It’s Christmas, Goodwill to all men
By Tim Charlesworth (@Timc1972)
The dislike or fear of ‘the other’ is a natural instinct and none of us are immune to it. We almost seem genetically programmed to seek out differences and set up conflict. The tribalism of football is, of course, a fairly harmless manifestation of this human trait. For those of us who grew up with the grunge of football hooliganism and the tragedy of Heysel it is not always easy to accept football tribalism as entirely harmless. I know a lot of fans disagree with me about this, but I still find the ‘what do we think of Tottenham?’ chant offensive. Its not the ‘language’ I object to, but the use of the word ‘hate’.
We live in a society that has become very intolerant of publicly expressed prejudices, and I’m not always comfortable with this. I personally like to hear people express their prejudices. If they don’t express themselves, how can they be challenged, how can the absurdity of those prejudices be exposed for what they are? An Arsenal fan who dislikes black people is easily ‘cured’ by showing them a video of David Rocastle or Patrick Viera, but if they don’t express the prejudice, how do we know that we need to show them the video?
I was fortunate to grow up in a home where racial prejudice was actively discouraged by my parents. However, children are sponges and if I had been brought up to dislike people of other races, no doubt I would have adopted that attitude. I always feel that our job as a society is not to condemn prejudice, but to point it out, and encourage those who hold prejudices to shine the light of truth on them. Of course it’s unreasonable to ask others to do something that you are not prepared to do yourself, so here is a personally uncomfortable piece of writing:
Despite the great example of my parents, I was still guilty of things which make me ashamed to recall. As a young man, I routinely and unthinkingly, used the phrases ‘p**i shop’ as a synonym for ‘corner shop’ and ‘poof’ to describe those who were less than 100% committed to a tackle during a game of football. These are words that I certainly should not have used, but they didn’t reflect any real prejudice against Pakistani or gay people. My attitude to German people, however, was a genuinely shameful prejudice and I would like to tell you how I was cured of it.
I grew up loving football, and there was an anti-German sentiment in the game at the time that went beyond friendly rivalry. The popular song ‘two world wars and one world cup’ does not qualify as friendly banter. I was not short of people of German origin in my life, including some very good teachers. I learnt German, and went on a German exchange as a child, but sadly I didn’t really get on with my exchange partner. (In hindsight, this was probably a lot more about my character flaws than his). My much-loved grandfathers had fought Germany in the Second World War, and my great-grandfathers had fought the First World War. I grew up with Jewish people whose relatives had been murdered in the Nazi Holocaust. My prejudice survived the experience of real people and even my own intellectual development. Football was my salvation.
When he first came to Arsenal, one of the most distinctive features of Wenger’s management style was the large number of French players that he signed. It took Arsene Wenger a long time to sign a German player. Arsene is from Alsace, a region of France which borders Germany and which France and Germany fought over for a hundred years (one interpretation of the two great wars of the twentieth century is that they were the consequence of a protracted border disputed between France and Germany over the Alsace and Lorraine regions). Alsace has a distinctly Germanic influence to its culture and Wenger itself is a name of Germanic origin (Arsene is a French name). Before starting school, Arsene spoke the local Alsace patois, a derivative of German, not French.
During the Second World War, Alsace was not considered part of occupied France, but designated by the Third Reich as part of Germany (It had been given to France as part of the 1919 Versailles treaty, which the Nazis rejected). As a result, Alsatian men were conscripted into the German army and Waffen SS in the same way as other German citizens, under the threat of murderous reprisals against their families back home in Alsace, if they didn’t fight. Most Alsatians were deeply offended and traumatised by being forced to fight for their enemy. The men conscripted in this way are known as the malgre-nous (against our will), and their fate remains an awkward subject in Alsace to this day. Alphonse Wenger, Arsene’s father, was one of these men, sent to fight on the eastern front in 1944.
I was genuinely shocked when Arsene signed Jens Lehmann in the summer of 2003, and this was an act which fundamentally challenged my prejudice – it seemed to me that Arsene had much more to forgive than I did. Jens’ contribution to the Invincibles season served only to further undermine by Germanophobia.
