Letter from Berlin Germany Flies the Flag

The World Cup has caused Germany to break out into a patriotic burst of black, red and gold not seen since reunification 16 years ago. Many Germans are confused. Some are even concerned. But they shouldn't be.

By Marc Young


Sometimes it would be easier to just be Swedish.

Aside from getting uncontrollably drunk on Baltic Sea ferries, the Swedes haven't really annoyed anyone for over a century. The times when Scandinavian armies or hordes of pillaging Vikings descended upon Europe are far enough back that no one begrudges the friendly Swedes their orgy of yellow-and-blue-colored patriotism whenever their national soccer team steps onto the pitch. This week is no exception, as they fill up the World Cup fan mile and cafés around the Brandenburg Gate in the runup to their match with Paraguay in Berlin on Thursday.

But the same can't be said for lots of other countries, which is why many Germans are queasy about the sudden outpouring of patriotic flag-waving brought on by the start of the World Cup this month.

Germany is awash in a sea of black, red and gold these days. Small banners flutter from cars, others are draped from windows. Some fans even carry a flag with them or have opted for face paint. For a country with such a conflicted relationship to its undisputedly unfortunate history, this is difficult for a lot of people.

Of course, supporting the national soccer team has long been the most innocent way for Germans to feel good about their country. But it's still easy to believe that what we might all be witness to this summer is nothing less than a watershed in attitudes towards patriotism and pride in Germany.

Six decades after the horrors of World War II and 16 years after reunification, it's okay to be German again.

As an American, I can attest that's a positive thing. There's absolutely no reason why Germans shouldn't be able to feel good about their modern and tolerant country. Germany is still far from perfect, as I have written here before, but the best way to cut neo-Nazis and other mutants off at the knees is to avoid abandoning love of country and patriotism to right-wing extremists.

Some German readers might recoil at this point, thinking I'm urging them to take up the often maudlin or rah-rah patriotism seen in much of the United States. I'm not. In fact, I fully understand the queasiness many Germans have towards such displays.

America, the new Germany?

That's because while in Germany it's becoming easier to wave the flag, unfortunately the situation is exactly the opposite for me and many of my American countrymen. When it comes to being disliked abroad, it sometimes feels like America has become the new Germany.

When you're from a large and mighty country, nobody likes to see you throw your weight around and then gloat about it. When Swedes revel in unabashed national euphoria it's cute. But when your country invades another under false assumptions and is reviled by many around the globe as either the "Great Satan" or the rotten source of imperialistic capitalism, flying the Stars and Stripes isn't easy. The official bus transporting the US soccer team during the World Cup is the only one out of 32 that isn't painted in the country's national colors.

I certainly wasn't going to drape a US flag over my shoulders during the United States' first match against the Czech Republic, but I did wear the US team jersey I bought for my weekly soccer kick with friends. Fortunately, the Americans were thoroughly drubbed by the Czechs 3-0, meaning I can hopefully continue my passionate support for the US soccer team for some time to come. Sure, it's crushing to see my side taken apart by the Czechs' Pavel Nedved and Tomas Rosicky, but the Americans are underdogs in global soccer -- making it a lot easier to root for them.

But that's not likely to remain that way. Right now, the US soccer team is what Steven Wells from Britain's Guardian newspaper has described as an "overdog in embryo." His theory is that eventually the United States will channel its considerable resources, both economic and sporting, into becoming the best soccer nation in the world. At that point, America will then be despised for being a footballing powerhouse as well as a military and cultural superpower.

Thanking Bush

So Germans should be happy they can freely cheer for Michael Ballack and team while swaddled in black, red and gold for the next three weeks. But before they get misty-eyed about the Fatherland, they should thank US President George W. Bush. Ironically enough, his decision to invade Iraq has helped many Germans feel proud -- as well they should -- about their country and its strong opposition to the war.

Besides, patriotism isn't about some misguided "my-country-right-or-wrong" type of attitude. I can vehemently disagree with US apologists for embarrassments like Guantanamo Bay exactly because I believe the sort of legal limbo the prison camp creates goes against the very principles that actually make me proud of my country.

Germans worried about flags sprouting up across the land should just be happy they aren't presently faced with a similar challenge to their national loyalties. And if they meet Sweden in the next round of the World Cup -- as is quite likely -- they should make damn sure a sea of black, red, gold gives yellow and blue a run for its money.

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