Nice to See Us Revert to Stereotypes

Nazi officer from Casablanca
Conrad Veidt in Casablanca (MGM, 1942).

I know that we shouldn’t laugh, but it is very hard to keep a straight face when the Italian president of our great European brotherhood starts hurling anti-Nazi insults at a German Lefty. No doubt the proper reaction to Silvio Berlusconi’s outburst would have been to shake one’s head gravely and echo [former British Foreign Secretary] Robin Cook’s judgment: “The whole point of the European ideal is to get away from crude national stereotyping.” But that was a typically dour, typically Scottish response. I’m afraid that I thought it was hilarious—but then I’m English, with more than a dash of Irish in me.

There was nothing remotely funny about the concentration camps, of course, and it was outrageous of Berlusconi to liken his German tormentor, Martin Schulz [a member of the European Parliament], to a Nazi commandant. But at the same time it was very funny indeed to see an Italian prime minister behaving exactly like my idea of a comedy Italian—volatile and utterly unstatesmanlike, with perhaps a hint of the mafioso bully about him. Had he been an Englishman of his generation, finding himself needled by a German, the thought of the Nazis would almost certainly have sprung to his mind. But he would have kept it to himself. We English are frightfully good at keeping our feelings buttoned up.

The Germans involved in this row also conform to national stereotypes. Schulz, the balding bookshop owner with the beard and the glinting steel-rimmed spectacles puts me in mind of [British comedian] Harry Enfield’s brilliant parody of a sinister German tourist in London, forever apologizing to everyone in the bus queue “for my country’s disgraceful conduct durink ze war.” Gerhard Schröder, the German chancellor, sounded like a stage German, too, when he told his country’s Parliament: “The Italian prime minister thought it was right to compare a German MP for the European Parliament with a Nazi. In terms of content and form, this comparison is a gaffe and is absolutely unacceptable.” (Try reading that aloud in a German accent, with a menacing growl, and you will see what I mean.)

When Berlusconi finally apologized to Schröder, the chancellor reported their conversation in similarly Germanic terms: “He expressed his regret about the choice of this expression and comparison.” (It was typically Italian of Berlusconi to later deny that he had apologized. Where questions of honesty arise between Germans and Italians, I am always inclined to believe the German.)

I find it very hard to make up my mind whose side I am on. Berlusconi certainly made himself unpleasant and ridiculous. On the other hand, the likes of Schulz have been riling him something rotten over the past few months, hinting that he is a crook and a right-wing thug—perhaps partly to punish him for his courageous support of Britain and America over Iraq.

Wind up an Italian, and you must expect him to snap. If you asked me whom I would rather be ruled by—a German or an Italian—I would answer unhesitatingly: “Neither.”

Berlusconi has at least done us the service, however, of exposing all this talk of European brotherhood for the sham that it is. Yes, of course we have a strong community of interest with our fellow members of the European Union (E.U.) in some areas—particularly commerce. But the nations of Europe have just too much separate history to be lumped together in a superstate, bound by the same rules. It is not only language that divides us from the Germans, the French, the Italians, and the rest. Over the centuries, our countries have evolved different ways of doing things, different habits of mind, different rules to suit different peoples.

However much Cook may wish to “get away” from crude national stereotypes, the fact is that there is some measure of truth in them. It is extremely significant that, when an Italian wants to abuse a German, he thinks immediately of Hitler, just as a German, who wants to abuse an Italian, probably thinks of the old joke about tanks with five gears—four reverse and one forward, in case the enemy attacks from behind. We are all different, and vive la différence! Here, then, as a service to future presidents of the European Union, is the Utley Guide to the National Characteristics of the Peoples of Europe:

Belgians: mad, boring. Frenchmen: arrogant, chauvinistic, garlic-breathed. Germans: humorless, ruthless, efficient, greedy. Spaniards: lazy, hot-tempered, bloodthirsty. Irishmen: drunk, lazy, self-pitying, dishonest. Italians: volatile, sleazy, vain. Swedes: sex-obsessed, robotic, conformist. Greeks: smelly, hirsute, untrustworthy. Austrians: fat, wannabe Germans. Finns: pessimistic, sun-starved, suicidal. Dutchmen: clog-wearing, tulip-fancying dope addicts. Portuguese, Danes, Luxembourgeoise: too insignificant to bother about. The Brits: upright, honest, fair-minded (excluding the Scots, who are mean and belligerent, and the Welsh, who are blathering windbags).

Before I am dragged off and lynched, I would like to make it clear that there are huge numbers of exceptions to these generalizations. I know a Scotsman, for example, who stands his round in the pub—and one or two Englishmen who don’t. I don’t think that I have ever met a German with a sense of humor, but I am quite prepared to believe that such people exist.

All I am saying is that it is better for Germans to be ruled by Germans, and Italians by Italians, than that [British Prime Minister] Tony Blair and his friends should go on pretending that the peoples of Europe have identical needs, temperaments, and economic interests. What depresses me most about the E.U. is that it seems to be an entirely one-way street.

I can think of dozens of French and German ideas, from decimalization to the Charter of Human Rights, that have been imposed on the British, born of those countries’ traditions of rationalism, harmonization, and control. But I am hard pushed to think of a single British concept that has been imposed on the rest of Europe.

This is in spite of the fact that Britain’s unwritten constitution has done a far better job of protecting peace, prosperity, and freedom over the past 1,000 years than anything dreamt up on the Continent.

All right, perhaps I am a little Englander. But Berlusconi has done a useful job of reminding us that British europhobes are not the only nationalists in the union.

We all hate each other, really.