The time comes in any upright British male's life when he needs to have made his peace with all of the following: his homosexuality, his dress sense, and Germany. The first two of these I got out of the way decades ago (true, I still occasionally wake up in the morning and flirt with becoming a dandy for the few short seconds before the stiff denim of consciousness descends on me), but Germany has proved more problematic.
It doesn't help that I'm half-Jewish, although we can make too much of this. It was the great English anti-Semite GK Chesterton who observed that the Jews are like everyone else – but more so. In which case, what can English Jews possibly be like? Only like the English – but more so. Still, since we're succouring Krauts here, best to be up front: my Jewishness hasn't helped when it comes to my getting gemütlich in the great liberal democracy known for a period as the Third Reich.
In Germania, Simon Winder's magnificently crazy circumambulation – through time and space – of Germany, its history, and his obsession with both, he writes that our shunning of the country is a "mutilating of Europe's culture", and that furthermore there comes a time, surely, when we must stop allowing Hitler's estimation of his own country to prevail, to which all right-thinking Britishers must reply: "Donner und Blitzen! He has a point!"
But Winder goes further, describing Germany as Britain's "weird twin", and while I'm not sure I'm ready to fully endorse this view, I have always thought the great joy in having identical twins – were one to be so blessed – would be to subject them to unnatural psychological experiments, and perhaps Germany's history is just such an experiment… Then again, maybe it is Britain that's the lab rat, a still more disturbing thought.
We'll get back to the vexed question of my own Jewishness in a while; for now, let me tell you of the moment when I fully succumbed to the Germanophilia that had been swelling inside me for over a decade. I was in France at a literary festival (and how it hurts to type those words), and talking to a rather beautiful woman writer only a little bit younger than me. I mention her middleagedness – in German this would indeed be a single compounded noun – because beauty in young women is so common as to be banal.
As the great German philosopher and misogynist Schopenhauer put it in his notorious essay On Women: "In the girl, nature has had in view what could in theatrical terms be called a stage-effect: it has provided her with super-abundant beauty and charm for a few years at the expense of the whole remainder of her life…"
Anyway, this fortysomething beauty, seeing me giving it the intellectual large with the assembled Frenchies, came sidling up and uttered these charmless weasel words: "You like the French, Will, don't you."
And when I conceded that I did, she thrust the dagger home: "You like them because they seem to take your work seriously, n'est ce pas?" With this I could only concur.
Then she delivered the coup de grâce: "Has it ever occurred to you, though, that they have absolutely no sense of humour at all?" At once, a thousand and one nights of Gallic socialising passed before my eyes in a blur of Gitanes-smoked pretension – there had been wry smiles, certainly; there was even the occasional manic titter, but of full-blooded laughter I now realised I hadn't experienced so much as a single heave. In that moment I decided – capricious, that I am – to shift my business definitively to the rive droit of the Rhine.
When I first went to Germany in the early Nineties, the place gave me the heebie-jeebies. The Berlin Wall had only been down a couple of years and, even wandering the placid boulevards of Frankfurt or Munich, I was gnawingly aware of the fact that anyone of a certain age – say 70-plus – could have been complicit in the Holocaust, while anyone a few years younger might well have spent the balance of their lives wielding the electrodes in some Stasi torture chamber. There was this, and there was also the grinding totality of Germany: its dead carbohydrate weight compounded of black bread, sausage and bucket-sized steins brimming with lager.
Walter Abish, the Austrian-born Jewish writer penned a fantastic story called, confusingly, The English Garden, which concerns the narrator's return to Germany after many years' absence. Standing in front of the map of his hometown outside the bahnhof, he is overwhelmed by the fact that this diagrammatic expression of a patch of Germany is itself entirely German: every rivet and every screw in the frame – the very ink used to print the map, all are 100 per cent Hergestellt in Deutschland.
It's this sense of being a world-country (something that Germany shares, in my experience, only with Brazil and India) that can make the experience of being in a nation over 30 per cent larger than the UK feel curiously claustrophobic – Oh! And did I mention the war, and the associated near-genocide? Well, now's the time to get it out of the way.
Like any upright British male of my generation, I was raised on a steady and nourishing diet of Germanophobia. Having a touch of the Jew-brush helped to seal it in, but we were all cooked in this juicy antipathy from birth anyway. The Germans were nasty, brutish, repulsively coarse and large. They were humourless to the point of being murderous and emphatically not to be trusted. Whether it was beating us to the beach or annihilating our military beachheads, their cold and methodical approach to life was antipathetic to our gentlemanly amateurishness. And besides, no matter how hard they tried, they still lost: they lost both world wars and lost the 1966 World Cup, which, as any British male understood, was really the more significant defeat.
That they possess this stupendous culture – almost every world-class philosopher and composer was either German or German-speaking; the list of scientists and technological innovators is unending – is considered by us Anglos to be some sort of cosmic joke. That's looking at it charitably: the truth is that to consider German culture as in any way detachable from the German people who made it is to be just as racist as those white Americans who could happily dance the Charleston while denying their black countrymen and women the vote.
And, actually, all those years of reading German writers and watching German movies and listening to German compositions, while maintaining what I saw as a healthy disgust for the Germans, now seems to me a contemptible waste of my own lifetime. Of course, throughout this period I was perfectly friendly with individual Germans – what bigot doesn't comfort himself with the exception he makes to prove his prejudicial rule. Why, I might even have stooped so low, on occasion, as to say that some of my best friends were German.
