Friday, July 02, 2010

Capture the flag, auf Deutsch

Overheard this morning while driving The Wife to the train station: a radio commentary on the World Cup by a German sociologist who could not (my translation) count himself among those fans who 'who sing the national anthem, bellow the German war cry or wave the black-red-gold flag'.

'I can't do that', he continued, 'after Auschwitz'.

I think my eyes nearly popped out of my head, but, fortunately, I somehow managed to maintain control of the car and to listen to the rest of the commentary, on how good it is that many players in the Nationalmannschaft have an 'immigration background' (Migrationshintergrund), i.e., who are either immigrants or descendants of immigrants.

The commentator's identification with the German team, thus, was only possible to the extent that it was not (in the traditional sense) 'German'.

Now, the German neurosis about patriotism is well known -- indeed, almost legendary -- and it is most acute in well-educated, left-liberal circles.

Those are circles to which I, actually, belong; however, I can't share in the over-the-top Angst about 'Nationalismus'. Admittedly, my own Migrationshintergrund was in a culture with a more, shall we say, relaxed attitude toward patriotism; of course, that could be said about every country in the world other than Germany.

I can't help thinking that some of us immigration-backgrounders might be a bit further along than the German intelligentsia in puncto national identity, as another World-Cup-related story made me think last week.

He will not stand for any ridicule. "I will defend the German flag," says Ibrahim Bassal resolutely, hitting the glass counter three times to make his point. Over the past few days he has been through a lot and what he has experienced has only strengthened his resolve. "I won't let anyone get at it," he adds.

Herr Bassal, you see, is proud of the German team's performance, and he has no hesitation about waving the black-red-gold banner:

"We have hung little German flags outside for years," Bassal explains. But this year, he and his cousins decided they would do something different. They placed a special order with a textile company, and soon a giant German flag worth €500 ($616) was hanging on the outside of the building where Bassal's store is located. Measuring 22 meters tall and 5 meters wide (72 feet by 16 feet), the over-sized banner covers five stories. For Bassal, a German with Lebanese roots, the flag is a symbol of cultural integration. "We live in Germany and we also belong to Germany," he explains.

"We live in Germany and we also belong to Germany." A better and more moving statement of successful integration, you might think, is hard to imagine.

But not everyone, you see, is happy.

Over the past few weeks, ever since the start of the football World Cup, the neighborhood has been the scene of what local media are calling the "Neukölln flag fight." Left-wing activists have called on sympathizers to destroy the German flags which can be seen everywhere, arguing that they are a symbol of German nationalism. There has been a rash of thefts of small flags attached to car windows. Some of those who decorated their vehicles with flags say they now only display the flags when they are actually driving their cars.

As for the giant flag, Bassal and his friends, who have all donated money to the cause, have already had to replace their flag twice. Since they adorned the building in black, red and gold, the colors of the German flag, they have become the target of attacks, presumably from members of the radical left-wing scene, and someone even tried to set fire to the flag.

Ah, the ironies of some ethnic Germans -- whether liberal Gutmenschen or left-wing Autonomen -- casting doubt upon (or even seeking to prevent) the same expressions of patriotism that immigrant ethnicities (often condemned by conservatives for insufficient identification with Germany) are engaging in enthusiastically.

Now, I've become German by choice rather than birth, and experience over my nine years in this country has taught me that I'm far more enthusiastic about Germany than most Germans, most of whom (right, left or centre) seem to think their country is in a state of terminal decline or, alternatively, poses a constant potential threat to the world.

Immigration and national identity are never going to be easy issues (they aren't anywhere and never have been), especially in Germany where remnants of the Blut und Boden tradition linger on; however, a less constipated relationship with patriotism might be a very good thing for this country, not least for its immigrants.

Tomorrow, I'll be joining Herr Bassal and his friends in waving the flag and backing our team, regardless of whether their surnames are Özil, Podolski, Gomez or, yes, even Müller.

(Photo source)


Frau Mahlzahn said...

Actually, I do remember that back in the dark ages, also known as my time in the beautiful city of Marbug, I used to think somewhat along the lines of the radio commentary... I also remember, that it struck me as kind of akward, when in 1990 people got their flags out (where did they get the flags, private people even had flags!) -- but, then, in 1990 you couldn't really be sure, what direction the development in Germany was going to take...

But actually, these days I had the feeling, that Germans relaxed a bit (thanks to the National Soccer Team and Guido Knopp and his somewhat twisted take on German history) and finally had a more relaxed Umgang with their national symbols. So that commentary actually suprises me a bit, I thought even the intellectuals relaxed a bit.

So long,

Frau Mahlzahn said...

P.S.: Please ignore at least half of the "bits" and "actuallys" I managed to squeeze in in about every sentence or so.

