Stereotypes, Ideology and Foreign Correspondents: German media Representations of Ireland, 1946-2010 (Reimagining Ireland, Vol. 75, ed. Dr Eamon Maher) , by Fergal Lenehan, Peter Lang, 306 pp, 70 SFr, ISBN: 978-3034322225
The great Gaels of Ireland are the men that God made mad
For all her wars are merry and all her songs are sad
GK Chesterton, “The Ballad of the White Horse”
National stereotypes, such as the relatively benign one above from Chesterton, have a long history. Despite being dismissed or regarded as beneath notice by some of a rationalist or universalist bent, they have been important in history and they continue to play a significant role in international politics. It is useful for any country, but perhaps especially for small countries, to understand the way they are viewed by others, particularly by centres of power. Fergal Lenehan’s new book, a study of stereotypical representations of Ireland in the German print media over a seventy-year period, must therefore be welcome as a means of learning what the Germans have been thinking about us.
In this writer’s opinion, the German media, to the limited extent to which it comments at all on Ireland, has generally reflected what Irish Times journalist Derek Scally has perceptively described as an “uninformed sympathy”, in other words, generally positive if somewhat inaccurate. Lenehan’s study unpacks this idea to reveal, as he sees it, a “stereotype”-driven narrative suffusing German media coverage of the “Emerald Isle” – a term still regularly used, which of course is irritating to Irish ears.
Lenehan sets out to examine the origins, function and evolution of German journalistic clichés about Ireland and how they distorted German coverage of Irish news. He claims that the essence of this stereotypical view of “Ireland” is an exotically “other”, alien and in part non-European entity, to some extent even an “anti-normality” entity. Such a representation of an “othered” Ireland, he argues, fulfils a function in German society, reinforcing a sense of the essential “Europeanist” normality of the German “us”, a comforting self-representation that Lenehan claims overcomes an earlier and darker German “us”.
But what makes his study compelling is not really this theoretical framework – which is overemphasised to the detriment of other aspects of the book – but the meticulous and detailed presentation of the actual German press coverage of Ireland over a sustained period. The work is not a generalised review of that coverage but focuses on the elite of the German press, the widely read and influential liberal weekly periodicals, the newspaper Die Zeit and the news magazine Der Spiegel. Modern digital archiving has enabled the author to undertake a comprehensive trawl of their output over the period examined.
If coverage of Ireland in the two journals was extremely sparse and cliché-driven until the 1970s, as Lenehan, often with much humour, documents, thereafter it would seem to the present writer that the growing volume of German reportage on Ireland by the two journals became increasingly nuanced and divergent. The extent to which abiding stereotypical representations really characterised their coverage in this later period, as Lenehan seeks to maintain, is questionable. Reporting in the decades after the 1970s was noticeably characterised by a progressive abandonment of inherited clichés and a growing absorption by the German media of new international and even Irish discourses on modern Ireland.
Existing literature on the Irish-German relationship, which Lenehan surveys, has tended to be disproportionately focused on literary matters. One of his more surprising revelations is that apart from several Irish studies of German media treatment of Ireland during the country’s recent financial woes, no historical study of German press coverage of Ireland has ever been published. The very fact that Lenehan has produced a pioneering work to fill this gap is itself a recommendation for this book to be read with interest. Hopefully his work will be a wake-up call for a far greater interest to be taken in this important subject in future.
A particularly useful aspect of the book is that extracts from articles are often given in both the German original and English translation. I have two small quibbles: the translations are not always elegant and in a very few cases are not totally accurate. In this article I have re-rendered some of these. Another minor irritation is the index, consisting of just two pages, which makes searches for particular items difficult. This is a fault of the publishers. Given the high price and the fact that this book is primarily an academic one, intended for those wishing to undertake further study of the topic, a mark of “could do better” would be appropriate for that section.
Towards the end of the book, and with some sense of annoyance, Lenehan comes to the conclusion that “it is indeed a shame that the German ‘Ireland texts’ from Der Spiegel and Die Zeit were rarely read in Ireland”. It appears that while Irish academia ignored the subject entirely, the Irish media itself also rarely if ever bothered to notice or comment on German press coverage of Ireland. In the very rare cases when they did – almost solely during the Celtic Tiger years – it was to pounce on unfavourable reports with what Lenehan says “one may view as … the cultural weapon of choice”, a resort to “blunt Nazi stereotypes”. This was certainly the response this writer recalls when a former German ambassador commented on Irish radio at the height of the Irish boom – in a well-meaning manner it must be said – on the extraordinary proportion of modern, expensive cars on Irish roads, in contrast to Germany. Many reacted with outrage at this alleged German “bullying”, with hints of a darker German instinct lying behind it. Lenehan details some other crass cases in point, though it should be noted that these were almost exclusively a phenomenon of the more populist press. It might be said that these Irish responses were almost to demonstrate that our own stereotypes of Germany were more damning than theirs could be of us. But Lenehan’s essential point here is that Irish public opinion ignored the German press narrative on Ireland for decades, until it was too late, when that narrative turned to bite during the years of the Tiger excesses.