Still, only geeky teens armed with cyclotrons in Hollywood movies can change the past, and at least I eventually pulled out of it. What did it, natürlich, was spending more time in Germany. The big epiphany came in the university town of Göttingen in 1998. Suffering from a particularly gloomy, hung-over and Teutophobic state of mind, like the singer of a Mamas and the Papas song I stopped into a church… and I began to pray.
Don't, please, get the wrong idea about this – it's not that I'm especially god-bothery, let alone Christian, it's just that my view is umpteen billions of seekers can't be wrong, and buildings dedicated to the pursuit of transcendent states of mind do have a certain, y'know, spirituality, man. Anyway, there I was, bemoaning my lot at being in Lower Saxony at all (I understand that for obvious reasons Upper Saxony is a lot more fun), when I looked up from the pew I was slumped in to see the nave was crowded with freestanding notice boards with bits of paper pinned to them.
On further examination, these turned out to be a project undertaken by local Göttingen schoolchildren into – you guessed it – the Holocaust; in particular, the effects of the Holocaust in Göttingen itself. Set out in merciless detail on those boards were the names and the locations of the homes of every Jewish family in the town in 1937, and the details of what happened to them subsequently. As I looked at all of this – written out in the rounded, cursive handwriting that German schoolchildren are still taught – it occurred to me that this was not the behaviour of a people in the business of denying their past.
On the contrary, while it may have taken a couple of generations to really eradicate any remaining denial, Germany is the world leader in denying Holocaust-deniers the oxygen of publicity. Indeed, when it came to a European Union law against Holocaust denial it may surprise you to learn that while the Germans sponsored it, our own government opposed.
And then there's Berlin, home to every up-the-bum perviness you'd care to shake a prick at, a hotbed of what remains of the European avant garde, and a city that has every justifiable claim – given the powerhouse that's the German economy – to be the capital of Europe. Except that it isn't anything of the sort, indeed, it isn't even a contender. The reasons for this, like those for just about everything, are historic. Berlin was only the capital of a unified Germany for around 70 years before the Nazi Götterdämmerung – then there were another 45-odd before the wall came down.
I remember visiting the city first a couple of years after the demolition derby, and finding Potsdamer Platz already a great thicket of cranes, all the signs that soon enough Berlin would be just another soulless jumble of ferroconcrete Jenga, with narcissistic corporate headquarters ogling themselves in each other's mirrored glass.
But while there has been a great deal of development over the past two decades, to walk from Alexanderplatz in the old east, along the Unter den Linden to Checkpoint Charlie, is still to encounter a city that looks exactly like what it is: the one-time capital of a nation taken over in the middle of the 20th century by a crazed dictator who brought down the entire vengeance of the Red Army on it, before its venerable infrastructure was chopped right in two.
The great buildings remain pitted with bullet and shrapnel holes, while the avenue overall is like a stony jaw that's had its prestigious teeth ripped out. There's this vibe to central Berlin, and there's also a curiously provincial one as well: compared to the urbane frenzy of London or Paris, to walk clear across Berlin – which I've done – is to take a distinctly suburban stroll.
It might seem like an oddly negative way of extolling the virtues of a nation — descanting on the somnolent ruination of its capital – but then Germany isn't a nation quite like any other. Suffice to say, once I fully accepted that the time for the crime had been – and was still being – done, I began to enjoy the Germans themselves unrestrainedly. Indeed, I've started to see all those Teutonic traits we like to sneer at as rather desirable and possibly even endearing.
Excessive formality? Yes please, I like being called Mr Self: the call-me-Dave informality of British public life is a mask of egalitarianism behind which the same old ugly hierarchies lurk. Chilly politeness? Yeah to that, too: I'm fed up to the back-fucking-teeth with foul-mouthed and jostling Brits (and arrogant and supercilious Frogs for that matter). Oppressive learning? Why not? I'd rather be picked up – as I have been – from Frankfurt Airport by a cab driver who's actually writing a doctoral thesis on the Frankfurt School of cultural criticism, than listen to some EDL-wannabe fulminate from behind the wheel as his black-hearted cab bombinates along the M4 from Heathrow. Duff cuisine comprising mostly roast meats, cabbage, sausages and potatoes? Well… it takes one to know one, as we never tire of saying.
And lastly, the vexed question of humour, which is where all this began. Contra the stereotype, the more I learn about the Germans the more I begin to appreciate that their humour is subtle, witty, and freighted with exactly the sort of situational irony that we think of as stamped with Union Jack.
It's inexpressibly dull to retell jokes in a context such as this, but one example will suffice: go to YouTube and type in "Reinhold Messner kiosk am Matterhorn", in order to see the veteran mountaineer being twitted by a couple of German TV jokers who have had a sausage stall winched up to the top of the mountain just in time for his arrival. If you wanted a comparable Brit spoofing, it would be as if Sir Ranulph Fiennes reached the North Pole only to find a saleswoman from Ann Summers offering him a pair of crotchless panties.
The great joy of the Messner clip is quite how well he takes the joke (true, he is Austrian rather than German, but let's not be picky); it's difficult to imagine Sir Ranulph donning the panties and scampering about the ice floe – although perhaps I'm doing him an injustice. Anyway, it puts me in mind of what's the most conspicuous loanword we have in English from the German – and that's "schadenfreude". We've been deriving pleasure from the misfortunes of the Germans for such a long time now, perhaps it's time we acknowledged that the joke just ain't funny anymore.
Illustration by Noma Bar. Taken from the December issue of Esquire, on newsstands now.