Over the past week, I’ve been re-visiting the catalogue from an art exhibition I attended quite some while ago. The exhibition was of German paintings of the nineteenth century, held at the National Gallery back in 2001, and I seem to think that I had a spare couple of hours to kill in That London once when I was down on some union business or other – quite how I ended up at the National Gallery I don’t remember, as most of the time my TU work took me ‘Sahf the River’ and although I vaguely think I’d heard of the exhibition before going, I don’t really recollect making a conscious plan to visit it.
I do think that I went to the National Gallery and happened across the exhibition, and as I went in recollecting that I’d heard this was on. But anyway: for whatever reason, I went to this show, and was impressed with the work on display, and found myself in awe and wonder at the fact that here was an artistic tradition that was virtually unknown to the average art lover on the street. If you go around Britain’s stately homes and municipal art galleries, you will see lots of British painting (of course), plenty of French Impressionists (and their imitators), plenty of classical Italian work, and Modernism from all over the place – but next to nothing from Central Europe in the Nineteenth Century. Yet here was a whole exhibition devoted to one country’s output in that period. Perhaps only one name – Caspar Friedrich – was familiar to me, as his pictures from the beginning of the Nineteenth Century are often cited as typical of the Romantic movement. Their most typical use is on the covers of classical music albums, but quite often they may be unattributed. (The abbey in the oakwood  and Wanderer above the Sea of Fog  are the two most commonly-used pictures in that connection.)
The 20th Century saw a strange reversal of opinions and alignment between Europe and Britain. Up to 1914, our natural ally in Europe, and the country considered the most cultured, was Germany, not France. For me, the fascinating thing about the Nazi era in Germany is this very question; what made the most cultured country in Europe turn in little more than twenty years into a land whose politics set the standard against which all other repressive regimes (and, at the drop of a hat, all other political opinions) are still judged?
Re-reading the catalogue, and thinking about my experience of Central Europe, especially in light of current news stories, has made me think again about the British reaction to Germany, Austria and other “far-away lands of which we know nothing”. The current British reaction to Germany is coloured massively by the populist “Two World Wars and one World Cup” attitude of some sections of the media. Attitudes to Austria and Switzerland are, if anything, worse than that, in that these countries are almost total blank spaces on the map; often, people confuse these three countries. There are those who think that Austria, in particular, is either part of Germany or part of Switzerland, or that Austrian and German history is interchangeable. (In my experience, Austrians are not very excitable people, but put that view in particular about in Austria or to an Austrian and you will start a fight.) There are so very few voices that offer any dissenting view.
I’ve also been re-watching the recent TV drama series Deutschland ’83, about an East German soldier manipulated into acting as a spy within the West German Bundeswehr during the 1980s, when tensions were at their highest due to the American proposals to site medium-range Pershing II nuclear missiles in Germany. This is a German series and draws on the experience of Germans who lived through the period on both sides of the Wall. I don’t know how many other people picked up on some of the background that was common knowledge for the writers, but I saw instances in the drama where high-ranking members of the West German military were sceptical of the Americans’ willingness to site missiles in Germany because no matter how winnable the Pentagon thought that would make a war with the Soviet Union, the Germans were acutely aware that win or lose, Germany would be reduced to a smoking battleground and that this would be for the second time in a generation, only much worse this time. We don’t see too much of everyday life in East Germany, but what we are shown runs counter to the accepted wisdom that all life in the Eastern Bloc was, of necessity, cruel and harsh and repressive. True, the DDR was a police state; and given that the series is about espionage, we are shown upper echelons of the state security apparatus in some detail; but East Germany was probably amongst the most prosperous of the Soviet Bloc states in terms of the quality of life of its citizens. State repression was a fact of life for many citizens in that time and place; yet there are those now who consider that we in the West are experiencing increasing levels of state repression now that could easily reach those of East Germany within a few years, with state control of media, surveillance of communications, the assumption by the State or its ruling elite that they are automatically in the right on any given question, and organs of the State – education, healthcare and so on – acting as informers on grounds of threats to the nation, either real or imagined.
And there were plenty of East German citizens who examined their Stasi files when they were opened after re-unification and found that there was either no file or what there was said, effectively, “Mostly harmless”, as Douglas Adams would have put it. This was a particular upset for those in the DDR who thought themselves to be Really Radical and Dangerous Characters (and who lived on projecting that self-image). Again, this is not to play down the amount of state repression that did happen; but there were plenty of people who wanted to be thought of as Cool Dudes when they really weren’t. I’ve encountered a number of people like that in my time.
In fact, my reading about and my experience of Germany suggests that interchange between East and West, on very many levels, was far more open than we are given to believe.