But nothing influenced me so deeply as the 2006 World Cup. The tournament (which the FA and many English people felt Germany had ‘stolen’ from them) was beautifully managed, with generous crowds and fine stadia. The German team, managed by Klinsmann (featuring Lehmann and a group of unknown young players: Lahm, Schweinsteiger, Podolski, Mertesacker and Klose) was given little hope, but surprised everybody with a spirited run to the semi-finals where they lost 2-0 in extra time to eventual winners, Italy. This is a rough way to lose, but instead of the widespread doom and street rioting that accompanied England’s semi-final exit from Euro ‘96, the German fans stayed on in the stadium, applauding both the Italians and their own players. There was a spirit of friendliness and generosity in the face of disappointment, that I found hard to understand, and difficult not to admire.
And suddenly, I saw Germany for what it was. It was a nation which had indisputably committed unspeakable crimes. These were crimes which no words or deeds could ever apologise for. But there are very few people in modern Germany who played any role in these events. Must the children be forever tarred with the sins of the father? What else could German people do in the face of this terrible heritage, other than be themselves, be kind, be generous and get on with their lives?
This was a nation which paid a terrible price for its crimes. Seven million Germans lost their lives in World War II (less than half a million Britons suffered that fate), and the majority of German women (of all ages, including children) in the Russian occupied part of Germany were brutally and often repeatedly raped by soldiers of the Red Army. The German nation was humiliated and parts of its territory were given to other nations. It was then partitioned and its Eastern portion was subjected to 45 years of communist brutality. Upon reunification, the wealthy Western Germans, without grumble, paid massive taxes in order to subsidise the rebuilding of the East, a huge transfer of wealth to people who, until recently, had been presented as their enemies.
I could no longer deny that this was a group of people who deserved my respect. So I find myself eternally grateful to the German people for exposing the silliness of my own prejudices to me, and for showing me how foolish I was. I am grateful too, to football, Arsene Wenger, Jens Lehmann and others for the part that they have played in making me see sense.
It strikes me that football is a general force for good in undermining prejudice of all sorts. Arsenal never suffered as badly as many clubs from the scourge of racism, but any lingering racism that remained was surely defeated by the wonderful black players of the 1980s such as Thomas, Davis, Anderson, Rocastle and Wright. It strikes me too, that the multiculturalism of the Premier League over the last twenty years has been a general force to drive prejudice out of our society. Fans like to support their players, especially those that work hard for their team, and it becomes increasingly absurd to lionise a player, but reject the group that he comes from.
Prejudice is defeated, not by grand political gestures, but by a ‘death of a thousand cuts’: millions of small individual realisations that a prejudice is senseless. Football still has a long way to go with this – the lack of openly gay players and the lack of black managers are a genuine scandal. I suspect we will see openly gay players soon. Homophobia would be so much harder to maintain if, say Alexis (or Harry Kane for Spurs fans, Costa for Chelsea fans etc) declared himself a gay man tomorrow.
As Christmas approaches, and the Goonersphere is polluted by anger, disappointment and frustration, my thoughts are again with the German people. Subjected to a vile act of terrorism, when a deluded terrorist murdered 12 and maimed many others in a Christmas market, they are battling the natural human urge to lash out. The killer is presumed to be an asylum seeker. Street protests in Germany are (unbelievably) making it clear that asylum seekers and refugees remain welcome in Germany.
Nigel Farage said of these events: ‘Terrible news from Berlin but no surprise. Events like these will be the Merkel legacy’. The comment is so hurtful because it has some truth to it. Germany has been far more generous than any other nation in absorbing refugees in recent years, particularly those fleeing the tragedies of Syria. Immigration brings immense benefits to the receiving society in the long-term, but there is no denying that the effects may not be positive in the short-term, and this may be what Germany is experiencing now. In turbulent times, when prejudice and anger appear to be gaining ground in the Western world, how ironic and delightful it would be if it was Germany that led the world in rejecting hatred.
So this Christmas, I send goodwill to all men, including the much maligned Mesut Ozil, and all other Germans. I admire your example, your fortitude and your collective refusal to give in to the baser human emotions. I thank you for revealing my own stupidity to me, and I beg the fates to allow your shining beacon of hope and generosity to illuminate our world this Christmas.
Tim is the author “It’s Happened Again” (available on Amazon)
And from the History Society