Al Murray: Why Does Everyone Hate the English?
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The bombing of German cities during WW2

Churchill visiting the ruins of Coventry Cathedral and St Nicholas' Hamburg as it is today

Why Does Everyone Hate the English? The title of Al Murray’s new show may be a bit of a no-brainer when it comes to Germany. There is, after all, the small matter of two apocalyptic wars within the past century. Giant, savage global conflicts causing the deaths of millions can really be a downer for international relations. Plus, you know, England beat them in 1966.

Literally parachuting into the country (the Pub Landlord would definitely approve), Al Murray finds out about the famous Christmas truce of World War One, explores the legacy of Allied bombing raids in World War Two, and answers the age-old question of whether English or German military helmets are best for accurately heading footballs into goals.

He finds out a couple of rather surprising things. First, Germans don’t really give two bratwursts about 1966, and find the whole football rivalry/obsession quite baffling. Second, they don’t even harbour any grudges over England utterly obliterating many of their cities during the war. In marked contrast to the episodes on places like Wales and Scotland, it turns out the Germans think the English are all right really. Two thumbs up.

To bomb or not to bomb

And yet, German friendliness and the happy clinking of beer steins notwithstanding, historians and writers still angrily disagree about the Allied bombing tactics of World War Two. Yes, it may have been a 'just war' against the existential Nazi threat – the ultimate cartoon baddies of history – but it’s still queasy to consider how the RAF deliberately targeted civilians in a ruthless attempt to batter down their morale. In the words of one bigwig at Bomber Command:

‘The Government, for excellent reasons, has preferred the world to think that we still held some scruples and attacked only what the humanitarians are pleased to call Military Targets. I can assure you, gentlemen, that we tolerate no scruples.'

A by-product of the indiscriminate raids was the wholesale demolition of some of the nation’s most iconic buildings. The bombing of Hamburg is a case in point. It was a major industrial centre, and so a legitimate military target, and yet there were no distinctions made when the bombs and incendiaries came raining down. Everything, military and non-military alike, was flattened in Operation Gomorrah – rather appropriately referencing the Biblical city destroyed by fire and brimstone.

Today, the remains of St Nicholas’ Church stand as a monument to the Hamburg raids. Designed in the 19th Century, rather ironically by the great English architect George Gilbert Scott, the church was an ornate, Neo-Gothic masterpiece, and for some time the tallest building on Earth. It was almost completely destroyed in the Allied raids, but – rather than being demolished or restored – it’s been deliberately left in its hollowed-out, skeletal state as a reminder of what the civilians of Hamburg endured. 

Another major architectural casualty of the Hamburg raids was Tierpark Hagenbeck, a zoo which was founded in 1907. It wasn’t just any old zoo – it was the first to get rid of bars and house animals in areas actually designed to resemble their natural habitats. It was enormously influential and changed how zoos are run around the world. It was also destroyed by Allied bombs, and rather poignantly rebuilt after the war with some help from the elephants, who helped clear away the rubble.

Tit for tat

Of course, the Germans also bombed civilian targets on purpose. Take the so-called 'Baedeker Blitz', in which the Luftwaffe expressly sought-out British cities renowned for cultural and historic importance. These attacks, on places like Exeter and Bath, got their name after a statement by a high-ranking German who allegedly said, 'We shall go out and bomb every building in Britain marked with three stars in the Baedeker Guide'.

Yet, the Allies themselves were indirectly to blame for the Baedeker Blitz, as these German assaults were a tit-for-tat response to the RAF’s bombing of the German city of Lubeck, which created the kind of destructive firestorm that would be seen later in the even more devastating Dresden raids.

Speaking of which, Dresden remains the defining example of Allied ferocity against Germany. It was a city hailed for its beauty, the 'Florence of the Elbe', and debate still rages about whether it was a remotely legitimate target.

Some of the most majestic structures were obliterated, including the Baroque magnificence of the Zwinger Palace, and the gilded Semperoper opera house, where works by the likes of Wagner and Strauss had premiered. In a neat twist, when the Semperoper was finally rebuilt in 1985, it reopened with a performance of the very same opera which had been performed on the eve of the building’s destruction.

Arguably the most iconic of all ruined structures was the Dresden Frauenkirche, whose stunning dome drew comparisons with the Vatican. Reduced to rubble by the Allied bombing, it was finally rebuilt in 2005, with remnants of the original, blackened walls forming a part of the new structure.

The Dresden firestorm still arouses fury and indignation among Germans and non-Germans alike. And yet, despite the unashamed attacks on civilians and civilian buildings, it seems that – despite Al’s title – not everyone… not even nearly everyone… not even nearly everyone in Germany, 'hates the English'. Even the Pub Landlord would drink to that.