I used not to care about the World Cup for most of my life, and when one wasn’t interested in it, one hardly noticed it happening – at least this is the way it used to be in Germany. Then, in 2006, Germany was the host for the World Cup. With a reserve that was not so uncommon for Germans towards their country, I found the motto “Die Welt zu Gast bei Freunden” (English version: “A time to make friends”) a tad too much, too optimistic, too, well….un-German.
One morning, after the World Cup had just started, I drove to work and suddenly saw black-red-gold everywhere – German flags on houses, in windows, on cars, in gardens. It was the first time in my whole life that I saw the German flag displayed in such abundance, and at first I felt a bit uncomfortable with this. Germans didn’t show flag; not with our history. Any display of patriotism was watched with distrust, and in fact most people I knew were strangely proud of not being patriotic Germans. We all know what happened the last time we showed patriotism, after all. So seeing so many German flags was extremely unusual and it took me some days to get used to it. The flags (and other fan articles in black-red-gold) spread further. People of foreign origin living in Germany often showed two flags – that of their original country and the German one. It was a touching sign of Germany being a well-liked country of residence for many people who were not of German descent.
Within one week, I not only got used to the flag display, I got to enjoy it. It was a good kind of patriotism – one shown for purely peaceful purposes, one open towards others. After a lifetime of being taught not to be patriotic, this was a nice new feeling. There had been some media discussion – national and international – about the German flag-showing. The German left made their discomfort with it public and also went as far as to say that only those of low education would indulge in flag showing. Right-wing extremists did try to use the new patriotism for their purposes – and failed utterly. The international media was positive about the flag-display, it was considered a “gentle, peaceful patriotism”, it was welcomed and there were even publications expressing their hope that the Germans would not lose this new-found confidence again after the World Cup.
I also lost my reserve towards the “A time to make friends” slogan because I noticed that Germany was being a very good host to the many who had come from all over the world to watch the matches. I saw cashiers doing their best to help visitors in English and showing great effort to make them feel welcome. Public viewings brought people together, our guests saw enthusiastic, laughing and relaxed Germans. Our national team played well and fair. When Italy beat Australia, I was in Frankfurt and on my way home got stuck in a giant auto corso of celebrating Italians right in downtown Frankfurt. The Frankfurt drivers – not the most patient in the world – goodnaturedly went along with the ensuing traffic jam.
For four weeks, Germany was one large exuberant party zone, even the weather was perfect. 1.3 million people travelled to Germany for the World Cup and were received with a welcome many had not expected. I read many comments on British and American websites expressing that surprise that the Germans were such good hosts and in fact much more fun than they were credited with.
On the BBC Sports Blog, one commentator wrote: “I think that Germany has done a brilliant job with this World Cup as far as the fans from all countries are concerned. The German people have made a massive contribution with their welcoming attitude and sheer enthusiasm, and it is really impressive to see all the German flags flying from car windows and aerials and hanging from windows and balconies all over the place. Absolutely brilliant. Such a difference to 1988, when the European Championships were held almost in an apologetic atmosphere. (…)And should Germany get to the final, and we don’t, then I will also be cheering them on with all my friends in the music club, and I wouldn’t mind betting that my England flag will be flying outside on the railings. And if it comes to another showdown, and we do win, then I know for a certainty that I will receive congratulations from everybody present.”
These four weeks in 2006 – called “Sommermärchen” (summer fairy tale) – did wonders for Germany’s reputation. Germany’s image abroad improved dramatically and the improvement is a lasting one. The other positive effect is the changed German attitude – every World and European Cup since has seen the abundance of flag showing again, there is not even a discussion about it, it has become normal. Germany didn’t become a patriotic country, but it is now far more relaxed with showing a friendly national pride in some areas. Who would have thought that four weeks would have such a strong and lasting effect?