Rainbow nation: Germany flies the flag once more

Sixty-one years after the Second World War, Germans are rediscovering their national identity, thanks to the World Cup. Matthew Beard reports from Cologne
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The Independent Online

Brigitte Pelzer, a 68-year-old pensioner, was among millions of Germans who watched Germany play Costa Rica in the World Cup on television at home last week.

When it came to the national anthem and its opening line "Deutschland, Deutschland über alles", so often accompanied by uncertainty and shoe-gazing, much of the 65,000-strong crowd rose to their feet and joined in, as did the national team. The VIP spectator Claudia Schiffer also seemed to capture the national mood, rejecting haute couture for the day in favour of a Germany football shirt and scarf.

"At the opening game I was overwhelmed and I cried," said Mrs Pelzer, sitting with her family outside a café in Ruedesheim-on-Rhine, the heart of the wine-growing region.

Suddenly, Germans are waking up to the fact that it is normal to be patriotic. Since the Scond World War, most Germans have been wary of celebrating their nationality.

Patriotism has for decades been associated with nationalism, and the sinister past of blind obedience to a dictatorial leader. If you are a proud German you generally do not express that by flying the national flag or singing the national anthem, both of which have been more associated with Germany's far-right parties. And the event that has triggered the discovery is the World Cup. Few could have predicted the way in which this event like no other in modern Germany has engendered what might be a lasting patriotism.

As successive generations distance themselves from the Nazi past - without forgetting it - there is a feeling that the World Cup is a timely celebration of Germany's modern democracy. It seemed to start a week before kick-off when fans from all nations began to arrive, proudly bearing their national colours from cars, camper vans and on thousands of replica shirts. At that point many of the 80 million Germans, with a proud footballing heritage, seemed to have asked themselves, why are we not doing the same?

Mrs Pelzer said she had welcomed the new mood. "Why shouldn't it happen here? In other countries where they host these events they have been much more spontaneous. I've got two Germany flags hanging from the balcony at home. But I also love watching the other matches such as Holland against Ivory Coast," said Mrs Pelzer.

She said that the mood in 1974, when West Germany won the tournament on home soil, was "much different". "There were no mass gatherings in town squares and no giant television screens. And we celebrated the sport, rather than the nation," she said. But this is the first time that the World Cup has been held in a reunified Germany.

Her son-in-law Dieter Hopper, 42, added: "It's finally time to bury the old version of Germany. No more Adolf. It was nothing to do with me and nothing to do with my children. Earlier we didn't trust ourselves with the flag. But other nations do, so why not us?"

The surge in patriotism has created a mini-retail phenomenon in sales of flags, face paints, T-shirts, wristbands and practically any merchandise in the national colours of black, red and gold. At Germany's two main petrol station chains, "das Car Flag" has sold 80,000. They may not be as ubiquitous as the St George's car flag, but German companies have suddenly realised if they can arrange delivery quickly enough they have a license to print money before the bubble bursts, if indeed it does.

In Germany's more racially diverse cities, parts of the Muslims population have joined in, mainly in the form of young men flying the flag from their cars. The sight of a Muslim mother flying a Germany flag from her baby buggy is being interpreted as a small but significant victory for integration and a setback for Islamic fundamentalists who would rather that they did not join the party.

The issue of national pride - the Patriotismus-Debatte - has become the main talking point in the German media, coming second only to the tournament itself in occupying column inches. Germany's biggest-selling daily newspaper Bild has been characteristically bold, running the front page headline "Black, red, great" on two consecutive days last week. "Suddenly black, red and gold is flying from every car, whether it's an old Polo or a new Porsche," said Bild.

"Suddenly a whole nation is smiling. Suddenly the world seems relaxed. Finally our repressed relationship to our own nationality is being blown away. Germany is a friendly country; and a country of joy," it said in an editorial. Matthias Matussek, former London correspondent of Der Spiegel, wrote: "It was once really fashionable to drag everything that was 'German' through the mud. Even [former Chancellor] Willy Brandt was criticised in certain circles when he sang the national anthem. Those days are gone."

