A strange, and totally unexpected thing has happened to me, I’ve fallen in love. Not with a person, but with a country. Germany. That probably sounds strang, coming from the son of a Jewish refugee who saw many of her relatives end up in the gas chambers of Auschwitz and Belsen, and until last year, I would never have believed it was a country I could ever become attached to. It is one of the biggest and most delightful surprises of my life, and it has really changed my perspective on modern Europe.
My mother arrived in Dover in 1938, twenty-two years old scared and alone, with nothing but the clothes she stood up in, a valise full of gloving leathers and Juden (Jew) stamped across her passport. She and her five siblings only escaped because her father bribed their passage out of Austria into Switzerland, and she only got to England because her elder sister got there first, and cajoled someone into offering her a job. Without that job the English would not have accepted her and the Swiss would have sent her back to Austria and certain death. In my family, although anti-German sentiments were never expressed out aloud, growing up as a child I could always sense some underlying family unease about anything German. Except for one thing: My wonderful, deeply human and principled mother had always coveted a Mercedes SL convertible! But she had never owned one. In 1998 when she was diagnosed terminally ill with cancer, I procured one for her, telling her, ‘You’ve always wanted one – at least have some bit of joy now.’ We went for a short drive in it, then she pulled over and handed me the keys with a wry smile and said, ‘I love it, it’s the most beautiful car I’ve ever driven. But…’ She made a bunch of excuses about it, saying there was no rear seat, the roof was hard to put up and down, the boot was too small… But I understood the real reason – it was German.
Maybe I’m biased because my novel, Dead Simple (Stirb Ewig) has done so well there – getting up to No 7 in the hardback bestseller charts, but it isn’t just that. My publishers have brought me over there seven times in the past year and I’ve travelled to many towns and cities, including Berlin, Hamburg, Frankfurt, Cologne, Wiesbaden, Mainz, Reutlingen and Munich, with more to follow shortly, and I find the people, of all ages and spectrums of society, universally delightful. The biggest surprise of all is to discover the German sense of humour. Contrary to the common myth, they have the best sense of humour I have encountered anywhere in the world. It is a much broader sense of humour than the Americans, who have no grasp of irony, and broader even than the Australians. In my view our sense of humour is closer to the Germans’ than to any other nation.
During a meet-and-greet lunch in London last May, with Peter Lohmann, the CEO of Scherz, my publishers, and the editorial director, Julia Schade (who bought, for her previous publishing house, Dan Brown’s books when he was unknown and was therefore responsible for bringing the Da Vinci Code phenomenon into Germany), I asked Peter how modern Germany was. He replied that it was very interesting, and for the first time since the war there was a smash hit comedy play in Germany, written by Germans. He went on to say, “You know, our nation has a reputation for not having a sense of humour. It is because we got rid of so many of the people who bring humour to a nation. Now they are returning and it is all changing.”
Peter Lohmann was right, in part – it is the Jewish people who have perhaps the most wonderful and certainly the warmest and most philosophical humour of any race. But it is more than that, more than just the humour We really are very similar to the Germans in so many ways, socially and culturally – far more so than with any other nation in Europe. But here is the strange thing, despite their reputation as being hard workers and aggressive, they are a damned sight more relaxed in many ways than us Brits. They have a word for it, Gemütlich – the nearest British translation is “laid back” but it is more than that, it implies tolerance as well as being relaxed. Something we seem to have forgotten in the nasty, intolerant, tyranny-of-the-majority ban-everything, British Isles that the Blair government has turned us into, with horrid town councils like Campden who hound decent citizens in cars into the ground (more of that later), yet care more about the human rights of criminals than their innocent victims.
In Germany, unlike England, almost all pavements have lanes along them for cyclists to ride in safety. They have a health service that works. A brilliant education system. Great food. Best of all, for a petrol head like me, you can still drive a motor car on many stretches of road without fear of a camera or a laser gun. And, interestingly, Germans buy more books per annum than any other nation on the planet (not per-capita – that is Iceland – but total volume!) despite a population of 80m against the USA’s 200m+
But despite my eulogy, the shadow of WW2 is always there in some way or another. I asked my editor, Andrea Diederichs, who is 47, what they taught her about the War at school. She replied, “Nothing… until about a week before we left when they said “Oh – by the way, there was a war and we lost.” But her parents, she told me, have been traumatized ever since the War. They have never recovered – firstly from the terror of being in a city during all the bombing raids, and subsequently from the guilt about what their nation did.
But it is very different for today’s youngsters, where today the War forms a major part of the school curriculum. When I do readings in Germany, often youngsters in their late teens or early twenties come up to me and say things like, “Do you still hate us?” or “Do you still call us Fritz?” I think that all Germans carry something deep in their psyche that they want both to understand and forget, and cannot quite do either. To paraphrase one of their great philosophers, Nietzsche, they are a nation that went to the abyss, and seven decades later it still stares back at them. I deeply admire so much about this country, about the energy of its people and the kindnesses they have shown to me. And about the way they are trying to deal with their past. One of the most powerful images, for me, is the Holocaust Memorial in Berlin – a vast, stunningly sculpted site, with clever use of perspective filled with grey, unmarked tombs as far as the eye can see.
Berlin Holocaust Memorial
My best example of the present trying to come to terms with the past happened a few months ago, when I was one of the guest speakers at a crime-writing festival in Kassel, a stunningly sited hill town to the north of Frankfurt, where the Brothers Grimm lived and wrote. We were given a tour of the sights by a bunch of civic dignitaries, avoiding much of the town centre itself, which looks like Croydon, concentrating on the old parts, which are very fine. Standing high up outside the Grimm house, with spectacular views across 30-40 miles of countryside, I said to the mayor “What a very beautiful town you have.” He replied, in a guttural accent, quite politely and a little sadly, “It voz a lot more beautiful until 1943 ven your country flattened it.” After a few somewhat awkward moments, he then did go on to say, “I suppose we did start it.” “You could say that,” I replied.
No one can ever forgive or reduce what Hitler and his henchmen did. But there is a danger if we just focus on Germany. Both history – and our modern world, sadly – are blackened with nations engaging in genocide. My own, England, was one of the first – we deliberately gave the Canadian Indians blankets infected with smallpox to try to wipe them out. The white settlers in the USA successfully destroyed the native Red Indian communities. Under Mao there was utter terror in China. Under Pol Pot genocide in Cambodia.
LP Hartley was wrong, when he famously said, “The past is another country, they do things differently there.” Tragically, they don’t.