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Interesting, but not well organized or presented
on 7 April 2014
Miranda Seymour is dismayed by the fact that nearly 70 years after the end of the Second World War the popular media still play on a negative image of the Germans. She has collected a large number of stories of friendly, mutually admiring and/or creative encounters and also marriages between Britons and Germans from 1613 onwards. Some of these are well-known: literary figures, artists, diplomats and politicians; but the majority of them are not. We are introduced to a plethora of unfamiliar individuals. Miranda Seymour is an experienced writer of fiction, non-fiction and children's books; so it is surprising that here her writing is in a few places dense to the point of near-indigestibility as we are swamped with names and with relationships which are hard to remember: an appendix with a few family trees or an expansion of the individual index entries would have been very helpful. Elsewhere the book is more readable, and there are many anecdotes, some amusing, some sad, some touching.
The author knows a great deal about the lives of her characters and feels compelled to spill out everything she knows, so much so that there is a frequent loss of focus on the book's theme, Anglo-German relations; and I also think there is sometimes more detail about political events than is needed. The book is something of a mishmash of high politics and private lives.
The heyday of friendly feelings between the two countries was the period between the late 1790s and 1880s. A large number of Germans actually came to live in Britain - in the 1840s there were some 30,000 German immigrants: workers many of whom spoke no English, and of course middle and upper-class Germans who were attracted to a country ruled by a German dynasty. (I did not know that Queen Victoria's first language was German and that in private she and Albert would speak in German). There do not seem to have been anything like that number of Britons who lived in Germany, although many of them travelled there, visiting its sights, its courts, and its intellectuals.
Miranda Seymour does not ignore the rough patches, even during the time when on the whole the relationships were for the most part positive. She doesn't deal with the anti-Hanoverian British politicians during the reigns of George I and George II; but she does show that there was some antagonism in England to Prince Albert because he was a German; there was deep antagonism which Bismarck whipped up against the "English" influence of Crown Princess (later briefly Empress) Victoria. The book charts the ambivalence of the emotionally unstable William II's attitude to England. And by the 1890s the British and German empires had started on a collision course which put a damper on the previously cordial relations not only between the two governments but also on those between their citizens. But a number of prominent Britons and Germans worked hard for continuing Anglo-German friendship.
When the First World War comes, Miranda Seymour shows, among the jubilation of the crowds and the excesses in both countries (internments of civilians, the banning of each others' music etc), the heartbreak of many German Anglophiles and British Germanophiles. Some of them retained and even professed their love for the "enemy" country throughout the war.
After that war some Britons condemned the harshness of the Treaty of Versailles, felt sorry for the state of post-war Germany, and worked to bring Germany back into the community of nations. A few fell under the spell of Hitler and sympathized with his incipient movement and, later, with the Nazi regime, while Hitler himself, in Mein Kampf, envisioned a partnership between natural allies, a ruthless England controlling a maritime Empire and a ruthless Germany dominating the continent of Europe. There were Englishmen who were thrilled by the libertarian and cultural life of Berlin during the Weimar Republic and who were of course appalled by the rise of the Nazis. There is a chapter about English teenagers or a little older, boys and girls, still travelling to Nazi Germany to live with German families and simply having a good time, some of them "unscathed by the evidence that anything might be amiss in this disciplined and glittering world". But then The Times, the Daily Mail and the Daily Express all played down the horrors of what was happening in Germany. The heavily aristocratic Anglo-German Association, founded in 1929 to further understanding between the two nations, shed its Jewish Chairman in 1933 and (re-named the Anglo-German Fellowship in 1935) and cultivated (and was eagerly cultivated by) Hitler's ambassador, von Ribbentrop, who came to the conclusion that England would never fight Germany. (The chapter dealing with these aristocrats is called, perhaps punningly, "Noble Endeavours" - but it seems a curious title for the book as a whole.) Altogether, British and especially German aristocrats play a disproportionate role in the book as a whole.
There is relatively little about Germans who established connections with England during the Weimar period - one exception being the German Rhodes scholars at Oxford, one of whom was Adam von Trott who was executed for the July 20th plot against Hitler in 1944. All that changed as Germans, mostly Jews, sought refuge in England after 1933. The most fortunate ones were the intellectuals who benefitted from the Academic Assistance Council created in 1933. They were followed by such floods of refugees as were permitted by British immigration rules. Many middle class refugees found sponsorships for employment as domestic servants or other such work. In 1938 the Quakers managed to get the Home Office to accept refugee children (the Kindertransport), even if their parents had to stay behind. In 1940 many of the adults who had managed to come as refugees were (mostly for only a short time) interned on the Isle of Man as "enemy aliens", together with non-refugee Germans, some of them Nazi sympathizers, who had lived in Britain for some time.
The books ends with two stories about prisoners of war. In Bavaria British pows in Bavaria performed, to enthusiastic applause by their Nazi guards, of plays by Shakespeare - suggesting the possibility of new bridges being built between Britain and Germany after the war. And in Britain two German-born Jews, Herbert Sulzbach and Heiz Koeppler, were astonishingly successful in re-educating, at Featherstone Park and Wilton Park respectively, a large number of Nazi-indoctrinated prisoners of war. Sulzbach would receive over 3,000 letters of gratitude.
It is a pity that the book ends in 1945 and so does not explore the new relationships which, despite much media harping on the Nazi period, did in fact grow between the two countries.