So long,

John Carter Wood said...

I can definitely understand where the suspicion of patriotism comes from, and, doubtless, there are very nasty versions of patriotism. In every country, one might add: this is hardly a German specialty.

Judging by the various discussions I've heard today on Deutschlandradio Kultur, our sociologist is hardly alone among the talking-head classes in his view. In a report on that 'flag fight' in Neukölln, for instance, a few more sociologists were happy to suggest that there was little distance between putting a flag on your car and indulging in anti-foreigner hostility.

It occurs to me that this may not be a general German problem, and rather a more specific problem among sociologists....

I don't think there's some kind of duty to go out and express one's patriotism; on the other hand, I can't really fathom the self-hatred that seems to come out among some Germans when other Germans seem to be enjoying themselves in ways that are not, what we might call, Sociologist Approved (TM).

I have a feeling that among certain groups, this kind of anti-deutsch has become a firm part of their identity; it remains, thus, immune to changes in the real world.

(Much like the parliamentarian from Die Linke who, a couple of days ago, compared the choice between Christian Wulff and Joachim Gauck as president to that between Hitler and Stalin.)

Oh, and I'm addicted to 'bits' and 'actuallys' myself, so, you are forgiven....

John Carter Wood said...

Correction: that should be '...this kind of anti-deutsch stance...'

cohu said...

I wouldn't wave a German flag, but I have no problem with other people doing so if they wish. I have, however, waved many a FC Bayern flag, Bavarian flags and, on occasion of the World Cup, an American flag (didn't help).

I think sometimes that our "constipation" regarding healthy patriotism is, at least partly, connected to vague rules of discourse regarding race/national identity issues in Germany. There seem to be no clear norms about what constitutes "crossing the line", or at least those norms are much more vague than, e.g., in the US. This means that the borders between healthy patriotism and Ausländerfeindlichkeit are very blurry. I have many acquaintances, for example, who use what I would call racial slurs when talking about Turks; this is accepted as normal (even among academics) and makes it very hard to tell wether someone is "just making fun" or actually a racist. (See also: Sarrazzin, and the fact that stuff like this gets published in a left-wing newspaper).
Because the waters are so muddy, people like me would rather stay clearly on the "good" side, and therefore avoid all overt flag-waving and patriotic talk.

John Carter Wood said...

That's an interesting point about 'norms'; the US certainly has an enormously broad palette of acceptable (indeed, expected) patriotic expressions and gestures, ones that nearly all Americans would accept as, in at least some way, legitimate. (And there are then those more conflicted areas that 'cross the line'...)

I'll have to think about that.

And your point about the problematic nature of 'humour' and actual prejudice is well taken; I've experienced this...well, often enough in Germany.

But I also have a lot of experience of precisely the same thing in the US.

What strikes me about Germany is the way that even banal, harmless and (one would think) non-borderline expressions of national...pride? ...belonging? are categorised (by some) as the first step down the road to fascism.

As to local flag-waving: I had a German student tell me (when I was teaching English in Bayreuth and trying to get a discussion going about European identity): 'I'm Bavarian. I have a hard enough time feeling German, let alone European'.

That explained to me a lot about Bavaria.

The fact that he said it in a rather good English accent added to the effect.

Thanks for your comments!

Kris said...

Let's be honest, the extremes of the German left have always been decidedly dodgy.

Marcellina said...

Very nice post. This helps explain to me why I am slowly training my German boyfriend to let go of the fear of being spiessig and admit he likes WM football as much as I do.
And I think it helps Germans greatly to see others rooting for their team, so that they can do the same without fear of seeming overpatriotic.

Anonymous said...

I agree that Germans should not feel inhibited about patriotic affirmations of their identity.
When Germans began hoisting flags several years ago, I welcomed it.

That said, the present outburst of German nationalist fervor is excessive. It reminds me of similar demonstrations of national solidarity in America after 9/11, which also made me uneasy.

Though I don’t anticipate a return to the primitive collectivism of “blood-and-soil” ideology and mystification of the Schicksalsgemeinschaft, the dangers of mass psychology may manifest themselves in other ways and sooner than might be expected.

Incidentally, not only leftist radicals but also neo-Nazis are unhappy, though for a different reason. The composition of the national team is the most ethnically diverse ever.

D. Ghirlandaio said...

"We live in Germany and we also belong to Germany." A better and more moving statement of successful integration, you might think, is hard to imagine."

My family thought that too once.

