x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Germans regain national pride

Attitudes have changed since reunification, but today's exuberance and flag-flying is far removed from the aggression of the past.

German football supporters celebrate after a victory over Austria in Euro 2008 in June.
German football supporters celebrate after a victory over Austria in Euro 2008 in June.

Bonn, germany // Expressing national pride was taboo in Germany for decades as the country hung its head in shame for the crimes of the Nazis. The black, red and gold flag was conspicuous by its absence from everyday life, and at international football matches, when the national anthem played, crowds would fall into an embarrassed silence. Gustav Heinemann, West Germany's president from 1969 to 1974, inadvertently summed up the sentiment in 1969 when he was asked if he loved his country. "I don't love the state; I love my wife," was his response. That attitude towards nationhood has changed radically since unification with the communist East in 1990, however, and the country startled itself and the rest of the world during the 2006 World Cup it hosted when millions of Germans waved the flag, wore wigs and T-shirts in their national colours and sang the anthem with vigour. It is a relaxed, apolitical patriotism that bears no resemblance to the expansionist, racist aggression of old. This transformation features in a new exhibition that opened in Bonn, the former capital, this month. Called Showing the Flag? it tracks the country's changing attitudes to its national symbols and its nationhood on the eve of 2009, when Germany will celebrate its 60th anniversary as a democratic republic and the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. "This exhibition wouldn't have been possible 20 years ago," Hans Walter Hutter, director of the government-sponsored Haus der Geschichte (House of History) museum on German postwar history, said in an interview. Even discussing national symbols would have aroused suspicion as recently as the 1980s, he said. "The German people's relationship with their nation and with their national symbols was far more uncertain and divided 20 or 25 years ago than it is today," Mr Hutter said. "Nowadays the Germans are far more laid back about it. It's due to unification but also because the Nazi era is growing more distant." After 1945, the black, red and gold colours borne by German pro-democracy revolutionaries of the mid-19th century were the only national symbol not tainted by war and the terror of the Nazi regime, and both West Germany and the communist East adopted them, the latter placing a hammer and compass symbol in the centre of the flag. Millions of German soldiers had died in the First World War under the black, white and red striped flag of the German empire. The Nazis adopted those colours, stamping a black swastika in a white circle on a red background, and the exhibition shows a documentary film of the 1937 Nazi Party congress where fervent supporters chant: "The flag is greater than death." Among the exhibits that give a taste of the fervour of the Nazi era are luminous coat buttons bearing the swastika, and baking dishes that mould biscuits with little swastikas. The eagle was another German symbol contaminated by history. The German parliament got around the problem by choosing a design for a chubby, harmless looking eagle devoid of any imperial aura. "These days you see the flag everywhere, on cars, in souvenir shops, on scarves," Mr Hutter said. "I've noticed that many private people since the World Cup have a national flag in their home, in the garden, in their garage. You see the colours that were absent 25 years ago. "Every new generation of Germans will have to confront the Holocaust as a totally singular chapter in German history, and everything must be done to prevent that being forgotten. But that doesn't mean one can't have a relaxed relationship with the current nation, and with its symbols." Some doubt the depth of national feelings, though. "It's hard to say whether this new, much-praised unselfconscious patriotism is more than just a feel-good sentiment, more than meatballs and fireworks," wrote Süddeutsche Zeitung. The country still shuns all military pomp and does little to promote pride in its armed forces. Patriotic parades are frowned upon and processions such as Britain's Trooping the Colour or France's Bastille Day parade would be inconceivable in Germany, and the Nazi era is never far under the surface in public debate. When the government proposed introducing a bravery medal for German soldiers this year, it swiftly gave assurances, after objections from the country's Jewish lobby, that it was not trying to reintroduce the Iron Cross award. A prominent politician from the opposition Greens Party, Hans-Christian Ströbele, said this month he felt "uncomfortable" at the sight of all the German flags during the World Cup. "It reminds one a bit of nationalistic overemphasis," he said. Conservative politicians poured scorn on him, but he was expressing an attitude still held by many Germans to this day. dcrossland@thenational.ae