DONííT letís, Noel Coward
sang, be beastly to the Germans. Tall, blonde, blue-eyed - well, some of
them - they are an orderly, sentimental, industrious, enterprising and
courageous race. Once given to wearing steel helmets with spikes or
shaped like coal-scuttles as well as saluting, heel-clicking and singing
in chorus while beer-drinking or jack-boot-marching across Europe, the
nation, once perceived by us as baddies, have now become our European
Union buddies and, by the Prussian hair-crop and sabre scar of Erich von
Stroheim, as Hollywoodís version of Rommel, a good thing, too.
Despite our differences - many in our syntax-loving nation deplore their
insensitive persecution of verbs and consider that their language, noble
and expressive though it is, often sounds like a motor-bike backfiring -
Germany and the Germans exercise a continual fascination for us.
Hardly a night passes without some TV film or reminiscence series
showing Hitler haranguing Seig-Heiling hordes, tanks massing, troops
marching, bombers diving and children with flaxen hair and teeth like
pearls presenting the Fuehrer with enough flowers to sink the Bismarck.
The last shots have been fired in the First and Second World Wars and it
is about time we declared an armistice on TV and Hollywood hostilities
and acknowledged that the Germans are our worthy allies that we trust
not to be part of an alleged racket with the French to take over all
Europe and not to aid and abet any attempt by Spain to plunder our
traditional fishing grounds and sweep British fishing boats off the
Although our Teutonic cousins, Germans - as many in Britain still
suspect - are unlike us, they have, it seems, a character defect,
possibly genetic, and it shows, according to a press report, in their
seeming inability to produce self-deprecatory humour. The phrase, blood
and iron, once epitomised Prussia, but irony, never.
The Germans, as one would guess, have means for making dour top Teutons,
as well as the morose masses, laugh. A German humorist has set up an
academy to teach his nationís captains of industry how British wit and
humour can win clients and boost profits.
Dirk Stiller, 32, a former TV sketch writer and lecturer at the German
radio academy in Dortmund, reveals to managers from companies including,
Lufthansa, German Railways and DaimlerChrysler, the secrets of "winning
"Foreigners," he says, "are often appalled at the serious lack of humour
among professional Germans. People worry about laughing and this can
affect an entire company. We also fear spontaneity because it does not
by definition obey any rules."
He tells his students that a British bulldog spirit, laced with irony
and self-deprecation, can work wonders in raising business morale and be
particularly useful, I suppose, at producing nervous hilarity on seeing
companies imploding and shares plunging like dive-bombers.
He admires self-deprecating British humour, and claims it enables us to
get through lifeís storms and stresses without being negative. True, we
pride ourselves on producing high-grade, finely-wrought irony,
self-lacerating satire and finely-tooled wit which, for us, is used as a
rapier and, of course, for the Germans, as a sabre.
In fact, the British are uneasy with wit, preferring the jesterís
bladder-bashing humour, not unlike the hearty unsubtleties said to have
Germans weak with mirth.
Frankly, I do not believe Germans do not laugh at themselves, although
they may not do it often. One of the most biting satires of the national
tendency to obey orders and respect authority, especially if uniformed,
was Captain of Kopenick, written by Carl Zuckmayer in 1931, while Berlin
cabarets between the wars were cockpits of comedy, steeped in satire and
stiffened with irony.
Now, Germans are, daringly, adopting a humorous attitude to politicians.
A recent chart-topper, the Tax Song, satirised Chancellor Gerhard
Schroderís economic policies; regrettably, he failed to see the joke.
In a country, once Europeís powerhouse, where unemployment is around
4.25 million, the governmentís caving-in to the pay demands of almost
five million public sector workers threatens efforts to control the
budget deficit, businesses are collapsing at a record rate and taxes are
increasing, there is little to laugh about.
If British-brand satire and irony steels the Germans to face a possible
bleak future, I know Britain - once the economic "sick man of Europe" -
will wish them the best of jocular luck: ironical, isnít it?