That German press interest in Ireland was for long quite marginal is surely understandable. Ireland was (though no longer is) a small distant country of no great economic or strategic importance to Germany. The marginal interest of its press in Ireland in earlier decades is surely more forgivable than the astounding absence of interest among Irish elites in the German media narrative on Ireland, as Germany was and is of far greater, indeed existential, strategic importance to Ireland. Of course, whatever about the negligence of academia, we can be sure the state through its diplomats carefully monitored German media representation of Ireland. In the nature of things their reports were not shared with the public.
Until recent times Irish media commentary on Germany often consisted of second-hand, primarily British output. There were exceptions, a notable case being Douglas Gageby’s deeply sympathetic reports for the Irish Press in 1946 on the awful plight of the German population under Allied occupation at that time. If Irish academic lethargy in examining German press coverage of Ireland can be rightly criticised, it must be said that the Irish media has been rectifying its previous shortcomings. Following the success of the appointment by The Irish Times of Seamus Martin as full-time Moscow correspondent during the dramatic years of the 1990s – which indisputably made for a far more informed and intelligent Irish public opinion on Russian developments than would otherwise have been the case – the appointment of Derek Scally to a similar role in Berlin has had an equally liberating and informing effect over the last decade. The Irish Times deserves to be commended for providing this vital service. The reliance on mostly Tory British sources for “foreign news” remains one of the most excruciating aspects of the record of Independent Newspapers, and the lack of a perspective on foreign relations at all is the greatest weaknesses of the Examiner.
For sensible analytical purposes, Lenehan breaks down the Irish coverage he examines into four subject categories – literature/art, politics, Northern Ireland and tourism – and into three periods, each given a chapter title providing a leitmotiv of the coverage of that period: the 1946-68 period when Ireland was viewed as a strange, peripheral but somehow attractive and sympathetic country (“Many things appear oriental”); the period 1969–93 with the “incomprehensible” Northern war and equally “alien” southern economic desolation and cultural conflicts over divorce and abortion (“Their hands still clasp prayer books and guns”); and the 1994-2011 era of rapid modernisation, including a new role in “global popular culture”, but also an allegedly skin-deep “Europeanness” unmasked in the boom and bust (“Nowhere is Europe so American”). The characterisation of that latter chapter was least convincing for this writer as in fact in that period, as we will see, the coverage diverged dramatically in approach and sophistication between the two journals.
Each chapter opens with a useful narrative of cultural-political developments in both the Federal Republic and Ireland in the relevant period, though these often also betray the author’s own unfortunately often clichéd view of twentieth century Irish history. Thus we read of Northern Ireland’s “warring parties” and of the IRA of the 1950s-60s as “terrorists”. Even that most hoary of clichés, that in Ireland World War II was “rather bizarrely” dubbed “the Emergency”, is regurgitated – a brief look at the press of the time in fact shows government and media alike referring to the events of the war as the “World War” and only the restrictions and rationing necessitated by it as the “Emergency”. But, in the context of the overall value of the work, this is a minor quibble.
Lenehan makes the interesting observation that for all the ideological differences between capitalist West and communist East Germany in the Cold War, views on what constituted the predominant points of interest about Ireland were remarkably similar. These can be summarised as Ireland’s “legendary” tradition of literary “genius”, its bad weather but “wild” natural beauty, and its unserious but eccentrically attractive people. As Lenehan interestingly demonstrates, O’Casey, Joyce and Shaw were equally widely eulogised in East and West. German cultural stereotypes of Ireland, it appears, happily bestrode the Iron Curtain.
As we move from period to period, and despite radically altering circumstances from the 1940s to 2010, Lenehan argues that stereotypes of “green romanticism”, irrationality, drunkenness, excessive religion, endless singing and fanatical Anglophobia remain peculiarly constant, simply being “re-moulded” to fit changing circumstances. A long and substantial 1976 feature in Die Zeit on Ireland, for example, which provided an in-depth analysis of Irish culture and politics credible even to an Irish educated audience (if any had read it) was still irritatingly titled “Poets, Fighters and Singers”.
