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Photo Gallery: Germany Finds Itself

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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.
Von SPIEGEL Staff

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.

Will Hitler Ever Leave?

Burkhard Kieker was astounded when he entered the Grand Khaan Irish Pub in the center of Ulan Bator a week ago Tuesday. It was just before 4 a.m. local time and yet hundreds of Mongolians had gathered to watch the match. Most had covered their cheeks in makeup in the colors of the German flag. After the closing whistle, they flung their arms around the necks of Kieker and his companions and ordered them a round of beer. "We were the stars of the night," Kieker says. Earlier, he adds, "people here considered German football players to be akin to tank drivers rolling their way to the goal, but today they are celebrated as artists."

Kieker is used to partying. As the head of tourism for the city of Berlin, he has one of the world's more pleasant jobs. He's supposed to promote his city in other countries, but whenever he starts to sing its praises, others lose interest. It's not necessary these days to convince anyone of the Berlin's merits.

Berlin is the capital of Germany's new lightness of being. Without the city, the country would still be considered provincial. It's a bit astounding, though, considering just how provincial natural-born Berliners often are.

Starting in the 1990s, though, a new kind of Germany began to emerge in Berlin, one that is decidedly cooler than many other parts of the country.

After the fall of the Wall, a sort of Wild East atmosphere prevailed in East Berlin -- life seemed to move faster than the law and regulations could. Many young West Germans picked up and moved, at the same time discovering a new sense of freedom together with the East Germans. They didn't bother to apply for licenses for their bars and clubs, they squatted buildings and danced, partied and lived wherever they pleased. It was cheap, there was lots of space, a sense of openness to other people and other ideas. It was an openness that also beckoned people from around the world. They answered the call, too, coming to Berlin in droves.

Many came here because they wanted to party, and Berlin became the party capital of the world. This in turn lured the artists and a growing number of tourists, not all of whom could make it past the doorman at Berghain, which many considered to be the world's top nightclub. But they all want to be in Berlin, to be photographed leaping in front of the Brandenburg Gate. They experience Berlin as a place where they can manifest their own lightness of being.

The same applies to Germans. Berlin has radiance to it, drawing in people from other German cities like Bielefeld or Wurzburg who then go back home and take a bit of the freewheeling capital culture with them. The Wild East of the 1990s has since been regulated and become commercial, but traces of the post-communist East Berlin can still be found at new places that change location often. The changes that have been taking shape in Berlin represent a considerable share of this new sense of what it is to be German.

Of course, there are some drawbacks to this newfound lightness. And they too are on display in Berlin. All you have to do is fly into Schönefeld Airport, where Easyjet and Ryanair arrive and depart. At landing or takeoff, you'll be treated to aerial views of a brand new airport that stands completely empty. Its opening date was scheduled for two years ago, but engineers failed to do their job, the technical manager is suspected of corruption and billions of euros have been wasted. The international airport that is supposed to welcome millions of tourists each year is a disaster. Is this the new Germany too? Unfortunately, it is.

Klaus Richter is sitting at a table in Dresden's legendary SchillerGarten restaurant. A few bored looking people can be seen watching the semifinal between the Netherlands and Argentina on a big screen TV placed next to a gas lantern beneath some chestnut trees. In the 18th century, German poet Friedrich Schiller was a regular guest at the tavern. Describing his view of the world, the Schiller Institute writes, "a man's duty lies above his own personal inclinations, how he must be both a patriot and a world citizen, which can never imply a contradiction, for the true interests of any one nation can never be at odds with the interests of the world as a whole."

Is Klaus Richter himself patriotic? He stares at his beer and ponders the question. Of course he's pleased that Germany made it into the World Cup final, he says, but he also won't be placing any German flags on his car to celebrate. "People in Germany can't get away with being as casual with symbols like the flag as people in the United States or other places are," he says. Richter says German history is too conflicted for that.

Will Hitler Ever Leave?

