February 7, 2018

What’s the biggest problem, fake drama or fake news?

The answer, according to Dr Peter Ammon, the German ambassador to the Court of St James’s (London), is fake news, because there’s no such thing as definitive history, so we can dramatise it as we wish: “History is always full of ambiguities and ups and downs.”

This, I think, is what he meant in a valedictory interview1 in which he told The Guardian that the image of Britain standing alone against German domination in the Second World War has fed Euroscepticism, but does little to solve the country’s contemporary problems.

I have met five German ambassadors to the Court of St James’s. As a child, in the late 1950s, I was presented to “Johnnie” von Herwarth, who had been one of the anti-Nazi circle in the old German foreign ministry. Then, as a young officer-instructor at the Infantry School on Salisbury Plain in the late 1970s, I met Karl-Günther von Hase to talk about fighting on the Eastern Front, where he had won the Knight’s Cross in 1945.

And when I was commanding my regiment, in the early 1990s, and my good Panzer friend from Staff College days was the army attaché at the German embassy in London, I met Rüdiger von Wechmar to talk about his time with Rommel in North Africa, and Hermann von Richthofen to talk about his famous WW1 “Ace”, great-uncle Manfred (“The Red Baron”). The last ambassador I met was Gebhardt von Moltke, for reasons that must be obvious from his name.

For former German ambassadors, the “long view” stretched a little further back, to when Prussia stood with Britain against Napoleon, the man who would have unified the whole of Europe according to his own very centralist principles
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They were all acutely aware of Germany’s more recent history, but also, having lived it both directly and indirectly, were entirely at ease with it; or were at least reconciled to what it meant for modern Germany – and also for Britain. I believe if I were to have asked them what is the greater danger, fake drama or fake news, their answer would have been “fake drama”.

Coincidentally, or not, they all had the nobiliary particle – “von”. Perhaps for them the “long view” stretched a little further back, to when Prussia stood with Britain against Napoleon, the man who would have unified the whole of Europe according to his own very centralist principles.

Dr Ammon does not have the nobiliary particle; he is an economist. And he is concerned that, with British cinemas screening Darkest Hour and Dunkirk to packed houses, Britons are being encouraged to look back rather than forward: “[I]f you focus only on how Britain stood alone in the [Second World] war, how it stood against dominating Germany, well, it is a nice story, but does not solve any problem of today.”

Dr Peter Ammon argues that with films such as Dunkirk (above) and Darkest Hour, Britain is looking to the past rather than the future. Credit: Getty

Well, of course it doesn’t, but it can explain, warn and encourage – and should – in order to help solve the problems.

Besides, “ambiguities and ups and downs”, is not an entirely satisfactory description of German history in the last century. Indeed, it looks like a case of historical amnesia. Unless there is accurate – honest – history, wrong conclusions are drawn, which are no basis for informing future action.

For example, Dr Ammon equates Dunkirk with Brexit – which he calls “a tragedy” – but because he fails fully to understand the events of 1940, he fails to understand the situation of Britain in Europe both then and now. Dunkirk was initially a tactical withdrawal (if one of huge strategic significance).

After the collapse of the Belgian and French armies on either flank, the British Expeditionary Force was cut off. Churchill’s intention was to evacuate as many British and French troops as possible and put them back into France elsewhere to continue the fight. This in fact he did, though there had to be a second evacuation (from Brittany) when the French government surrendered and it was no longer possible to maintain a foothold on the Continent.

Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk was not fake drama, but in this respect it was incomplete, and its message therefore potentially misleading.

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The outgoing German ambassador fails to understand British history

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On the other hand, Joe Wright’s Darkest Hour, for all its many faults, showed that Churchill – supported by the greater part of both sides of the House of Commons – was not prepared to let Britain simply withdraw to Fortress Albion, and with control of the high seas and therefore her imperial wealth leave Europe to the Nazis. On the contrary: he intended freeing the Continent of Nazism – because Britain was inseparably European.