"On the other hand,my own expected happy homecoming into German society wasn't necessarily working out as planned. One of the teachers at the Gymnasium told me that Heinrich Heine wasn't really a "German" poet, but rather was a "European" poet. My absurdly well-meaning and wonderful hostfather regularly repeated that "Deutschland ist kein Einwanderungsland" (which is, as Schneider points out, a common theme among Germans of a certain generation). Whenever I told people I was of German descent, they would argue with me -- then upon discovering that I was Jewish, would say "Oh, so you're not German, you're Jewish" (strangely, I never heard anyone say to someone, upon discovering that they were Christian, "Oh, so you're not German, you're Christian"). Among my German friends, there was a pervasive sense of the strangeness of other cultures, which alternately manifested itself as either irrational disdain or irrational admiration."

And has no one commented on the recent German chatter about Greece and Greeks?

You changed the bloody nationality laws 10 years ago. They should have been changed by the occupying forces in 1945.

Your arrogance is unwarranted. But then its very German, isn't it?

John Carter Wood said...

If you took my post to be suggesting that all is well with the immigration issue in Germany (let alone the -- appalling -- reaction by parts of the German press to the Greek crisis), then you need to read it again, because that's not what it's arguing.

Indeed, one of the main issues I am pointing out is the unwillingness of some ethnic Germans to accept expressions of German belonging by those with an immigrant background: the irony is multiplied by the fact that those Germans who are doing so are from a political left that otherwise so insistently condemns more conservative Germans for their unwelcoming position vis-a-vis immigrants and their descendants.

My point (which, judging by the other comments, was pretty obvious) is that the excessively touchy attitude in Germany toward expressions of national pride (even when immigrants are expressing it!) may in fact be a hindrance to one possible vehicle for integration.

Being originally American myself, I have had many personal acquaintances with immigrants who quickly come to feel that they belong to the country, and, indeed, become more 'American' than many Americans. (Although, I also know that there are lots of Americans who are reluctant to accept such transformations, and who continue to see people as 'foreign' no matter how American they are. If you think this is just a German problem, I think you are sadly mistaken.)

I seemed to recognise something of this more-native-than-the-natives attitude in Herr Bassal's commitment to the flag.

And I recognise it in my own experience in trying, myself, to integrate into this country's culture; something that was assisted by that change in the law you mentioned, which was, indeed, overdue (and remains only partial in some ways).

Though I'm not sure what this has to do with anything in my post.

Moreover, I would never suggest that my own experience is universal or denies the fact that other people may have had a different experience; you, on the other hand, seem to want to do that.

Where the 'arrogance' lies, in that situation, seems pretty obvious to me.

(Incidentally, that quote that you provide (by Jason Stanley) was based mostly on experiences in Germany as a foreign exchange student in Germany in the 1980s. All very interesting, don't get me wrong, but as evidence for the issue of migration and identity in this country today -- or for any of the other points you're making -- it leaves something to be desired.)

D. Ghirlandaio said...

I spent a little time in Germany around turn of this century, and I've had dealings with Germans there, in the US and in other countries, socially, in business and by accident. I recognized my experience in Stanley's description.

There's a blankness in the German relation to outsiders that I can't compare even to the American or British, and in this case I'm talking about the behavior of annoying tourists (and in situations where I was taken for a local). All three have bad reputations. But I've been photographed twice in my life while protesting, literally waving my arms and saying "no!" in two or three languages, only to be met with a confused look and continued snapping of pictures, both times by Germans.
A half-breed German/Jew I know calls it a form of autism.

And in that Germans remind me of Israelis, though maybe that should be the other way around. That liberals ignore the meaning of a demand for "A Jewish State" as if it were anything else than the equivalent of the demands of the European right (and in this case where the demands aren't even by the natives) is something that never ceases to amaze me. I was interested to read of the popularity of the new multiethnic German team (generation 'M') at the World Cup but it saddened me a bit to think that maybe Germans had outgrown their stepchildren in their adopted home in the middle east.

My last name is jewish, and my midwest-born shiksa mother outlived my father long enough to revert to a mild somewhat charming anti-semitism in her old age. It didn't bother me much, but I don't expect too much of people.

I stand by my arguments. European muslims are the new Jews of Europe and I wish them well.

D. Ghirlandaio said...

Angela Merkel: Multiculturalism has failed

Yes it has
BERLIN — It has been many years since a German film student had a feature-length movie shown in the competition at the prestigious Berlinale International Film Festival, a distinction that can launch a career. That is what Burhan Qurbani is enjoying at the moment, with his film “Shahada.”

But rising fame can be double-edged, as Mr. Qurbani, 29, now understands, as his native country casts a critical eye on his work, and his life. He suddenly realizes that he is a foreigner at home, and that his audience sees him as an Afghan immigrant who made a movie about Islam, not as a talented German filmmaker who chose to explore issues common to all mankind.

...Of course, I am German,” Mr. Qurbani said. “I have Afghani roots, I can’t deny that, but mostly, I am German.”