English, Essays

“Rasen betreten verboten!” – Two British perspectives of Germany around World War I

Before the World Wars, Britain used to be a kingdom on which the sun never set. No other European country had as much power and was as rich. Germany, for example, had comparably few and meaningless colonies and united its limited power and wealth only late in the 19th century.

From that very moment in 1871, however, the British public developed a latent sense of danger. People were afraid that ze Germans might cross the Channel and steal their beloved Empire. Although this fear is hardly stated explicitly, it is mirrored in works especially of the beginning of the 20th century, both before and after World War I.

H.M. Munroe, better known as Saki, wrote When William Came shortly before he had to serve in the war. The short novel deals with Kaiser Wilhelm taking away what Saki, a dandy after the fashion of Oscar Wilde, cherished most about Britain: London. Although an omniscient narrator tells the story of a soldier returning home from service in the colonies just after the Germans have taken over, neither do the colonies play a big role in his thoughts nor is the novel melodramatic or pathetic. Rather, it is quite funny; all the street signs have been translated; strange continental fashions like expression-dancing as an art form have been introduced; visitors are forbidden to walk on the lawn in public parks; and all of London society is reigned by a sort of military etiquette.

         It is, therefore, quite obvious that the changes observed by the homecoming soldier are based on clichés of his German contemporaries. Germans cherish their language, they are deeply feeling, earnest and find it important to express their true sentiments; they are very orderly and let regulations limit the quality of their lives; and their society is dominated by the military caste like no other civilized country’s.

         And civilized they are. Many governesses in British fiction are German. Some are ridiculed, but on the whole, they are presented as harmless.

Not so in Virginia Woolf’s novel, Mrs Dalloway, written just after the war. The only German character, governess Ms Kilman represents her country in a not very heart-warming way. She is severe, strict, dislikes colourful clothes, hardly ever smiles, and secretly always complains about her unhappy state. In addition, she emphasizes religiousness, and loneliness has left an imprint on her character in the form of a touch of cruelty.

         The story again takes place in London. Elizabeth Dalloway, daughter of protagonist Clarissa Dalloway and Ms Kilman’s pupil, is regarded as the most beautiful lady in London society by all characters in the Dalloways’ house. Even Ms Kilman loves her, with apparently more than pedagogic eros. Clarissa Dalloway, who hates the governess, is deeply jealous and constantly afraid that Ms Kilman could take away what she loves the most: her daughter. To complete the very unfavourable picture of Germany, the name – ‘Ms Kill-man’ – is a reflection of the numerous men killed in World War I, begun by the Germans.

         Both in When William Came and in Mrs Dalloway, Germans occupy and take for themselves an object which embodies the power and wealth of the Empire. London as its capital is just a synonym for the Empire; Elizabeth Dalloway is the only daughter of a rich family, her father is an MP, and every good name comes to her mother’s parties.

         World War I, however, changed the perception of the Germans. Before the war, Saki thought them to be powerful enough to invade Britain and change its culture. After the war, Germany has only a powerless, female representative who evokes both pity and disdain in the reader. Jealousy and the fear of being robbed still play a role in the mind of the British subject, but on a different, more personal level. Germany has been defeated in the war. It has not become harmless, for the fear prevails; but for the moment, it is unable to attack. All it can do is pray, learn, complain and stay away from colourful robes.


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