The German stereotypes that turn out to be myths


Hard-working, efficient, humourless. There are many dubious stereotypes about Germany and its people. The build-up to this month's celebrations marking the 200th anniversary of Wagner's birth helped Stephen Evans realise how often he got it wrong.

I happened to be chatting to the intendant of the Deutsche Oper the other day, as you do - the director of the Deutsche Oper, one of the world's big opera houses.

And I thought I would have a bit of go, having just seen a production of Wagner's Tristan and Isolde which irritated me.

Tristan and Isolde, you see, is to me - and to Wagner - all about Celtic myth and Cornish kings. But this production was set on an ocean liner with naked drug addicts wandering across the stage.

I can take a bit of radical opera production as much as the next opera buff but this, I felt, was too much - classic German opera production up its own bottom. I scoffed from the cheap seats.

So, given the chance to meet the man at the helm, I spoke my mind.

"Why do you Germans have to have productions which are so outrageous?" I asked him.

This, by the way, was before the recent Tannhauser in Dusseldorf featuring Nazis murdering Jews which got the audience booing within 30 minutes and the production pulled within a week.

So, why, I wanted to know, was Germany so in thrall to radical productions such as the Tristan for which his company was currently responsible.

He paused, put down his delicate coffee cup, looked at me and said: "That production was done by a British director."

I had not noticed, but so it was. Graham Vick, actually.

Image caption,
Some members of the audience had to seek medical help following early performances of Nazi-themed Tannhauser

It made me realise how prejudice lurks unknown even in ourselves.

It struck me again when I went to Leipzig to talk to the man there who is organising the erection of a new statue of Wagner.

This is the city where Wagner was born and there are great attempts to get in on the act - the commercial act as much as anything.

Although, one event is called, in English: "T'was in the merry month of May that Richard Wagner hatched one day," which one feels doesn't quite get the full Wagnerian tone.

The organiser of the statue and I talked in the park outside the grand opera house built by the communists, replete with socialist symbols engraved on the outside, hammers and ears of wheat and the like.

I suppose, I mused, that Wagner wasn't the DDR's cup of tea - too nationalistic and resonant of the Nazis. Wrong again.

It turns out that Wagner filled the opera house in Leipzig.

The communist regime loved him, though it did have doubts about the Christian symbolism in Parsifal. My preconceptions were wrong again.

We get a lot wrong about Germany from outside. Hard-working? Look at the figures - the German working week is shorter than that of the Greeks.

Efficient? Except the well-publicised string of big projects which are vastly over-budget and way behind time, including the revamping of the opera house in Berlin which remains behind scaffolding, silent to the sounds of Wagner or anyone else.

Image caption,
Artist Stephan Balkenhol's Wagner statue will soon be unveiled in Leipzig

Militaristic or non-militaristic? Germany does remain reluctant to get involved in foreign wars but its arms industry is booming.

Tanks to Indonesia and Saudi Arabia. Submarines capable of delivering nuclear warheads to Israel.

And over this there is much debate because a line has been crossed. The unwritten rule used to be that Germany sold things that floated but not things with wheels - not material which could be used against a country's own people. That has changed.

There is one big misconception outside, particularly in Britain, which is delightfully wrong - the absence of a sense of humour.

The other day, I went to the site of an unexploded World War II bomb. They frequently turn up in building work and this one was near the main station in Berlin.

The bomb disposal man was there. He is the chap who walks calmly up to these rusting lumps of danger with a wrench to make them safe.

He had a badge which said in English: "If you see me running, make sure you catch up."

Now that is a sense of humour.

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