Trevor Leggett talks in 1976 to Japanese students about English views of the French and the Germans
The French and the English
For centuries the French and English have fought each other, not only in Europe but all over the world. In the 20th century the two countries were allied against Germany, but there is still an undercurrent from the depths of our history of antagonism.
In English slang, the word “French” has mostly a bad sense. To take “French leave” means to leave work without permission for some private purpose. A French novel is understood to be probably dirty; a male contraceptive is called “French”. Syphilis was called the French disease, whereas in France it was called the Neapolitan disease, which is a good example of how unpleasant things are fathered on to a foreign country.
The French have had an equally low opinion of the English. In the middle Ages it was believed in French peasant circles that the English had tails. Today “a Panglaise”, which means literally “in the English style”, in a restaurant menu describes a dish served without a sauce and in a very simple way. In English as one would expect the reverse holds, and the word “Frenchified” means over-ornamental. The French word for one kind of female contraceptive was “English”, but the same thing in England was called “Dutch”.
In general the French tend to think of English things as “a l’anglaise”, lacking in imagination or sparkle. International stereotypes are always about fifty years out of date, and French cartoons still sometimes show an Englishwoman as censuring any display of emotion with the word “disgusting!” The French say of the English that they repress their feelings so much that in the end they have not got any, whereas the English think the French get so used to making dramatic displays of their feelings that in the end they become enslaved to emotion.
As a parallel instance, one can note that Arthur Koestler, by birth and up-bringing a Hungarian and used to expressing his feelings, thought that the Japanese people were “robotic”. Certain artificialities of politeness, just like we have in Britain, and the absence of gesturing during conversation, just as in Britain, led him to the same conclusion that some Frenchmen come to about the British—no depth of feeling. When I reviewed his book, I remarked what an extraordinary misjudgement this was of a people whose main guideline in life is feeling.
If the food in a restaurant is poor, the Englishman says nothing, pays the bill and never comes back again. A Frenchman calls the manager, and a Belgian is said to erupt like a volcano. (I have never actually seen this last.) They do not mind other people looking at them; in fact they may rather enjoy it. They feel they are doing something to raise the standard of the food in that restaurant, and that the other customers will appreciate this. It is all very embarrassing to an English companion, who probably has been taught from childhood never to “make a scene”. Continental people sometimes feel that a little dramatic scene brings a sparkle into life. Not often you get a chance like this for one: mustn’t miss it.
English people much prefer the Japanese ideal of maintaining a surface of social harmony, and when we go out with Japanese we never feel any apprehension.
Continental people think the British are simply lazy. I remember having a meal with a Hungarian, who called the manager to complain about the cooking. He turned to me for support, “Don’t you think it’s terrible?” As an Englishman without much knowledge of what cooking should be like I did not want to say anything, so I prevaricated, “Well, I don’t know that I am much of a judge. . .My friend looked at me sadly and said, “And that’s why the food in England is always so bad. You English will put up with anything.”
In the BBC we have a number of canteens for the staff, and the food is generally quite good, but in the canteen of the Overseas Services (where many of the customers are foreigners) it is outstanding. I once asked the chef whether he was bothered by all the complaints from the Europeans. To my surprise he said, “No, because we get a lot of praise from them as well. You see, the English people don’t complain, but they don’t tell us when they like it either. They simply have their meal here. The Continental people do complain if we are not up to the mark, but when it’s good, they take the trouble to come and tell us so. And then we feel proud of it, and we take a lot of trouble over the cooking because we know it will be appreciated.”
As this shows, English reserve can come to seem coldness and indifference. Even if there are complaints from foreigners, at least it shows that the complainer is interested in what is being done, and that is no bad thing.
In conclusion, here are two jokes to illustrate the stereotypes of Englishman and Frenchman as seen by the other side. The first is an English joke about a French politician who was visiting England and was being shown one of the famous gardens. He looked round in a satisfied way and said: “It reminds me of sex.” His host was disconcerted and asked, “But why….?” The Frenchman replied: “No special reason. It is just that everything reminds me of sex.”
