Europe, Headlines

SOCIETY: World Cup Kicks Off New German Patriotism

Jess Smee

BERLIN, Jun 16 2006 (IPS) - Black, red and gold striped flags are painted on cheeks, flutter behind cars and are tucked into old ladies’ window boxes.

Behaviour which would be dismissed as typical World Cup-itus elsewhere raises eyebrows and sparks debate in Germany where national pride is still a touchy subject.

Hosting the World Cup until July 9, Germany has kickstarted a lavish, and stereotypically meticulous soccer championship. The post-World-War II aversion to celebrating being German has faded, for now at least.

With more than three million football tourists expected in Germany and billions of eyes worldwide glued to television, Germany has taken centre stage. And it is revelling in it.

Half a million football supporters thronged central Berlin after Germany’s 1-0 win against Poland on a balmy Wednesday night, converging on the “fan-mile”, a central thoroughfare which has been emptied of cars to make way for huge screens and rows of beer tents.

In a picture which would hearten its organisers, flag-draped Deutschland supporters cheered and bear-hugged fans from across the world.

“I’ve never seen anything like it,” Christian, a 32-year-old German football fan told IPS, shouting to make himself understood above the deafening chants on the fan mile. “It’s somehow liberating for people to be able to wave flags without guilt.”

Sixty years after the fall of the Nazi regime, Germans are feeling a cautious pride in their nation, says Prof. Paul Nolte, historian at the Berlin Free University.

In this tournament, patriotism has been more ubiquitous than ever, he said, outpacing even the high emotions of 1990 when West Germany took home the World Cup amid heady hopes of reunification. “There’s a new, unforced patriotism which is without precedence in Germany’s long history,” he said in an interview with the Passauer Neue Presse. “The generation which had a problem with any nationalistic symbol does not set the agenda anymore. That opens the way to a new, almost playful approach to the national flag.”

This “playful approach” means booming business for firms like the Stuttgart-based flag factory Dommer which has already sold ten times as many flags as it did in the last World Cup.

Even though Germany’s ‘schwarz rot gold’ flag bears no link to the Nazi era (which adopted an ensign of a black swastika, framed in red), the legacy of post-war guilt has long restricted shows of patriotism, even at sporting events.

Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel, who grew up with the obligatory nationalism of the communist east has acknowledged that change is afoot.

“People are waving flags without having to justify themselves. Fifteen years ago, things were different,” she told the Bild am Sonntag newspaper. “Our relation to our country has become something beautiful, but in a normal and not an arrogant way.”

But, in good German tradition, the new patriotism has unleashed a fresh bout of soul-searching among commentators: Pride is all well and good but what is this ‘German-ness’ that people are so proud of? What portrait of the country should be beamed around the world?

The World Cup’s first attempt at portraying Germany was controversial. The opening ceremony featured a huge circle of men in lederhosen, the regional garb of Bavaria, an outfit far removed from what a Berliner, Hamburger or Frankfurter would consider typical.

Even the best-selling tabloid Bild – itself no stranger to nationalism – mocked the depiction. “The world is welcomed by lederhosen,” it wrote, parodying the World Cup’s German motto “Die Welt zu Gast bei Freunden” (“The World is welcomed by friends”).

The higher-brow news magazine Spiegel chided the lederhosen show for playing up to American or Australian images of Germans. “Anyone who is German but not Bavarian did not recognise themselves in the turmoil of the stadium,” it complained.

The World Cup-inspired discussions follow a stream of headlines about the slippery concept of identity since the start of the year.

Prompting a fiery debate on what makes a German a German, politicians struggled to devise a test for immigrants wanting to become German. Meanwhile, neo-Nazi attacks and a problem-ridden secondary school where most of the students are foreign, have forced politicians to face up to the country’s cosmopolitan reality.

Reflecting popular interest in the subject is Matthias Matussek’s bestselling book ‘We Germany – Why the others could be fond of us’ which explains why Germany should not be a shrinking violet in today’s globalised world.

But the increasing pride in being German must be kept in check. Since reunification in 1990, there has been a succession of neo-Nazi attacks. In the run up to the World Cup, an influential former government spokesman warned visiting non-whites that they should avoid parts of eastern Germany or risk death.

Ralf Fuecks, head of the Heinrich Boell Foundation, a think tank linked to the Green party, said a clear differentiation must be made between nationalism and the new wave of patriotism.

“It was initially shocking for me to walk in Berlin and see so many young people waving the German flag,” he told IPS. In his early fifties, Fuecks said the politics and morals of his generation were shaped by feelings of guilt.

“But this new patriotism is made up of younger people who don’t have the same guilt and shame. They can feel proud to be German but it is important to remember that this has positive and dark elements. We simply don’t have the right to forget.”

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