Don't be fooled by appearances, these gentlemen are not veterans of the Second World War. (Photo by Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images)

June 29, 2021   6 mins

Around 25 years ago, a poll was taken among the British public asking them to name their most well-known Germans, living or dead. Number 2, beating Beethoven, Bach, Bismarck, Goethe and Gutenberg, was the Tottenham Hotspur striker Jurgen Klinsmann. Number one was, well, you-know-who.

Klinsmann had become much loved in England since his surprise move to north London, instantly charming the nation with his self-mocking diving celebration — but then football is the means by which many English people come to know the Germans. It has also brought out our worst instincts, the England-Germany fixture leaving many trapped in a permanent state of Second World War nostalgia. Players and officials have once again pleaded with fans not to sings songs about the war when the teams meet today, and while some probably will, things have improved since the days when Klinsmann played.

The story of Anglo-German football rivalry mirrors the real-life relationship off the pitch, with England’s great inferiority complex towards their cousins across the North Sea and an often-embarrassing obsession with past military glories.

“A year’s work improving Anglo-German relations can be undone by a single England-Germany match”. So said British diplomat in Berlin to the Observer back in 2001, as the two teams were set to meet for a World Cup qualifier in Munich (which, as every Englishman knows, we won 5-1).

The previous few years had seen an intensification of the rivalry, often becoming very ugly; fans from both countries had behaved horrifically in the 1998 World Cup in France, and two years later had used the European Championship in Belgium to organise a fight, like some bizarre inversion of the famous 1914 Christmas Truce football match in No Man’s Land.  The same year that Klinsmann arrived here, a friendly had to be cancelled because the date — 20 April, Hitler’s birthday — might attract Right-wing extremists from both countries. Throughout the previous decade the English tabloids had used increasingly hysterical language, referencing the war and using crude national slurs.

Yet this Donner und Blitzen idea of every Germany game being a rerun of the conflict was not a product of the immediate post-war period, but grew up later, and had more to do with England’s general sense of failure in the last third of the 20th century. It wasn’t those raised in the shadow of the war who became obsessed with it, but those raised in the shadow of its cultural legacy, the countless war films, comics and comedies that comprised British culture life for decades.

It was in the 1880s that Anglo-Saxon missionaries brought the game to their continental cousins, just as their ancestors had once brought Christianity. One British teacher in Germany, with a bit too much optimism, declared at the time that the game will provide “an education in that spirit of chivalry, fairness and good temper”.

Despite various unofficial tours, the first international only took place in 1930, a 3-3 in Berlin. When the teams met again, in 1935 at White Hart Lane, it was played with an air of sporting chivalry, despite protests by anti-Nazis. An English journalist, insightful as ever, observed: “Football is a game more suited to the Anglo-Saxon and the Teuton than to the Latin race.”

Far more controversial was the game in Berlin held three years later, when the Foreign Office forced the England players to give the Hitler salute. Stanley Matthews afterwards said that they were “livid” about the gesture, with full-back Bert Sproston adding that Hitler was “an evil little twat”. England won 6-3, but the return match scheduled for late 1939 was never played, for some reason.

After the war, the English FA took the lead in setting up a lot of West German football infrastructure, and organising Anglo-German youth tournaments. Stanley Rous, head of the FA, was awarded the West German Grand Cross of the Order of Merit.

Yet the fortunes of the two countries went in opposite directions, certainly off the pitch. Despite the devastation of Germany, Britain ended up exiting rationing four years later, in 1954, well into a trajectory of economic decline and stagnation, while Germany enjoyed an economic miracle. People naturally equate sporting success with national greatness, so West Germany’s 1954 World Cup win against the favourites Hungary is seen as an apt representation of their phoenix-like return.

As the war receded in time, so its psychological importance in England grew, and German Culture Minister Michael Naumann would reflect accurately at the turn of the century: “There is only one nation that has decided to make the Second World War a sort of spiritual core of its self-understanding and pride.” He meant us, of course.

Before the 1966 World Cup Final, The Sun had joked that “as the Fatherland are embarrassingly aware, England have never lost to Germany — at soccer either.” That was extremely mild compared to what was to come, as England went into national and footballing decline, the country missing two world cups and mired in power shortages, industrial disputes and the Heath-Wilson terror. In the 1980s, English tabloids became obsessive, with Germany always equating to “war” in their own personal Rorschach test. When the sides met in Spain in 1982, the Sun declared: “Achtung Stations”. For a friendly five years later, it was “The Battle of the Krauts”. When England drew Germany again, in the 1990 World Cup semi-final, the paper urged “Help Our Boys Clout The Krauts”.

