“Do you want patriotism with that?” – “No, thanks.”

Some weeks ago, at the beginning of the European Cup, I was in Leipzig visiting my friend Susanne. We had dinner in an Italian cafe and noticed how it suddenly filled up with many Italians. Ah yes, the game Italy vs Belgium would start in a few minutes and there was a giant screen on a wall of the cafe. The Italians were in a great mood and eagerly followed the events on the TV screen. The teams entered the stadion and the Italian hymn began. Not only did the players sing along, but the people in the cafe went along as well, very loud and very enthusiastically. I said to Susanne, “It’s a pity we Germans never do that,” and she replied, “Well….with our history….”

There you go again. A sentence every German hears many times in life. Our history (to be precise, the twelve years between 1933 and 1945, not the whole more than 2,000 years of it) is a frequently used argument for why some things are simply not done. Patriotism is definitely one of them. You might remember my article about the 2006 World Cup where I mentioned that it was seen as kind of hip not to be patriotic. Interestingly enough, while 2006 did loosen us up a bit during European and World Cups, none of these events pass without a discussion about whether it is okay to show flag. The newspaper “Die Welt” wrote that the national pride debate “by now is part of a football championship just like beer, chips and public viewing.” (After the 7:1 against Brasil in the 2014 World Cup, there was also a discussion in Germany about whether it wouldn’t be in bad taste and too nationalist to show one’s joy about the result too openly). Some consider it distasteful to show the flag, see it as a sign of racism, feel “disgusted” at the thought of national pride. There are enough voices in favour of showing flag, pointing out that the colours have nothing to do with the dark years of our past but with the new beginning and a new democracy, that our national team consists of players with extremely diverse backgrounds and – simply – that to like one’s country does not make one nationalist or racist or both. Still, the debate was there again during the European Cup, the Green party demanded a flag boycot and I wondered whether Germany is the only country that spends a lot of time and energy every two years to debate whether showing flags during a sports event is racist and nationalist.

Usually, I don’t think too much about this topic. I’m not that crazy about patriotism. I like to put a small flag onto my car during championships because I think we have a great team and I have moments like in the Italian cafe where I wish we could be less worried about feeling good about our country. But on the whole, patriotism is something I don’t need in my life. Still, it is a topic that has been coming up more frequently in my trainings. People moving here from other countries keep asking me why we are not patriotic. At the beginning, I just looked at them, surprised that it was not obvious. Then I gave them the typical German reply “Well…with our history…”

Strangely, my trainings participants didn’t see this as a valid reason. They say shocking (to a German…) things like “But that was long ago, your generation has nothing to do with this.”, “It is a different Germany.”, “You have a great country, who not be proud of it?” or “We did some awful thing in our history as well, but we’re still patriotic.”

These replies make it almost impossible to explain the complex German guilt-no-patriotism-thing because it is something that can’t be explained. All the arguments above are correct. Showing a flag to celebrate a German diverse football team at a championship does not equal playing down the bad parts of our history nor does it promote racism or nationalism by itself. Still, patriotism just isn’t done. It just doesn’t feel comfortable.

I had training participants telling me that they were proud of their country, I had one exclaim “I am a proud Hungarian!”. You will never hear a German say that they are proud to be German (well, if you do, they are the really nationalistic Germans and they use it in a completely unwanted context). Germans might say they are proud of our great cars or our stable economy, of the fact the we didn’t follow Bush in his attacking several countries on made-up reasons, of our sense for the environment, etc. etc. Proud about single aspects – acceptable. Proud to be a citizen of a country – not acceptable. Actually, I do get that point, because being a citizen is not an achievement as such. In my World Cup article I wrote that I assume pride of our country reminds us too much of the last time we indulged in unlimited patriotism. But is that a sufficient explanation? Not for my training participants.

So I googled the topic of why Germans are not patriotic. You’ll find a lot or articles and the like. There have even been political talk shows discussing how patriotic Germans should be. Studies have shown that compared to other countries we have the least national pride.

There are some interesting points about or patriotism – or lack thereof:

  • Lokalpatriotismus (Local patriotism)

Until 1871, there wasn’t even one Germany. What is today Germany was a conglomerate of up to 300 countries. The idea of one Germany therefore wasn’t part of our history. You will find many Germans who have no qualms saying how proud they are to be Bavarian, from the Rhineland or from Berlin. One training participant pointed out to me that while Germans don’t display the national flag regularly, many have flags of their town or Bundesland in their garden all the time. Put simply, the concept of “Germany” of “being German” isn’t really in our genetic makeup. When we started using it, it took little more than forty years until the annihilation of World War One, and when we tried again a second time, we all know how that ended (you know…our history…).

  • Fear of Nationalism

If you ever read the German Grundgesetz (Constitution) or learn about German laws you will find many provisions to ensure that something like 1933-45 can never happen again. Right-wing tendencies are closely observed, symbols from 33-45 may not be shown, abbreviations connected to those years may not be used (for example it is forbidden to have SS on one’s number plate). Schools teach about the responsibility that comes with our history, the danger of nationalism because of where it led to. There is a strong underlying fear that patriotism can go overboard again. There is an emphasis on this part of history and an early identification of German-ness with that time. In school, I never learned about how Germany successfully built up a democracy after the war, or about the achievements of Germany before 1933 and after 1945. Like many, school left me with a negative self-image of my country. (Interestingly enough, other countries have a far better impression of Germany and Germans than we do ourselves – as I not only keep reading, but also keep hearing from training participants).

  • Patriotism as elevating oneself

Between 1933 and 1945, the term “Herrenmenschen” was often used by the Nazis – meaning superior human beings, humans meant to rule. The even more disgusting term that came up then was “Untermenschen” – someone below a human being, an underling. The message was clear back then: Germans are better than other – and again: we know what that led to. Some state that this is exactly what patriotism does – elevating one’s nation; which then easily leads to discrimination or worse (there are unfortunately enough examples of that all through history, or just look at the screaming guy with the orange toupet who wants to be President).

So, eventually, it does come back to “Well…with our history…”. There is simply too much baggage that comes with patriotism. Unfortunately this has led to the situation that the only open patriotism in Germany is shown by the wrong people – the nationalists, the racists, the anti-democrats. There have been discussions that what we need is a healthy, a relaxed patriotism – a bit of the spirit of the summer of 2006. Until then, I’ll have to keep trying to explain to my training participants the strange emotional baggage we carry around. Still, they usually reply with telling me what’s great about Germany, and I have to admit, I quite like that :-).

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