“A country of our size, with its export-based economy and associated dependence upon foreign trade, has to realize that, when in doubt or in emergency situations, it is also necessary to deploy our military forces to protect our interests.”

With that one sentence, uttered while visiting troops in Afghanistan during the summer of 2010, German President Horst Koehler set off a political and media firestorm both inside and outside Germany, resulting in his swift resignation just a few days later. His comments triggered a heated debate over whether Germany, nearly 70 years after the National Socialist period, could invoke any mention of military might to protect German interests. This dilemma also depicts a much broader debate over German patriotism and its role, if any, in Germany today.

While former President Koehler felt comfortable enough as a German leader in 2010 to use those words, this is a relatively new sense of German confidence, one that Germans are testing at this moment — not without stirring controversy. Nor is it the first time that Germans have been embroiled in such debates. As Mary Fulbrook argues in the book, German National Identity after the Holocaust, “the definition of German national identity has been central to much of German politics and public debate over the best part of the last half-century.”

The use of national symbols was muted in Germany during much of the postwar period. Even as late as the 1990s, it was hard to find a store where one could buy a German flag. Ordinary Germans often reflect on the meaning of being German and on the symbols of national identity. As a German interviewed for this article noted, “This is also new for me. As a 30-something who grew up in West Germany, I never remember seeing a flag. It was considered in very poor taste.” Few government buildings even displayed one. Today, it has become far more common to see the flag displayed and to hear the national anthem being sung, although this happens most often at sporting events.

Patriotism in Germany has been a taboo topic since the time of Adolf Hitler, with the vast majority of Germans accepting that they cannot express any form of national pride. The re-education of Germans after World War II, in both the West and the East, included heavy indoctrination bent on instilling fears that patriotism would result in the nationalism that had led to National Socialism and foreign aggression in the 1930s and 40s. In addition, the West German government and its people felt significant shame and guilt for the atrocities that had occurred. That shame, and fear of what could happen if patriotism were taken too far, helped mold the modern German understanding of patriotism.

Ready to Move Forward

For decades following the creation in 1949 of the German Democratic Republic and the Federal Republic, Germany as we know it today was occupied and thus controlled by foreign powers. The East created an environment in which its people recognized that the socialist brotherhood was far more uniting than a simple country. In the West, Germans had an immense sense of gratitude to the occupying powers for freeing them from National Socialism and protecting them from the Soviets. Thus, residents on both sides of the Berlin Wall were made to feel like children under the great powers, thus greatly limiting their own abilities to “grow up” and come into their own selves. This, combined with its paradigm of understanding national identity and pride, led Germany to further suppress any such feelings.

The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 brought not only the end of communism and the restoration of a united Germany, but also a new opportunity for the country to define itself. In 1990, the occupying powers finally signed away their rights, and Germany became a completely independent country, free from foreign powers’ involvement in its political and societal systems. At the same time, the world began to see signs that Germany was becoming more comfortable with being German, and a new generation of German and foreign historians duly reflected the newly found identity. When holding long conversations with Germans about issues of patriotism, nationalism, and national identity, one immediately notices that they believe there is no more reason to continue feeling guilt and shame about the German past. After World War II, German companies — many of which were important players in the global economy — that had participated in some way in the National Socialist movement showed their compassion by researching the facts and their own roles in the horrors of the Holocaust and, in most cases, paying reparations.

Then-Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder (1998-2005), the leader of the Social Democratic Party, publicly stood up to President Bush in 2003 against the invasion of Iraq. Germany was finally defining herself, no longer worrying about the old super powers. A university student interviewed for this article noted: “This was the first time I really saw my government standing up for our interests. It’s both exhilarating as well as frightening. We [Germans] need to always be careful not to step on the toes of foreign countries.” This new sense of German identity was not just seen in politics, but quickly spread to everyday German life — most notably in recent soccer tournaments.

For Germany, hosting the 2006 World Cup offered the opportunity to stand on the world stage and show that Germany was no longer ashamed to be German. “The black, red and gold flag that had almost become an embarrassment to generations suddenly became the fashion item to have — whether flying from apartment balconies, painted on faces or dangling from earrings,” reported the Financial Times. As Norbert Lammert, President of the national parliament put it, “it is the reconstruction of normality.”

The 2006 World Cup enabled Germany to reap economic benefits through tourism and also to gain greater visibility on the world sports stage. The Germans, working under their new sense of identity and pride, delivered what was generally considered bv the international press to be a well-organized event. “When South African journalists saw Germany’s rail systems, sparkling stadiums and organization, many wondered if their homeland could manage such an event,” reported the Wall Street Journal.“The mood was helped by a perfectly plotted World Cup,” argued the Financial Times. An English fan even argued that “the Germans have been so nice I hope they win it.”

But the World Cup presented even more than these rather tangible objectives. The competition was an opportunity to showcase the “new” Germany. The subsequent success of these games contributed further to the rebirth of German patriotism. German Chancellor Angela Merkel noted that “the world became a guest through friendship.” The great summer weather — a phenomenon that happens only once every five years — also played an important role. Not by accident, the summer of the 2006 World Cup in Germany was characterized by the German press as the Sommermärchen (summer fairy tale). In addition, as reported by the daily Die Welt newspaper, the match between Germany and Spain attained the highest TV-ratings in the history of soccer, with 83.2% of the TV market tuned in.

This new sense of pride carried into the 2010 World Cup in South Africa. Unlike in 2006, the sentiment wasn’t based only on victory. Right after Germany’s defeat in the semi-finals. newspapers printed the words “Respect” and “Thank you, team.” And Suddeutsche Zeitung, one of the largest newspapers in Bavaria, stated, “An Eleven [i.e., a team] for the future.”

This rebirth of German patriotism over the past few years has not been without controversy. In the political arena, particularly from the left, there have been major discussions about whether all the flag-waving and national-anthem-playing has been getting out of hand. In addition, some of the opposition politicians to the current Christian Democratic government have been attempting to evoke fears in the population of a reemergence of Nazism. Some media outlets are beginning to criticize this new sense of pride while opponents of German patriotism point to recent incidents that, they say, show what too much patriotism can lead to. In particular, a German reporter was fired after, on live television, she compared her feeling of pride to that felt during the famous Nuremberg Nazi rallies.

Germans continue to debate the forms and the implications of the new manifestation of patriotism. Some state they are comfortable with German flags waving but do not feel the national anthem should be sung so freely and so publicly. The source of the rebirth of patriotism is connected not to politics but to culture, which is consistent with German history of nation building. Germans are displaying their pride in their talent and their capabilities rather than the country’s political positioning in the world or its history as a nation — quite different from the sense of nation that arose in the 1930s. In the words of historian Mary Fulbrook, German national consciousness is driven by a “respect for German high culture,” something that sets the country apart from most others.

Yet as former President Koehler discovered himself in the summer of 2010, there are limits to what Germans can say and do in public. At the same time, Germans, wanting to step out of the shadows of Auschwitz, are finally on their way to making this transition.

This article was written by José Carlos Thomaz, Jr., and Brian Weigandt, members of the Lauder Class of 2012.