Britain and Germany

December 9 2009

One of Melvyn Bragg’s In Our Time discussions last year (BBC Radio 4, archive here) was called The Riddle of the Sands, after the novel by Erskine Childers. Panel: Richard Evans, Professor of Modern History, University of Cambridge; Rosemary Ashton, Quain Professor of English Language and Literature, University College, London; Tim Blanning, Professor of Modern European History, University of Cambridge. I mentioned Rosemary Ashton in this post (below) before I noticed that she was in the discussion.

Synopsis: their words and mine.

Erskine Childers’s novel (1903) was about a German plot to invade England from the Frisian Islands. The plan is casually foiled by some English yachtsmen. I mentioned Childers here. The novel was a vision of two nations about to fight the First World War.

The British and the Germans had fought together at Waterloo in 1815, had influenced profoundly each other’s thought and art, and even shared a royal family. Yet victory at Waterloo and the shared glories of Romanticism became the tragedy of the Somme.

Daniel Maclise’s painting of Wellington and Blücher shaking hands on the battlefield hangs in the House of Lords. But Prussia was still not a great power. It got the Rhineland in the post-war settlement, bringing it to the border of France, but the dominant central European power in the post-war order was Austria.

Robert Southey’s poem on Waterloo is outspoken about the cruelty of the Prussians towards the French after the victory. The Prussians invaded France in 1814 and after Waterloo. Unlike Britain, they had been occupied and they wanted revenge.

Napoleon had invaded Germany at a time of a German literary renaissance. Goethe, Schiller, Herder, Kant, Lessing. Shakespeare appealed to the German Romantics. Translations by August Wilhelm von Schlegel, completed and edited by Ludwig Tieck. Shakespeare represented poetic freedom, a liberation from the influence of the rule-bound drama of France with its excessive attention to the Aristotelian virtues. Schlegel’s Shakespeare criticism was read in England.

Coleridge visited Germany in 1798-99. The German view of Shakespeare influenced him. So did Kant’s view of the transcending power of the imagination. A bursting free, connecting mind and matter. English empiricism from Locke to Hume had seemed unable to transcend the senses and individual impressions.

Gothic novels had German themes.

The English had a certain admiration for Prussian tolerance of Catholics, and for Prussian education. The architect of the Prussian education system had been Wilhelm von Humboldt. University College London was established in 1826 partly under the influence of Prussian ideas. Development of German universities. Science in education.

But Coleridge, Carlyle and others found Germany backward in some ways: poor and dirty. Henry Mayhew as well. The opposite of the late-nineteenth century view.

Thackeray’s satire on the small German principalities in Vanity Fair, 1847-48, but set at the time of the Napoleonic Wars.

What the Germans liked in England: its vitality, its parliamentary and constitutional traditions, its civil rights, habeas corpus. But in philosophy and music we were non-existent, though the phrase das Land ohne Musik was not coined until the early twentieth century. Yet the English took Mendelssohn to their hearts.

England saw Germany as cultured, but politically repressive and backward (especially after 1819, with the Carlsbad Decrees). Germany saw England as philistine but free. In Germany oppression but cultural riches, in England political liberty but cultural poverty.

The cultured Berlin as rebuilt by Karl Friedrich Schinkel, Munich as rebuilt by Ludwig I and Leo von Klenze. George Eliot’s visit to Berlin in 1854. She admires Prussian education. So do Dickens, John Stuart Mill and others. But there are soldiers on every street corner. There was academic but not political freedom. Carlyle proselytised for German culture and admired Goethe. George Eliot’s essay A Word for the Germans, 1865. Matthew Arnold on culture.

Victoria married her cousin Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha in 1836. The royal family had been German since 1714. He was disliked, but then liked. He was Protestant and serious.

The exiles from 1848, including Marx and Engels, often showed an awed admiration of England. Albert played a central part in organising the Great Exhibition of 1851, which made a deep impression on Germans.

Prussian victories over Austria in 1866 and France in 1870-71. Annexation of Alsace-Lorraine. More Prussian crimes on French soil. Bonapartist threat eliminated. German Empire established in 1871. Industrialisation. Science in universities. How did the gap between research and industry open in England?

Suddenly Germany no longer appeared politically incompetent. Nor was it liberal. The pious Protestant Prussia of old was suddenly a major power. Even at the start of the Franco-Prussian War the British had shown the old responses: vainglorious French aggressor, Prussian underdog.

Benjamin Disraeli, House of Commons, February 19 1871:

“Let me impress upon the attention of the House the character of this war between France and Germany. It is no common war, like the war between Prussia and Austria, or like the Italian war in which France was engaged some years ago; nor is it like the Crimean War.

“This war represents the German revolution, a greater political event than the French revolution of last century. I don’t say a greater, or as great a social event. What its social consequences may be are in the future. Not a single principle in the management of our foreign affairs, accepted by all statesmen for guidance up to six months ago, any longer exists. There is not a diplomatic tradition which has not been swept away. You have a new world, new influences at work, new and unknown objects and dangers with which to cope, at present involved in that obscurity incident to novelty in such affairs. We used to have discussions in this House about the balance of power. Lord Palmerston, eminently a practical man, trimmed the ship of State and shaped its policy with a view to preserve an equilibrium in Europe. […] But what has really come to pass? The balance of power has been entirely destroyed, and the country which suffers most, and feels the effects of this great change most, is England.”

