While in Paris, I dropped by an English-language bookstore named Tea and Tattered Pages. The owner is a very friendly woman of a Certain Age. As you might guess, there are cats about. In T & TP, you’ll find everything from well-thumbed paperback thrillers to diet books to back-issues of Granta.
I found something a book called Über Alles, by an Hungarian-born English writer named George Mikes. Mikes became slightly famous in England after writing a 1946 book called How to be an Alien, in which he took a bit of piss out of Britain. The one-sentence chapter on English sex read: "Continental people have sex lives; the English have hot-water bottles." The book sold well, and his English publishers sent Mikes all over the world to report on the doings and dealings of various foreigners, from a mostly-English perspective.
They sent him to Germany in 1953. Germany was still occupied, all the wounds were still fresh. He traveled all around, apparently speaking to people in Germany (which he probably would have learned, having grown up in Hungary). He then wrote Über Alles. In the next few days, I’ll post a few excerpts from the book, to give you an idea of how a Hungarian-Englishman saw Germany while it was still under occupation. Here’s a chunk from the chapter entitled "First Impressions":
I discovered in Germany that our own officials at home are polite and charming. I realised for the first time that they have certain engaging characteristics which I had never noticed before. An ordinary English official is not devoted to his work, and slightly detests the people with whom he has to deal. This is an attractive human trait in his character. German officials on the other hand love their work, they are zealous priests of a modern. almighty God – the State – and are fully aware that they are representing Deity. The State exists for its own sake, and the people’s only duty is to supply raw material for administration.
Even a German visa-the first German document I saw – is worded with bureaucratic gusto and an eye for meticulous detail. Among other things, it tells you whether you are allowed to cross the frontier once or several times within a stated period and whether you may enter at a certain point only or anywhere you like (provided you choose an authorised crossing pint). An English visa merely states that you may enter the United Kingdom, and
My next observation is of great historical importance. I learnt that there had been no Nazism in Germany. In Hungary, after the war, everybody told me about the horrors of Nazism and informed me that they had worked with the resistance. The resistance movement-which in fact hardly existed-seemed to have contained eight million ardent and active members. There was Nazism in Hungary but there were no Nazis. In Germany there was apparently not even Nazism. If you try to talk to the Germans about Nazism they dismiss the subiect with a smile or brush it aside with an impatient gesture. Not that they are ashamed, or have anything to conceal. They are simply bored. The whole thing is over, forgotten, not worth mentioning. They had heard something about it, yes, but it all happened in prehistoric times.
Take as an example two young ladies I met in Germany. One told me in the first half hour of our acquaintanceship that she had an illegifimate child by an estate agent who was now living in Dresden; the other informed me casually that she was a Lesbian. But both refused to talk about the Nazi period – although, as I later heard, one had suffered a great deal from the Nazis and behaved with admirable courage. But now they were only interested in themselves and not in past political squabbles. (This refers to the whole of West Germany, except the Bonn enclave. Outside Bonn, people are interested in everything except politics; in Bonn only and exclusively in politics.)
It is not only that most Germans have abolished Nazism from their memories and from the focus of their interest (and this is the last of my initial observances), but they are also ready to forgive us. They are generous souls and bear no resentment against us for their crimes. We ruined their lovely country; brought the Russians into their land; we are foreigners still occupying their soil; we have committed innumerable crimes and injustices under the guise of ‘war criminal’ (always in inverted commas) trials and denazification procedure, but they are wise enough to know that we must live together in peace and it is no good raking up the past.
More slightly-jaundiced observations coming up in the next few days!