German Angst & The Charge of the Brexit Brigade
For some it is Die Deutsche Krankheit, for others it is German Angst. The malady is one that many Germans suffer from, general pessimism about current events and fear for the future. It manifests in different ways; sometimes it is the environment, sometimes it is unsuccessful civic projects and sometimes it is the fear of going backwards. Before 2016, it might have been said that Germany worries too much. People should relax more, go Nordic walking, have a beer or do their taxes, whatever it is that will help see the future in a more positive light. Then Germany ran the gauntlet of 2016 and realised that perhaps they hadn’t been pessimistic enough.
When I first began living in Germany, I was quickly overwhelmed by the numerous positives that seemed to be around every corner. Superficially it was the cleanliness or the beer prices, then it was the levels of organisation that are ingrained into the everyday; the time keeping, the clear statement of opinion or the forward planning. Having lived in Britain for all of my life, I had never realised how dominated we are by the unspoken communications, the weird subtleties of language, the double meanings, politeness and the understanding that things are frequently unfair for no clear reason. In the early months and years, in my mind Germany was as close to a utopia as I might ever get.
Of course, I was overreaching. Although these things were true, I was ignoring the negatives in order to ensure I settled in my new surroundings; the rigid bureaucracy, directness of speech that almost physically injures you with its sharp edges and the strict adherence to laws that may or may not actually exist but are worth following just in case they do. Why could the Germans not relax, why could they not just ignore the dumb rules that everyone hated and why could they not just be nice and friendly all the time? In contrast to the UK, Germany seemed to be so pessimistic. This was my first encounter with German Angst and I did not enjoy it.
Pessimism is not a strictly German curse, the British are frequently pessimistic, but our history and culture has given us some useful tools to negate the worst aspects of national angst. We “soldier on” or maintain a “stiff upper lip”, two phrases that have kept the British from cracking for centuries. Although never actually used for their intended purpose, the “Keep Calm and Carry On” posters epitomise the British feeling that if you drive yourself through the worst, eventually rewards will come. We invoke our history, calling for a “Blitz spirit” when times are hard, remembering that we have faced worse external threats and lived through them. We have taken historical events such as the Charge of the Light Brigade and turned them into valiant examples of the British spirit or reclaimed Dunkirk from a shocking defeat to a victory and an example British grit and unity.
We have taken the imperial era of British history and reformatted it. We might have done terrible things to other countries, but we also did many enlightened things too. Why look at the negatives, when there are so many positives. Germany has not had this story, their history has not been so malleable. For the British, “it will be alright on the night” for the Germans it will be “alright once we have addressed all the potential problems, planned for all eventualities and even then there will probably be a number of failings that must be discussed in detail in a series of post project meetings”.
No country can run a pessimism deficit, but equally no country can run on an optimism surplus. Today marks the beginning of Brexit proper, Britain will begin negotiating with the EU on the terms by which it will leave a union that is neither saintly nor pure devilry. Looking at the German news there are numerous articles highlighting the clear folly of leaving the EU. Der Spiegel has noted that the UK will be fighting a war on five fronts, with Brussels, Scotland, Northern Ireland, the British economy and British domestic politics ready to scupper Brexit. It will be a slog of epic proportions, one that, according to CDU MEP Andreas Schwab, will inevitably be unsuccessful. If the goal of the UK is to retain all the economic benefits of the EU, then "The question is how the British people respond when this promise proves to be untenable,".
From there we have the Frankfurter Allgemeine claiming Brexit will cost every British citizen €5000, Welt are comparing Theresa May to Margaret Thatcher and Elisabeth I and that May will need more than “the stomach of a king” to ride the Brexit wave and finally Süddeutsche Zeitung points out that Boris Johnson’s claim that leaving the EU without an agreement will be “perfectly OK” is costly arrogance. All in all, hardly the inspiring hopes of the Brexiteers.
The German press may well be united by German angst, but unity is hardly how I would describe the UK. The Guardian sums up Brexit and the activation of Article 50 as ‘a step into the unknown’, while the Financial Times suggest Theresa May could well be open to compromise. Contrast these with the Daily Mail’s cries of ‘Freedom’ and The Sun’s ‘Dover and Out’ and you can clearly see that in some quarters at least, the British optimism in the face of mounting pressure and insurmountable odds is still alive.
The outcome of the next two years is anyone's guess. Brexit might well be the beginning of a bright future for the UK, I hope it will be, even though I have never supported it. I hope that this is less an act of self-harm, but a more temporary injury and once it heals we can return to some level of normality, despite the scars. Perhaps this is a Dunkirk, a moment of sheer terror in the face of annihilation, that is resolved by people working together for a common cause. Yet, perhaps it is the 40% German angst that makes me uneasy. Perhaps this is not Dunkirk, perhaps this is Balaclava 1854. Perhaps this is the moment the UK mounts a horse, on the orders of Generals who have only half the information, against opponents we neither understand nor are equipped to deal with. The charge of the Brexit brigade could well be about to begin and once started, it might be impossible to stop.