The second is a French joke about the English. A French couple were on holiday in England and stayed on longer than expected. The wife ran out of contraceptives and went to an English is doctor to ask for a prescription for some more, saying in her broken English that they did not wish to have any more children, so would he please tell her what to do. The English doctor said, “Oh, yes. When your husband comes to you in bed, both of you have a cup of tea.” “A cup of tea? I do not understand. Well, should it be before or after?” “Instead,” replied the doctor.
The Germans and the British
Next to the French, the Europeans whom the English know best are the Germans. But still it must be said that they have had comparatively little influence on British culture. For instance English is full of French and Latin words and tags, but there are very few German ones. (Japanese has borrowed far more German words.) One word which did become fashionable was blitz, from the German Blitzkrieg. For example, if old records have been piling up in an office, the manager decides to go through them and throw away the useless ones, and he may say, “We’ll have a blitz on them.” The nuance is that the whole job will be completed in one day.
There is a special borrowed German expression which is used in several European countries: Schaden-freude. This means happiness over someone’s misfortunes. There is supposed to be no such single word in any other European language, and so there are some who say that this must be a peculiarly German vice. However, to be fair one should point out that there is a parallel German word Mit-freude, which means to be happy at another’s good fortune. We have no single word in English for that either, and the Germans might well remark that the fact that Mitfreude has not been similarly borrowed along with Schadenfreude shows that it is the other nations which have the tendency to the latter.
The British attitude to Germans has roots in the ancient past. Most of Britain was under Roman occupation for several centuries after the Roman conquest began in 43 AD. Britain was a colony of Rome, but was prosperous and well- governed. Recently in the south of England the palace of one of the British kings was discovered, and it is on the same scale as the palace of the Roman Emperor who was his overlord. Britain received enormous benefits from the Roman occupation.
During the same period the Romans made some attempts to subdue the German tribes. The tribal religion was tree-worship, and Germans lived in is glades in the forests, which they were reluctant to cut down. It was thus difficult to find the German settlements, and to fight their warriors who knew the thick forests well. The Romans had some successes, but after burning their fingers badly decided that to conquer Germany was not worth the efforts that would be necessary, and suddenly abandoned the whole enterprise. It was once proposed to build a wall along the Roman frontier to keep the Germans out, much like the great Chinese Wall, but the project was never carried out.
A Roman historian is supposed to have said: “The Spanish can be impressed by the courtesy and bearing of a conqueror; the French by his wealth; the British by his justice; but the German is impressed by none of these things. Only force will do it. He must be struck to the ground, and then struck as he tries to rise, and struck again while he lies groaning. While his wounds pain him, he will respect the hand that dealt them.”
Whether this comment was actually made or not, it does give a fair idea of Roman attitudes to the countries in the West of Europe. Some people believe it still retains some truth even today. The Spanish still do admire style, and are very concerned about honour. Some French people are obsessed with money; gold hoarding is more widespread in France than in any other European country. It is said that millions of French families have a little gold metal hidden away somewhere. British people still do respect justice, though it can be mechanical and heartless. And the word Macht is still a great word in the German vocabulary.
There is a German saying that if two tramps come to a pile of hay where they can pass the night, they will never sleep on the same level, equally comfortable. The stronger will insist on sleeping right on top while the other one has to put up with an uncomfortable position at the bottom of the pile. This is a joke which Germans themselves sometimes tell to show the obsession with status and power, even among tramps.
The image of the German held in the first half of this century by the Englishman was something like this: a brave and strong-willed people, who drive out dissenters, and are submissive to authority. A people who have been behind in many areas of culture, but who have made up for their lateness by tremendous industry. Disciplined outwardly, but not really self-controlled.
The British Empire was losing its faith in is colonization and the German Empire was developing its faith in colonization; the two Empires clashed in World War One. The Germans were of course fighting others also, but as a side-light on their attitude towards Britain, here is a verse from one of their war songs:
Against other foes it is just a fight, blow for blow;
But there is one whom we hate,
Hate by night and hate by day ENGLAND !