More generally, my travels and experience over the past twenty years suggest to me that there is a wall of silence between the UK and Europe generally, and Central Europe in particular. Quite how this came about, it’s hard to say; but the upshot of this is that very little gets reported in the UK media about everyday events on the Continent, and vice versa. As far as the Continental media is concerned, nothing happens in the UK unless it concerns the Royal Family; whereas here in the UK, nothing happens on the Continent unless it’s Angela Merkel in political difficulty, giving the opportunity for a wildly ignorant joke or comment referencing the Third Reich.
I remember the 1960s and 1970s. Then, Europe was exotic and different; people were just beginning to discover it through the start of mass tourism, and I remember relatives bringing back stories of their travels. We still had large numbers of people and their families based on the Continent with the armed forces; and the debate about the UK joining what was then the Common Market focussed attention on Europe. In the popular media, the BBC fleshed out its children’s content with overdubbed European series whilst in the cinema, James Bond could often be seen taking his Aston Martin over the Furka Pass or performing derring-do in the Alpine mountain-top lair of some super-villain; meanwhile, The Sound of Music played to packed audiences, many of whom went to see it multiple times (my mother, for one), although its particular sugar-coated view of inter-war Austrian politics – and indeed, of the von Trapp family themselves, though this was mostly of their own making! – turns out to be mind-bogglingly at variance with reality. In this atmosphere, when Britain finally joined the EEC, there were many voices predicting that within five to ten years, we could be the leading nation in Europe.
Instead, the whole European Project within the UK was tainted by association with Edward Heath, the Conservative prime minister who led our accession; the Wilson Labour administration that replaced him confirmed our membership in a referendum which I narrowly missed voting in, and although Britain voted to remain in the EEC, the Wilson and Callaghan governments that followed took their eyes off the European ball with economic difficulties of their own; and when Callaghan was replaced by Thatcher in 1979, those economic difficulties remained the government’s priority; and in any case, there would have been an element within the Thatcher administration that saw Europe as the project of a deposed and hated leader, and therefore not worthy of any engagement with.
It is my view that the UK squandered the opportunity to maximise its influence in Europe in the 1970s and 1980s; and the current debate, the levels of disconnection with Europe, and the coming referendum are the result.
I am not convinced that David Cameron’s “package of measures” will improve matters, even if we vote to stay in the EU. That package does nothing more than reinforce the populist stereotypes; there is certainly nothing in it that does anything to increase engagement with Europe. If we do stay in, we need to look to taking measures here at home that strengthen our ties with Europe on a whole range of levels, with the aim of putting us back where we should have been in the 1970s and 80s. And if we vote to leave the EU, I see the UK turning its back on Europe – and probably having the compliment repaid – in a way that panders to certain mid-Atlanticists’ personal agendas. There are people out there who would prefer us to become the 52nd State, after all. I think it would take a concerted effort to give the UK a proper internationalist outlook if we vote to leave the EU; and I fear that there are too many vested interests in particular bilateral relations to make this genuinely happen.
A big part of the problem is the British status as an island race. We lack the perspective that living on a continent of differing cultures delivers, instead preferring to think that because people look or sound like us that they are like us, and vice versa. (And the British do have a habit of preferring their own prejudices to the facts, even when presented with and understanding those facts.) It often comes as a shock to Brits returning from a visit to the USA to discover that America is actually a foreign country, no matter how much we think we know about it from films, television and other media. I have recently been reading some online magazines from a European science fiction fan, and I was puzzled as to why his e-mail address had a .se designator (i.e. Sweden) when he was by name of obvious German heritage and lived in Italy. It turned out that he had been born in Finland to German parents but brought up in Sweden. People leak across land borders, whether others want them to or not; and where people go, influences, ideas and cultures follow. As an island race, we have to come to terms with the fact that this happens now because borders are porous, even physical ones; and to roll that back would involve uninventing the aeroplane, the steamship, and probably ultimately the wheel.
Go to Europe and you will find that there is a European consciousness and an emerging modern European culture. It has a sense of “European-ness” that transcends language, borders or political alignments. Before his fall from power and the collapse of the USSR, Mikhail Gorbachev was working towards bringing the Soviet Union into the EU by 2000-10; a friend of mine who worked for the UK HM Revenue & Customs was on an EU delegation to Moscow in the early 1990s to discuss tariff harmonisation between the EU and the Soviet Union. In his writings, Gorbachev spoke of “our common European home”, and he was certainly looking to move the conflict between East and West into the realms of soft power rather than hard power.
We had the opportunity throughout the 1960s and 1970s to tap into that common consciousness, and to use it for our own advantage, and mould it for our own ends. And we wasted that opportunity. Whatever we decide in June, we cannot afford to ignore any other country in the future.