By Max Hastings.
The British knew the feeling. One minute there you are, like Brazil’s football team on Tuesday, settling down to start a long campaign. The next minute, bewilderingly, it is all over: Germany is master of the field, counting prisoners or — in this case — an unprecedented 7-1 triumph in the World Cup semi-final, executed with chilling discipline and precision.
What is it about the Germans? Yes, yes, I know we are not meant to mention the war, or rather wars. But how can we not do so, when for centuries the world paid tribute to Germany’s prowess on the battlefield? The Roman writer Tacitus and the French revolutionary Mirabeau alike marvelled at the Germans as a society of supremely disciplined warriors.
Field-Marshal Sir Harold Alexander wrote ruefully from Italy in 1944, lamenting the difficulties of the Allied armies, struggling to make headway in mountainous terrain. ‘Unfortunately,’ he said, ‘we are fighting the best soldiers in the world. What men!’
Today, even if the warriors are gone, the national genius for disciplined pursuit of purpose persists. In the seven decades since Germany abandoned militarism and espoused democracy, it has brilliantly translated the skills that made its armies so often supreme on the battlefield into economic, industrial and indeed social success on an equally awesome scale.
Germany is today the most effective society in Europe, even extending its achievement to the football pitch, in an era when, if there was a World XI, it is unlikely any England player would be picked for it.
I have been studying the Germans and their history for most of my life. For centuries, foreign admiration focused on just one state — Prussia. Frederick the Great in the mid-18th century made its army the most formidable in Europe, and its Field-Marshal, Blucher, famously fought alongside Wellington at Waterloo.
But until the late 19th century, the British condescended to Prussia: it might be formidable, but it was scarcely a country in the same league as Britain, France and Russia. When Princess Victoria, the Queen and Prince Albert’s daughter, became engaged to the heir to the Prussian throne, The Times complained bitterly that the most eligible royal bride in Europe was attaching herself to ‘a paltry German dynasty’.
Such a patronising spirit did not survive for long. In 1871, Otto von Bismarck swept up Prussia’s neighbouring princely states into a new German empire. In the decades that followed, Germany became the most formidable industrial nation in Europe, overtaking Britain by the most important yardsticks, above all in the production of machine tools.
The magazine John Bull grudgingly praised its expatriate workers in Britain: ‘These Germans have earned for themselves a good character. They are steady, regular, not so much given to drink as their English fellow-workers . . . often very much superior to the Englishmen who may apply for the same post. They are much better educated, more respectful, and, in a word “do not give themselves airs”.’
In 1896, the ex-prime minister Lord Rosebery said in a speech: ‘I am afraid of Germany. Why am I afraid of the Germans? Because I admire and esteem them so much. They are an industrious nation; they are, above all, a systematic nation, they are a scientific nation, and whatever they take up, whether it be the arts of peace or the arts of war, they push them forward to the utmost possible perfection with that industry, that system, that science which is part of their character.’
To me, the supreme irony of 1914 is that if Germany had not gone to war, almost nothing could have prevented it from dominating Europe within a generation by entirely peaceful means — primacy in industry, science, technology.
It was the most advanced society on the Continent, save in one critical respect: it was cursed by an archaic system of government in which a half-mad emperor, together with generals and ministers whom he personally appointed, held power over peace and war, and used it with disastrous consequences for mankind.
What is extraordinary about both world wars is not that Germany lost them, but that this one nation — with marginal assistance from a few feeble allies — held most of the world at bay for four years between 1914 and 1918, then again for six between 1939 and 1945. I have scarcely met a man who fought against the Germans who did not emerge with a profound respect for their gifts as soldiers, sailors, airmen.
We can admire what German servicemen achieved on the battlefield, especially in 1944-45, when they were hopelessly outgunned.
‘How could one not admire them?’, said a British officer whom I interviewed about the 1944 campaign in Normandy. ‘They were very, very good. They almost never gave up until the bitter end.’
And what of relations today? David Cameron thinks he has forged a close relationship and understanding with Chancellor Angela Merkel — then painfully discovers that this is not the case.
German politicians tell us they passionately want us to stay in Europe; that they share many of our hopes for reform of the EU.
But then we find, to our frustration and anger, that matters are not so simple; that for all their professions of enthusiasm for a partnership with Britain, they are pursuing a vision for the EU’s future totally at odds with that of most British people. They seem irredeemably committed to ‘ever-closer union’.
I am often asked if I see any parallels between 1914 and today. Not quite, I answer; there is mercifully no prospect of another Great War.
But Europe has faced the same problem since 1871, and still does today: how to co-exist with one state mightier and more effective than any other, without becoming effectively subjects of a German empire.
It is not that Germany in 2014 is doing anything malevolent: it simply manages its affairs, and especially its commercial affairs, vastly better than the rest of us. Mercedes, VW and BMW (which now owns Mini and Rolls-Royce) make the finest cars money can buy, outside niche markets.
The German pharmaceutical industry is among the most dynamic in the world. The German cut-price supermarkets Aldi and Lidl threaten to undo our own traditional High Street giants with a combination of low costs and shrewd offers of surprisingly good produce. The world queues to buy Germany’s industrial output.
German regional banks set an example to our own through their identification with local businesses and support for industrial investment. Angela Merkel effortlessly dominates the EU, appearing a giant among the pygmies who lead partner states.
Germany is so rich that it can afford — in effect — to pay the Greeks and Spanish to buy its motor cars.
Finally, look again at that football squad: no ludicrously ecstatic celebrations when its players score, even time and again in a World Cup semi-final; no visible tattoos; a supreme understanding of what teamwork means, rather than rampant egotism.
This is a footballing nation now flourishing in a league where ticket prices are low because club members must hold a majority stake in each team.
They are worthy champions, exemplars of the qualities that have made their country great in peace, the terror of the world in war.
Could anybody in modern times say the same about an England national team?
It is some consolation that we, as a nation, have more fun and, indeed, are more fun than the Germans. Because when it comes to the serious stuff, they leave us gaping.
Source: Daily Mail