When the British soldiers heard about this song, they used to sing it themselves (in translation of course) ironically. The last line they used to shout in a great roar as of hate and fury—“Hate by night and hate by day—ENGLAND! ” German military intelligence came to know about this and discussed it. They were evidently bewildered by the British sense of humour, for some of them believed the British soldiers must be about to mutiny.
Another example of the same kind of humour was when the German Kaiser called the British army “a contemptible little army.” The British soldiers took up the phrase, and used it about themselves. Today the phrase Old Contemptible means a British soldier who fought in that war, and it is a term of honour.
These examples are worth mentioning, because today also British people often make apparently insulting remarks about Britain in a humorous sense, but foreigners who do not understand take them literally and believe that the British are demoralized. It is not the British custom to be expressive about what they feel most deeply. They find the patriotic slogans used by other nations rather embarrassing, or else amusing.
Here is an example from World War II, a war in which the airmen on both sides were conspicuous for their bravery. During the invasion, a
Royal Air Force unit occupied a building which had just been the headquarters of a German Luftwaffe unit. On the wall of the main room was written up in great letters, in German: WE FLIERS, WE FEAR NEITHER DEATH NOR DEVIL. When the British understood what this meant, they laughed. And some evenings just before the meal, the commanding officer used to stand up with a glass of beer and say, “Now let us drink a toast! Remember—WE FLIERS, WE FEAR NEITHER DEATH NOR DEVIL! ” They would all repeat it together solemnly, and then laugh. This does not mean that they did not respect the bravery of the German airmen—it was simply that they found is the slogan lacking in humour. But a German would wonder what place there is for humour in a matter of life and death like war.
Of course the Englishman’s stereotype of the German cannot account for Goethe and Kant and Hegel and Beethoven. They are somehow vaguely thought to be geniuses and therefore “exceptional” (not that the ordinary Englishman knows anything about Kant or Goethe except the names). Perhaps an occasional Englishman might quote Goethe’s remark, “Put a German in uniform and he will shoot his own grandmother if ordered.” In spite of all the great German contributions
to science, the English tend to think of them as mainly accumulators of facts, selected to support some fantastic theory. There is a feeling that the Germans pile up mountains of facts, and then become hopelessly confused by them.
The phrase “Teutonic industry” has the sense of a mindless assiduity in service of something which is fantastic or absurd. We think of the vast theoretical edifices erected by Hegel and Spengler and Marx and Freud,—theories which explain everything (accept each other). British empiricism views these German thinkers as somehow or other constructing a theoretical structure, and then labouring for a life-time in collecting and selecting facts to support it; whereas the British belief is that the facts should determine the theory. We are always suspicious of a theory which explains everything—we think it is unscientific.
Marxism explains Freud’s theory as simply a product of his economic environment; therefore Freud’s theory has no value, has nothing to do with truth, because it was determined by his circumstances. On the other hand Freud explains Marx in terms of the rebellion of the son against the father (Oedipus complex), which later takes the form of the rebellion of the proletarian against the capitalist. British people tend to see that there is some truth in what Marx says and some truth in what Freud says; but we are not inclined to suppose that either of them can explain society as a whole, or the individual’s part in it.
Still, one can say that probably Marx has had more appeal to the British than other German thinkers have had, and this is probably because Marx’s co-worker Engels was brought up in England. So Marx’s “Capital” was presented rather in the English style, ninety per cent facts and ten per cent theory, instead of in the German style, ninety per cent theory and ten per cent is facts. We accepted the truth of many of the facts which Marx pointed out, without accepting his theories. What he did not foresee was that reforms would be made before his prophesied revolution broke out; these reforms were in the main inspired by the Christian stream in British Socialism. Many British Socialist politicians have never read Marx; the Prime Minister Harold Wilson has remarked that he himself never got beyond the first few pages of “Capital”.
British people are bewildered by universal theories like those of Hegel. For instance the remark, often quoted by Engels, that electricity
is “the angry self of matter” seems to us simply fantastic. The dogmatism of dialectical materialism, which we think of as peculiarly German, went to Russia, and to our amazement we heard that Einstein’s relativity theory was there attacked on the basis of those dogmas.