We didn’t clout them, although the match was probably the most influential in English football history, Gazza’s tears seen as the start of the embourgeoisement of the game. (Indeed, no tears in history have been worth so much.) Attendances rose, stadiums got fuller and safer.

Six years later came the thrilling Euro 96, a tournament dominated in the memory by the defeat of Holland, Three Lions (which also became very popular in Germany) and the revival of the St George’s Cross, until then almost unknown except on church buildings. It was a wonderful atmosphere and there had been very little violence — although partly because the world’s worst travelling supporters were at home.

Yet when England and Germany’s paths met things were inevitably soured by the media’s almost demented obsession with the War, immersed in a national culture obsessed with it.

I grew up in the Eighties playing with Second World War toy soldiers as kids, but older cousins would have read Commando, the hugely popular, absurdly bloodthirsty comics of the Seventies in which the Hun are portrayed as ruthless killing machines shouting “Gott im Himmel” as the heroic Tommy machine-guns them down. At the same time, few British people holidayed in Germany; not many children were taught German, something that declined even more in the Nineties. There was, and is, a strange lack of curiosity about the place, which is not reciprocated.

War films were still a huge part of the very limited televisual schedule, so much so that the genre was ubiquitous enough to be parodied; one famous, funny advert showed the boys of the 617 Squadron attacking a dam with bouncing bombs, when much to their surprise, the German soldier saves each in turn, leading one to comment, “I bet he drinks Carling Black Label”. (Perhaps the most offensive thing about that to a German now would be the idea of drinking Carling.) Television still had plentiful reruns of Dad’s Army and Allo Allo, because invariably the war was a subject of comic relief here, when it wasn’t a matter of now-tedious gloating.

So when the two teams played almost exactly 25 years ago,The Mirror ran their famous headline “Achtung Surrender, for you Fritz ze Euro 96 Championship iz over”, with a picture of Stuart Pierce and Paul Gascoigne wearing Tommy helmets. Meanwhile The Sun gave us “Blitz Fritz”, while the Daily Star warned “Watch out, Krauts, England are gonna bomb you to bits at Wembley,” with manager Terry Venables done up as Lord Kitchener. Even at the time I remember thinking: isn’t this a bit weird? We obliterated whole German cities in living memory! Tens of thousands of civilians died.

Yet The Mirror had badly misjudged the mood — the paper received 900 written complaints from readers, and issued an apology, sending a Harrods hamper to Jurgen Klinsmann. It reported this with the headline: “Peas in our time”. The paper also abandoned its proposed next stunt — a Spitfire flypast over the England team hotel. (Why stop there? Why not hire an old Lancaster bomber for a flypast over Dresden? It’d be hilarious banter.)

The German media found this all completely baffling. “The fatal defect in cows’ brains seems to have transferred to the two-legged inhabitants on the island,” the Cologne-based Express suggested after the Mirror’s outburst.

Most English football fans, I imagine, agreed, and were embarrassed by the tabloids, especially as the German players and fans had been perfect guests in Cheshire. After they won the tournament, the German FA put out full-page adverts in the newspapers thanking the people of England for their hospitality. The Queen of England gave a genuinely warm smile as Klinsmann lifted the trophy.

Perhaps it was a turning point, although the German-bashing didn’t stop after that, with subsequent headlines such as “Hun-Bearable”, “Hun-canny!” and “Hun, Draw and Slaughter!” The Sun were still at it in 2005, and following a complaint from the German Embassy about Sun columnist Jeremy Clarkson’s comments on Top Gear, published a list of German war jokes, with a reference to a certain wartime leader. Clarkson had said the GPS on a German-made Mini would “only go to Poland”.

That same year the FA commissioned adverts with leading players asking the fans not to mention the war, and a message about anti-German songs was also sent out with each ticket. That was 60 years after the war ended; now, 16 years later Harry Kane has repeated the appeal, urging fans not to sing “Ten German Bombers”.

Will it stop the chants? Probably not, but it doesn’t mean that things haven’t changed. Something like The Mirror’s Achtung Surrender headline would be unlikely now, and when a Tory MPs raised the analogy during the Brexit negotiations he was met with widespread derision and contempt. It would be nice to suggest that this is the product of some new-found national confidence, but the obvious, boring explanation is that my generation, the last raised on re-runs of Dad’s Army and comics called D-Day: Fight or Die!, are getting middle aged. Finally, for the English, ze (obsession with ze) war is over.

Ed West’s book Tory Boy is published by Constable