The German in the schoolyard: my childhood war games and Brexit
This Brexit mess reawakens some old childhood memories from the 1970s and 1980s. I was born to German parents in England, where my father was selling German industrial products for a living. We lived in a quiet settlement called Donkeytown, on the edge of the London suburbs in Surrey. We were the “Germans of the village”. And so one of the dominant feelings of my childhood was a sense of permanent war.
Let me explain. In the year of my birth, 1973, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Island joined the European Community. This didn’t mean that the Second World War was over. The war seemed to live on everywhere in England those days. Especialy in the psyches of young boys. One of my earliest coherent memories from the 1970s were the daily war games in the schoolyard.
“War” in the schoolyard always meant war between England (never the United Kingdom) and Germany. Arm-in-arm, we boys skipped across the concrete between the mouldy Victorian schoolhouse and the delapidated container classrooms and rusted climbing frames, screaming in an agressive off-key melody: “Who wants to play the FIRST World War?!” or “Who wants to play the SECOND World War?!” With this euphoric chant, we advertised our favourite game.
Two (obviously) girl-free human chains formed, representing the two sides: one chain for those who wanted to play the English and one for those who want to play the Germans. Since the village was situated in England, the English chain was always far longer than the German one and in the spirit of fair play, there always had to be redistribution from the English to the Germans. As the only German at Tringham Primary School, I naturally wanted to play the Nazi — in both the First and Second World War. For me, the politically incorrect German World War II “stormtroopers” (my name for Wehrmacht troops) were cooler than the mainstream Tommies. At the time I thought Darth Vader was much cooler than Luke Skywalker and in my head, there were certain similarities between the Empire in Star Wars and Hitlerian Germany. I spent countless hours glueing together plastic models of Stuka dive bombers (then bombing my Playmobil castle) and Messerschmidts. For some reason, Allied aircraft didn’t interest me.
In 1980 the second Star Wars movie “The Empire Strikes Back” came out in the UK. The same year, West Germany won the Football World Cup. In my semi-formed mind, there was an appealing analogy between the rather fascist Darth Vader and his stromtroopers and the somehow (in my mind) glamourous military brutality of Nazi Germany. The fact that West Germany won the World Cup in 1980 definitely helped foster this sentiment.
The dark history of my parents’ country of birth was in likelihood a strange fetish for me as a seven-year-old which surely had to do with hearing the endless war stories of my grandparents when we went to visit Germany. My big brother was far more war-obsessed than I was. He had a huge book outlining the events of every day of the Second World War in great detail. Every battle, every Churchill, Roosevelt or Hitler speech, in-depth statistics on the dead and wounded.
In the early 1980s, the Second World War ran in a loop on British television, either as comedy (“Dad’s Army”) or as war films (“A Bridge Too Far”, “The Great Escape”, “Dam Busters”). Strangely, the Holocaust was almost entirely absent. And nobody mentioned the devastating British bombings of Dresden and Hamburg. Still today, the yearning for a feeling that “we’re the winners” is reflected in films — Churchhill, Enigma, Dunkirk.
In the 1980s I was sad that I wasn’t allowed to hold the Union Jack at the Cub Scouts, because I wasn’t a British citizen. Nonetheless, I felt British with an evil German core. I admired West Germany. Every summer we visited the sterile, orderly suburbs of Frankfurt where our relatives lived. West Germany seemed futuristic, modern and efficient while England looked like an unending row of crumbling brick houses. Relatives in Germany sent over Playmobil and Nutella (which was unavailable in the UK back then). The only English thing I liked was Marmite.
In my teenage years my childhood pride (if you can call it that) gave way to embarassement and shame about being German. Although I hadn’t lived in Germany and could barely speak the langauge, in my twenties I was often thanked for “what you did to the Jews” while on trips in places like Mexico and Egypt after I mentioned that I came from a German family. Once, in a London doubledecker bus, an English skinhead sat next to me and said, “German? Master race, innit?” A rather awkward moment in a bus full of black and brown-skinned people.
Playing a Wehrmacht soldier virtually every day between the ages of 6 and 8 probably purged every little shred of unresolved unconscious post-war resentment, the kind that drives certain types of young German men into the still-strong neo-Nazi scene. War games are just theatre and theatre is catharsis, right? A lot of boys just want to play war. There’s not a lot you can do about it. In my daughter’s kindergarten in Berlin, parents voted to ban plastic toy guns. The boys resorted to sticks and stones for their battles. A notion put forth by one parent to ban boys from pretending sticks were guns was thankfully shot down.
These days I live in the German capital. My children speak three languages and have no particular national loyalties. My daily life is multi-lingual, post-national. It’s utopian in some ways. Despite all its problems, the EU has made this peaceful merging and mingling of nationalities possible.
The images coming out of the House of Commons remind me a little of the battles of my childhood. The Brits have barely faced their past: the loss of Empire, the loss of influence. I suspect that the ungodly alliance of nationalists and Etonian toffs who pushed Brexit did so in order to fabricate a crisis in which the English could again relive their “finest hour” in the spirit of Churchill. Let us never forget Dunkirk, the Battle of Britain, bla bla bla. Bring on Hard Brexit! I’ll show you what England has in it! Rule Britannia! For these people, the EU is a continuation of the Third Reich by other means. Why let Jerry rules our lives? Freedom!
Schadenfreude rises in my chest every time I read about the shambles of Brexit. But I also feel pretty fucking wounded by the whole thing, as if a part of my cross-channel identity is being amputated. Besides, there are practical implications: Marmite prices are going to go through the roof. And the Germans still haven’t figured out how to manufacture an edible yeast spread from brewery leftovers.
In my old village in Surrey, 51% of voters chose “leave” in the 2016 Brexit referendum. Finding that out was a downer, to say the least. As I skimmed over the statistics, I saw my skrill schoolyard comrades-in-war from nearly 40 years ago as grown-ups, supporting Nigel Farage, the Brexiteer-in-Chief with the French name and German wife. Pink, shouting faces. In a word, the gammon of Twitter lore.
Okay, that’s a little unfair. They can’t all have been that pumped full of resentment and nationalism. Some of them must have evolved past believing “England First”. Some of them probably live on the continent and shake their heads when they read the news every morning.
As for me, I’ve said goodbye to my British-German identity. I used to say I was from England (but with German parents). Today, if someone asks about my nationality, I just say “European” or, if I’m in a good mood, “Eurotrash”.