History is never too far away for Germans. Adolf Hitler is wandering around Germany's sidewalks, ringing doorbells and even sauntering around the World Cup Fan Mile at the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin, discussing the possibility of a "final victory" with the German people. He wears his familiar uniform and his Hitler mustache, but this is really only an actor playing the Führer in the film version of the best-selling book "Look Who's Back," which portrays the dictator's return to Germany.

But was he ever gone? A good part of West Germans' heaviness and despondency had to do with the country's Nazi past. No other people in the world did such ghastly things as the Germans did, and no other country has done as much to come to terms with the history of its crimes. It was necessary in order to ascertain what was inherently German about that history and if there's a danger of it repeating itself. It was also necessary in order to send a message to the world that people here understand what Germany wrought on the world. But it also created a sense of gloom that was not only difficult for Germans to endure, but sometimes for others as well.

It's a debate that continues to simmer in the country today. Nothing occupies Germans more than the idea of Hitler's return, regardless in what form. It could be a swastika tattooed on the chest of a Russian opera singer at the Bayreuth Wagner festival that sparks a massive debate. Or it could be a rower on the German national team who is engaged to a neo-Nazi, which again triggers a national uproar. A true and reprehensible scandal, however, is the fact that the murderous band behind the National Socialist Underground terror group could go on for years killing immigrants without police and prosecutors doing more to scrutinize and connect the killings and find the perpetrators.

People from other countries also sometimes like to hold us prisoner of our own history. Even during the semifinal against Brazil, this celebration of beautiful football and lightness, some felt compelled to evoke the Nazis. "The Germans have stormed into a foreign country and taken charge," tweeted New York Times Washington correspondent Binyamin Appelbaum. Or how about American comedian Rob Delaney, who tweeted, "Germany, relax! They're not Poland."

Hitler is no joke, but sometimes it is OK to make jokes about him, even for Germans -- such as author Timur Vermes, who has already sold more than a million copies of his book "Look Who's Back."

Remembering today no longer means that you can't laugh or be happy. The Germans have already learned to shed part of their collective depression, a development that first became visible at the World Cup in 2006, which provided the world with a fantastic party. Today we can remember the past with anger and with sadness, but without becoming overly uptight about it.

Rising Prosperity Lifts Moods

Philipp Stültgens, 28, works as a chef on the North Sea island of Sylt but he has this Wednesday evening off and has joined friends at the harbor for the World Cup watch party there. The German team's success, Stültgens says, fills him with pride -- "of the team and of the country." He says the team's playing style is typically German: For him, that means showing a willingness to work hard and push forward. "We aren't the world champions in exports for no reason," he says. When asked if he considers himself to be typically German, he responds: "Well, I am diligent."

German virtues. They too contribute to the country's lightness. Prosperity makes life easier and improves moods everywhere. And prosperity, thanks to hard work, discipline and harmony, is currently on the rise.

This summer has seen a miniature economic miracle grip the country. Fully 42 million people have jobs in Germany, more than ever before, and wages have risen substantially. Furthermore, low interest rates have reduced the incentive to save and Germans have responded by going shopping -- and for many people, it's an activity that is a component of happiness. Economic institutes have repeatedly adjusted their forecasts upwards and now believe that the economy could grow by more than 2 percent this year and next. For an established Western economy, that is a respectable achievement.

Germany is benefitting from the fact that it modernized its economy in the early 2000s, preparing itself for the 21st century. The lethargic Rhine Capitalism model, which saw stores close for the weekend at 2 p.m. on Saturday, is history. Both business and society have adjusted and become more flexible. Companies became more efficient and began targeting the needs of the booming developing world.

Clemens Fuest, head of the Centre for European Economic Research, says that the package of far-reaching labor market and welfare reforms passed under Chancellor Gerhard Schröder from 2003 to 2005 has also contributed to the positive development. So too has the fact that German unions refrained for several years from demanding exorbitant wage increases, preferring job security to rising income. For many years, real wages climbed slower in Germany than in any other European country.

