Towards the end of 2018 I read a lot of modern European history, particularly about the First World War as we approached the 100th anniversary of the end of combat.
Among many fascinating things, I was intrigued by the relabelling or disappearance of German-related people, animals and culture in the years following the war.
For example, even the most distinguished families with German names found it convenient to relabel themselves: the Battenbergs as Mountbatten—berg meaning mountain, the Royal family itself (generally known as the House of Hanover but more accurately Saxe-Coburg-Gotha) as the House of Windsor. Wagner’s music was effectively banned.
Michael Howard’s excellent book The First World War has more on this.
Even German Shepherds were rebranded as ‘Alsatians’, and daschunds all but disappeared from the streets:
The direct translation of the name was adopted for use in the official breed registry; however, at the conclusion of World War I, it was believed that the inclusion of the word “German” would harm the breed’s popularity, due to the anti-German sentiment of the era. The breed was officially renamed by the UK Kennel Club to “Alsatian Wolf Dog”, after the French region of Alsace bordering Germany. This name was also adopted by many other international kennel clubs.
Eventually, the appendage “wolf dog” was dropped, after numerous campaigns by breeders who were worried that becoming known as a wolf-dog hybrid would affect the breed’s popularity and legality. The name Alsatian remained for five decades, until 1977, when successful campaigns by dog enthusiasts pressured the British kennel clubs to allow the breed to be registered again as German Shepherds. The word “Alsatian” still appeared in parentheses as part of the formal breed name and was only removed in 2010.
(See also: freedom fries.)
This phenomenon didn’t exist solely outside of Germany, where some citizens shifted slightly in the way they identified themselves.
People who study ethnicity and race talk about the concept of ‘nested identities’. This is where an individual simultaneously identifies (to a greater or lesser degree) with a specific identity (e.g. religion) and others, moving outwards (region, country, continent, global).
For example, a person might variously consider themselves Jewish, a Londoner, English, British and European. (As a topical aside, the EU aimed to deliver the top-most nested identities but they failed in large parts of Europe where people did not buy into the European project.)
In the years after the First World War, many Germans still believed that the war had been imposed on them by their enemies, and that all their sacrifices over the previous five years had been in a noble cause. Further, many felt that they had not been defeated at all. The small number of others who perhaps felt regret or embarrassment by the events of 1914-1918 shifted their primary identity away from ‘German’ further up or down these nested identities, identifying themselves in terms of historical German regions or as post-war European.
Of course, there were Germans long before there was a Germany. This is why the word for ‘Germany’ differs so much in different languages: other countries came up with their own name for Germans long before there was a German state that people might want to refer to uniformly. This overall sense of a collection of German states was strongly reversed with the period of German national renewal associated with Hitler:
German national renewal following defeat in the First World War [emphasised] the importance of a ‘unique’ German culture, particularly the music dramas of Richard Wagner, in the politics of pan-German nationalists, Hitler, and the National Socialist Party. Hitler believed national revival depended on the rebirth of German culture, a concept that predated the war and was popular in völkisch circles and the radical right. Hitler owed his rise from obscurity as much to his appeal to cultural longings, which enabled him to attract the attention of Bavaria’s elite, as he did to his political ideas and abilities.
Another factor in nationalism and nested identities relates to disaporas, such as the way that second, third or fourth generation Americans often consider themselves Italian, Polish, Russian, Scandinavian and many others.
The Italian footballing oriundi—athletes born in Latin America to Italian emigrant parents—were encouraged to adopt an Italian identity, then were treated particularly badly during fascist rule. From John Foot’s Calcio:
Italy’s success at an international level in the 1920s and 1930s would have been much more difficult without the oriundi. Because of the spending power of Italian football, the national team was able to draw on talent from three or four countries. This imbalance was criticized back in South America, where many promising young players were lost to the European game. The transfer of stars was seen in colonial terms, and the authorities did their best to block such moves.
Fascism promoted the ‘Italianness’ of the oriundi, and exalted their role in the triumphs of the 1930s. Fascist ideals of an expansive, colonial ‘great Italy’, which included the Italian diaspora, linked in smoothly with this propagandist exploitation of the oriundi. However, there were ambiguities here. The fascist regime relied on the oriundi to win championships – but then discriminated against them after those victories. In 1934 the three oriundi in the World Cup winning team were refused the special medal given to the other players. Meanwhile, the South Americans accused the oriundi of treachery, and threatened them with exclusion from their national teams if they went to Italy.
All this meandering leaves me very interested to see how the nesting of British and European identity changes, assuming Brexit happens. As well as outright xenophobia and a selfish desire for personal political gain, a clear driving force behind Brexit and (the mostly English) national renewal is the rejection of European as an identity, even as part of the ‘nest’. Others, including me, feel very differently.