What Does British Press See in Pope? Just a German

The New York Times, April 22, 2005


LONDON, April 21 - It has been 60 years since World War II ended, and 30 or so since the fictional hotelier Basil Fawlty felt strangely compelled to goose-step around the dining room upon the arrival of some German guests. But Britain's obsession with Germany's role in the war, at least as expressed in its news media, still shows no signs of letting up.
Which is why headlines about Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger's selection as pope this week have been dominated by allusions to his wartime past.
"From Hitler Youth to Papa Ratzi," was the headline in the popular newspaper The Sun on Tuesday, while The Daily Express prominently made the point that the new pope, Benedict XVI, has gone by the nicknames not only of "God's Rottweiler," but also of "panzer cardinal."
Actually, claimed The Daily Mirror, which also put "Hitler Youth" in its headline, Benedict XVI finds the Rottweiler and panzer nicknames "amusing," along with a third, "Joe the rat."
In an article exploring the pope's conduct in wartime, The Mirror quoted Elizabeth Lohner, an 84-year-old woman from his hometown in Bavaria, as saying that contrary to the pope's contention that he had no choice but to enroll in the Hitler Youth, "it was possible to resist." Her own brother, she said, was a conscientious objector who was sent to Dachau for his beliefs.
In Germany, where British reporters were seen trawling the countryside apparently in an effort to find evidence of shady wartime activities by the new pope, people were not pleased at what they saw as further evidence of Britain's inability to let go of the Nazi era.
"It's disgraceful to reduce the German pope, on the day after his election, to a member of the Hitler Youth," said the popular newspaper Bild. "The British have done it. They are reporting on Benedict XVI with mockery and undisguised rage."
Meanwhile, a Bild columnist, Franz Josef Wagner, wrote an open letter to British tabloids, warning them that the devil "seems to have slipped into your newsroom" and that "your headlines on the new German pope stink of him, like sulfur and rotten eggs."
He added, "Anyone reading your British popular newspapers must have thought Hitler had been made pope."
Xenophobic and eager to pander to its readers' prejudices about foreigners, the British tabloids have a proud history of anti-German sentiment. Anti-French sentiment, too. The Germans might still be the Krauts or the Hun in tabloid-speak, but the French are and will forever be the Frogs. "Frogs Need a Good Kicking," The Daily Star reported on its front page in 1998, in an article about what it perceived as Gallic mismanagement of the World Cup soccer tournament that summer.
But it is the Germans, once Britain's mortal enemies, who come in for the worst of it. The most notorious example took place in 1996, when The Mirror, in another soccer-related article, treated its readers to an enormous front-page headline "Achtung! Surrender!" Meanwhile, Prince Harry, the younger son of the heir to the throne, was caught recently wearing a Nazi outfit to a fancy-dress party.
By now, many Germans are thoroughly sick of the whole thing. "If you want to learn to goose-step, go to Britain," the German foreign minister once complained. German students traveling in Britain regularly report that they have been ridiculed, spat at and called "Nazis" by random British people. The British government has intimated that the history curriculum could do with some tweaking, to round out the portrait of Germany taught to students.
"It is right that the Second World War and the crimes of the Nazi period are taught and understood," the British ambassador to Germany, Sir Peter Torry, said recently. "But British children should also learn about what German democracy has achieved since 1945."
The German ambassador to Britain, Thomas Matussek, has often spoken out about the media's seeming preoccupation with Nazism - "hardly a day goes by without a documentary or a film about the Nazi era," he once said - and the frequent "repetition of clich├ęs and stereotypes" about Germany.
In Der Spiegel, Matthias Matussek, who is the ambassador's brother, wrote a stern article on the subject after some German schoolchildren were attacked in London.
"In Britain, the Germans have always been part of everyday life, as Nazi caricatures to be scorned at will," he wrote. "Sixty years after the end of the war, 10-year-old German children are hunted down in the parks of London for being 'Krauts.' "

Mark Landler contributed reporting from Germany for this article.