In pushing through his reforms in 2003, Schröder shattered Germany's social contract. To that point, the state was extremely generous with its citizens and never took away what it handed out. Schröder was the first to foist significant forfeitures onto the jobless. The result was widespread anger in the country, but it also showed that it was possible to reform Germany. Though reluctant, people followed the lead of the unions and of Schröder. There was no uprising.

A Happily Sated Country

Merkel has been the primary beneficiary, with growth providing the chancellor the opportunity to shower the populace with gifts. And she has been taking full advantage, with unplanned increases in payments to pensioners, the establishment of parental leave benefits, lowering the retirement age to 63 and the introduction of both aid and pensions for stay-at-home mothers. It may be that future generations will have to foot the bill, but no one is complaining now.

Beyond the economy, though, many detractors accuse Merkel of having taken the life out German politics. Democracy, they say, thrives on debate between competing positions. Merkel, though, approaches things differently and tries to keep her governing coalition in the background, loathe to demand too much of her countrymen and women either politically or economically.

The vast majority of Germans like that. They are left to freely live lives unburdened by national politics, with tempers only flaring in response to local issues such as the construction of a new train station or the erection of an electrical tower next door. The country is satisfied -- one has the impression people would like the current status quo to be frozen in place. No new infrastructure, no new chancellor and as little politics as possible. The country is happily sated.

A Strong Feeling of Confidence in Germany's New Lightness

Dagmar Donabauer, 47, is sitting in Spectacel, a bar in the small lakeside town of Inning in Bavaria, at 9:30 p.m. just before the beginning of the second World Cup semifinal. She is a personnel consultant from the nearby town of Gilching and, when speaking of the German national team, uses the pronouns "we" and "us."

For Donabauer, "everything changed suddenly during the 2006 World Cup. People, myself included, really began to feel proud of their country without this aftertaste. You could wave the flag -- that was the big change -- and the world thought it was great that we waved our flag and didn't see it as begin nationalist anymore."

Donabauer is originally from Austria. Germany's role in the world must really have changed significantly if an Austrian can become so enthusiastic about German football.

Helmut Kohl once uttered a sentence that long defined Germany's relationship to the European Union. "Every mark spent for Europe is money well invested," he said.

Kohl and his predecessors viewed Germany more in terms of the alliances it was part of than as an individual nation-state. Early postwar chancellors had to lead this pariah of world history back into the global community and they did so via Europe and NATO. German interests were reduced to a desire to merge with the West while maintaining decent relations with Warsaw Pact countries. And the process took place under the supervision -- and protective nuclear umbrella -- of the US. Germany wasn't really a sovereign state until Oct. 3, 1990.

Angela Merkel sees Germany completely differently. She runs a country that regained its sovereignty with reunification, a country enjoying an economic upturn that makes France and Southern European EU partners look bad. And, a few more years have passed since the crimes of World War II and the Nazis, which she didn't live through. She runs a country, which, thanks in part to the 2006 World Cup, enjoys a better image in the world.

A strong feeling of self-confidence is bound up in Germany's lightness. Let's call it: We Are Somebody Again, Part II. Part I was defined by the 1954 World Cup victory in Bern and the economic miracle of massive postwar economic growth. Now, Germans are also self-confident politically. But what is going to come of it?

Merkel's Cool Nationalism

In Brussels, Merkel has become famous for representing national interests, and the German electorate approves. But the national interests she promotes are limited to those of defending and broadening prosperity -- and she would like to expand that prosperity to other countries in Europe. She would like to see all EU member states work as efficiently and effectively as the Germans. The reforms she has foisted upon Southern European countries are aimed in part at securing an influential place in the global economy for Europe as a whole. Such an economically strong position would mean greater political influence, which, Merkel believes, would also be beneficial to Germany and its exports. On a global level, Germany is too small to go it alone.