The conclusions Lenehan draws from all of this is that the German journalistic narrative of Ireland involved:
recurring tropes, metaphors and analogies that place Ireland outside of an evolving European “normalcy”. While often actually seen as something highly positive, this recurring ideological narrative meaning places Ireland outside of European societal “norms”, implicitly places Germany at the centre of Europe, and may be viewed … as a type of excluding Europeanism.
Lenehan sets out his theoretical edifice in an opening chapter under the intimidating title, “The Semantics and Syntax of Journalistic Articles of ‘Other’ Cultures: Stereotypes and Ideological Narrative Meaning”. This will be immediately off-putting to many readers. It is, however, worth persevering with (it’s not too long), as it is followed by much rich and very readable material. The book can be read with great benefit without buying into the theoretical case (of which more anon). Little that appeared in either journal on Ireland over the period he reviews goes unmentioned or uncategorised. And it is this wealth of original material that is of such immense value in this book.
I have been a sporadic reader of the German press since the late 1970s and have often winced at the occasional clichéd and crass representations of Ireland I came across, not least in Der Spiegel. But I have also learned to control for the inevitable clichéd reference and to respect the more factual of German reporting and the more interesting of German commentary, including in these two journals, which on occasion has been excellent.
At this point, for the benefit of readers not familiar with the political orientation of the German press, it might be worthwhile to offer a brief account of it. Die Zeit and Der Spiegel will be well known to Irish readers with even a passing interest in German affairs. They are, and have been for sixty years, iconic, high-circulation and prestigious weekly commentary journals on the politics and cultural life of the German Federal Republic. Their editorials and reportage, when they appear each Monday (Spiegel) and Wednesday (Zeit), are, to this day, scanned with reverence and not a little trepidation by German politicians and policy-makers. But both journals – now regarded as the liberal media conscience of Germany – had rather shady beginnings, complete with “re-educated” Nazis, including not a few former SS officers, in leading editorial positions. Indeed, as this writer has recounted elsewhere, at the start of his journalistic career Rudolf Augstein, editor, owner and politico-philosophical oracle of Der Spiegel for fifty years, provided colour pieces in the wartime Nazi journals extolling Germany’s civilising mission in the East. Die Zeit and Der Spiegel were started in the early postwar/Cold War era of the Allied “licenced press”, when editorial boards were assembled and publishing licences issued under the tight political direction of the Allied occupation regimes. Much like the Federal Republic itself, the two journals slowly evolved from rather nationalist, right-wing, Allied-subservient beginnings into entities that increasingly self-identified as the epitome of liberal values. Lenehan gives a good synopsis of the early evolution of both publications.
It might be argued that Spiegel and Zeit form a rather narrow basis for representing German media attitudes on any issue. Both titles were, after all, outsiders to the dominant Christian Democratic culture of the new West Germany, a point not noted by Lenehan. Both, I would argue, emerged from a Prussian, Protestant, National Liberal Bismarckian tradition, sceptical at first of the virtues of the Allies’ “imposed democracy”. North German and based in Hamburg in the “British Occupation Zone”, they were from the start Anglophile and Atlanticist in outlook, in contrast to the more Rhenish-South German Catholic-democratic identity of the new state, which was Francophile and Eurocentric. Both Spiegel and Zeit were unwaveringly hostile to Adenauer’s “clericalist” (that is, Catholic) regime of the 1950s-60s, including his European integrationist agenda which, as recent histories have shown, the Spiegel decried as a sell-out to France and to southern European “clericalism” in general (Augstein claimed France only wanted to get its hands on German industry). But, much like that “Bonn Republic” itself, the Christian Democratic press, ubiquitous at provincial and local level, but also with some notable national titles, has been widely described as “provincialist” and its views on the wider world, beyond the immediate Franco-German realm, derivative and unimaginative. Perhaps Lenehan should have made some comment on it, and certainly it would have been useful for comparative purposes to have included some Irish reportage from a Christian Democratic newspaper such as Die Welt or the Münchner Merkur. But that could be a task for a future study.
