Brexit: Refighting the Second World War

Richard J. Evans

This is a fragment of the essay by Richard Evans. Members and Supporters of the Nexus Institute can log in to read the full essay.

A Dutch translation of this essay will be published in Nexus 87, ‘Over domheid en leugens’.


Football has sometimes been described as a substitute for war, and nowhere was this more true than in British newspaper reporting of England-Germany matches in the 1990s. A high, or rather a low point was reached on 24 June 1996 by the tabloid Daily Mirror, which headlined its front-page preview of the two countries’ European Nations. Cup encounter: ‘Achtung! Surrender. For you, Fritz, ze euro 96 Championship is over. Mirror’, screamed the banner headline, ‘declares football war on Germany’, and underneath it printed a spoof of Neville Chamberlain’s broadcast to the nation on the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939, complete with references to previous difficulties such as ‘the beef war’. ‘England’s old enemy’, the Mirror proclaimed, ‘- defeated in two World Wars and one World Cup…We shall not submit to German territorial demands on the English half’. In fact, of course, England lost on a penalty shoot-out, an event followed by widespread violence from disappointed English fans in towns all over the country from Bradford to Brighton, with 25 police officers injured in London alone. The Mirror implicitly tried to disclaim all responsibility for whipping up the fervid atmosphere which led to the disturbances by portraying members of the German team taking it ‘all in the spirit of sporting rivalry’ and ‘laughing off wartime jokes’.

Although such reporting was new in its elaborateness, there was nothing new about the use of wartime references in sports reporting about England-Germany matches per se. Such encounters have been perhaps less frequent than one might initially suppose, because the England team has so frequently failed to make the finals of either the European Nations Championship or the World Cup. But previewing the two teams’ previous encounter, in the World Cup in 1990, The Sun newspaper has declared ‘let’s blitz’em…As Brian Clough (a prominent English club manager) once told an aghast gathering of German sports writers before a European cup game: “Whether it’s with a ball or a bomb – we usually beat your lot.’ In 1996, the paper noted in another pre-match edition, ‘The Germans were banking on a soccer triumph to polish up their battered international standing – devastated by a far more serious defeat in World War Two’. This time, after England’s defeat by Germany in the semi-final on a penalty shoot-out (an exercise which the English team never seem to have mastered), the inevitable rioting by disappointed fans was specifically directed against German individuals and objects, with damage done to German-made cars parked on the streets of English towns, and violent clashes between English and German fans on the streets of Turin, where the match was played. Equally predictably, no paper waxed more indignant about the behaviour of these ‘thugs’ than The Sun, which demanded stern punishment for the culprits.

Before the 1990s, reporting of England-Germany soccer matches in the English media was fairer, more moderate, more sober and above all far less indebted to the myth of the Second World War. In 1996, for example, reporting of the two countries’ European Nations’ Cup encounter in the popular press barely mentioned individual players in the German team, contrasting instead the ‘passion’ of the English side with the ‘efficient’ play of the German ‘robots’. In 1990, by contrast, despite its widespread use of Second World War imagery, the British popular press was more than prepared to run positive stories about the German team and its management and in particular about Franz Beckenbauer. England captain Gary Lineker was quoted as describing the Germans as ‘a great, strong side’. Moreover, in 1990 the tabloid newspaper The Sun also informed its readers about the positive developments that had taken place in German society since the end of the war. Replete with references to ‘the booming West German economy’, a two-page spread conceded that ‘strong nationalist feelings awakened by unification are worrying liberal Germans – and Europe’, but on the whole presented the country’s recent history in positive, if inimitable terms under headlines such as ‘Rebuilding from chaos’, ‘Great future after fall of the wall’, and ‘lots of sausage’. ‘German women’, The Sun told its readers enthusiastically, ‘have an average bust size of 38 in. – and spend more on sexy silk underwear than women anywhere else in the world.’

At the two countries’ previous encounter, in 1982, the reporting of the popular press in Britain was still more even-handed. This may have been because there was a general expectation that the Germans would lose, given the fact that they had been soundly beaten a couple of days earlier by the unfancied Algerian team. The Sun and The Daily Mirror carried extensive coverage of individual German players such as Littbarski, who in the event did not get to play on the day, or Rummenigge, described in the Mirror as ‘brilliant’. After the match, in which the two sides drew 0-0, there was unstinting praise for the ‘brilliant’ German goalkeeper Harald Schumacher. Allusions to the war were extremely infrequent, and where they did occur, indirect rather than direct (‘we’ve beaten the Germans at most things. But not in the 1982 World Cup. Not yet’, was almost the only one I could find, along with the headline ‘Germany’s Calling’, alluding to the catchphrase of ‘Lord Haw-Haw’ in his radio broadcasts from Berlin to Britain during the Second World War).

This was all the more remarkable since the match took place only a few weeks after the end of the Falklands War, during which chauvinism in the popular press had repeatedly reached fever-pitch. It may be, perhaps, that the media had, as it were, exhausted their xenophobia against Argentina, and had none left over for the Germans. A paper war against Germany hardly seemed worth pursuing in the aftermath of a real shooting war against Argentina. But a more plausible explanation is that hostility to Europe, in which anti-Germanism played a central, symbolic role, had been relatively muted in these early years of the Thatcher administration.

After its dramatic emergence in the 1990s, anti-Germanism in the British media and political world began to decline around the turn of the century. By 2008 opinion polls were showing that 62% of Britons had a positive image of Germany. While this was significantly lower than Italy (82%) or France (74%) it was still higher than it had been in the early 1990s. Nevertheless, stereotypical images of Germany and the Germans based on an invented memory of the Second World War did not go away. They played a significant part in the campaign to leave the EU.

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