Bonn · In this column, the author looks at life in Germany, as a Brit who is living in Bonn for years. In this edition, he wonders why the Germans are struggling to honour their heroes? Is it an historically guilt-ridden refusal? Or could it be a lack of heroes? Hardly…?
If David Bowie had been German he could never have written his 1977 hit ‘Heroes’ — because heroes are a no-no in modern Germany.
This was brought into sharp focus a few weeks ago, visiting London with my German girlfriend.
Strolling through Westminster and up to Leicester Square inanimate effigies of steely-eyed military figures, up to poets and scientists peering down from their plinths scrutinizing the mere humans scuttling by.
I pointed out Field Marshal Montgomery: ‘A legend for whipping Rommel’s arse at El Alamein in World War II…’ — yes, Brits really talk like this, like it is some jolly, hockey-sticks game.
In Leicester Square, you see Shakespeare — ‘When shall we three meet again’ — and Sir Issac Newton — F=ma (force equals mass times acceleration), apple falls near his head, gravity discovered.
So who are your heroes, I ask? And the answer was simple: ‘We don’t have any.’
It took me a while to digest the shock. In Britain, heroes are part of the DNA like fish and chips and infused in films, novels, beer-drinking bouts and fire-side tales of glory.
‘What about Martin Luther, he was a bit of a hero?’ I query, remembering last year was his anniversary. ‘I mean, he risked his life for his religious beliefs, nailed those texts up on that church door, changed history of Europe, yes?”
No, I am told, not Martin Luther, he was anti-Semitic.
Ok, that’s not good for sure. But the British actually don’t care.
We tend to sweep skeletons under the carpet, assert it must have been eccentricity; forget and forgive the worst personality or behavioural traits and just focus on the best ones.
Montgomery was, by quite a few accounts, a real ego-manic who has a cocktail named after him of 15 parts Gin and one part Dry Vermouth.
Far from being a plucky underdog, it is said Monty would never start a campaign without the odds being 15 to 1 in his favour.
Shakespeare perhaps never really existed — we don’t care! Sir Issac Newton was a mathematical genius but could also be nasty to rivals. But then, whoever said scientific genius had to go hand-in-hand with moral virtue?
Captain Robert Falcon Scott, another national hero, died with his men after losing the race to the South Pole to a Norwegian team, in part because he was obsessed with ponies rather than trusted sled dogs.
But again, we Brits prize the losing amateur — we don’t knock heroes off pedestals just cause they were useless, bloody-minded, held appalling views or failed. Our bar is quite low.
In Germany, it’s different. The bar to heroism has been set impossibly high and of course I now know why.
I realize I am treading on delicate ground, but understand it is linked to Germany’s history 1939-1945 and the tainting of so many once perhaps cherished values.
(The terrifying words — ‘To Each What They Are Due‘ — on the gate at Buchenwald camp where so many suffered are actually a sick use of an inspirational Roman text about justice. Bach even used the phrase in a cantata composed for the 23 Sunday after Trinity.)
But what about those who came before that dark time, and indeed after? I recently picked up former British Museum, Neil McGregor’s Germany: Memories of a Nation.
The Brothers Grimm might not spring to mind as classic heroes but in their legendary fairytales they understood that the German language and old folk stories were perhaps the most powerful, unifying force, against the Gallic invaders of the time.
There is of course Goethe, and Gutenberg, but what about Tilman Riemenschneider for not just his exquisite sculptures, comparable it is said to Donatello’s, but for his alleged suffering supporting the 16th century Peasant’s War.
If you elevate Pils or Kölsch to the level of Ambrosia, the food of the gods, maybe your hero is Duke Albrecht 4 of Bavaria and the beer purity laws of 1487. (Mine would be Rob Jones of the Dark Star brewery in Partridge Green, Sussex, if we are on the beer topic!)
In McGregor’s marvellous book there are many more fascinating and amazing people that have shaped these lands.
What about Hannah Arendt? My girlfriend recently gave me her astonishing book The Banality of Evil. What courage — if not heroism — needed to pen those explosive pages and face the barrage of criticism?
The emergence of the Alternative for Deutschland has probably made the notion of heroes even more improbable to consider in modern Germany.
But not impossible. Bowie’s 1977 hit tells of two lovers — one from the East and the other from the West — kissing in the shadow of the Berlin Wall.
When Bowie died in 2016, the German Foreign Office tweeted that the singer was a hero for his role in bringing the wall down.
Friends here suggest there is another phrase that could be used, like ‘role model’ — although ‘We Could Be Role Models Just for One Day’ hasn’t for me got real chart-topping appeal.
However, when you read about all the people that have shaped Germany’s long history — and its present — there are certainly quite a few one could wish away like Malaria or Avian flu.
But also, many to admire for their ideas, creativity and achievements than perhaps those living today wish to recognize — human frailty, flaws and all.
Perhaps the Brits need to do a bit of weeding in the hero garden. But perhaps the Germans need to do some re-planting.
Maybe they don’t need granite pedestals, but perhaps a little elevating to some more worthy place that might allow a younger generation — including girls — to understand where they came from and who among their past shaped the world in generally positive ways.
What about Bertha von Suttner, the pacifist and Nobel Prize Winner for example —oh damn, she was Austrian!