The British Empire did not fall because of a weak navy. Nor as a result of over-extended colonization. The British Empire was doomed by a crisis of delusional politeness.
Set aside the vastly long volumes of British history by William Shakespeare, Winston Churchill and William Manchester for the moment. They are, as I mentioned, terribly long.
Instead, just ask Basil Fawlty.
No historian in the history of the English-speaking world chronicled more accurately the final collapse of the British Empire than Basil Fawlty himself. And never was Mr. Fawlty more precise about the fall than when he exhorted, “Don’t mention the war!”
It all came to mind last week after it was revealed that the World Health Organization skipped the letter “Xi” in the Greek alphabet so they could name the newest variant of the China Virus “Omicron” instead and spare Chinese President Xi Jinping the embarrassment of having one of his variants named after him.
In the 1970s British sitcom “Fawlty Towers,” Mr. Fawlty — played by the brilliant British historian and humanitarian John Cleese — ran a small hotel out of a large house that we Americans might today call a “bed and breakfast.” It was “boutique,” to be sure.
As Mr. Fawlty and his troupe of fellow British historians extravagantly displayed in every episode, the Empire itself had become rather boutique.
By the time Mr. Fawlty and his wife opened the hotel, the British Empire had already faded to a threadbare and tattered garment of its old self. All that remained, really, were the delusions of greatness and the Brits’ fabled politeness.
But as history teaches with wrath, politeness is often a luxury of the powerful.
So when a group of German tourists embark on Fawlty Towers just one short generation after the close of the Second Great War, Mr. Fawlty became consumed with the only thing he had left to offer: His faded polite manners.
“Don’t mention the war!” he scolded his lovely chambermaid, Polly. But, as everyone would soon find out, manners become more and more impotent the more and more you lose actual power.
Mr. Fawlty had just escaped from the hospital after getting clonked on the head with the mounted moose that his wife had been haranguing him to hang since they first opened the hotel. His wife, meanwhile, was also in the hospital for an ingrown toenail.
Anyway, when the Germans come into Fawlty Towers, Mr. Fawlty is sporting a giant bandage around his head — looking very much like a casualty of war. At this point in history, the war is over, the rebuilding years are behind them, and Germany is well on its way to eclipsing Great Britain as a global power.
Triggered by the severe German accents, Mr. Fawlty reverts to his very last inheritance of the Empire.
“Don’t mention the war!” he instructs Polly through clenched teeth after attempting to take the Germans’ orders for a meal in the dining room. But, alas, in his enthusiasm to not “mention the war,” all he could do was mention the war.
“I mentioned it once, but I think I got away with it alright,” he tells Polly before striding back into the dining room to the table of Germans.
“So,” he announces. “It’s all forgotten now, and let’s hear no more about it!”
At this point, it is no longer clear if Mr. Fawlty is talking about mentioning the war or the war itself. Only to the truly powerless does such a distinction matter.
And, anyway, he fails miserably.
Mr. Fawlty mistakes “prawns” for Braun, as in Hitler’s child bride Eva Braun. The “pickled herring” comes out Hermann Goering. And every other dish the Germans order sounds to him like Heinrich Himmler or Joseph Goebbels. And at the mere mention of Hors d’oeuvres, Mr. Fawlty thinks “orders” and snaps up straight to render a Nazi salute.
At this point, the ladies of the German party dissolve into tears, and one of the men consoles his wife. “Would you stop talking about the war,” he begs Mr. Fawlty.
“Me?” Mr. Fawlty exclaims in astonishment. “You started it!”
“We did not start it,” the German responds over the heaves and sobs of his wife.
At this point, Mr. Fawlty has run through whatever remained of his inherited manners.
“Yes, you did,” he replies. “You invaded Poland!”
Before it’s all over, Mr. Fawlty, in his ridiculous head bandage, is goose-stepping around the dining room and using his finger as a Hitler mustache in a hopeless effort to cheer up the weeping German ladies.
By the time Mrs. Fawlty returns from the hospital over her ingrown toenail and the bandages come off Mr. Fawlty’s head, the Germans have returned to their ascent to global power. And Fawlty Towers returns to what’s left of their faded British manners.
• Charles Hurt is the opinion editor at the Washington Times.