Also not included, or even mentioned, is the formidable and influential Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. The “FAZ” remains the paper of industry and finance, functioning as the watchdog of Ordoliberalism, the “sound money” founding economic myth of the Federal Republic. Since refusing to re-found itself until 1949 (it was a continuation of the old Frankfurter Zeitung) when the Allied licence era had passed, it has remained politically unaligned (though ever conservative), while also retaining a peculiarly independent credibility. FAZ commentaries on Ireland – in this writer’s experience – have been rare and dismissive, though they might usefully have been at least referred to in Lenehan’s study. For the record, there are also the two major social democratic (or SPD-supporting) newspapers of note with a national reach, the Munich-based Süddeutsche Zeitung and the more leftist Frankfurter Rundschau, both also products of the Allied licence era, as well as the Alternative-Green trending Berlin Tageszeitung. But commentaries on Ireland in these papers, while more generous and sympathetic certainly than in Spiegel, remain ultimately derivative of the “liberal” interpretation fashioned by the two Hamburg journals.
In focusing on Die Zeit and Der Spiegel, therefore, and despite their somewhat outsider status through much of the history of the Federal Republic, Lenehan provides the views of a very particular niche group of the German press, however influential it might be in the wider German public discourse. These journals today create and inform the specifically liberal German discourse on foreign affairs. The cultural upheaval of the 1960s transformed both of them, as is well explained by Lenehan. They became “soft” social democratic, having opposed the SPD in earlier decades, and have since evolved into the “liberal-democratic” standard bearers of the post-1990 “Berlin Republic”, though with Der Spiegel remaining more Atlanticist and Die Zeit, noticeably since Helmut Schmidt became a commentator in it in the early 1990s, more enthusiastically Eurocentric. Given their backgrounds and history, Die Zeit and Der Spiegel might be expected not to have an overly sympathetic view of insignificant, peripheral, Catholic Ireland, but this, it emerges, is far from the case.
Lenehan includes at an early stage a somewhat tangential but, for all that, entertaining chapter on the “canon” of “Irish stereotypes in German cinema”. In fact this chapter reaches farther back, with an interesting though very brief look at nineteenth century German travel writing on Ireland, where the author perceives the first emergence of enduring German stereotypes about the country.
These nineteenth century accounts were hugely popular at the time, a phenomenon echoed again in the extraordinary and enduring popularity of Heinrich Böll’s Irisches Tagebuch of the 1950s, which remains in great demand. The stereotypes that emerged from them certainly absorbed something of the negativity of the British press of the time, as most notoriously expressed in the racist Punch cartoon depictions of “the Irish”, which were only the tip of an iceberg and which had a long pedigree. But the German stereotypes evolved somewhat differently. Travellers were universally appalled at the misery and destitution they encountered in Ireland, but attracted or maybe enchanted by the character of the people they encountered. Mostly liberal, and hence prone to the Anglophilism inherent in German liberalism – which understood Britain as the cradle of liberal values – many nevertheless began criticising British “misrule” and expressing sympathy for Irish claims to self-government, particularly from the time of the Famine. The ancient culture of the Irish also attracted attention, and Celtic studies were to develop further in Germany than anywhere else, though Lenehan does not mention this beyond the enduring German love of mystical Irish “Celtic” stories. While often noting the beauty and physical wildness of the “Green Isle”, the writers also dwelt on what they experienced both as the (annoyingly) loquacious and alcohol- and superstition-ridden character of the rural poor, and a widespread predisposition to fighting. But they were equally likely to account for these traits generously, as symptoms of the horrendous situation in which the Irish poor found themselves. A generally positive and sympathetic picture of Ireland and the Irish was formed, which, with all its clichés, Lenehan argues has essentially endured to the present.
Lenehan also reviews the German cinematic portrayal of Ireland from the Nazi era to the present. Amounting to little more than a few melodramas and some rather absurd wartime propaganda, this is not of great interest. German cinema regurgitated simplistic stereotypes of rain and rainbows, wild scenery, impoverished but harmlessly eccentric inhabitants of temperamental unpredictability, much red hair, whiskey-soaked singing, Celtic crosses and ruins, religious piety and romantically daring but fanatically Anglophobic rebels striking out at every opportunity at their English oppressors. The latter aspect is portrayed in heroic form in the wartime propaganda, and more disapprovingly in postwar NATO-era representations. Ireland does not appear to feature in avant-garde German cinema, Herzog’s bizarre “warm hearted madman”, Fitzcarraldo, being an eccentric exception.
