Few people are in a better position to assess different countries and cultures than those caught between them. So it is with Philip Oltermann: a German journalist who came to England while a teenager, and who has lived here and worked here ever since (even managing to marry an English girl).
As you would expect from such a background, Philip’s Keeping Up With the Germans: A History of Anglo-German Encounters (Faber and Faber, 2012) is full of closely observed insights about the linkages (and differences) between these two great European rivals. He takes us through familiar territory and introduces us to new ways of seeing, for instance, the way the two square up on the football pitch (with an examination of two of the great players for each country, Bertie Vogts and Kevin Keegan). He brings fresh material to old subjects, such as the apparent gulf between the two when it comes to comedy (the Germans indeed do, he argues, have a sense of humour – but he glories in how the English build humour into so many aspects of their life). And he also brings us (or me at least) into fresh territory – for instance in their approaches to philosophy.
There’s a lot to recommend this book, but, above all, it is also extremly timely. The Europe of today is crisis ridden and divided, and the global financial crisis has – through its exposition of the rickety structure upon which the euro is built – called into question the whole nature of European integration. Germany, for so long the willing, uncomplaining engine of integration, has been thrust into an unaccustomed leading role in Europe, while the crisis has also forced Britain into a position where its Euroscepticism may be forced to declare itself beyond sniping from the sidelines.
These are interesting times in Europe. The balance of Anglo-German relations will be one of the main determinants of how the continent reinvents itself once the immediate crisis (eventually) begins to subide. This book is a useful, well written and insightful contribution to this relationship.