The Bearable Lightness of Being How Germans Are Learning to Like Themselves

Germans discovered a new lightness of being in the run-up to their World Cup victory. It's a shift apparent not only in football. Increasingly confident and content, Germany is emerging from the dark shadows of its past, but its global role remains elusive.



Christine Meier, 61, sits in a beach chair in her bikini on the German island of Sylt. She's seen all but one of the matches at this year's football World Cup, having watched most of them at her allotment garden in Berlin. "We wear necklaces and hats with the colors of the German flag, some paint the colors on their faces. There is cake, antipasti and sometimes I make a noodle salad in black, red and yellow," she says. Meier is proud of Germany's success in Brazil. "People abroad are watching us," she says. "They want to know how we live and who we are." Germany, she says, has shown itself to be a decent country, adding: "We're an uncommonly good people."

Her comments came two days after Germany crushed Brazil 7:1 in the semifinal. The old magicians of football had been stripped of their magic, and it left many Germans scratching their heads wondering if they could really be as great as the match suggested. In Christine Meier's eyes: yes they can.

It was just one game of seven at the World Cup and others didn't go nearly as well. But it's often these individual events, moments in the life of a nation in which people take notice and ask: Is this who we are?

Germany has football to thank for such moments. Until 2006, Germans saw themselves as a brooding society. But that changed after Germany hosted that year's brilliantly successful World Cup. Until 2010, the country also considered itself to be cumbersome and ponderous, characteristics reflected in the brand of football it played. But then, in the South African World Cup that year, the German team at times played a graceful, attacking style that was beautiful to watch. People abroad were amazed and please. The semifinal in 2014 was the continuation of that spirited lightness.

But is that what it means to be German?

What Does It Mean to Be German in 2014?

In politics as well there are moments that force people to stop and take stock. On June 6th, German Chancellor Angela Merkel visited the 70th anniversary commemorations of the D-Day landings in Normandy. She had been invited by leaders of the former Allied countries, the victors at the time who drove back the Germans and liberated Western Europe. But it was Merkel who was at the center of attention on this anniversary day. Since the Ukraine crisis began escalating in March, the world has been looking to Germany. Would Merkel, a woman from the East who speaks fluent Russian, succeed in making Vladimir Putin listen to reason? She wasn't so successful, but she nevertheless came across as a major world leader just 70 years after the end of the war. It is hard to believe.

Germany in 2014 is very different country than it was in 1984, not to mention 1994 or 2004. One gets the sense that two different aspects are converging to change the country: a new lightness of being and growing importance in the world.

In other words: There's a new feeling of what it means to be German.

There are two components in the way people perceive a nation -- the situation inside the country and its relations with other countries. Generally, the second takes a back seat to the first. But it's appropriate to ask where this new lightness comes from? And how does this new Germany present itself to the world. SPIEGEL asked people from different walks of life in the days leading up to the country's fourth World Cup championship on Sunday.

Tearing Down Mental Walls

Klaus Hollweger and his wife Helga are sitting in the gourmet food stalls at Berlin's KaDeWe department store people watching as droves of shoppers peer through aisle after aisle of offerings, from caviar to marbled steaks at what is the German capital city's answer to Harrods. Hollweger, 78, lives in the state of Thuringia in the former east.

When Hollweger talks about football in Germany, his eyes open wide behind his glasses and a smile forms on his lips. "Oooh," he says, "the World Cup has shown me how wonderful it is to live in a reunited country. Today we can all be proud together of our national team." He appears to be genuinely moved. "Our country is doing so well, everything is so pleasant and new here -- also back at home in Weimar," Hollweger says.

Toni Kroos was a central figure for the German team at this World Cup. But do people know where he comes from? Do they care? Kroos was born in Greifswald, a city in eastern Germany, but that seems to be of little importance in 2014. When Michael Ballack, born in former East Germany, became national team captain in 2004, it was still an issue. An East German at the helm of the team? Good God, many seemed to say. A decade later, people simply view Kroos as a German man from the city of Greifswald. A quarter-century after reunification, it seems, old East-West prejudices are finally fading.

For years, Germans as a people were extremely tense and inhibited, partly because they lived in a divided country. They had trouble determining their own identity. Were they German? Somehow they were, but were they different from the Germans on the other side of the Berlin Wall? Many West Germans just described themselves as Europeans.

Most people believed that East and West Germany would remain forever divided, but the conservatives in the West had no other choice but to insist they wouldn't ever abandon the goal of unity for any reason. Leftists, for their part, insisted that reunification should never happen because of the danger of Germany unleashing yet another world war.

People became engrossed in a virtual debate before, suddenly, reunification happened after all. And the trenches simply got deeper. People responded to the new reality by building new walls in their heads. East Germans lamented the loss of jobs, security and community. West Germans complained about the outflow of billions of deutsche marks and, later, euros for the rebuilding of the eastern states.

Things have changed dramatically in years since. There are still causes for complaint, but on the whole, reunification has been a resounding success. World War III never happened, cities in the east like Leipzig, Dresden and Jena are booming and the situation is even improving in the less prosperous eastern state of Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania. A handful of elderly people may miss a few comforts from East or West Germany respectively, but the younger generation today identifies firmly with a united Germany.

The Germans have become one again -- they've become Germans. Prefixes are no longer needed. That significantly reduces inhibitions and contributes to the new lightness of being.

A Nation of Immigration

Bajram Avdijaj, 47, immigrated to Germany from Albania 22 years ago. Today he works in one of the most international parts of Munich: at a fruit and vegetable stand at the Viktualienmarkt market in the city center.