In the twenty years to 1968, Ireland was rarely newsworthy for the German public, apart from a literary curiosity among intellectuals, and political events were covered on the rare occasion a German interest was involved. Short pieces appeared occasionally on the writings of Joyce, Beckett productions, the legacy of Shaw, Swift, Yeats and Wilde, and also on O’Casey, Behan and Donleavy. The Irishness of Joyce, Beckett and Wilde is largely incidental, though they are described as examples of “Irish literary genius”. As Lenehan notes, “alcohol and rebels feature prominently” in relation to Behan and O’Casey, as well as earning incidental mention in most other articles. It might be said that deducing a clichéd stereotyping from this overlooks the rather obvious fact that the public persona of Behan in his latter years and the writings of O’Casey positively invited such clichés, as did much other Irish writing of the time.
Of the news stories – just fourteen in all in the Spiegel over the entire two decades from the late 1940s to late 1950s (though somewhat more in Die Zeit) – Taoiseach De Valera (“the former rebel”) featured, as did foreign minister Seán MacBride, with the Spiegel noting his IRA past in “the ranks of the terrorists” and quoting a jaundiced Irish Times view of his party’s – Clann na Poblachta – programme as “unadulterated fascism”. Also covered were the declaration of the Republic and the South’s demands for an end to partition. But these articles – which actually portrayed a country that however different and exotic (“oriental”) was politically self-confident – appeared mainly in the context of Irish non-membership of NATO, an organisation understandably of great interest to the German public at the time. One such Spiegel article was headed “Loyal Club Member Eire [sic.]: inside and outside simultaneously”, which would seem a rather apt description. Some stories had a more direct German aspect, such as the return home of Eduard Hempel, the wartime ambassador to Ireland (with much commentary on Irish neutrality), or “Operation Shamrock” in the late 1940s, under which children from bombed out German cities were taken in by Irish families. Lenehan notes that much of this reporting was second-hand, and that the Spiegel articles depended for their information “extensively upon the British media”.
Die Zeit coverage prior to 1968 – both literary and political – was more highbrow than that of Der Spiegel, with critical reviews of German translations of Irish writing (including even translations from the Irish) though, as Lenehan notes, Irish English-language writing was mainly treated by it as simply an element of English literature generally. Its reporting of Irish politics was also more extensive than the Spiegel, and from the start was characterised by attempts to reach beyond British-derived sources. It carried, for example, a number of pieces by Georg Rosenstock, a German doctor married and living in Limerick (father of the poet Gabriel and granduncle of the comedian Mario). He wrote enthusiastically and positively on the economic transformation taking Ireland out of its peripheral, backward past in the 1960s, though not without difficulty (“progress and the Irish disposition are not easy to reconcile”), and on the new post-revolutionary generation of politicians and what he described as the impressively efficient modern Irish engineers (“Fresh wind over Ireland: new ideas, new initiatives, new industries”). He referred to the role German firms were playing, and the strength and enthusiasm of local community organisations – themes never covered by Der Spiegel – as well as to cultural conflicts such as on literary censorship and the Fethard-on-Sea events (the latter entitled “Irish Numbskulls”). Other German residents also contributed, presenting a “multi-facetted and well-rounded view” (Lenehan) of the country, in contrast to the more clichéd Spiegel.
Die Zeit, especially though not only in its tourist reports, was also given to a “green romantic” portrayal of the country as unique in landscape, people and weather (“Ireland: a country that touches the heart”), and on the 1967 ROSC exhibition commented off-handedly: “Latterly [in Ireland], in addition to meadows, priests and pubs, modern art is also to be found.” Indeed.
It seems a bit unfair to this writer to classify Die Zeit in the 1960s as in the same league as Der Spiegel in terms of clichéd characterisations. Using material from informed, sympathetic Germans resident in Ireland, Die Zeit, on the basis of the considerable material presented by Lenehan himself, went to considerable lengths to challenge clichéd notions and present a differentiated picture of Irish development, while the Spiegel remained derivative of more clichéd British representations of the time. Lenehan describes this experimentation by Die Zeit as a type of neo-stereotyping – the creation of new counter-stereotypes to challenge out-dated ones – but is this not a bit of an intellectual rationalisation of a worthy exercise? And wasn’t Ireland at the time indeed a rather strange and distant if interesting place from a continental perspective?