The Nazi fantasy of Aryan ultra-nationalism seemed to us simply one more of these Teutonic myths springing out of the dense forests of the German mental hinterland. A lot of miscellaneous facts were assembled industriously to support it, but in fact the whole notion was hopelessly unscientific.
We admire the German industry in collecting facts, which is brilliantly successful in areas where the theoretical background has already been established, and it is simply a question of working out the consequences. But when the Germans themselves construct a new theory—especially some universal all-embracing theory—we become suspicious. It is for this reason that Arnold Toynbee’s great “Study of History” has not found such acceptance in Britain as it has done in Japan and America. I am a great admirer of Toynbee, and believe that he will one day be recognized in Britain as one of our great geniuses.
But in one of his books he mentioned a semi-mystical vision which he had, in the light of which he saw an inner purpose in history, and to some of my country-men this was enough to give the whole research something of a Teutonic flavour. I believe that in general the British are right to be wary of universal visions, but in Toynbee’s case it may be that we have been short-sighted. After all, Newton had a universal vision, and in spite of the modifications introduced by Einstein, Newton (himself a mystic and a most religious man) cannot be said to have been wrong. He was the greatest scientist who ever lived.
I have described the Englishman’s idea of the German as pursuing some idea with unflagging is energy but without common sense. Normally it would be foolish to lay so much stress on one of these international stereotypes, but it must be said that some Germans seem to share the same impression. As an example I will just mention a German novel that has been a best seller in Germany; perhaps it has been translated into Japanese. The English translation is “The German Lesson” and it is by Siegfried Lenz. It is a great book of 250,000 words—an English reviewer remarked that it was of “Germanic length”.
It is only necessary to mention that it concerns a country policeman, whose friend is a painter who once saved his life, When the Nazis come to power, this painter is forbidden to paint any more; as he cannot resist painting, it falls to the policeman to destroy the pictures as they are 5 painted. This he does, and it becomes a fixed idea with him, so that even after the war has ended, the Nazis have gone and their orders with them, the policeman compulsively tries to go on destroying all this painter’s pictures.
The policeman has a son, who from the very beginning has succeeded in saving some of the pictures by taking and hiding them before his father sees them. The son too begins to do this compulsively, and comes to feel that he has to 15 save all the pictures in the museums as well. He begins to steal them, is caught and sentenced to a rehabilitation centre, where he is set to write an essay on the delights of duty. He cannot complete this task, but he writes and writes, and what he writes is supposed to be the present novel.
The compulsive following out of an idea, long after it has ceased to be appropriate or even sane, is depicted skilfully in the novel. Duty is everything, even if it seems mad. This idea was once held in Britain, in the Victorian era—it was satirized by W. S. Gilbert in one of his comic operas, which is sub-titled “The Slave of Duty.” But the British grew out of it long ago.
As an experiment, I have imagined how this situation would appear in a British setting. I suppose the policeman would in fact destroy one or two of the pictures, but he would come to an understanding with his friend the painter that he would always arrive to search the studio at a particular time each week, so that the painter could clear away all the pictures beforehand. Nothing at all would be said explicitly—the policeman would just remark “Now don’t you paint any more pictures—I shall be back next is Friday to see that you haven’t.” Then the painter (or perhaps the policeman’s son) would clear all the pictures away each Thursday night. The policeman would have followed his orders—though he knows they are absurd; he can say, “I have destroyed all the pictures which I saw.”
But in the German story the characters go on compulsively with their course of action, apparently without thinking. They are like long-distance runners who go on long after the finishing point, meaninglessly running and running.
The restrictions of “German order” are famous all over Europe. The European joke is: Germany: unless an action is specifically permitted, it must be taken as forbidden. In a park for instance, unless there is a notice “Walking on the grass permitted”, it is forbidden to do so.
‘Britain: Unless an action is specifically forbidden, it is permitted. Unless there is a notice “Walking on the grass forbidden”, it is allowed.
Austria, Italy, France or any other country of southern Europe: whether the action is forbidden or permitted, simply do exactly what you like!
This last takes various forms according to the country. It is said that every Frenchman has a French Revolution in his heart, or that every Spaniard has a Magna Carta in him who says, “This Spaniard has the right to do anything he pleases.” Neither the Germans nor the British agree with this, and so we are laughed at as people who cannot express themselves.
