A Germany not ashamed to wave the flag

by Brad Glosserman

BERLIN — It was clear from the taxi ride into town from Hamburg airport that something was different: Most buildings had a German flag hanging from a balcony. More remarkable still were the cars with small German flags protruding from windows. By the time I got to Berlin, it seemed that every third car had a flag flapping in the wind while growing numbers of fans sported German flag decals stenciled on their cheeks and some were waving the national flag as they walked the streets.

Such enthusiasm may be commonplace in most countries as their team competes in the World Cup soccer finals, but in Germany, flag-waving is a rarity. Not because of Germany’s performance — the team has historically been a contender for the finals and has won the cup three times — but because patriotism in postwar Germany is a suspect commodity. As in Japan, many Germans fear that flag-waving is the first step toward — or symbolic of — the nationalist impulse that once engulfed their nation and lead the world to war.

One older German who was showing me around the Brandenburg Gate was ill at ease watching the crowds flowing down Berlin streets, doing what seemed to me to be what soccer fans do on gorgeous summer days. They were sporting German colors — on their heads, on their shirts and on their faces — and madly waving flags of all sizes. “Are they celebrating the German team’s success or is this a sign of something deeper?” He confessed he wasn’t too worried about most young people, but his brow furrowed as he told me about the older people the day before who were vigorously waving the German flag, clearly unconcerned about the symbolism they invoked. “They should know better,” he explained. After dragging deeply on his ever-present cigarette, he said the answer to his question would be clear in four months, after the emotions of the tournament had subsided.

My tour guide’s concern was atypical, but his unease was shared by “older” Germans (older than me, at least), who grew up in Cold War West Germany and were always concerned with the fragility of German democracy. In the decades following World War II, many Germans, like Japanese, worried that democracy had been planted in shallow soil. They feared that it wouldn’t take much to uproot the young German republic and that vigilance had to be maintained against all manifestations of the country’s past. No wonder then that flag-waving, a national anthem, and any other expression of patriotism or national sentiment was suspect.

Twenty- and thirty-somethings didn’t seem to give the problem too much thought. They haven’t forgotten the past, but they are confident that their country has learned from history and won’t repeat those mistakes.

One 40-ish professor confessed the flag-waving felt odd, but he wasn’t worried. “I remember the 1990 final when Germany played Argentina. Most Germans I knew were rooting for Argentina. I certainly felt uncomfortable rooting for Germany. Not anymore. The flag-waving is just part of the tournament; it doesn’t mean anything else.” Another friend — who is prone to being too serious about most things — dismissed the concern out of hand. For him, it was just a big party. “It’s good for Germans, and good for our image, too. We are showing the world — and ourselves — that we can have fun.”

It is only a coincidence, but I am tempted to see Joschka Fischer’s resignation from German politics, which occurred as Germany was making its World Cup run, as part of this maturation process. Fischer served as German foreign minister from 1998 to 2005; during much of that time he was Germany’s most popular politician.

Fischer was a singular figure in German politics. He was a high-school dropout who worked as a photographer, actor, taxi driver and factory worker. A militant leftwing radical, he threw stones — not “petrol bombs” — at politicians. He recently described himself as “one of the last live rock ‘n’ rollers of German politics.”

Yet the Green politician who caused a scandal when he was sworn in as the state of Hesse’s environment minister wearing blue jeans and tennis shoes also oversaw the first deployment of German combat troops abroad — in Kosovo in 1999 — since World War II. Fischer made the case — and won German public support — by arguing that such action was required to prevent “a new Auschwitz” amid the ethnic cleansing that was taking place in the former Yugoslavia. After Sept. 11, he supported the decision to send German troops to Afghanistan.

Fischer’s political evolution matches that of his country. Germany is proud of its accomplishments, increasingly confident and ready to build on those successes, even if it means tackling taboos. It has been a remarkable trajectory: straight, stable and certain, not unlike the Michael Ballack penalty kick that helped Germany defeat Argentina in the quarterfinals last week.