Saturday, 7 September 2013

Where Have All the German-Speakers Gone?

As I may have hinted before on this blog, I spend a lot of time in the travel section at local bookstores (and lately I've been spending even more time there, as the Waterstones on Piccadilly recently turned its entire basement into a travel section, and even divided everything up by region, as I like it). A year or so ago, I started noticing books about Germany popping up on the shelves.

The first was called Springtime for Germany: or How I Learned to Love Lederhosen, by Ben Donald, and used the device of a fictional "travel therapist" (American, of course) to "re-introduce" Germany to British readers. I never picked it up, but based on the Amazon reviews, I'm pretty glad I skipped it - Donald seems unable to leave aside the German stereotypes, as one can tell from the title, which is a two-fer featuring Nazism and lederhosen.

One I did pick up was Germania, by Simon Winder, which is less a travel book than history. Winder did a good job of unpicking the rather complicated history of Germany from classical times to 1933, and did it without speaking a lick of German. So, emboldened, I ventured back into the history section and picked up The German Genius, by Peter Watson, which I'm still working my way through, and have leafed through a few other books here and there.

But the takeaway here is, I find it fascinating that the British are suddenly so into Germany again. In the beginning of his book, Watson talks about the British view of Germany, which is sometimes still distorted by the tabloids. But even talking to my own friends - people who don't read the Sun, and in fact have spent time living abroad - Germany's kind of a mystery. One friend admitted that the country's always been a mystery to him, in part because of stories he heard from his grandfather growing up.

(Another friend, oddly enough, got really annoyed at me when I used the phrase "re-introducing Germany to Britain", although I suspect that was more because he thought I was criticizing Britain.)

I'm not surprised, though, because when I moved here for the first time, in 2001, I was coming straight from Germany, and it seemed like nobody here knew anything about the place. Well, apart from football-related stuff - the fall of 2001 was when England handed Germany a 5-1 drubbing in Munich on the way to the 2002 World Cup. But that knowledge really only served to obscure the rest of the country - nobody seemed to know German, for example (which is why I keep getting jobs here).

In fact, the immediate spur to writing this post was a passage on travel website "The Man in Seat 61", where he directs us to a website but warns that it's all in German, so we should use Google Translate to get through the process. What I found strange about it was the assumption that nobody reading his site would speak German - it's a language spoken by around 95 million people around the world (and me!), so not too far off from Japanese and well ahead of French or Italian. If I pass on a link at work, I always say if it's in a language other than English, but that's just politeness - in fact, if I pass on a link about Germany my assumption is that at least some readers will know the language.

The point here is, Britain (and America, which almost as bad) should go ahead and learn some German. I'd like to find more books like Winder's Germania on the shelves in the travel or history sections of a bookstore, and less of the interminable books about World War II or the Nazis.

And when I say that, I don't mean to minimize the Holocaust in any way, I just mean that there's so much more to the country that's being obscured by the obsession with the years 1933-1945. It's time we resurrected that history.