-Jewish friend from England, the writer and New Statesman chess columnist Heinrich Fraenkel. Over tea at his pension, he recalled the original 1928 Berlin production at the Theater am Schiffbauerdamm, nearly half a century before. He wasn’t shy about giving me his opinion. “Brecht was a very bad man, Danny, but a very good poet,” he said. “We had never seen anything like Die Dreigroschenoper. You have to imagine, mein lieber. This was opera for jedermann, for everyman. Every beggar knew the Moritat, the Ballad of Mack the Knife, and every prostitute knew the Ballad of Pirate Jenny. The set was by Caspar Neher, ganz original, and the director was none other than Erich Engel. Einfach wunderschön — simply magnificent!”
I felt very grown-up, listening and comparing notes with Heinrich, whom I had previously known only as an expert on chess. Indeed, it strikes me now that the German teachers were surprisingly relaxed about entrusting me alone to this (to them) total stranger. Perhaps they didn’t feel responsible for their temporary British charge. For whatever reason, they treated me as an adult. I doubt that child protection would now permit it. Such safeguards are necessary, as I know all too well. But I might not have fallen in love with modern Germany without these encounters with the lost worlds of Goethe’s Weimar and the Weimar Republic of Brecht, Weill and Zuckmayer.
Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print
Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10Subscribe