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New Europe

Day One Hundred and Twenty-one: Berlin

Michael Palin - New EuropeIt's a bracing run with Jörg and Olaf, and their funny and sometimes moving banter raises a few questions which I talk over later with the author of a book called From Max to Monty, which compares German and English humour.

We meet at the terrace café of the Opera House. I'm half-expecting someone with a red nose and a fright-wig, but Hans-Dieter Gelfert is a bespectacled academic. Amusing, but cerebral.

The difference between German and British humour is, he says, down to priorities.

'The top priority for the British, from Magna Carta to the present day, has always been individual freedom, and the top priority for the Germans had to be security and safety. I call the English humour a "bottom-up" humour, and the German humour a "top down".'

The fact that he can say this without a trace of a smile perhaps makes his point. But his view that the English mock order and the Germans mock disorder is echoed by Anna Funder, who wrote in her excellent book on the Stasi that the Germans tend to be over-respectful of authority because of their complicated and unsettled history - as she puts it, 'the mess that gave rise to all that order'.

I ask Hans-Dieter about the new Europe. Does he think Germans will make good Europeans?

Yes, he thinks they will, as the Germans were until very recently a combination of little units, used to interacting with each other.

Does he believe they can be leaders of Europe?

'No, he believes the Germans are 'hesitant' about themselves as leaders.

There is still far too much shame about what Germans have done under Hitler, that they are now so modest in their attitude and have so little national pride.''

He reckons the only events which trigger outbreaks of German national pride these days are things like football championships.

'I don't believe they will ever again feel really proud and strong.'

Looking out from where we are having a beer I see a statue of Frederick the Great, and right beside us is August-Bebel-Platz, formerly Opernplatz, where Joseph Goebbels organised the infamous book-burning ceremony in 1933.

We're surrounded by so many reminders of what Germans could do when they feel insecure, that I only hope he's right.
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PALIN'S GUIDES

  • Series: New Europe
  • Chapter: Day One Hundred and Twenty-one: Berlin
  • Country/sea: Germany
  • Place: Berlin
  • Book page no: 281

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