Dr. Strangelove: How Germans Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Flag

By in Berlin

Germany is awash in a sea of black, red and gold flags. But this shouldn't be confused with any kind of deep-seated patriotism. For German youth, the German flag has become the ultimate party accessory during the World Cup.

Germany's mass circulation newspaper Bild calls the flag: "Black, red and horny."
DDP

Germany's mass circulation newspaper Bild calls the flag: "Black, red and horny."

Stefan Wolter is a true Kreuzberger. For more the 25 years, the 45-year-old carpenter has lived in a formerly squatted tenement house in the Berlin district. It's a melting pot neighborhood that brings Berlin's largest immigrant community together with the city's vibrant alternative scene.

When Wolter first arrived in the western Berlin neighborhood in 1980, he whiled away his time squatting apartments and clashing with the cops as a street anarchist, dreaming that it would become a liberated island of alternative culture in a city that was quickly being overrun by ugly capitalism. Back then, he used to listen to punk rock bands, like Slime, whose most popular lyric was "Germany has to die so that we can live."

Nearly three enchanting weeks into the World Cup, such expressions of hatred against our own nation seem like a bizarre memory from a distant past. World Cup fever and the performance of the German national team -- which has been brilliant so far -- has gripped the entire nation, especially its youth.

Even in the heart of alternative Kreuzberg, it's impossible to turn your head without seeing the black, red and gold flag. It comes in all sizes and can be found flying out of windows, shops and cars. Turks and other immigrants living in the district whose national teams failed to qualify for the World Cup are adopting Germany's national symbol. This, of course, is a highly conciliatory gesture in a country that is currently doing some deep soul-searching about integration and its relationship with immigrants. Kreuzberg is often said to have the largest concentration of Turkish residents anywhere outside of Turkey.

Like many other dissidents of his time, it's been years since Wolter sparred with police on the streets. Still, he doesn't like this flag-waving one bit. "Nationalism, especially German nationalism," he says, "was the root of the catastrophes of the 20th Century."

Of course, Wolter may be overreacting just a bit. The current renaissance of the German flag has little, if anything, to do with politics. And it certainly has nothing to do with the fatal Prussian and German militarism that led to two World Wars.

The next generation

A few kilometres away, Sarah Kellner is draped in a black, red and gold sarong near the Brandenburg Gate, where each day as many as a million ticketless souls have come to enjoy the World Cup matches on an array of Jumbotron screens. "To be honest, I mainly like the colors," the 18-year-old student says, before quickly adding that she doesn't see her action as being patriotic. "That sounds old fashioned, anyway," she says. "Still, Germany is a decent country."

Germany's national colors haven't been restricted to the flag -– you can find them on hats, caps, scarves, fake eyelashes, wigs, bikinis and just about anything else you might find at a summer beach party. The Bild newspaper, Germany's saucy national tabloid, has rechristened the tri-color flag "Schwarz, rot, geil," or "black, red and horny."

It represents a seismic shift in attitudes towards the national banner and has prompted a fresh bout of soul searching about German national identity. Not long ago, the newfound love for the flag would have been unthinkable for most Germans -- it was a symbol that only conservatives or right-wing extremists could embrace. When a million people gathered in Berlin's city center to celebrate the reunification of East and West Germany in October 1990, the only people who could be seen marching around with flags were a handful of skinheads and neo-Nazis. Leftists and liberals used to mock the national colors as "black, red, mustard." And when they travelled to countries like the United States, Switzerland or Denmark -- where flags are proudly displayed in many a front yard -- they were proud to have overcome what they thought were outdated nationalist attitudes.

But the German flag has now been resurrected and reclaimed as a positive symbol of footballing fervour. With flags fast flying off the shelves and stores running out of stocks, German flag importers and factories are unable to fulfil the growing demand. Together with the beer breweries, they have become the biggest off-pitch winners of the World Cup. Part of the success has been fuelled by the country's political classes, which were quick to embrace the flag boom. German President Horst Köhler praised the flag-bearing as "a sign of further normalization." And even Gregor Gysi -- the intellectual leader of the successor party to East Germany's former communists -- greeted a "new generation that, when it comes to the German nation, is not as handicapped as my generation."

Ultimately, Germany's newfound love for the flag is a question of age. The generation that grew up in Nazi Germany didn't want to see another flag for the rest of their lives. Their children also experienced first-hand the consequences of what Germany's aggressive nationalism had wrought on the country and the world. As they critically confronted the country's Nazi past, it became impossible for them to develop a positive attitude towards the flag or the national anthem.

But Sarah Kellner, like most German teenagers today, has an entirely different perspective. Although she is deeply aware of the Holocaust, the horrendous past doesn't color her view of contemporary Germany. "If the Brazilians, the Italians and everybody else fly their flags and show their colors, then why shouldn't we Germans be allowed to do the same thing?" she asks.

Out in the fan fests, nobody seems to be bothered by the hordes of German teens proudly partying in black, red and gold. The fact that fans from other parts of the world have been heaping praise on the Germans as friendly and helpful World Cup hosts has done much to strengthen a national self-esteem and confidence that has long been somewhat weak. The football tournament is also helping Germany to shed an image that has long plagued it -- the baseless and antiquated stereotype of goose-stepping Huns without any sense of humor. Spain's El Mundo newspaper probably said it best with this recent headline: "Germany falls in love with Germany."

So how long will the New Germany's coming out party last? And what will happen if the German team loses to the clever Argentinians in Friday's quarter-final? Will the big party turn into a hangover? Probably not. At least some World Cup euphoria should survive through the summer. But wait until fall, when the leaves turn and the skies above Berlin go gray. Even if the World Cup provides the 0.3 percent boost to the economy that economists are predicting, Germany's structural problems and depressing mass unemployment can't be kicked away by footballers. Chancellor Angela Merkel and her grand coalition government took a major risk by passing unpopular tax increases this month as the majority of Germans were totally bewitched by football mania. At some point, the masses will be in for a rude awakening.

That, sadly, is the point at which the country's current bubble of optimism is likely to burst. Still, the growing pains of a reunited Germany shouldn't overshadow the positive and instructive lesson the World Cup has taught us: namely that, in the New Germany, waving the black, red and gold flag in no way suggests any kind of return to a troublesome past.

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