On Football & Nationalism In Germany

Caitlin Hardee on why she enjoys Germany’s World Cup-fuelled displays of positive national pride…


Germany is in a football frenzy. Since the stunning defeat of Brazil on Tuesday, it feels like the entire nation has been fixated on the World Cup finale this Sunday, and the exciting prospect of the Nationalmannschaft bringing the victory cup home.

The excitement is tangible in Berlin, a city where it’s almost impossible to miss the tournament due to every bar, cafe and even private homes placing big screens outside, and the Internet has also been a-flurry with nonstop commentary across news sites, blogs, social media and humour websites.

While reading one of the latter portals, www.9gag.com, I stumbled across a photo of a German flag featuring the sentiment: “As a German who is proud of his country, I love the World Cup, because it’s the only period of time in which the world allows us to be proud of ourselves.”


The self-deprecating, wistful attempt at humour resonated with me (and presumably the many other readers who sent it viral) because it’s a real issue – a taboo, in fact. International football tournaments are a rare chance for many Germans to express any sort of pride without evoking negative stereotypes – and after the finale, win or lose, the flags will be packed away again.

As a US citizen – even one who majored in German Studies, wrote an undergraduate thesis on the problem of German national identity in popular music, and has spent the last three years living in Berlin – it’s still not clear how or when Germany might arrive at a collective healing of its historical wounds and a new understanding of its own nature.

Almost 70 years after the end of World War II, I find it terribly sad that anyone, whether outside observers or internal self-appointed referees of public speech, would still seek to shame German citizens for expressing healthy sentiments of national identification and yes, even pride.

Now, this expat American dislikes jingoistic chest-thumping as much as the next person; I literally cringe when drunk rednecks yell, “USA! USA! USA!” But I would argue that it’s perfectly possible to love one’s country without venturing into the territory of the completely obnoxious. Most of the world probably occupies some sort of middle ground between aggressive, exceptionalist patriotism and collective self-loathing bordering on a national complex.

To be clear – I am all for education and an open, critical Aufarbeitung (confrontation and working through) of history. The world must never forget all that happened from 1933-1945. But 20-year-olds born in Chicago aren’t handed the American atrocities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki as their personal crosses to bear, or scolded with the memory of Vietnam if they put a flag on their lawn. Why should young Germans be held accountable for the Holocaust?

Screen Shot 2014-07-11 at 22.05.52As the Nationalmannschaft started firing goals into the Brazilian net, Germans braced themselves for the inevitable Nazi “jokes.” And sure enough, out they poured. No doubt many of them were meant as light-hearted, throwaway jibes. But Germans reading these comments can’t truly know whether they were meant as humour or as an actual perspective on their national character.

I am writing this in English and speaking to outsiders because in this complex issue of national identity, I think the most direct way to change internal fears about backlash is through the most indirect system of reassuring feedback. Of course, I love Germany and the German people, otherwise I wouldn’t be here. And the rest of the world is catching on – last year, Germany was the country seen most positively by the international community in a BBC poll, and a recent documentary (below) also extolled the virtues of the country.

But the Germans are still their own worst critics. If a German gets vocal about what the country is doing well, you can count on another to pounce and throw around accusations of right-wing politics and virulent nationalism. Genuine self-hatred, or fear of outside criticism and the instinct to beat the rest of the world to the punch by pointing out problems first?

Hailing from the States, my comparative frame of reference may lend Germany a rosy tint, but even if that’s so, I think it couldn’t hurt to try on the glasses of an outsider. The cities are less dangerous (thanks to gun control laws); the police are far more competent and less brutal than, say, the NYPD (compare US and DE statistics on bullets fired by cops); the people are more honest, both in terms of saying what they mean, and holding themselves to a strong ethical code, such as returning a found wallet or smartphone.

They also hold their politicians to a more stringent code of conduct, and are quick to demand consequences at a hint that power is being misused for personal gain. The people inform themselves, value education, think deeply – the commuters reading in the public transit are legion, whether it’s a newspaper, a book or a Kindl. The public transit itself? A marvel. Berliners who grumble about the BVG should spend a winter commuting in Seattle.

Then there are all the hard-working Germans who take pride in their jobs, because the workplace culture here orients itself towards human dignity and equality, not mandatory, subservient, boot-licking “customer service” norms. Germans know how to draw a line between their occupations and their private lives, as well as how to really enjoy those lives, whether it’s sitting out in public parks with friends, travelling frequently or long Sunday brunches at sidewalk café tables.

Germans: cultivated. Image by Paul Sullivan
Germans: cultivated. Image by Paul Sullivan

Germans are more comfortable with their bodies than most Americans, an attitude stretching back through the expressionist painters to the dawn of the global nudist movement and even further, to the traditional German love for nature and the connection to wandering through wild places in a free state of being. On the subject of nature, the commitment to recycling, climate protection, renewable energy and animal rights. The open-mindedness toward alternative lifestyles and the support for gay rights, as well as stronger gender equality.

And yes, the fact that this country literally rose out of the ashes to rebuild itself anew and become a stable, well-respected world power with a powerhouse economy. The rich culture – from the Nibelungenlied to Beethoven to Bauhaus to Brecht to Berlin house music and street art. The marvellously efficient, nuanced word “doch.” German efficiency and competence in general. Damn, I love this country.

As far as the World Cup is concerned, the German team members have shown true magnificence in their playing, and of course I’ll be cheering for them on Sunday. But no land should be reduced to deriving their entire ration of national pride from a football tournament. So when the Spiel is over, let’s aim for a real game-changer. Let’s dispose of the old stereotypes and keep the positive discourse about Germany going.


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