Tom Lappin talks to Jack Saltman, producer of The Germans, a series examining a people and a nation facing up to their past.
Well. what do you think ofthe Germans? A ruthless militaristic people ready to march into Poland at the drop ofa treaty? Humourless automata with a mighty economy and a dully efficient soccer team? Beer-swilling fatties in lcderhosen? Or suave BMW drivers who always get to the beach first? Whatever your chosen stereotype. you have to admit that a new Channel 4 series. The Germans. has a mountain to climb to overcome the prejudices British viewers will have about our Teutonic neighbours who. by the end of the year. will be our largest trading partners.
Executive producer Jack Saltman is under no illusions about the task facing him. ‘At the start I knew very little about the Germans.‘ he admits. ‘and I suppose I had many of the same prejudices myself. Right at the start ofprogramme one we set up the stereotype idea. but the concern was not to break down preconceived ideas but simply to study the German people. ask who they are and where their attitudes come from. And I suspect people in Britain really have very little knowledge about the country and its people. and essentially still hold these stereotypical images.‘
The four programmes cover the breadth of united Germany. looking at its political and social structure. trying to place the modern situation in the context of recent history. following the rise of the Prussian Empire through to the First World War. the Weimar Republic and the Second World
; War right up to the success of the Bonn f parliament. The programmes look at democracy and the threats to it posed by the Baader-Meinhoff
gang and related terrorist groups. The problems of unification are examined with an amusing report on ex-Stasi police learning how to be democratic cops and call people ‘sir‘. The emergent neo-fascist groups are also examined. along with the Autonomen anarchists in Berlin who take on the forces oflaw and order every year. usually on May Day.
The problem is. ofcourse. the ‘don‘t mention the war‘ question. In the midst ofeconomic prosperity and firmly-rooted democracy. the memory of genocide and disastrous wars lingers. ‘lronically you never have to mention the war to a German.‘ says Saltman. ‘because whether you‘re talking to a 14-year-old or a former Chancellor they always bring the war up themselves. It‘s very difficult to rationalise any aspect of the German state without
reference to the war. Kids say “we can only become a normal nation again when people allow us to become a normal nation. Stop reminding us ofthe war.”
This sensitivity to their own recent history was one ofthe most striking features of the Germans Saltman spoke to while making the series. It colours their every action. even affecting age-long traditions. ‘In February last year we tried to film
A 16-year-old said to me “It Italy winsthe World Cup they can celebrate iortwo weeks and that’s OK. If we win the World Cup and celebrate for two days, everyone talks abouttriumphalistGermany.” ’
the Faschings.’ he says. ‘which are traditional pre-Lent street festivals across Germany. Last year because the Gulf War was on. most of these Faschings were cancelled because they didn‘t want the world to think they were celebrating while other people were dying. This. despite the fact that Germany was taking no active part in the war. Former (‘hancellor Schmidt tells us that when Germany was united. outsiders were saying “Oh God. look at Germany with its huge bloody armies. the last thing we want is a German military re-emergence." Then. six months later. the same people were saying about the Gulf War “Why are Germany behaving like dwarves and not sending soldiers to the Gulf. " Everything people say is based on the past. A 16-year-old said to me. "If ltaly wins the World Cup they can celebrate for two weeks and that's OK. lfwe win the World Cup and celebrate for two days. everyone talks about triumphalist Germany." '
It‘s a sensitivity that will presumably fade as the numbers of those who remember the war personally decrease. In the meantime Saltman is keen to emphasise how Germans don‘t shy away
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Gannon military efficiency It a thing ofthe past
from their past. ‘Unlike Japan which tries to pretend it never happened. the Germans want to make sure it never happens again.’ he says. ‘1 went with a school trip to Dachau where the past was very specifically spelled out. The kids are not allowed to forget. We have a sporting sequence with Karl-l leinz Rummenigge. who's now a journalist and does an extremely articulate piece about how important it is for young Germans to be patriotic but not nationalistic. In Germany you have to tread a particularly fine line between the two.‘
()fcoursc some memories are shorter than others. The rise of neo-Nazi groups in Germany in the last few years has been a disturbing trend that has resulted in plentiful incidents of violence and racial harassment. The Germans covers the issue. but Saltman plays down its significance. ‘You‘ll now find the demos taking place across the whole ()chrntany. but certainly it can be argued that its current resurgence came from the cast. for two reasons. Firstly. the economic factors of people with no job prospects looking for simplistic answers. and secondly the argument that there has always been an incipient right-wing element in East Germany. but that during the (‘ommunist rule it was ruthlessly suppressed. What is happening now is comparable to a spring: the harder you press it the higher it jumps when let go. There's a degree ofembarrassment that it‘s happening now. and confidence that it will peter out and that German democracy is solid and safe.‘
If The Germans will assuredly explode most of the German stereotypes. one particular example seems likely to be particularly comforting. The cameras linger lovingly on the sadly inept drilling of modern German soldiers. ‘You‘ve never seen such a shambles in your life.‘ says Saltman. Frederick the Great is probably turning in his grave.
The Germans starts on Channel 4 (m Thursday 3!) Jan tarry.
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