Britain and Germany are at war again. But this time, the battlefield is splattered with ink rather than blood.
Prime Minister Tony Blair and Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder may get along famously as fraternal souls who espouse the same brand of social democracy. But newspapers in both countries are waging a viciously chauvinistic campaign that might make readers think the Blitz is still going on.
For months, the war of words has steadily escalated. British commentators have suggested that moving the seat of Germany's government back to Berlin will resurrect Nazi ghosts, hinting at an evil Teutonic gene that will channel a secret power lust into leadership of a European super-state.
In turn, a new generation of German writers and diplomats, feeling more liberated by virtue of what former chancellor Helmut Kohl called a "late birth," have struck back at the British by accusing them of engaging in a xenophobic frenzy rooted in the insecurity of a lost empire.
Despite appeals for restraint by Blair and Schroeder, the broadsides reached an unprecedented degree of animosity this week after critic A.A. Gill unleashed a brutal diatribe in London's Sunday Times, lamenting the "undiluted misery, humiliation and groveling apology" of German history. One possible remedy, he suggested, would be to hang a sign on the Brandenburg Gate emblazoned with the slogan, Amnesia Macht Frei (Amnesia Makes You Free). It was an undisguised reference to the cynical slogan hung by the Nazis over the gate into concentration camps, "Work Makes You Free."
"By any measure you care to choose, the creation of a greater Germany has been the greatest disaster, the cause of more misery than any other political act in our continent's history," Gill wrote. "What can they do to stop us seeing them as Europe's psychopaths?"
The article triggered feelings of public outrage rarely seen here, where a stoic response to the Nazi label was long considered the price to pay for postwar reconciliation and a new sense of European kinship. But with the ascendancy of Schroeder, who claims to represent the 50 million Germans, or two-thirds of the population, without any personal ties to the war, there has been a greater tendency to fight back.
Gebhardt von Moltke, Germany's ambassador to London, said he very rarely feels moved to take up his pen in response to an article. But after reading the Sunday Times piece, he fired off a letter to its editor, John Witherow, complaining about its "profound xenophobia" and the detrimental impact it would have on relations between the two countries.
What disturbed von Moltke and many other Germans was what they consider the irresponsible revival of hostile stereotypes and the denigration of a half-century of Germany's accomplishments as a faithful and trustworthy member of the Western alliance of democracies.
"Germany is the country that invented the idea of predestination, the Lutheran concept of being born into a sin, and it is only in Germany that I've ever really understood what that truly means," Gill wrote. "Hating the Hun is perhaps the only thing that truly emulsifies the rest of us."
Such characterizations shocked many Germans, even those with close ties to Britain. "It's racist rant, pure and simple," said Thomas Kielinger, London correspondent for the German newspaper Die Welt. "There is a place for provocative journalism and views of an inbred little Englander, but this really went beyond the bounds of decency."