Ten German bombers

What happens to countries when their popular sense of history remains outdated and sclerotic?

Photo: AFP
Photo: AFP

Last week, Germany hosted England for a friendly football match at Westfalenstadion in the German city of Dortmund. Currently branded the Signal Iduna Park, for commercial reasons, the stadium may not be as well known, especially among people who don’t follow football, as Wembley in London, Camp Nou in Barcelona or Santiago Bernabéu in Madrid. But the Signal Iduna Park is one of the great venues in European, and indeed world, football.

The Germany-England friendly took place at a time of somewhat contrasting sentiments for both teams. England have a new manager who took the opportunity to try out several young players in the national squad. The English football team has, for around five decades, epitomized the idea of the whole being lesser than the sum of the parts. The last time England won a knockout game in any tournament was 11 years ago against Ecuador in the 2006 World Cup.

For the reigning world champions on the other hand, the match was really all about one player: Lukas Podolski. The 31-year old, who had scored 48 goals in 129 matches in a 13-year-long international career, had announced that he would retire after the match. Podolski is the kind of footballer you love more than you like. A nice guy with a flair for media and fan relations, Podolski has underperformed somewhat since his breakout display in the 2006 World Cup, when he was voted best young player. But as far as his football is concerned Podolski will perhaps best be remembered for a left-foot shot that could easily launch small satellites into space.

Thus both teams had things to look forward to in Dortmund. England hoped to whet a new generation, Germany were bidding farewell to a favourite son.

The teams assembled. The English anthem played and the Germans maintained silence. Then the German anthem played… and not only did some of the visiting fans boo, but many began to stick their arms out and sway like an aeroplane. This is the action that accompanies the song Ten German Bombers. Later, English fans were heard belting out the song itself. First composed for British schoolchildren during World War II, Ten German Bombers became a popular football chant in the 1990s. The plot of the song is simple. There were 10 German bombers. And the Royal Air Force (RAF) shot one down. Then there were nine. And the RAF shot one down. And so on. Until there were no German bombers left, and Britain won the war and stopped writing new songs.

The chant has a somewhat controversial history. In the run-up to the 2006 World Cup in Germany, English footballing administrators tried to dissuade travelling fans from singing it. Others felt that the Germans should just shut up and deal with the repercussions of violence committed less than a lifetime ago.

After last week’s friendly match, once again many English footballing pundits rolled eyes at their fans. The song itself was bad enough. But to mime it during the German anthem? Poor form.

Victors, they say quite inaccurately, write the histories. But what if the victors just refuse to move on?

Or to ask a broader question: What happens to countries when their popular sense of history remains outdated and sclerotic? Walk through any popular book store in the UK and you would be forgiven for thinking that nothing of historical value has taken place between World War II and 2017. Shops are crammed with books, magazines, coffee-table behemoths, DVDs, posters and toys that all hark back to World War II.

Meanwhile, as Shashi Tharoor pointed out recently, and this is not a lone opinion, many young British children grow up with an inadequate education in empire or the aftermath of the collapse of empire. But then what do British children know about the European Union (EU)? Or the structural change that the British economy has undergone since the 1950s? Or are they still singing about those bombers?

In the US, Donald Trump wants to Make America Great Again. But which exact period of greatness is he referring to? The 1940s? The rousing optimism of the 1950s? The period just before working-class incomes in many parts of American slumped in the globalized 21st century?

In India, the patterns of historical discourse are even easier to discern. The farther back in history a public figure reaches towards, the more immediate is his/her need for political mileage. As we have noted in these pages before, it is particularly important for the ancient people of India’s young republic to have a constantly renewed sense of history. It is easy for a nation with such historical riches to anchor itself in some suitably vague sense of the past and then yearn for revival. This blinds us to the very real achievements of the republic itself.

A sclerotic sense of the historical self makes us either impatient with pending greatness that never comes, or riven with rage over the endless balance sheets of past crimes and excesses—nicely leaving us vulnerable to the tactical histories of the talented politician.

Back in Dortmund, Podolski ended his career with a trademark left-foot thunderstrike. The son of Polish immigrants celebrated with enraptured spectators, many of whom were in tears. Podolski was part of the German team that, in 2006, helped rejuvenate German patriotism. That was the World Cup in which many Germans began to fly the flag with pride again. It was a year of renewal for that nation.

Meanwhile, English fans flew back home. Exactly one week later, the victors of Europe in 1945 saw their prime minister initiate proceedings to leave the EU in a national renewal of its own kind.

Déjà View is a fortnightly conversation on history. Read Sidin Vadukut’s Mint columns at www.livemint.com/dejaview

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