What's all this then?

My name is Victoria Stiles and I'm an Early Career Historian currently doing whatever odd research / consulting / outreach / tutoring jobs come my way. I blog here about some of the interesting texts I've found.
My research focusses on books about Britain and the British Empire which were in circulation in Nazi Germany but you'll also find a smattering of school textbooks, witchcraft beliefs, bog drainage, bemused travellers and weird illustrations that caught my eye.
Translations from German are my own. Comments are currently unmoderated and are mostly spam for leather jackets anyway.

Tuesday, 17 March 2009

English Life and Thought

This post originally appeared on one of my other blogs, Violetta Crisis.

I bought a wonderful book at the Schanze Flea-market a a few weeks ago; Learning English: English Life and Thought, by Dr. Karl Eckermann. It’s “Ein kulturkundliches Lesebuch” (a cultural-studies reader) from 1927 and a rather interesting insight into language teaching in Germany between the wars.

English Life and Thought

It’s written in the traditional children’s book style: quite conversational, very paternal and 100% steadfast in its view of the world, a bit like going on an educational forest walk with a great uncle (in an age when that didn’t suggest anything untoward). It also has that enthusiastic praise of modernity which is so wonderful to look back on 80 years later. Like this passage, in the chapter, “From Berlin to London by Air”:

Our machine rises gently, in spite of a violent west wind. I am not nervous, and I am not sick. We are gliding along with the utmost comfort. Some one says: We are going too slowly,- so I put out my hand to see. The wind bends my fingers back till I fear it will break them. We are really shooting through the air - though we do not notice it.
We are flying against the wind. The pilot has a difficult trip before him. Yet he takes the trouble to write down for me on a card the names of the chief places we pass. I wish I could write as good a hand at my desk as he does in this storm, holding on to his steering wheel. (p.93)

On the one hand, I’m glad that the ‘machines’ no longer have windows you can open. On the other hand, personal service seems to have gone downhill since then.

Dr.Eckermann seems to have a genuine love of England, its customs and history. But he also strikes me as one of the inter-war xenophiles who enthusiastically adopted the some of the more negative aspects of their subject’s character (see Houston Stewart Chamberlain). The chapters on Scotland and Ireland are terrible - this is very much a book in praise of England, not Britain. He includes a passage from Andrew Carnegie, entitled “Why Scotchmen succeed”:

Scotch children are reared right: they are fortunate in being born poor. They have as a guide and model their father, and for their nurse, seamstress, cook and saint, their mother. Oh, how I pity the boy who is born the son of a millionaire! (p.63)

The rest of the passage talks about Scottish pride and other virtues (apparently this theme was also very popular in language textbooks in the late 1930s) but any positive effect is immediately negated by the three “Englishman, Irishman, Scotchman” jokes which follow. And there’s worse to come in “A letter about Ireland”, from a fictional tourist to his friend:
Mr. Mackinder himself is of Scotch descent, and I hear him very often speak of the Irish and especially of the Irish peasants with an undertone of contempt. "If the Irish peasant", Mr Mackinder once said to me, "is so poor, it is in most cases his own fault. It is true, he is clever and witty, but he is awfully backward as regards the tilling of the soil, the use of tools [...] He does not send his children to school, under the pretence that they have no decent clothes to put on [...]". Well, at first I thought Mr. Mackinder's words too sharp, but when I saw the first real old Irish village, I found them true. (p.67)

Again, the passage is followed by a couple of anecdotes, this time about the Irish "reputation for an apt retort". Not only does this show how normal this kind of contempt must have been at the time, it's scary to think that this probably formed countless German children's lasting opinion of Scotland and Ireland. Little wonder that the inferiority complex of both countries has proven difficult to shake off, despite being completely unfounded.

For the sake of completeness, here's the title page and a section from the glossary at the back:


  • If you're interested in the history of language teaching in Germany, this essay gives an interesting overview, complete with some amusing example English dialogue from the early 19th century: "Drink, pray, my love, it grows late and we have half a mile to make."

  • More from Andrew Carnegie here

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