In the two decades from 1969 Ireland, according to Lenehan, is portrayed in the two journals as a less romantic and less sympathetic, though still “other” land, its “otherness” now expressed in new forms. The focus in this period, naturally enough, is first and foremost on the outbreak and persistence of the Northern conflict, which came to be generally presented, especially in Der Spiegel, as an atavistic cycle of sectarian atrocity, defying comprehension by “modern Europeans”. The Western world was indeed very complacent in its characterisations of the Northern conflict as a primordial event out of synchwith modernity. It might be mentioned that many European states had “resolved” their ethnic divides in rather brutal ways in very recent times and that following events in Central Europe post-1989 many were to learn again that Ireland was by no means the oddity they had previously thought. Having said that, both journals proved remarkably adroit, initially at least, in locating the sources of the conflict in the peculiar political structures that had been imposed on the North under British rule.
Especially in the early years of “the Troubles”, Der Spiegel in fact carried many quite detailed, factual reports on the Northern crisis, the civil rights movement, the split in the IRA, the factions of unionism and other political developments, accompanied by in-depth interviews with key Irish players. Interest waned in the mid-1970s as the “unending” conflict dragged on, to revive again with substantial coverage of the hunger strikes and later, in particular, the peace process, which seemed to capture a public fascination for the subject. The IRA was first described rather positively as “urban guerrillas” and only later generally as “terrorists” (as previously in the 1950s), and even then not always unsympathetically, while the fascist stamp of Loyalist paramilitary groups and William Craig’s “Vanguard Movement” was noted.
Spiegel reporting in this period was again liberally laced with references to drink and religion: “Before bank raids the terrorists pray in [Derry’s] Cathedral and after murder attacks go there to confess,” ran a hostile 1970s report. Coverage of developments in the Republic in the 1980s focused on the tortuous conflicts over Catholic mores in the referendums on divorce and abortion, the Spiegel quoting the Daily Telegraph to describe the Republic as a country that still “belongs to the Vatican”. The desolate state of the economy in the mid-1980s added to the apparently hopeless intractability of the Northern conflict to create a general picture of doom and gloom. But despite being “the most Catholic country in Europe” (Spiegel), fanatically devout and economically hopeless, it had a curiously sympathetic and jolly, though excessively hard-drinking, people. Both journals began to comment on how Ireland was becoming a popular place to visit and read about among German young people, and an increasing reportage on Irish music and culture emerged to meet this popular demand.
While Lenehan provides copious quotes to underpin his theory of a type-casting and non-European “othering” of Ireland, cataloguing the tiresomely repetitive references to alcohol, rebels, violence, self-pity and religion, surely this German “distancing” did not differ all that greatly from contemporary British and even much southern Irish commentary of the time, not to mention the self-portrayals by Irish dramatists and authors? Is it not true that the Northern conflict was also largely presented by the southern Irish liberal media as an internal, internecine, inexplicable, “tribal” war? And did not the same media also present the 1980s economic crisis in the south as a state of hopeless desolation (“last to leave turn out the lights”), and the conflicts over divorce and abortion, not to mention the phenomenon of “moving statues”, as expressions of an embarrassingly un-modern Catholic backwater? At a basic level too, are not the phenomena of gifted writers, excessive drinking, the social life of pubs, ballad singing, and the self-consciousness of a nation state that emerged from a guerrilla war, all not part of a perceivable reality, even if far from the whole picture?
There was a stark and visible change in the tone of German “Ireland coverage” in Die Zeit in the 1990s, while Spiegel continued to languish in its rather cruder characterisations, very much more Angela’s Ashes than Colm McCann. But even in the earlier period this divergence seems to have been clear. Die Zeit after all had always been different, having tried (rather well) to capture the flavour of the new, dynamic Ireland of Lemass’s industrialisation and carrying features in the 1970s by Irish journalists and economists to provide its readers with intelligent Irish perspectives on EEC membership and the country’s hopes for it. As Ireland came increasingly to the fore in Europe, coverage expanded greatly to several times what it had been in previous decades. Irish politics and economics featured more prominently, articles on modern Irish writers, film and rock bands displaced to some extent discussion of the old Irish literary canon, and a younger generation was now portrayed as modernist, “turning their backs on nationalism”, and more as part of what Lenehan describes as the “globalized, transnational tapestry of popular culture”. But the coverage from the 1990s that Lenehan details is of such a wider breadth in general that this review cannot do it justice.
