The strategy that Germany’s diplomatic corps proposed to keep Britain in the European community was unconventional and bold.
In November 1974, the then German chancellor Helmut Schmidt was desperately searching for the right words to convince British Eurosceptics to vote to remain a member of the European Economic Community.
Schmidt had been offered a generous slot of 10 to 15 minutes at the Labour party conference, but a number of leftwing MPs had already announced they would walk out on his speech if he tried to “lecture” them.
Katharina Focke, the German federal minister for youth, family and health, had some ingenious advice to offer after an informative meeting with her British counterpart Barbara Castle: “The only way to keep Britain in the European Community,” she wrote to Schmidt, “is not to remind it that it is already in.”
Focke’s diplomatic cable is on display in the first room of a new exhibition at Bonn’s House of History, entitled Very British: A German Point of View – right next to a digital watch counting down the seconds until Britain is due to depart from the bloc of nations on 31 October.
But the show, which has already attracted 60,000 visitors since opening in July, not only tells the story of Britain’s effort to first join and then pull out of the European Union, but paints a mournful picture of what Süddeutsche Zeitung newspaper called an “unrequited love”.
“The Germans love the Brits and everything that is British,” House of History’s president Hans Walter Hütter told the regional newspaper. “In exchange, we have mainly got British reserve.”
Britain was not one of the signatories of the 1957 Treaty of Rome that created the European Economic Community, the first major milestone on the road to European integration. But the Bonn exhibition casts the effort to get Britain to join the European communities as one supported by Germany against the resistance of “the more or less hysterical French”, as the first postwar chancellor Konrad Adenauer put it.
A framed German cartoon from 1967 depicts the UK’s journey into Europe as an arduous climb, with Adenauer and other European leaders pulling prime minister Harold Wilson up the steep face of Charles de Gaulle’s upturned nose.
Germany’s Anglophilia is shown to be not only political. Seven themed rooms showcase a postwar infatuation with Britain’s royal family, sport, fashion, music and sense of humour – on both sides of the iron curtain.
Poster campaigns and a 1970 industrial fair in London bear witness to socialist East Germany’s longing to achieve diplomatic recognition from the UK, all the while as its regime agitated against British cultural influence in public.
“Do we really have to copy all the rubbish that comes from the west?”, asked East German leader Walter Ulbricht in 1965, after a Rolling Stones concert at Berlin’s Waldbühne ended in hours of rioting. But the exhibition shows that the Stones and the Beatles found fond imitators not just in Germany’s west – where groups called the Lords or the Butlers suddenly spring up everywhere – but also in the east, where the band Music-Stromers wore uniform jackets reminiscent of those on the cover of Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.
In secret, many East Germans wrote anonymous dispatches to the BBC, many of them emotional and heartbreaking, which are read out on its German-language service every Friday evening from the early 1950s.
In return, what did Germany get from Britain? Admiration for German manufacturing is visually represented here by John Hegarty’s mould-breaking series of “Vorsprung durch Technik” Audi ads. There are moving symbols of postwar reconciliation, such as the cross made of nails collected from the rubble of Coventry cathedral, gifted to the parish of St Nikolai in Kiel as early as 1947.
Curator Christian Peters told the Guardian that the object he was most proud of obtaining on loan for the show was a liturgical robe depicting scenes from the destruction of Coventry and Dresden, worn by the Bishop of Coventry on Ash Wednesday.
The show could have added chapters on exploring Britain’s enthusiasm for all things Germanic in the 18th, 19th and 21st century, from Wordsworth and Coleridge’s interest in German Romantic poetry to the import of Christmas tree customs, and from Kraftwerk tribute bands to the sanctification of Liverpool coach Jürgen Klopp.
As it stands, it finds the British view of Germany in the 20th century to be dominated by reenactments of the second world war by peaceful means, from Escape from Colditz board games to the “beach towel war” made fun of in countless newspaper headlines, cartoons and advertising campaigns.
When Germany moves towards reunification after the fall of the Berlin wall, Margaret Thatcher is the most vocal sceptic in the west, the British press conjures up images of revitalised German soldiers in spiked helmets, and leaked minutes from a meeting with historians at Chequers list Germany’s supposed national characteristics as “egocentric”, “arrogant” and “aggressive”.
A coldness between the two countries is sometimes just as notable, however.
When president Theodor Heuss makes the first official postwar visit of a German politician to the UK in 1958, he is photographed facing a group of standoffish Oxford students with their hands in their pockets – and spends the next weeks assuring the German public that this was not so much a sign of disrespect as a pose fashionable with the British youth of today.
At the exhibition’s exit, visitors are met by a plastic merchandise figurine of Queen Elizabeth II, who waves them an unenthusiastic goodbye with a polite smile and a mechanical tilt of the wrist.