To Be Absolutely Frank

Stereotypes Ãœber Alles

Ethnic caricatures flourish amid European unity. Burping contests, anyone?

By 7.11.03

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Relations between Italy and Germany haven't been so bad since 1943, when Rome ditched its Axis partner and made a separate peace with the winning side.

Last week the Italian prime minister likened a German politician to a guard in a Nazi concentration camp. Then Italy's top tourism official published an unflattering article about those "uniform, supernationalistic blonds who loudly invade Italy's beaches." Two days ago Germany's chancellor retaliated by canceling plans to vacation this summer in Italy.

As the European Union prepares to adopt a constitution and expand to the east, you might have thought that it had left such squabbling behind. Yet this is no mere hangover from less enlightened days. As Europe's institutions grow more integrated, national differences are bound to provide only more frequent occasions for friction.

The current brouhaha is what happens when ethnic styles clash. Italians are a famously theatrical people, and nowhere more so than in politics, where inflammatory rhetoric and outrageous gestures are the norm. This is a country that elected a porn star to the national legislature, and where officials routinely denounce each other as criminals, despots or subversives.

Admittedly, even by these standards Silvio Berlusconi is indiscreet. The prime minister has the tycoon's habit of saying whatever comes into his head. (Imagine what Ross Perot would have stirred up in four years as president.) Many of us, confronted by an aggressive German, are likely to think at least fleetingly of the Third Reich. Berlusconi simply uttered the thought that others would have censored.

Yet it's worthwhile going over exactly what Berlusconi said. He didn't accuse Martin Schulz, who had just attacked his integrity on the floor of the European Parliament, of being a concentration camp guard (or more precisely a "kapo," an inmate turned guard, and thus a traitor as well as a killer). What Berlusconi said was that Schulz was perfectly suited to play that role in a movie. In other words, he accused him of being an actor. Coming from an Italian politician, that's hardly an insult at all.

Where Berlusconi was culpably obtuse was in breaching the taboo, absolute in Germany, against frivolous references to the Nazi period. He made things even worse, in trying to defend himself afterwards, by saying that Italians joke about the Holocaust all the time.

Overlooked in the controversy over the Schulz exchange was another of Berlusconi's cracks on the same occasion, which struck me at the time as almost as big a blunder. To Green Party members of the European Parliament waving placards that alluded to his many legal troubles, the prime minister said: "You are just democracy tourists."

Berlusconi obviously didn't mean that as a compliment, but no prime minister of Italy -- a country whose second-largest industry is tourism -- has any business using the word "tourist" with anything but respect. All that remained for him to do was to connect his two gaffes, and mock the nation that last year supplied 40 percent of foreign visitors to Italy.

Two days later Berlusconi's "undersecretary of productive activities" in charge of tourism made the link. "We know the Germans well, those stereotyped blonds with a hyper-nationalist pride who have always been indoctrinated to be first in the class at any cost," wrote Stefano Stefani. This was another characteristically Italian jibe. It's not every nation that regards ambition as something to be ashamed of. Less subtly, Stefani speculated that his boss's attacker Schulz "probably grew up taking part in noisy burping contests after drinking gigantic amounts of beer and eating large amounts of fried potatoes."

Stefani is a member of the regionalist Northern League party, a small yet crucial part of Berlusconi's governing coalition, which ordinarily contents itself with slandering dark-skinned immigrants. It's hard to believe there's much electoral margin in bashing Teutonic beachgoers. But the E.U. is one of the Northern League's bugbears, and hurling ethnic slurs is not a bad way to undermine the rhetoric of continental unity. Sure enough, Gerhard Schröder has taken the bait and will spend this August in Hanover rather than Pesaro.

Not all the provocation has come from the Italian side. Days before Berlusconi's retort to Schulz, Germany's top-selling news magazine Der Spiegel ran a sinister-looking cover photo of Berlusconi along with the headline, "The Godfather." We can expect more such stereotype-flinging in the next few years, as Europeans show that economic and political unity can't wipe away national prejudice.

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About the Author

Francis X. Rocca ia an American writer in Rome, Italy.