The Battle of Dorking, 1871, a novel about a Prussian invasion of Britain, a call to arms. Early example of the pre-1914 literature of warnings.

Jerome K Jerome’s Three Men on the Bummel, 1900, shows a prosperous, no longer dirty, authoritarian, excessively organised but still non-aggressive Germany.

Arrival of mass culture and the Yellow Press. Invasion literature appears in both languages. Stories are translated from one language to the other. William Le Queux’ quasi-documentary The Invasion of 1910. The Daily Mail (odious then as now) serialises it from March 19 1906 and has its newspaper sellers on the streets dressed as Prussian soldiers with spiked helmets. In the next post I’ll show a published protest by Germans against this type of sensationalism.

Eyre Crowe. From 1897 to 1916 the German Secretary of State for the Navy is Alfred von Tirpitz. 1904, Entente Cordiale. 1906, launch of the Dreadnought.

The Riddle of the Sands is, in fact, rather pro-German in tone. It displays admiration for Germany, while warning England. Contemporary commentators distinguish between the “good” and the “bad” Germany: Goethe, Schiller, Beethoven; Prussia, the Kaiser, militarism. Buchan’s Greenmantle is different. It was published in 1916. 1914 is the turning-point.

Abolition of Prussia in 1947 by Allied decree.


Afterthoughts. 1914 was not the first time Britain had opposed Prussia. If the post-Napoleonic settlement was a stage in Prussia’s rise, and the victory over Austria in 1866 the prelude to the next stage, then the previous stage had been the conquest of Silesia in 1740 in the War of the Austrian Succession, in which Britain had supported Austria. But I don’t think that British troops engaged directly with Prussian. They would fight on the same side as Prussia in the Seven Years’ War.

I have a book by Rosemary Ashton called Little Germany, Exile and Asylum in Victorian England, OUP, 1986, about the exiles from 1848. From the blurb: “Marx spent his time in London at work on Das Kapital, supported financially by Engels; other exiles found different spheres of activity. The ‘bourgeois’ refugees Gottfried Kinkel and Friedrich Althaus settled down to teaching and journalism; Lessner and Eccarius, tailors by profession, played a part in establishing the First International Working Men’s Association in the 1860s; and among the German women who fled to England, the remarkable Johanna Kinkel and Malwida von Meysenbug (sic) were forced to suffer the relative indignity of work as music teacher and governess respectively.”

The In Our Time discussion says that the phrase Land ohne Musik was coined in 1914. Some sources say 1904. It appeared in a book about England by an obscure writer called Oskar Schmitz. But Schmitz had not realised that an English musical renaissance was underway. The phrase could be used for the age between, say, Handel’s Jephtha (1752) and Elgar’s Enigma Variations (1899). Handel became an English composer. Was the soil around him thinning compared to what it had been in the century and a half from Tallis to Purcell? Do we fail to notice this because he himself looms so large? Of course, the more closely you look at the later century and a half, the more you discover there.

Germans have tried with Elgar – they performed him often in the first decade of the twentieth century (Mahler even conducted Cockaigne) – but not got him under their skin, Vaughan Williams and others still less. Britten is another matter: I would guess that the Britten estate earns more in Germany than it does in England.

PG Wodehouse contributed to the invasion literature genre with a comic novel called The Swoop!, in 1909.

If the exiles of 1848 regarded England with a certain awe, then the exiles from the German-speaking world in the 1930s were also charmed. I’ll do a post on them one day, especially on two friends, Fred Uhlman (1901-85) and Roland Hill (born 1920).

In 2009 Germany was showing itself as in some ways a more mature democracy than England.



3 Responses to “Britain and Germany”

  1. davidderrick Says:

    The “further reading” list shown for this programme online (the programme archive is permanently available) reads:

    “S. T. Coleridge, Biographia Literaria (1817)

    Thomas Carlyle, Sartor Resartus (1834)

    George Eliot, A Word for the Germans (1865)

    Matthew Arnold, Culture and Anarchy (1869) and Friendship’s Garland (1870)

    Rosemary Ashton, The German Idea: Four English Writers and the Reception of German Thought, 1800-1860 (1980, reprinted 1994)

    Stefan Collini, English Pasts: Essays in History and Culture (1999)

    Gisela Argyle, Germany as Model and Monster: Allusions in English Fiction, 1830s-1930s (2002)

    Richard Milton, Best of Enemies, Britain and Germany: 100 Years of Truth and Lies (Icon Books, 2007)

    Jerome K. Jerome, Three Men on the Bummel (Penguin Classics; new edition, 1995)

    Panikos Panayi, German Immigrants in Britain during the 19th Century, 1815-1914 (Berg Publishers, 1995)

    I. F. Clarke, Voices Prophesying War, 1763-1914 (Oxford University Press, USA; new edition, 1993)

    S. S. Prawer, Breeches and Metaphysics (Legenda, 1998)

    John Ramsden, ‘Don’t Mention the War!’, The British and the Germans since 1890 (Little Brown, 2006)

    Paul M. Kennedy, The Rise of the Anglo-German Antagonism, 1860-1914 (Humanities Press, USA; new edition, 1987)”

  2. richard Says:

    Disraeli’s speech is inspiringly clear-sighted, and so full of compressed moments of thought that it takes a few reads – “that obscurity incident to novelty” is particularly fine. I don’t know whether to be sad or glad that our own political leaders don’t speak like that at all. He certainly gives the impression of an incisive grasp of the situation, though, even when he’s saying “forget everything you know.”

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