A German chancellor thinking beyond the country's borders? Here too, things have changed. It is only possible because Merkel is quiet and reserved as she pursues her aims. Were she more domineering, resistance from her European counterparts would be much more intense than it has been. Hers is a cool form of nationalism, free from pathos, symbolism and swagger -- but it is unrelenting.

Hendrik Grosse Lefert is sitting in the lobby of the German national team hotel in Belo Horizonte on the day before the semifinal against Brazil. An athletic man wearing his dark shirt with the collar open wide, Grosse Lefert is head of security for the German Football Association -- and there were plenty of challenges presented by the World Cup in Brazil. One was the fact that the team could only reach its base camp by ferry. Together with local authorities in Porto Seguro, Grosse Lefert made sure that Brazilian police divers inspected the bottom of the ferry for bombs prior to each journey. None were found.

During the first week of the tournament, he says he was informed that someone was planning to launch a drone from the beach. In the end, it turned out not to be a threat -- a marketing company wanted to use the drone to photograph a ship.

Finding a New Role in the World

Security is a particularly sensitive issue for the Germans. Now that the world trusts Germany again following its reunification, the UN, NATO, America and France, among others, expect the country to become more involved in security issues and hotspots around the world, preferably with its military. Both Merkel and the electorate, however, are wary of taking on a leading role.

The mission in Afghanistan proved to be too much for most Germans and Berlin declined involvement in Libya. When it comes to the international missions in Mali and the Central African Republic, Germany has taken on tasks that put German soldiers at little risk. Germans have had enough of war.

Indeed, many in the country are no longer all that certain that they want to continue to be part of the West . A recent survey carried out by the Körber Foundation found that 56 percent of Germans want to work more closely with the Americans in the future. But 53 percent said the same about Russia.

During the crisis in Ukraine, the German government ran through several scenarios should Russia invade a NATO member state in the Baltics. One option considered was that of shunning military involvement. That, of course, would have called into question the entire trans-Atlantic alliance, an outcome that nobody really wants.

But the US is making it difficult for the Germans to stand by their side. Two alleged American agents were recently exposed  -- their existence an impertinence that is humiliating for a close ally.

Germany's political profile currently looks as follows: Domestically, Germans are pampered by Merkel's governing coalition and see no reason to bicker with one another. Abroad, however, there is no overarching vision and even less consensus. The country used to play the role of model student and was America's best friend in Europe. That is no longer the case, but what is next?

When German President Joachim Gauck earlier this year called for the country to play a greater role abroad, he was blasted by the Left Party for being a "loathsome warmonger." Indeed, most Germans would prefer policies that both protect their prosperity from risk and their soldiers from danger. It is an effective strategy for preserving lightness, but it is also egoistic.

Blitheful contentment, cool nationalism, egoistic risk avoidance: What does the sum total look like? It certainly isn't a 7:1 -- it's not pure beauty. One still can't speak of a relaxed German nation; rather it is a country that is losing its inhibitions. It is finding its way back to itself, but is still searching for its role in the global community. Should it sit quietly in the corner or should it take on a leadership role reflective of its size and economic strength? What is missing is a national team coach, one that stipulates a clear path forward.

Markus Werner, 50, has worked as a lifeguard for 28 years on the island of Sylt. He encounters his fellow citizens during the summer holidays, at a time when they are supposed to be particularly relaxed, but he doesn't find them relaxed at all. They always find something to complain about, he says. But that changes during the month of the World Cup, Werner adds. People then "have a reason to turn up the corners of their mouths." Really, Werner believes, the World Cup should be held twice a year.

In terms of developing a positive German idea, it probably wouldn't be a bad idea.

By Sven Böll, Rafael Buschmann, Carsten Holm, Frank Hornig, Dirk Kurbjuweit, Paul Middelhoff, Conny Neumann, Anna-Lena Roth and Steffen Winter

Translated from the German by Daryl Lindsey and Charles Hawley
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