It was a small but telling gesture. In 2013, on the night she won re-election as chancellor of Germany, Angela Merkel stood on a stage with her fellow Christian Democrats to celebrate. If this had been a stage in America, Britain, France or almost anywhere else, people would have whipped out their national flag in euphoria. And indeed, one party friend on this particular podium did wave a little black-red-gold flag. But Ms. Merkel frowned and whisked the flag out of his hands, then put it away. In a nation with deep complexes about national symbols, the chancellor appeared worried about sending the wrong message.
A few Germans, especially on the populist right, held that gesture against the chancellor. That may be why, four years on, she is in this election race using the German flag much more prominently, proudly and unabashedly. The campaign posters soon to go up all around Germany feature Ms. Merkel on a background of abstract patterns in black, red and gold. Clearly, Germany’s fraught attitude toward patriotism is in flux.
Historically, Germans were late in developing a strong national identity. Long after England or France, say, already had a tradition of a state embracing a people united by language, custom and symbolism, Germans were still spread throughout more than 300 principalities in a loose and protean federation called the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation. Only after Napoleon overran this empire and occupied large parts of it did Germans feel a defiant and romantic sense of common identity. But an attempt to unite their nation as a Western-style democracy under the black-red-gold banner failed in 1848.
“Germans still worry that their patriotism can turn into a dark obsession.”
When Germany finally did unite in a “second empire”, in 1871, it was under the overlordship of Prussia, an eastern power largely outside of the old Holy Roman Empire and Western tradition. This Germany – its colors were black-white-red – was authoritarian rather than democratic and aggressively expansionist. Its colors are still waved at far-right demonstrations today. After the First World War, another attempt at a democratic Germany under the black-red-gold flag, the Weimar Republic, also failed. Once the Nazis took over in 1933 to form a “Third Reich”, German nationalism mutated into the darkest and most murderous form of racism.
Ever since 1945, this legacy weighs on Germans. “History has made it difficult for Germans to be patriotic,” Christian Lammert at the JFK Institute of the Free University Berlin told Handelsblatt Global. National identity is based on history, culture, language, but many of these things have been polluted by Germany’s wars of aggression and the Shoah. “Germans still worry that their patriotism can turn into a dark obsession,” agreed Stephan Grünewald, a psychologist and author of “Germany on the Couch” and “The Exhausted Society”.
Gradually, however, this fear of patriotism has been yielding to new forms of pride. One of these was “constitutional patriotism”, a term coined in 1979 by the political thinker Dolf Sternberger. He defined a new national identity for Germany that felt a safe distance away from the ethnic superiority complex of the past. It took pride instead in West Germany’s basic law of 1949, which starts with the principle that “human dignity is inviolable.” This style of patriotism today celebrates German identity through its atonement for the past, its embrace of peaceful European integration and its respect for human rights.
In East Germany, the rebuilding of national identity took a different course. From the beginning, the ruling Communist Party depicted its state as consisting of “good Germans” and offloading the Nazi legacy on the “fascist” Germany in the West. Having stepped from one dictatorship to a second, East Germans had less opportunity to grapple with their identity until reunification in 1990.
The 1990s thus brought together western Germans who believed in the freedoms guaranteed by their constitution and easterners who had a very different understanding of their identity. “It took a while after reunification before people realized that we were one people again,” Mr. Lammert said.
Many Germans feel that patriotism in their country only properly began returning to health in 2006, when Germany hosted World Cup in soccer. While the tournament lasted, the whole country was bathed in flags, both those of the visiting teams and the black-red-gold. The colors were on cars, strollers, hats and bikinis, displayed in amicable joy. “It was then that the Germans realized they can be passionate without scaring the rest of the world,” Mr. Grünewald said.
Since then, Germany has grown in stature on the world stage. Some have even called it a reluctant leader of Europe or, more recently, the West. Gradually, Germans are becoming proud again. But “the German way is to shyly embrace the fact that we are playing a major role,” largely through a strong economy, said Martin Lüthe, an assistant professor at the JFK Institute.
“It took a while after reunification before people realized that we were one people again.”
That may change again as Germany becomes a land of immigrants. In 2015 more than 17 million people in Germany had foreign roots. And that was before Ms. Merkel opened Germany’s borders to refugees, which led to hundreds of thousands of new arrivals since. As a result, the idea of a German Leitkultur, or dominant culture, has reemerged as a topic of conversation. Whereas immigrant nations like Canada have long embraced multiculturalism, conservative Germans want migrants to adopt traditional German cultural norms.
But Mr. Grünewald argues that these cultural norms do not make up a national identity, and that Germans will never settle on one definition of what it means to be German. They “are on a constant search for themselves, but that also makes them inventive. They are always reestablishing themselves in the world, either as the land of ideas or engineering experts or leading exporters,” he said.
Germans, in short, nowadays have lots of things to be proud of again. But on this July 4th, as Americans fly star-spangled banners with abandon, many Germans still look wistfully on a indulgence they don’t quite allow themselves.
Sabine Devins is an editor with Handelsblatt Global in Berlin. To contact the author: firstname.lastname@example.org.