Germany should embrace a new, enlightened patriotism to head off the insidious rise of the far right

The German elite's admirable aversion towards national pride is not shared by the public, and the challenge posed by the AfD and others changes the landscape entirely

Luuk Molthof
Friday 02 August 2019 10:22 BST
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As a Dutchman, I’ve always had huge respect for how the post-war Germans dealt with their dark past, how they overwhelmingly steered clear of fevered flag-waving, and how they enthusiastically embraced their European identity.

Now though, faced with the challenge of far-right ethnic nationalism, the time may have come for Berlin’s political elites to embrace a new, liberal era of German patriotism.

The rise of the right-wing Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) has shaken the German political landscape. In a country that generally still frowns upon public displays of national pride, the AfD is employing a decidedly (ethnic) nationalist rhetoric and is explicitly targeting voters who want to move past feelings of guilt and who want to openly celebrate their nationality.

The response on the part of Germany’s political establishment has so far been inadequate.

Some commentators, such as Thea Dorn and Yascha Mounk, have called for the cultivation of an “enlightened” and “inclusive” form of patriotism as an antidote to the far-right. Yet many German elites still shy away from discussions about national identity and pride, fearful of emboldening the AfD and others. This, I believe, is a mistake.

In a recent study conducted in cooperation with the Open Society European Policy Institute, we used a public opinion survey and interviews with political leaders to investigate Germans’ attitudes to identity, pride and patriotism.

Contrary to our expectation, we found that Germans do not feel ambiguous about their national identity (at all). An overwhelming majority of respondents (74 per cent) said they strongly identified with their German nationality. On average, our respondents identified more with fellow Germans than they did with people who live in the same town, who share the same religious beliefs, or practice the same profession.

Respondents’ national identity also appeared (slightly) stronger than their European identity – though many respondents felt both strongly German and European.

Interestingly, most Germans not only strongly identify with their nationality, they also appear to take (a latent) pride it. We asked our respondents which aspects of their national identity they were most proud of, if at all. Strikingly, only 12 per cent of respondents said they didn’t associate any feeling of pride with their nationality.

The overwhelming majority of respondents felt proud of at least one aspect of their German identity. We found that Germans are particularly proud of Germany’s Grundgesetz (the Basic Law), its welfare state, and its cultural heritage. Though left-leaning voters tend to be more inclined to distance themselves from any feelings of national pride than right-leaning voters, our results indicate that feelings of national pride are by no means the sole domain of the right.

Despite the enduring taboo on patriotic sentiment, then, Germans maintain a strong national identity and find, at the very least, a basic pride in that identity. What would it mean if that taboo were challenged, and Germans felt able to celebrate their nationality more openly? Would this give rise to a more nationalistic, closed, and illiberal Germany? The answer: it doesn’t have to.

Our study shows that the latent pride we found among German citizens does not necessarily correlate with nationalistic and illiberal attitudes. Respondents who said they weren’t proud of Germany were not necessarily more open and liberal than those who said they were.

Ultimately, whether or not feelings of pride form a danger to Germany’s open society depends on their nature. For instance, we found that pride in Germany’s Grundgesetz, its welfare state, and its Wilkommenskultur is associated with above-average support for liberal democratic principles, whereas pride in Germany’s technological and economic achievements is associated with a (slightly) more “closed” attitude.

This suggests that a more nuanced understanding of German patriotism is needed, and that overt pride can be both a challenge and a resource for a healthy democracy.

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It is precisely for this reason that Germany’s political leaders should set aside their reservations, take charge of the discussion, and not let the AfD define what it means to be German and what citizens can and cannot be proud of.

They should channel the already existent feelings of pride into an inclusive and enlightened patriotism, one that is distinct from dumb nationalism, one that recognises the horrors of the past, but that celebrates Germany’s post-war achievements as those of a (by and large) successful open and tolerant democracy.

I have always had great sympathy for the German aversion towards patriotic sentiment, but it may now be time to turn that aversion into qualified but enthusiastic affection.

Luuk Molthof is a senior research fellow at d|part, a non-partisan think tank based in Berlin.

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