World Cup Identity Trying to Be German as the World Watches

At the World Cup's opening ceremony, Germany fell back on cliches. But real Germans have to wrestle with intractable questions of identity, and the question underlying the World Cup is: Are Germans ready to be friends with the world?

Foreigners know what German identity is. Being "German" means wearing Lederhosen and slapping your thighs while performing the (Bavarian) Schuhplattler dance. That's what they saw at the World Cup opening ceremony on Friday. No American or Australian watching the show on TV needed be confused.

Any German who wasn't a Bavarian, though, felt little connection to the festivities in Munich. And minus the Bavarian elements the show amounted to a sort of international dream-theater, with scraps of this and that, where almost any world citizen could recognize a piece of himself. German pop star Herbert Grönemeyer played with an African band. People sang in various languages.

It bordered on the absurd. Germany had been immersed in identity debates in the run-up to the tournament; in fact most of the year's big stories dealt in one way or another with "Germanness." Topics included: questionnaires for immigrants, violence against foreigners, a Berlin school with a German student minority and obedience problems. Pundits wondered just how "happy" Germans could be. Two big museum exhibits dealing with German history premiered to lots of fanfare and discussion.

It felt as if Germany wanted to remove any lingering questions about its past, so it could present a clear and polished identity to the world. But the opening ceremony left the impression that nothing had been resolved. Germany still has no idea how to present itself, because Germans still have no idea who, or what, they are.

The real question, though, isn't how the opening ceremonies looked, but what the World Cup will reveal about Germany as a whole. What kind of society presents a month of soccer as "A Time to Make Friends"™? The way Germany deals with its guests this summer will reveal more about "Germanness" than Lederhosen -- and a few early indicators have started to shift the conventional image.

Africans in the Allgäu

Thirty-one locations around Germany play host to international teams until the final round of 16, and some of the teams have been settled in for weeks. Togo's team, for example, arrived in the Allgäu region on May 15. In "Fidelisbäck," a guest house known for its Leberkäse (a southern German specialty), hang yellow and green striped flags emblazoned with a white star on a red ground: This African emblem is repeated over and over in Wangen, where shopowners show the flag next to a picture of Togo's national team.

On Tuesday afternoon, last week, "Fidelisbäck" was packed. Guests ate massive portions of Leberkäse. Conversation flowed over beer. There was laughing, shouting -- German gemütlichkeit reigned, or anyway an alcoholic version of it.

But the words were odd. "We're rooting for Togo," someone shouted. "All the way!" Unanimous approval. A Togolese with a stalagmite hairdo and colorful robe appeared; people celebrated like it was New Year's Eve. Later in the evening Togo played an exhibition match against FC Wangen, a struggling local soccer team, and over 7,000 people crowded the stands, some wrapped in Togolese colors.

The mood in the stadium was just as enthusiastic about Togo. The teams lined up to wait for a marching band to finish parading around the stadium in historic costumes --brown robes, a tricorn. The band was late. The Togolese players grumbled about German inefficiency.

At last the band played Togo's national anthem. When the singer translated "We'll win or die, but with dignity," there was a puzzled silence -- then scattered laughter from the stands.

What did he say? The spectators glanced at each other. Win, die, dignity? There was palpable discomfort, a silent understanding that the words may have been okay for Togo, but were spoiled for Germany. It was as if Togo had accidentally reminded Germans of their own diffidence. A word like "civilized" doesn't always apply in a football stadium, but for a moment Germany seemed pleasantly civilized.

History in Nuremberg

The Togo team now "belongs" in Wangen; the members are a part of the town. It's no different in Rotenburg, where the Trinidad and Tobago team is staying, or, more or less, in the 29 other cities and towns, where most of the natives present an open, good-humored Germanness. Wangen's internationalized Leberkäse-world turns out to be likeable.

But under all this elation about the World Cup lies a nagging worry that things may suddenly go wrong. The worry isn't just about terrorism. It's over the possibility that some Germans, somewhere, might attack and injure -- or kill -- a foreigner for being foreign.

Are "No-Go Areas" German?

A controversy before the tournament started over "no-go areas" for non-white visitors -- parts of Germany, especially in the east, where racist thugs are active -- has irritated and unsettled a lot of Germans. Any victim of violence here may not care whether his health was compromised by a German or somebody else; but for Germans the shame and disgrace of an assault on a World-Cup tourist would be hard to live down. History is unavoidable here, and no one can visit Germany without at least thinking about the Nazi past.

