Why do we still laugh at Germany?

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The image of Germans as a nation that spends all its time drinking beer and listening to oompah bands is as erroneous as the idea that they are all humourless and militaristic

THE ugly spectre of Europe’s biggest power engaged in a battle of words with its welterweight neighbour over suitable behaviour on the beaches and in the bars would be funny, possibly even to Germans, if the joke hadn’t worn so thin.

Silvio Berlusconi, the Italian prime minister, and his junior tourism minister, Stefano Stefani, tapped into a rich vein of post-war animosity this week: one that says it is tolerable to revile a generation that had nothing to do with the bombing of Rotterdam and the gas chambers of Treblinka.

First Mr Berlusconi compared a German MEP to a Nazi concentration camp guard, and then Mr Stefani spoke of the "blonde, stereotypical behaviour" and arrogance of German holidaymakers.

But the jibes which forced Gerhard Schrder to cancel his deckchair reservation on the Adriatic next week would be ruled out of court for any other nation or ethnic group.

Could they get away with wisecracks about lynchings in the American deep south, or over the napalming of Vietnamese villages?

No-one carries the burden of guilt more than Germans for what was done in their name during the 12-year lifespan of the Third Reich, although the guns have been silent for 58 years.

The country is awash with memorials and cemeteries, it has paid out billions in reparations and it has achieved a transparent and lasting democracy.

So what is it, Germans today ask themselves and their friends abroad, that makes them such targets for a war they had no part in and a past they have pledged not to forget? Will Germany remain marked for all time by the Nazi crimes?

Inevitably there will always be Berlusconis and Stefanos waiting to throw the sins of the fathers back in their faces.

Just two weeks ago, in London, the Goethe Institute, the overseas emissaries of German culture and language, hosted a new government campaign aimed at changing the old heel-clicking, beer-swilling, humourless, militaristic image that many Britons still have of Germans.

The Germans would prefer that we didn’t mention the war - preferably either of them. Catherine Mayer, the UK correspondent for the German news magazine Focus, said: "Germans are pretty fed up with John Cleese and Polish sketches, Hitler salutes and all that sort of thing."

It is obvious in the past fortnight that the message hasn’t reached Italy. But has it reached anyone? AA Gill wrote an article in the Sunday Times which conjured up every German stereotype under the sun. "Let’s admit it, we all hate the Germans," he said.

As Germans shake their heads and discuss their latest image crisis over a foaming stein of lager - although beer drinking is actually down and has been for years - the full impact of the slanging-match with Italy has still to be assessed.

A poll showed that 65 per cent of Germans backed their chancellor’s decision to dig in his heels and abandon his Italian holiday. The secretary of his party yesterday followed his example.

Poland and Austria yesterday virtually pleaded with the Germans to take their holiday cash there instead. Italian mayors and opposition MPs joined in calling for Mr Stefani’s head.

Mr Berlusconi, who started all the trouble, faced the threat that his fractured coalition could collapse underneath him.

As most of the ten million Germans who travel to Italy annually, spending 5 billion into the bargain, book up to a year in advance there will not be a mass boycott - at least not this summer.

Whether or not the row will spin off into trade and investment, clogging the wheels of the European Union when Italy is at its helm, remains to be seen. But the Germans hope one lesson may be learned: "Call us deckchair-stealers, call us boorish, call us burpers, beer-bellies and braggarts, but don’t call us Nazis."

A German sociologist cites a study showing that 80 per cent of British schoolchildren, when asked what they associated with Germany, mentioned the Second World War, and 50 per cent mentioned Hitler.

Many think the wellspring for the continuing animosity is Germany’s affluence, yet the German economic miracle is history and dole queues are lengthening. However, there is still a perception of a Mercedes in every garage and a holiday in the sun four times a year.

Mr Stefani was perhaps just a little right when he mentioned loutish behaviour on the beaches: Germans are sometimes not attractive when fuelled with lager and pride. But that doesn’t make them Nazis.

Perhaps Messrs Berlusconi and Stefano, and anyone else for that matter, should consider the thoughts of the following two people before telling the next German joke.

Thomas van den Bergh is a Dutch Jew who lost three grandparents, two aunts, two uncles and numerous cousins thanks to the Germans.

"However," he wrote recently, "I know quite a few Germans (which most British don’t), I speak the language (which most British don’t), I visit the country quite regularly (which most British don’t) and I think the Germans in general aren’t better, or worse, than other people. They are certainly less selectively xenophobic than the British."

Jan-Phillip Litz, 17, a schoolboy in Leopoldshoehe, North-Rhine Westphalia, said: "I went on holiday to Britain recently. It was fantastic. I loved London - so cool!

"But several people started doing the goose-step when they heard us speaking German. They made Hitler salutes. They put a comb underneath their noses and pretended to be Hitler. Was I supposed to find this funny? What has this got to do with me?"

Mr van den Bergh I do not know, but he seems to make sense. Jan-Phillip Litz is my stepson, he is extremely kind and thoughtful and I could only answer him: "I have no idea."