Even the national coach, Jürgen Klinsmann, the former Tottenham Hotspur striker who now lives in California, has contributed by encouraging his players to sing the national anthem. "If there's a shot of more patriotism, I think that's great," he said. Christoph Metzelder, a defender with the national team, added: "When you see how many German flags are flying from windows, that's a development that was long overdue, while not forgetting what happened in this country before."

The daily Die Welt newspaper considered the history of the flag. "One-and-a-half centuries after 1848, we have learnt to value and show the colours of our flag as a sign of our democratic nation." The reference was to the use of the black, red and gold horizontal bars as the insignia of the failed democratic revolution of 1848.

However, it dates back to decades earlier, to the Napoleonic Wars, when groups demanding independence from France adopted the colours. The design has always stood for democracy and was therefore rejected by dictatorial forces such as the monarchy, Bismarck or the Nazis. The current flag became the official national flag after the country's first democratic republic was created after First World War, but the Nazis replaced it with the swastika.

Since the Second World War black, red and gold has been used mostly by officialdom, flown for example above the restored German parliament in Berlin. But until now it has never been the ubiquitous feature of daily life as the St George's cross becomes in the weeks before a big football tournament or England match.

Apart from the passage of time since Nazism, other factors are thought to have contributed to the current mood. Germany's first female chancellor, Angela Merkel, is among the most effective leaders of large European countries, though she is still in her honeymoon period. The German economy has emerged from a decade of recession and there has been a boost in consumer confidence. A certain pride has also been taken in the fact that Pope Benedict XVI is a German.

Some suggest that the flag-waving has more to do with a frivolous party atmosphere, which will quickly evaporate at the end of the tournament or if Klinsmann's team are knocked out. After all, a German flag can often be seen flying on the same car as a Brazilian one. And at England's match at Nuremberg last week, there were several groups of Germans supporting David Beckham and co, complete with St George's flag and replica team shirts.

"The swirl of patriotism around the World Cup is not about "Deutschland, Deutschland über alles," Daniel Cohn-Bendit, the head of the Green Party in the European Parliament, said. "It's all about, 'Go, Germany, Go, score another goal."

The positive attitude has also created a debate about the national anthem. At the weekend, a senior MP from the ruling Christian Democratic Party said it was "bizarre and embarrassing" that a regional teachers' union suggested scrapping the national anthem, or Deutschlandlied. Written by the poet Heinrich Hoffmann von Fallersleben in 1841, the original version expressed a yearning for unity in a splintered nation.

The first verse, which begins with "Deutschland, Deutschland über alles" and outlines a rather oversized Germany, was popular under the Nazis. After the Second World War, West Germany kept the anthem, despite some debate. Communist East Germany produced its own national song, Risen from the Ruins.

In 1991, after the unification of East and West Germany, only the more mainstream third verse of the Deutschlandlied, with its emphasis on brotherhood, was declared the official national anthem. "The current anthem is tainted and isn't appropriate for our country," the teachers' union chief Jochen Nagel said.

"We can't just close the lid and stop talking about the past." Mr Nagel added that there was no such thing as "natural patriotism" in a country with Germany's history. Walter Jens, a respected cultural commentator, said the current lyrics made little sense and that the country could do better. "If there's something to criticise in our country, it's this terrible national anthem with sometimes incomprehensible lyrics," he told the Süddeutsche Zeitung.

Mr Jens said that the national anthem should be replaced by Berthold Brecht's "Children's Hymn," a 1949 poem about a modest Germany, without expansionist ambitions and not feared by other nations.

Whether the current positivity among Germans lasts or not, it certainly testifies to the unifying effect of the World Cup. Just as a diverse France team went some way towards healing the racial divide by winning the competition on home soil in 1998, so the Germans will be hoping for lasting success beyond the football field.