Avdijaj says he shuns sports in much the same way that he was raised entirely without religion. He wouldn't exactly call himself patriotic either, but he says he has noticed the change taking shape in the people around him. It's not bad either, he says.

Avdijaj says he feels half Albanian and half Germany, but perhaps just a little bit more German following the World Cup semifinal. He says he still planned to root for Argentina in the final, though, because Messi is "simply the best, brilliant." He also says he doesn't like the way the Argentinians make the sign of the cross on the field, sometimes four or five times in a row. He likes the fact that the Germans focus more on the pragmatic, on what actually needs to be done. "You won't find them praying on the pitch. Praying doesn't help in the end anyway," he says. "You just have to understand the way things happen, that's all. That's German. I tend to be more like that."

"Germany is increasingly becoming a modern country of immigration," the prestigious Swiss daily Neue Zürcher Zeitung wrote in July. In that sense, there have indeed been some decisive changes in Germany.

Who is German? And who should be allowed to become German? Are we a country that allows dual citizenship? Do we prefer citizenship that is based on the concept of Jus sanguinis, the right of blood passed down only from family members who are citizens of a state, or Jus soli, the right of citizenship for anyone born on German territory? And are we a country that should encourage Green Cards for immigrant workers or should we promote ethnic German children? These are debates that for years made it difficult for people who weren't born with "German blood" to become part of our society or even citizens. If you're not like us, then you don't belong. Those kinds of ideas are the source of considerable tension.

But look at Germany now: It has indisputably become a nation of immigration. Figures from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development in 2012 show Germany ranking second in the world after the United States in attracting permanent immigrants, beating out even such melting pots as Britain and Canada. Germany drew 400,000 immigrants described by the international body as "permanent" in 2012. For some time, people wanted to settle in Germany. Now they can, the barriers have been lowered -- and not just at the border. In 2010, former German President Christian Wulff made headlines around the world when he said that "Islam is now a part of Germany." It's the kind of statement that cannot be reversed.

Immigration and integration nevertheless remain difficult issues. Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservative Christian Democrats still don't like thinking of Germany as a country of immigration, and the nation could also be a lot more generous in its handling of refugees. Some immigrants, on the other hand, could also make more of an effort to integrate.

Still, people are inching closer to each other, as a study called "New Potential: The State of Integration in Germany" from the Berlin Institute for Population and Development recently showed. The study indicates that societal acceptance for people who are first or second-generation immigrants is growing and that the way in which they live is gradually starting to mirror that of ethnic Germans.

Recently, Berlin's prestigious Grause Kloster high school held a commencement ceremony for its graduating class. In her speech, the head of the parent's association made a plea for a more diverse school, noting that there were almost no children of immigrants. It was just one of many examples of how things are slowly changing, even in strongholds of homogeneity like this. The school, founded in 1871 by the German Empire, includes Otto von Bismarck among its alumni.

Germany has become one society, but also a diverse one -- and that is contributing to this new lightness of being. This is also reflected in the national football team, for which immigrants have since become indispensable, with players like Mesut Özil, a Turkish-German, Jerome Boateng, who has a German mother and a father originates from Ghana, and Sami Khedira, who has Tunisian roots.


Discuss this issue with other readers!
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turnipseed 07/17/2014
1. german self love
Self love is healthy so long as it does not depend on hating others. Germans have often had the wrong kind of self love; let's hope this is the start of something new and good.
Inglenda2 07/17/2014
2. Football fans, normal or racists?
It would be a wonderful if Germans were ready to accept the fact, that they are not worse, or better than any other European community. This will not be in anyway easy, because their own leaders, have for many years, been ready to agree, that the 20th century anti-German propaganda was actually true. Three generations of children, have wrongly grown up to believe all their own ancestors were little more than a bunch of criminals. Now some of them are beginning to understand, that an iniquitous government is not a sign, that the population is necessary in agreement with what their leaders did, or do. Observance, of what is currently happening in many countries around the world, should be enough to convince intelligent people about reasons to doubt many legends.
subo_168 07/17/2014
3. Copying Economist
The title of the article is a shameless copy of the Economist article on Germany's world cup win "The unbearable lightness of winning". Kind of strange too how this article does not mention that whenever Germany played, the word "Nazi" spiked in Tweeter to new heights. Kind of spoils the feel good mood for Germans but nevertheless facts have to be faced. When Spain won the last world cup, I doubt if they felt as if the world was watching Spain and came to the conclusion they were a good decent country. The fact is the world knows every 4 years, one of the powerhouses of football either from Europe or Latin America will win the world cup. None of the past world cup winners - Brazil, Italy, Spain, France etc ever felt a world cup win meant they had arrived on the world stage as a "good decent" country, it was only a sporting achievement.
Mockingbird 07/17/2014
4. David Hesselhoff: I'm Looking for Freedom
Yes Germany is changing but the change is not because of football. That is a rather superficial argument. For Germany to be truly independent it has to free itself from the apron strings (and quite a few other strings) of America. It has to become a completely sovereign nation. Until that happens Germany will remain “ein Hampelmann” (puppet) of America. West Germany freed itself from Fascism, (with the help of the West), East Germany freed itself from Communism. Now a united Germany has to free itself from the Washington Consensus. If German politicians are stupid enough to side with Washington and wage economic war against Russia, be assured, you will destroy your country.
broremann 07/17/2014
5. lightness
Germany has had many walls to break down now the last one it is actually ok to be a German. I have a German friend of mine who tells people he is Swiss. I hope he will be able to break down his final wall
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