German Nationalism: Getting over the ‘guilt’?

flagFor Stephen D. Walt, the strongest force in the world is the “force of nationalism”. Nationalism has, more than any other phenomenon in the history of mankind, worked as a catalyst in both “binding and dividing” the populations of the world. Many argue that nationalism did not develop as a political force till as late as the 1750s. Others view nationalism as a “reflection of the ancient and perceived evolutionary tendency of humans” to classify themselves (and others) into divergent groups grounded in respective affinity.

Either way, nationalism has shaped and influenced the manner in which individuals, as well as political entities, behave with each other. It has enabled common men to fight for self-determination and has more than once erected as well as decimated greatest of the nations.

In the case of Germany, Otto the Great came to power in 936 AD, after years of chaos. He was crowned the Holy Roman Emperor by Pope John XII for his efforts towards restoring peace and defending the Church. The Holy Roman Empire, the First Reich, lasted till the onset of the Napoleonic Wars of early 19th century.

Germany was again united and the Second Reich was formed under Emperor Wilhelm I as a result of the three wars waged by Bismarck. The Reich lasted till 1918, the end of World War I, which was followed by the formation of the Weimar Republic. This was a first ever attempt at democracy by the Germans. The experiment failed, while increasing the difficulties of a war-torn nation. The Great Depression of 1920s further resulted in gross unemployment and compelled thousands to starve to death. In the backdrop of these events, riding on the sentiments of the German people and with the promise of a better future, Hitler came to power in 1933. And thus the Third Reich was born. The events that followed brought immeasurable shame to the Germans as we all know.

Two World Wars, heinous acts of cruelty and decades of suffering in the name of a nation compelled the Germans to reject the notion of ‘ethnic nationalism.’ Further, the Germans were made to take the responsibility of the Second World War and a sense of ‘collective guilt’ for the atrocities committed by their fellow countrymen was injected by the winning nations in most of the Germans, if not all.

As a result, exhibition of nationalistic fervor in any form(s) became a taboo as Germany was being divided among the Allied Forces. Hence after, the German volk remained largely against the display of national pride in any manner even after the re-unification of Germany.

Brandenburg Gate (Photo credit: NBC News)

All this began to change when Germany hosted the Football World Cup in 2006. After decades of parting ways with nationalistic enthusiasm, the youth was chanting patriotic songs in the public. It seemed Germans began to “take pride in their history and long lists of achievements” (previous link). The unveiling of the national flag, which was limited to government offices, became a usual sight at various private buildings across Germany during this period.

However, such fervent display of nationalistic enthusiasm remains restricted to circumstances requiring mass German participation, especially young, and at sporadic mega sporting events. It is noteworthy here that the people hosting the German flag on their homes/shops, painting their faces Black-Red-Yellow, chanting songs praising Deutschland mainly belonged to the younger generations of the state.

Even if it remains a “carnival nationalism” kind of phenomenon, the younger generations of Germany have all the rights to feel enthusiastic about and take pride in their nation’s triumphs like the citizens of any other nation. After all these are people who were born in the post war period and live in the times when Germany has paid entire reparation amount. They live in the times when Germany is a political and economic power propelling the European community. Germany also shoulders great responsibilities at various international fronts. Most importantly, these are the souls who did not commit the atrocities against the ethnic minorities in their country. They do not have anything to be ashamed of or feel guilty about. Theirs’ is not an aggressive nationalism. The Germans have always loved their country and there is no harm in displaying it, through the use of a few emblems.

The older generation, although, continue to remain vary of this phenomenon. They still see it in the light of radical nationalism. Interestingly enough, their apprehensions have been fuelled by instances of racial discrimination and xenophobia in the recent past, but these remain sporadic and exceptional occurrences and cannot be entirely attributed to this resurgent nationalism.

Fans watching World Cup league match against England on a giant screen in Berlin (Photo : Telegraph UK)

An important aspect of this phenomenon, that has been not studied, is the way(s) in which the ethnic minorities of Germany are responding to this new development. At the same time, this is rather a great opportunity for Germany to demonstrate that they have truly evolved into a tolerant, peaceful and democratic nation which is sensitive towards and guarantees equal rights to its minority and migrant inhabitants and that they are significant members of a free society.

There is little doubt that sports has potently constructed and reproduced national identities in the past. Can we say that, though in the form of ‘carnival nationalism’, sport is coming to the “rescue” of Germans? Are the Germans finally getting over the guilt? Is Germany making peace with its checkered past?

The complex phenomenon called nationalism presents itself with yet another fascinating case study which calls for detailed studying.

– rohit



About Over Game

Sports. Politics. Development. Peace.
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