I leave it to my Japanese readers to decide what form this joke would take when applied to Japan.
Revisiting Germany after 35 years, I found the respect for order still very strong. They do not cross against the red light at a traffic intersection, even if the road is quite empty. In this they are like the Japanese today, though not like the Japanese ten years ago. British people will cross against the red light if there is nothing coming; and sometimes in London young British people (or are they foreign tourists? I always hope so) run across in front of an approaching car. In some countries in the south of Europe pedestrians seem to ignore traffic lights altogether. On this point I think the German and
Japanese respect for the rules is better.
In Germany Sunday is kept as a day for holiday; mowing the lawn or washing the car would be for Saturday. If a man began to mow his is lawn on a Sunday, a neighbour would feel justified in telephoning the police, because the noise would be a “nuisance”. British people always wash their cars on Sunday mornings, as a sort of ritual. They do not use a hose: this is one of the reasons why London is not short of water as Tokyo is. French people do not wash their cars on Sunday or any other day; they have their cars washed by a garage. They do not have the same love of machines as Germans and British and Japanese.
The fantasy of prestige is still powerful in Germany, where the people like to assert their “position”. This is true of European countries generally, of course; a Frenchman once explained to me the typical attitude in Europe which is that unless one abuses one’s power a bit, there is no pleasure in having it. I have never heard such a frank statement in Japan, where the superior always says that his bullying is good for the juniors. In Germany the superior does not say that he enjoys his authority, or that it is good for inferiors to be ordered about meaninglessly. What he feels is that as a superior he has a right, and that right must be continuously exercised so that it is kept fresh in the minds of everybody.
For instance, a householder has a right to insist that the neighbours shall not disturb his enjoyment of his property. If the leaves from a tree in your garden are blown off by the autumn wind and fall in his garden, he is quite entitled to call you to sweep them up. Your tree, your leaves—it is obvious.
When a German car driver feels he has the right of way, he often simply keeps on going regardless of an inevitable accident. A British driver hardly ever does this. He will shrug his shoulders at the other driver’s stupidity, make some remark about his bad driving, or else cheerfully raise two fingers in a reverse V-sign, which
has an insulting meaning. There are many car accidents in Germany, and comparatively few in Britain.
There is still a mania in Germany for prestige in the form of titles—at least so it seems to English people. Perhaps we forget that after all the titles often represent real achievements. At any rate, we cannot help smiling when a man who holds two doctorates puts both of them before his name. This can happen in some other countries, for example Czechoslovakia, but in Germany it reaches a peak. The Times correspondent in Germany once reported that he had received a card from a Dr. Dr. Dr. Kroll, and the is correspondent remarked on the naive self-satisfaction of using these titles. It is true that in Britain a man who holds a doctorate, unless he is a medical man, does not often use it before his name, and to flaunt two “Dr.”s would be regarded as childish. In this respect we are more like Japanese. I remember that when the system was introduced of a red-and-white belt for Judo grades of sixth Dan and over, many of the senior Judo men refused to wear it. They kept the simple black belt worn by all yudansha. I asked one of them about it, and he replied: “If my Judo does not show my sixth Dan grade, what is the use of wearing a special belt to try to show it?” I was impressed with his remark.
The education system in Germany is still in favour of the well-off. Only 5 per cent of the University students come from what are designated there as “working-class” families, compared with the corresponding figure of 27 per cent in Britain. In France it is only 9 per cent. It may be that the definition of “working-class” is not the same in these countries, but still there is a big difference in the figure for Britain.
Still one must also say that the German worker in a big company is very well off indeed in his individual circumstances, though socially there is tremendous industrial pollution.
As history shows, when social restrictions and rules are too strict and repressive, a mounting frustration builds up, and force meets force to settle things by force. Clashes between young people and authority are inevitable everywhere, but the clashes between extremist young people and the police in Germany have been extraordinarily violent.
And if we look simply at the European figures for violent deaths, whether in traffic accidents or some other circumstances, Germany comes top of the list.