Dr Ammon equates Dunkirk with Brexit, which he calls “a tragedy”, but because he fails fully to understand the events of 1940, he fails to understand the situation of Britain in Europe both then and now
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The essential truth of Dunkirk and Darkest Hour is that, yes, 1940 and Brexit are comparable, but not in the way Dr Ammon represents it. For while Britain is leaving the EU – the mechanism, the bureaucracy, the high command, the totalitarianism of Brussels – she is not leaving the fight, so to speak. Britain is not leaving Europe; for she cannot. The ambassador promotes fake drama by misleadingly portraying it thus.

There could be no greater proof of Britain’s intention to stay in Europe than her desire to continue working with the EU on its security initiatives – and above all her commitment to Nato.

Britain may be leaving the EU – the mechanism, the bureaucracy, the high command, the totalitarianism of Brussels – but she is not leaving the fight
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Dr Ammon appears to have forgotten Nato. He did not once mention it in his interview. This is surprising, for it is not the EU that is the safeguard against the common European enemy (who or whatever that is), nor indeed the ultimate peacekeeper between its disparate members.

He is here guilty of fake history by omission. It may be that he genuinely does not understand, that his background in mathematics and his training as an economist predisposes him to drawing lines under things and proceeding only from there, so that “news” is all that matters.

The problem is, you can’t just draw a line under history and proceed as if from Zero. In history, the sum underlined will be different for every participant, and so, therefore, will be the outcome of what you do next.

Ambassador Dr Peter Ammon, failed in his task to keep Britain in Europe. Credit: Geoff Pugh/Daily Telegraph/PA Archive/PA Images

The irony is that Dr Ammon studied economics at the Free University of Berlin, where in 1963 President John F Kennedy gave an address after his earlier “Ich bin ein Berliner” speech. In that address he told the assembled staff and students that the university:

“…must be interested in turning out citizens of the world, men who comprehend the difficult, sensitive tasks that lie before us as free men and women, and men who are willing to commit their energies to the advancement of a free society…”

Quite evidently, in a lifetime’s diplomatic service, including ambassador in Washington, Dr Ammon has committed his energies. But in his valedictory remarks at the end of that service, in the case of Britain, he has not shown that he fully comprehends “the difficult, sensitive tasks that lie before us as free men and women”. For what he has done in ascribing the Brexit vote to “a sense of national identity built around Britain standing alone in the Second World War” is to try to rationalise his own – and perhaps Germany’s – failure to understand that films such as Dunkirk and Darkest Hour do not so much promote a false or unhelpful view of national identity but reveal the long historical continuity in Britain’s commitment to a free Europe.

This failure is demonstrated particularly in Dr Ammon’s parting shot. As ambassador in 2015, he was involved in talks between EU leaders and the former prime minister, David Cameron, on the possibility of reforms that could have led to terms for Britain staying in the EU.

Dr Ammon’s greatest task as German ambassador to the Court of St James’s was to keep Britain in the EU. He failed.
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He told The Guardian that he does not think that a more generous German offer would have changed the referendum outcome. Yet this is simply not borne out by the history that he denigrates as “a nice story”. Britain’s willingness to stay in the fight in 1940 – to spill so much blood and spend so much treasure to liberate Europe – should have told him, and he in turn told the government in Berlin, that if the “allies” on the continent would only stay in the fight (for reform), Britain would stay on the Continent fighting too.

Dr Ammon’s greatest task as German ambassador to the Court of St James’s was to keep Britain in the EU. He failed in that task. It was not his failing alone, of course, but he was the one best placed to draw the correct conclusions from history. His valedictory interview was no more than an apologia for that failure, or else he remains purblind to what is and isn’t fake in drama.

FOOTNOTES
  1. The Second World War image of Britain has fed Euroscepticism‘, The Guardian, 29 January, 2018

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