The liberal wave that accompanied the election of Mary Robinson as president attracted attention, as did the “efficient” and “impressive” organisation of the Irish EU summits in 1990. The driven economic and European strategies of the FitzGerald and Haughey governments of 1982-92 certainly seem to have had an effect, as Ireland was now increasingly presented less as a “European outsider” and more as a mainstream European economy and state. The “European dimension” to the settlement of the Northern conflict was given much approving coverage. Again the more positive “European” Ireland emerges in Die Zeit, while Der Spiegel preferred to highlight alleged Irish abuses of European funds and negative stories, notably the Church scandals and various political tribunals. Die Zeit continued its tradition of seeking local insights, now carrying informed features on the peace process, op-eds by Colm McCann and other substantial writers – even occasionally the vacuous utterances of Geldof and Bono – as well as commentary on social and economic developments. It would be interesting to know whether the arrival of ex-Chancellor Helmut Schmidt on the editorial board and in the commentary pages of Die Zeit played a role in this turn to a more in-depth and basically positive portrayal in the 1990s, as Schmidt when in power had forcefully championed Ireland’s position in the EC (as it then was), especially from the time it joined the EMS in 1978.
The characterisation of Ireland in the late Celtic Tiger and crisis years of 2005-10 in Der Spiegel can be summarised as that of an excessively globalised but mischievously unconvincing capitalist experiment in the hands of an unserious people that, in retrospect, had to end in tears (“Nowhere is Europe so American”). Again Die Zeit proved better informed and more balanced (including commentary on the role of German banks in the Irish economic collapse). In fact the reporting in the two journals is so obviously divergent that maintaining the theory of a common stereotypical representation would seem to be highly problematic. While Lenehan demonstrates the persistence of certain clichéd formulae behind the reporting of both journals, this aspect, while irritating to the Irish reader, was increasingly of marginal importance, and what is striking is rather the divergence in the approach and depth of commentary that emerges between the two journals.
Again what Irish commentators themselves were writing at that time is not without relevance, and may have been more influential than inherited clichés in shaping German opinion than Lenehan seems to consider. He gives a decent synopsis of the post-2000 narrative in the Irish media itself on the boom and the crash, and documents the radically negative critiques of Irish (mis-)development that became de rigueur among Irish commentators. He instances Fintan O’Toole’s Ship of Fools: How Stupidity and Corruption Sank the Celtic Tiger (2009). The same writer’s rather catastrophist articles in The Irish Times at the time, such as “The Three Cracked Pillars of a Failed State”, might also have been mentioned. Describing any country as a “failed state” can have lethal consequences in the modern world.
These Irish views played a major role informing German commentary on the Irish crisis. Der Spiegel – as Eurosceptic in the crisis years as it had been in its opposition to the euro itself ten years previously – didn’t have to fish very far for material for its blistering broadsides. The narrative fashioned by Irish commentators formed the substance of a devastatingly negative feature on the Irish crisis in the Süddeutsche Zeitung (SZ) in June 2013, depicting a failed state in the grip of a hopelessly corrupt political and business class. Titled “Abgezockt!” (“Ripped Off!”), this shocked informed opinion in Ireland. It was one of those moments when a German media account caused major ripples in Ireland (see the coverage of it in The Irish Times, July 6th, 2013). The present writer entered into a brief correspondence at the time with the SZ journalist responsible – Christian Zaschke – but had to concede that he had provided a genuinely honest account of the crisis as told to him by leading Dublin intellectuals and commentators he met and interviewed. On the other hand it is to the credit of Die Zeit that it maintained a rather more balanced sense of judgement of the Irish crisis than even many Irish media outlets did during those traumatic years.
The Ireland coverage of the two German journals also provides an insight into the nature of those journals themselves as they had evolved by the end of the century. Lenehan makes some interesting observations on the often tortured self-reassertion process of a German liberal identity post-1945. This rapidly took the form, he says, of a “geo-cultural ideology of Europeanism”. Developed on the rebound from world war, Nazism and the Holocaust, its bêtes noires became “nationalism” and “political violence” (among others). Lenehan is certainly correct to see Jürgen Habermas as one of the leading architects of this peculiarly German liberal cult of “Europeanism”. European “norms” are declared to be those of a reimagined Enlightenment – “post-nationalism”, secular liberalism, supra-state organisation, liberal democracy and welfare statism – into all of which the threat of German nationalism must be continuously dissolved and sublimated. Indeed the mantra of German political leaders and commentators from the 1970s at least to the end of the century – when Germany still advocated a “Federal States of Europe” – was that Germany’s interest, as Helmut Kohl put it, was not to achieve a “German Europe but a European Germany”. If German liberalism came to see itself as embodying this European “norm”, other countries, including Ireland, were, according to Lenehan, judged from within that ideology by where they came on a sliding scale of “Europeanness”, the apex of which is integration into a core “Europeanism”. Lenehan betrays a healthy scepticism for this Habermasian construct, describing its proposed “Europeanist values” as “very much in the eye of the beholder”.
