The World Cup in the summer of 2006 was a turning point in German history. The country that brought the world the Holocaust had already taken many successful steps toward full rehabilitation -- it had matured into a stabile democracy and achieved peaceful reunification. Then, even more remarkably, Germany became something that might have been unimaginable to many: likeable. It organized a perfect football tournament and showed a warm and cosmopolitan side the world had never seen before. The German national team under then-coach Jürgen Klinsmann were even gracious in defeat to the Italians, who took the trophy home. The World Cup appeared to cement Germany's status as the kind of friendly country that people can identify with.
In Germany, people described the 2006 World Cup as the "fairytale summer." What followed was almost even more magical. Germany's image in the world continued to improve (with the exception, of course, of the Greek crisis). It wasn't just the Americans who found themselves inspired by the "German model" either -- it felt like the whole world had suddenly become enamored with Germany's way of doing things. With its economic power and its people, Germany joined the club of countries viewed as being good for the world.
Indeed, the country responsible for the worse crime committed in human history appeared to have accomplished a complete turnaround, showing that, in the future, it would be on the right side of history morally, a rare example of decency and uprightness in a world that had gone to pot. Germany was no longer waging wars and, at least for a time, it became the staunchest proponent of climate protection. More recently, it even opened its arms to hundreds of thousands of refugees. On top of all that, the German people are provided with a proper national healthcare system.
With its social market economy, Germany also appeared to have defied the law of capitalism that requires one to be a little coarse and unscrupulous in order to prevail. Success and decency no longer seemed to be mutually incompatible terms. It almost felt like sainthood was about to be declared for Germany.
That won't be happening just yet. A series of recent exposés have seriously damaged the image of the Good Germany. A darker side of the country is now getting international play: that of the trickster, a nation of cheats with criminal intent. Volkswagen, the archetype of German companies and the epitome of reliability, so brazenly manipulated the emissions data of its automobiles that it has single-handedly transformed "Made in Germany" from a seal of quality to a warning.
And nor are Germany's politicians as law-abiding and honest as exemplary, down-to-earth Chancellor Merkel. In 2011, Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg resigned from his post as defense minister when it emerged he had plagiarized parts of his PhD thesis. Now yet another defense minister and shining light in Merkel's conservative Christian Democratic Union party is suspected of having cut corners and cheated in her doctoral dissertation: the University for Hannover is currently investigating whether Ursula von der Leyen -- hotly tipped as Merkel's potential successor -- should give up her doctor title.
And now another bubble has burst. It turns out that Germany's "fairytale summer," that turning point in postwar history, was tainted. Information obtained by SPIEGEL shows that had the German bidding committee not created a slush fund, the event would have taken place in South Africa. There is plenty of evidence to suggest the 2006 World Cup in Germany only came about because of fraud and bribery. The summer fairytale, it turns out, was not what it seemed.
And the men flouting the rules weren't some random broker-dealers. They were some of the country's most iconic figures -- men like "Kaiser" Franz Beckenbauer, himself a former World Cup champion, and senior football officials, including current German Football Association (DFB) President Wolfgang Niersbach. The same Niersbach who recently criticized FIFA corruption and who is already being mooted as the new head of UEFA.
Perhaps the cutthroat culture of relentless capitalism makes it impossible to remain decent -- not to mention the cutthroat culture of FIFA, corrupt as it is. Without dirty tricks, Germany wouldn't have had a chance of winning the bid to host the World Cup. But that's no excuse. A country that wants to have a clear conscience must be able to just say "no" when it looks as though it can only achieve a goal it has set for itself with unethical behavior. Decency must remain a core German value. Failing to live up to one's own high standards and not even trying in the first place are two completely different things.
At some point, the image of the nasty German was replaced by the image of the faultless German. Both are extremes. A more realistic view of Germans is now starting to crystalize. Germany is neither any worse nor any better than other countries. It's a nation with great strengths and all kinds of weaknesses.
Ultimately, there's no place for German arrogance and no grounds for any German sense of superiority -- which is taking its ugliest form these days in the shape of xenophobia.