For this reason, maybe, history will play a big role during the World Cup. It's no coincidence that the German History Museum in Berlin just opened one of the most comprehensive exhibits ever on the history of German-speaking people; and at the German National Museum in Nuremberg, Matthias Hamann and Thomas Brehm have assembled an exhibit around the question, "What is German?"

On a tour through the Nuremberg exhibit, you meet German thinkers and poets, the German forest, German gemütlichkeit (coziness), German efficiency, the German longing for Italy -- and a man named Winnetou. Winnetou is a classic Teutonic hero. He's a paragon of virtue, a nature freak, a romantic, a pacifist at heart, but still a warrior in a world where a man has to fight. He's fast, unerring, strong. Eleven Winnetous could win the World Cup on June 9.

Winnetou is also a Native American -- a fictional hero invented by the kitschy German pulp-fiction author Karl May, who may or may not have set foot in America but produced massively popular Westerns around the turn of the last century. (Hitler was a famous fan.) Winnetou, then, is a German with an immigrant background; and in the exhibit he stands under a portrait of the goddess Germania. This juxtaposition ends the exhibit, and it's clear to Brehm and Hamann that a firm answer to their guiding question will be impossible. Instead of answering it, they hope to reinforce a habit that comes naturally to Germans -- they want to inspire self-examination.

Identity and Germany, after all, are a contradiction. Building an identity on the Holocaust is impossible -- building an identity without it, equally so. The exhibit in Nuremburg encourages a very German, mercurial search search for self. Brehm alters a quote by Heraclitus: "you cannot step into the same Germany twice."

No help from the World Cup

Unfortunately, no major public project in the run-up to the World Cup will contribute much to a new German image. Unlike the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich, the tournament hasn't inspired a fresh German aesthetic. Munich's Olympic stadium was -- and still is -- a monument to openness and effortlessness. The new stadiums built around Germany for the World Cup are faceless objects -- with the exception of Munich's new Arena by Herzog and de Meuron. It's quite different from the Olympic Stadium; it's a rounded, enclosed space, almost like a shell. But even this carries almost no social message. World Cup aesthetics are not about representation, only about presentation.

If politics and culture have abandoned representation, then it's up to the fans to make the World Cup something meaningful -- hopefully a celebration of joy.

Herbert Albrecht, 54, for one, won't stand in the way. He's from Leutkirch in the Allgäu region. He was part of the audience in Wangen. He wore a yellow hard hat crowned with a flashing red light. His shirt and pants had German colors. His shoes were painted black, red and gold. He did all of that himself.

It's no use talking about nationalism with Albrecht. He wouldn't use a word like "pride." He just thinks we shouldn't leave the "craziness" to the Argentinians and Brazilians. He waved his Togo flag whenever Togo scored.

Albrecht's outfit was just an invitation for other people to celebrate with him. He'd been to "Fidelisbäck" and he'd made some beer-drinking friends.

This brand of "crazy" patriotism will no doubt play a big role in a globalized world, as a variety of folklore. Philosopher Peter Sloterdijk said in a recent interview with SPIEGEL that he was excited about football as well, because he "wanted to be crazy with everyone else." Albrecht is a man he could dance with. Crazy patriotism slowly works its way into fashion, one way or another, and national colors could become a sign of harmlessness. Hooligans and right-wing extremists don't look like Herbert Albrecht.

His tragedy is that he doesn't have tickets for a single game. He doesn't understand: He was ready to spend the night in front of ticket booths. He was prepared to suffer. But the lottery replaced a true fan's capacity for suffering at this year's World Cup. Albrecht had to compete with casual Internet users who filled out a ticket form for fun. And he's helpless next to sponsors and rich people who can afford tickets for €2,000 -- or simply receive them as gifts.

This result of this new equanimity will be a unique make-up of World Cup spectators. They got along well at the opening ceremonies. Sure, the German national anthem was more a murmur than a chant, but during the game against Costa Rica, many fans were more than willing to cheer and shout. No one wanted to go home without experiencing part of the enchantment, and if this mood is any indication, the Germans and their guests are ready to be friends.

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