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German National Identity and the World Cup

News Abroad




Mr. Walfield is an HNN intern.

The June 27 match between England and Germany (and last Saturday’s blowout between Germany and Argentina) revealed the passions and rivalries between teams at the World Cup.  Having faced on another in the World Cup before, this exuberance seems natural, but much to the Germans’ chagrin, a distinctly non-soccer related history adds a unique dynamic to this rivalry.  As John F. Burns described in his June 26 New York Times article “England v. Germany: Everyone Mentions the War,”

That is the history written by guns and tanks and trenches, in towns and cities laid to waste, and in the millions of dead from World Wars I and II. Though 65 years have passed since Hitler’s defeat, and a strong, prosperous and peaceful Europe has emerged from the ruins, with Britain and Germany pillars of the new amity, the consciousness of generations unborn when the hostilities ended still bears the past’s imprint, if mostly benign.

German fans, unlike the English who belt out World War II-era songs like “Ten German Bombers,” cannot celebrate their team with a triumphal historical narrative.  Recognizing their national heritage means confronting ugly truths.  Although British historians like Niall Ferguson can commemorate what he called “Anglobalization,” no sensible German can do the same with Nazi aggression.

Since 1945, a sense of collective guilt has colored Germans’ attitudes towards themselves.  Confronting their recent past means answering difficult questions about their collective responsibility for the Nazis’ rise and the atrocities that followed.  Writing to educate a post-war German audience on their own dark past, German historian Hannah Voight asked in her aptly titled work The Burden of Guilt:

How can we understand how millions of Germans could a cheer a man capable of ordering the coldblooded murder of millions of innocent Jews?  How can we understand how he found enough people to execute his orders?  Was there only one guilty person, namely Hitler himself?  Or, must we assume that the German nation is more prone to brutality and cruelty that other nations (vi)?

In stark contrast to Japan’s lasting controversies with its Asian neighbors, Germany, with exceptions on the far right, has largely repudiated the Nazi regime.  As the Israeli ambassador to Germany stated at a celebration of Auschwitz’s liberation, “Where in the world has one ever seen a nation erect monuments to its own shame?  Only the Germans had the bravery and humility.”

This guilt has prevented older generations from celebrating their national heritage.  For them, national pride represented an unpleasant vestige of an all too recent shameful past.  Instead, they regarded all forms of nationalism as obstacles to human progress.  Flag waving, taken for granted in other countries like the United States, became associated in Germany with neo-Nazis, fascists, and other political outcasts.  Even as the Cold War ended and the Berlin Wall crumbled, Germans forwent flag waving to mark the occasion as a human instead of a national triumph.

Recently, however, the World Cup has enabled Germans to be unabashedly patriotic.  Rather than dwelling on past misdeeds, they can instead focus on a brighter future.  Pride in the national team can be divorced from nationalist aggression.  The German flag’s use by fans epitomizes this transition from shame to pride.  Prior to the team’s victory over England last Sunday, one German journalist frustrated at his wife’s refusal to let him place the flag on his car lamented, “My wife calls it nationalism.  My wife does not understand football.”

Just as the 2010 South Africa World Cup has allowed an outpouring of nationalism and confidence throughout the host nation, and even the African continent itself (especially when Ghana threatened to defeat Uruguay and advance to the semi-finals), the 2006 tournament in Germany created the setting for an unprecedented outburst in post-war German patriotism.  Although more sullen older generations associated flag waving with their Nazi past, younger Germans embraced the national colors as a part of themselves.  Having accepted their shameful past, they divorced the German national character from it.  As one teenage fan recalled, “If the Brazilians, Italians, and everybody else fly their flags and show their colors, then why shouldn’t we Germans be allowed to do the same thing?”  Commenting on this sentiment, the 2006 German president, Horst Köhler, stated, “For me, this is something beautiful…a sign that the country is increasingly returning to normal, that one can show uninhibited pride in your national flag and drape yourself in it.”

The black, red, and yellow tricolor gave a progressive symbol to German soccer fans.  In contrast to patriotic fans at the 2006 World Cup, neo-Nazis and members of the far right, banned from using the swastika and other Nazi emblems by the state, rely on imperial symbols such as the black, white, and red tricolor.  Actual German monarchists (a rare but still existing breed) detest this association as anachronistic, neo-Nazis have used and abused them as symbols for a xenophobic and autocratic agenda.

The black, red, and yellow colors, however, are a link to a liberal and democratic German nationalism.  Initially, German intellectuals, inspired by the French Revolution’s ideals, but resentful of the actual French occupation, used the colors as an emblem for the pan-German Lutzow Free Corps.  As the nineteenth century wore on and the conservative settlement at Vienna crumbled, German revolutionary movements increasingly used the colors as an emblem for democratic German nationalism, eventually culminating with the Frankfurt National Assembly’s adoption of them during the revolutions of 1848.  Although the Frankfurt National Assembly quickly fell apart and Prussian conservatism triumphed over democratic nationalism, the early nineteenth century’s revolutionaries left a lasting legacy for later German generations to follow.

As German fans adopted the black, red, and yellow tricolor as their own in 2006, they unknowingly commemorated a past spirit of German nationalism.  Their celebrations proved German nationalism’s endearing malleability and gave it a place in a free and democratic state.

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Bob Harper - 7/7/2010

I agree, but note this: I was at a Chamber Music NW concert last Saturday night and ran into an acquaintance from Germany at intermission. I congratulated him on Germany's dismantling of Argentina, which he accepted, but with the comment that "it was rather sad at the end." Germany (all of it!) is a free and democratic state--and let us give thanks for that--but it cannot escape history, and will, for a while yet, feel some guilt for success. Still, I wouldn't bet against Die Mannschaft tomorrow. But then, I wouldn't bet against David Villa either. Should be wonderful, and the Dutch will be a worthy foe to either. What a tournament!

Bob Harper


Fahrettin Tahir - 7/6/2010

Germans are happy to win football games.

Like anybody else.

The event should not be overinterpreted.