He examines the evolution of national stereotyping, applying Walter Lippmann’s 1920s explanation of how a “repertory of stereotypes” is a necessary mechanism for informing public knowledge through “representations” of vast quantities of “reality” in cliché form. Most people have neither the time to investigate many matters in depth nor the opportunity to experience them directly. Stereotypical narratives applied to peoples and cultures, Lenehan argues, developed particularly from the “nationalist” era of the mid-nineteenth century, with national-racial behavioural stereotyping accentuated by the social Darwinism in fashion in powerful states at the time. But this overlooks a much longer tradition, epitomised in English negative stereotyping of Irish Gaelic society as barbaric and needing to be taken in hand by a “higher culture”. This argument was already articulated, fully developed, as early as the twelfth century by Giraldus Cambrensis (Gerald of Wales) in his Topografica Hibernica (“The Topography of Ireland”). This justified Henry II’s invasion in precisely such terms. Later, more refined versions of essentially the same argument include James A Froude’s influential 1870s work The English in Ireland in the Eighteenth Century.
Lenehan situates his analysis within the arena of “transcultural” studies which have blossomed since the 1990s in what he calls the “globalist liberal democratic culture”. In this global world, where the prescriptions of “political science”, “cultural studies” and so forth are applied equally to conditions in Berkeley as in Beijing and Timbuktu, national stereotypes, like everything else “national”, must of course become an anomaly, redundant artefacts to be transculturally studied and interpreted. This is all very well, but the persistence of nation states as the most coherent spatial context of human organisation to retain popular allegiance – a fact admitted by Lenehan – remains a fly in this universalist ointment. A by-product of this state of affairs will surely be a persistence of national stereotyping, as indeed the author himself appears sometimes to accept.
Lenehan writes interestingly on all of these matters, but whether his theory of an “excluding Europeanism” really defines the discourse of Die Zeit and Der Spiegel on Ireland is a moot point. To this writer, who was fascinated by the actual content of the Irish coverage of these two great German journals, as well as by the divergence in that coverage, this doesn’t greatly matter. It would seem that despite the persistence of clichés of Ireland as a land of “poets, fighters and singers”, a substantial, intelligent and controversially diverse commentary on Ireland developed over the decades between Die Zeit and Der Spiegel and that is ultimately of greater import than the persistence of rather superficial and marginal clichés, which today can amuse as much as they irritate.
We must hope that Lenehan’s study will spur others to follow him in examining various aspects of German media coverage of Ireland. The FAZ, for example, would make an interesting case study of a European Ordoliberal perspective on Ireland, or Die Welt an interesting Christian Democratic one. This book should encourage Irish academics to abandon their long-term lack of interest in such questions and to interact more with German media commentary, as well indeed as that of other countries. As Lenehan’s book makes clear, Ireland prior to the 1970s lacked the international presence to counter partly self-generated clichéd “representations” of it as a whiskey-soaked, sing-songing, loveable but peripheral people, of literary “genius” but economic dysfunction and violent tendency. This is no longer the case.
I opened this essay by quoting GK Chesterton’s wonderfully poignant and essentially benign representation of the “Gaelic spirit” in his famous poem, “The Ballad of the White Horse”. Inherited national stereotypes, however benign, may or may not predetermine “meaning narratives” that have serious political consequences. In a world, and indeed a Europe, of persistent nation-state predominance, this will obviously remain the case for the foreseeable future. There is no doubt a “national interest” in promoting benign narratives over prejudicial ones, as German people would be the first to recognise. In the context of national interest, well-resourced, active and sophisticated Irish national agencies, and a globally active and articulate intelligentsia, can and do substantially influence narratives on “Ireland” – as the reportage of these two German journals clearly demonstrates – and this includes where Irish intellectuals opt to shoot themselves in the foot.
A few months ago the present writer was staying in Tralee with a group of middle-aged German professional people on a visit to Ireland. An impressive urban regeneration programme was in full swing in the town. I overheard several of the guests comment on the tidiness, efficiency and speed of the road works: “It wouldn’t happen in Germany.” For a reversal of “persistent” cultural stereotypes, I thought, that would take some beating.
Philip O’Connor writes on Irish and German history and politics. He is currently researching the political history of social partnership in Ireland at Dublin City University.