No wonder Brexiteers tried to disown the Merkel 'Kraut' meme. It revealed their twisted worldview for all to see
Deeply entitled and irrationally attached to an imagined history, it's no wonder the British government can't handle the reality of dealing with Europe
“We didn’t win two world wars to be pushed around by a Kraut,” read the “witty” Leave.EU meme. No wit at all, of course, but you could see what they were trying to do: the same thing they try to do in all their memes, which is amateur journalism. Trying to recreate the sort of inventive puns and cheeky defiance you’d see on the front page of The Sun, they just ended up being offensive and not really making much of a point.
We can only thank providence that the Leave.EU meme design workshop didn’t see fit to add a Hitler ‘tache and a Nazi armband to Angela Merkel’s features, or stick her on top of a Panzer, adding in some utterly horrific reference to the Holocaust for good measure. Because that’s what the Leave.EU lot are like – boneheads, with no experience of war or bloodshed.
The Leave.EU propaganda is not even tasteless-but-funny in a red top sort of way. Nor is it as elegant as the famous scene in the Fawlty Towers episode The Germans, when Basil, goose-stepping around his restaurant, can’t help himself going on about the war to a German family. When the daughter gets upset and her father comforts her, the exchange goes like this:
Basil: Is there something wrong?
German Guest: Will you stop talking about the war?
Basil: Me? You started it.
German Guest: We did not!
Basil: Yes, you did. You invaded Poland.
If only the Leave.EU bunch had any of that comedic flair, the ability to mine humour from the hurt embedded deep in national psyches. Instead, the unfunny clodhopping fools just fall back on a now rarely used football fan insult. It is unworthy even of the likes of Arron Banks and Richard Tice.
Leave.EU said sorry, but it was a revealing moment – gross, graceless and childish, just like when Nigel Farage and Ann Widdecombe turned their backs on the young musicians at the European parliament opening ceremony. They ought to have gone for the full moon and got their arses out, just to demonstrate their complete contempt for the new Belgian Empire. They might have stuck their fingers in their ears so that didn’t have to listen to the music that that “kraut” Beethoven composed. Maybe next time.
The British used to be regarded by the Europeans as practical, clever, polite; now they look more like the worst sort of spiteful kids, a country that’s regressing into a second childhood, sustained by legends of a golden age that never was.
But this is about much more than manners. There is political point, too. “The kraut” isn't pushing us around anyway; all she’s doing is telling us we cannot have our cake and eat it.
You cannot insist on what you want if your own objectives are incompatible. You cannot be simultaneously inside and outside a customs union. You cannot have and not have a border with Ireland. That is not a matter of German obstinacy or arrogance, but of British obstinacy and arrogance. It is, in reality, a simple matter of logic, and of the UK’s inability to confront it.
It’s all of a piece, this mindset, this vast exaggeration of the UK’s importance to the EU and the world. Dominic Cummings, according to briefings, threatens other EU states who favour giving the UK the Article 50 extension its own parliament has legislated for (and we did fight two world wars for parliamentary democracy). He says they will be at the back of the queue for security assistance, presumably in the event of a Russian invasion or something. More likely Isis-inspired terror and far right extremism.
Quite apart from betraying the Nato treaty obligations we share with most of the EU states, it is hardly in the UK’s interests to allow Vladimir Putin to exercise undue influence over European affairs, or to occupy Estonia and bully Germany. Nor is refusing to co-operate with the Irish authorities on resurgent IRA terrorism.
And then, of course, there’s this strange obsession with the war. It’s nothing new. The British might not know much about the slave trade or the ancient Romans or the Napoleonic Wars, but references to Arnhem, the Battle of Britain, El Alamein, Dunkirk, Churchill’s “finest hour”, Hitler, “Goebbels-has-only-got-one-ball” (to the tune of Colonel Bogey) – all are universally understood.
As late as the 1970s, after we’d joined the European Economic Community, I was an avid consumer of boy’s comics such as Warlord and The Victor. I was enthralled by stories featuring heroes such as Union Jack Jackson and Bomber Braddock. The “squareheads” or “krauts” were invariably cruel or stupid or both, and shouted things like “Achtung!” and “Gott in Himmel” when the Royal Marines sank their U-Boats. Every brilliant episode of Dad’s Army is on the BBC iPlayer, by popular demand. Then there are all those guys who dress up in RAF and SS uniforms at re-enactment exercises like they were in an episode of ‘Allo ‘Allo.
Then there’s Winston Spencer Churchill, whose amazing life and times are the subject of endless films and books (including one by Boris Johnson). Scholars still argue about whether he was or was not in favour of Britain being a part of a "United States of Europe”. All references to the Tory rebel MP Nicholas Soames are prefaced, as if by statute, with the word’s “Churchill’s grandson”.
In her landmark Bruges speech in 1988, Margaret Thatcher reminded her audience that “it was from our island fortress that the liberation of Europe itself was mounted” – as if they didn’t know or had forgotten their own history. And now we have the “Surrender Act”, with opponents of a no-deal Brexit labelled “collaborators” and “Quislings”. When the prime minister of Luxembourg empty-podiumed Johnson, he was sharply reminded that the British had liberated the grand duchy in the last war (even though it was the Americans).
The basic attitude is that Britain’s heroic achievements of 1939-45 mean that the Europeans owe us a living and should do as they’re told, because otherwise they’d all be speaking German (apart from the Germans of course, and the Austrians, who all speak rather good English these days. And Leave.EU, who are fond of the term “kraut”). It's pathetic. The further away we get from the last war, the more we seem to want to start another one. This time we’d lose, but there we are.
This bellicose, atavistic, irrational British mentality continues to bewilder all of our European allies – and, truth be told, most of the British too. The last Tommies from the Great War have all gone, and the men and women who survived the 1939-45 show are in their nineties now. They are often fetishised, along with the rest of our brave armed forces, and co-opted without consent into the Leave cause. Yet many, precisely because of their wartime experiences, are enthusiastic Europeans and Remainers.
It was a generation of European statesmen who had witnessed the degradation that humanity is capable of who decided that Europe must never have another of its bloody wars. It is from that conviction that the European project springs. It is why Ted Heath and Roy Jenkins, both ex-servicemen, made it their life’s work to get Britain into the EU and keep it there. But that generation has also gone. All we are left with are our false memories and our national catchphrase: “Don’t mention the war!”