WITH the British undergoing a fit of distrust of things German, Hermann von Richthofen, Germany's ambassador to Britain, is being frustrated in his attempts to pour oil on the choppy waters of the London-Bonn relationship. That his great-uncle was fighter ace Manfred von Richthofen (known as the Red Baron), who shot down 80 British aircraft in World War I, does not seem to be helping matters.
After devaluation of the pound in the face of the mighty deutsche mark Sept. 16, the ambassador, who describes himself as an Anglophile, has been in the line of fire of Anglo-German verbal exchanges.
On Oct. 1, as a war of words erupted, Ambassador von Richthofen became the first German envoy to Britain since the outbreak of war in 1939 to be given a diplomatic dressing down. He was summoned to explain why his embassy had released to London's Financial Times a confidential memo from the Bundesbank in Frankfurt criticizing the British Treasury.
While Von Richthofen was undergoing 25 minutes of discomfiture at the Foreign Office (a British official later said: "You could see the steam coming out of his ears"), another case of perceived German insensitivity hit London's tabloids.
A group of German scientists announced that they were determined to commemorate the first firing 50 years ago of Adolf Hitler's V-2 rocket, despite the Bonn government's refusal to send a representative. Britons do not regard the terror weapon that killed thousands of countrymen as anything to celebrate.
For the tabloids to hit the xenophobia button, it took only a remark by Sir Teddy Taylor, a senior Conservative member of Parliament, who said the Germans were "getting too big for their jackboots." One paper depicted Germans as storm troopers; another hinted darkly that the Bundesbank was run by former Nazis. Even the normally sober London Daily Telegraph joined in with a photograph, taken in happier days, of Bonn's ambassador in the cockpit of a Fokker biplane of the type flown by his ancestor.
Underlying British sensitivity toward Germany is awareness that a former enemy is now Europe's most powerful nation. Lord Tebbit, a former Conservative Party chairman, complained Oct. 5 that "the deutsche mark is so strong," and that its strength "gives another country power over our own economy."
Striving to ease tensions, Prime Minister John Major recently held long telephone conversations with Chancellor Helmut Kohl. Britain's foreign secretary was later photographed warmly embracing his German opposite number. But the sniping continued. On Oct. 3, Mr. Kohl let it be known that he would not be attending the 50th anniversary celebration in Egypt Oct. 25 of the Battle of El Alamein, a turning point in the war against Hitler. A British official said the chancellor had earlier agreed to come, but i n Bonn a government spokesman said he had not.
Not all the edginess in London-Bonn relations is on the British side. The princess of Wales, who had been attacked in the tabloids for driving a Mercedes, last month reverted to a British car. But Count Otto Lambsdorff, leader of Germany's Free Democratic Party, rebuked her for a "protectionist gesture."
More seriously, Buckingham Palace officials are reported to be anxious about Queen Elizabeth's scheduled state visit to the German city of Dresden later this month. Near the end of World War II, British aircraft firebombed Dresden; the royal visit is intended as a gesture of reconciliation. Palace officials, however, are investigating reports that neo-Nazi groups plan to disrupt the queen's first visit to the former communist east.