Theo Koll illustration


Love letter to the British people

The journalist Theo Koll was head of German broadcaster ZDF’s London studio for eight years. Despite moving to Berlin, Theo is remaining faithful to the people of the sceptred isle in this turbulent era of Brexit.

About Theo Koll
Theo Koll

Theo Koll was head of German broadcaster ZDF’s studio in London for eight years. Since March 2019, he has headed up ZDF’s capital city studio in Berlin.

In a moment of exasperation, Lady Astor, Churchill’s favourite adversary, once reportedly threw a verbal jab his way: “Sir Winston, if you were my husband, I’d put poison in your tea.” Churchill is said to have shot back: “If I were your husband, I’d drink it.” In a way, this trading of barbs brings to mind the UK’s Brexit decision – in breaking off a long-term but seldom adoring European relationship, the island nation has poured itself a cup of tea that could turn out to be poisoned.

We Anglophiles had been forewarned, knowing as we did all along that English is the only language in which the first-person singular pronoun – “I” – is always written with a capital letter. Still, it hurts to see British pragmatism, which has previously tended to display a pro-European attitude, extinguished by an ideologically infused island mentality. But as with a sweetheart or best friend, one patiently tolerates even the most senseless acts.

Needless to say, I am among those who consider Brexit an act of supreme folly – and view the need for higher majority thresholds in referendums as one of the lessons we should definitely learn from this experience. Nonetheless, we may in the long run be grateful that, while the British will be left much worse off, they will be richer in the traits they preserve – richer than us, the sensible integrationists. From that, at least, I can draw some comfort. For what would the world be without the deft verbal wit of the British people – cruelly reduced to the formulaic art of joke-telling the rest of us tend to rely on?

Listen to a German audio version of this column (KfW Bankengruppe/Theo Koll).

It’s not just that humour is well received in the UK – we’re rather fond of it ourselves, after all. But in British life, those lacking a sense of humour are actually put at a disadvantage. Anyone speaking in Parliament without injecting humour into the proceedings had better present a powerful argument. Those who have heard the debates in the German Bundestag will know that we do things slightly differently, to put it mildly.

What would our world be without that peer who, immediately after being asked to speak up in the House of Lords, offered his apologies on the grounds that he wasn’t actually expecting anyone to be paying attention? And who else would have been delighted to host the Champions League final between two German teams (Borussia Dortmund and Bayern Munich) in London since it would ensure that “we’ll finally see a German team lose again at Wembley”?

The British sense of humour is like a fencing bout, requiring lightning-fast reactions and an ability to improvise. The aim is to strike the opponent without inflicting deep wounds in the process. This is combined with the people being ready and willing to laugh at themselves – still based, of course, on an unshakable self-confidence. If Brexit helps to ensure the long-term preservation of this DNA, then it would at least offer this Anglophile author a modicum of consolation.


This article was published in the spring/summer 2019 issue of CHANCEN magazine “Wir sind Europa”.

To German edition

Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw once sent Sir Winston Churchill two tickets for the opening night of his new play. He enclosed a note, which read: “Bring a friend – if you have one.” Churchill wrote back, stating that unfortunately he could not make the show that evening, but Shaw could send him two tickets for the second night – if he had one.

Putting Brexit to one side, I hope that the show goes on with British involvement for a long time to come. This is a lifelong love affair I signed up for, after all.

Published on KfW Stories: 28 May 2019.