As a child of the UK and Germany, it has been fascinating and at least a little bit amusing to watch how the British caricature of Germany has evolved over the years.
For much of the recent past, Germany was revered in liberal British circles as a model of a well-run, grown-up country, a refuge from Brexit, a vision of what the UK could be if it shook off its xenophobic streak and elected more mature leaders.
“German conservatism produced Angela Merkel, easily the most respected democratic leader in the world, while the English variety produced Boris Johnson,” the British historian David Edgerton wrote in 2020.
If you spent a lot of time in Germany, you knew it wasn’t quite like that.
Things can take an age with Germany’s pen-and-paper bureaucracy. Its vaunted trains are often late. Politics can be chaotic with seven parties forming 17 national and regional governments. There are periodic flashes of intolerance and extremist violence, and a far-right party has seats in parliament, which is not the case in Britain.
Now, after a year of war in Ukraine, the mood has changed. After dithering over arms for Ukraine, Germany has been painted differently: as a weak link in Nato, a country of Kremlin appeasers that let itself be duped by Russia, a nation of pacifists that lacks the stomach for the fight.
Germany and its Chancellor Olaf Scholz have had tetchy relations with Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, who skipped Berlin on his recent European tour. Meanwhile, the UK – and Mr Johnson, of all people – have been lauded in Kyiv as staunch allies. The British gloating has been visible from space.
The British scholar Timothy Garton Ash went viral in Germany after sharing a meme that described the act of “Scholzing” as “communicating good intentions, only to find any reason imaginable to delay”.
Again, though, the truth is not so simple. Germany has come a long way in a short time, from sending 5,000 helmets a year ago to providing battle tanks today. It is the fourth-biggest military donor to Ukraine – doing notably more than France. It has absorbed more than a million refugees, far more than Britain, and quickly cut its ties with Russian energy. And it is far from the only country that got itself caught in economic entanglements with Russia, and others such as France and Britain did not have war guilt as an excuse.
The way Germans faced up to that Nazi past was an inspiration to many. Their atonement with the British, French and Americans after 1945 was an almost miraculous success. Many of us are its children. Can you blame Germany for dreaming of a similar happy ending with Russia?
And it's not just about Russia. Hitler’s invasion of the Soviet Union was a tragedy for Germany too. After stalling in the Russian snow, it came barrelling back to Berlin with full force, leaving Germany in a heap of ruins.
Germany was divided and occupied for the next 45 years. The scars are visible to this day. Who would not be anxious about antagonising Russia again?
The truth is that Germany has been a well-meaning but imperfect country all along – the same as Britain.
Mr Scholz was derided for asking the US to stick its neck out first with tank deliveries. But as Mr Johnson told a BBC documentary, the UK’s policy since before the invasion has likewise been to “keep in step with the Americans as far as we can”.
This is not to say that Germany does not deserve some criticism. Mr Scholz can appear haughty and indecisive. By the admission of senior figures, Germany’s misreading of Russia had costly consequences. It takes two to reconcile, and Germany realised too late that the Kremlin had chosen a different path.
But Mr Scholz won the 2021 election by coming over as a calm leader not prone to headline-grabbing showmanship. Now, those same qualities are a stick to beat him with. Perhaps rightly. But Mr Scholz’s Germany then is the same as Mr Scholz’s Germany now, not one caricature or the other. It is finding its place in a less comfortable world, obsessive over its past, and is prone to both inertia and inspiration – like Britain, for better or worse.