With the World Cup as a catalyst, Germans were able to regain pride and passion for their homeland, Noah Davis writes.
June 2006 was a strange moment for Germany. For the first time since almost anyone could remember, the country’s citizens were allowed to feel pride in their nation. Their World Cup ran smoothly, while the young national team—led by a certain American-loving native hero—outperformed their inexperience. Black, red, and gold flags flew, carefully at first, then with unfurled abandon. Eighty million citizens spent the month-long tournament oscillating between cautious pride and uncertainty about whether it was okay to show that emotion.
But it was confusing only if you happened to be German. The rest of the upwardly-mobile, soccer-loving world joined in the coming-out party for Europe’s richest country wholeheartedly. Billions of pairs of eyes turned their gaze to Germany—26.29 billion “non-unique viewers” in FIFA’s ridiculous parlance and absurdly skewed metrics—while a couple million tourists and 31 of the best soccer teams on the planet overflowed Berlin, Hamburg, Munich, and Hanover.
The tourists drank pils as their countries’ best 23 fought to advance. The Germans looked around confused, eventually accepting the sudden appropriateness of nationalism.
I spent a month driving around the country with three friends, first in a Volvo, and then an Opal after the engine in the first vehicle seized on the Autobahn. We were a year out of college, virtually broke from our low-paying, real-life jobs in New York. To save cash, we vowed that we wouldn’t pay to stay anywhere. We slept in the car—nicknamed, for obvious reasons, “The Party Bus”—bathed in Swiss lakes, and bonded through our collective filth.
These facts are only relevant here because when we really needed a shower, we drove to Gustrow in the far northeast of the country and invaded the one-bedroom, in-law apartment our friend Tom rented during his year as a Fulbright Scholar. The proprietor was not friendly, for obvious and understandable reasons. (She seemed inhospitable at the time, but looking back I can understand her disgust and concern for her lovely home when she was confronted with a tableau of four dirty-but-smiling-and-enthusiastic 24-year-olds splitting from an overwhelmed rental car.)
But Tom was willing to have us, and his strange tub that would barely accommodate a standing Bilbo Baggins was far superior to Lake Constance or a random fjord somewhere north of Stockholm.
Tom also happened to be teaching English to eighth graders. They allowed us a first-hand look glimpse at how the youth were handling the sudden, unexpected surge in patriotism. His students grew up in a wall-less, unified country, but it was still one in which flying the flag was a non-starter. While the teenagers did not feel the need their parents did to apologize to us for the Holocaust, the “rah rah Dueschtland” had never been an option either.
Then, FIFA arrived. And with the delegation came the rest of the world. People talk too much about soccer uniting this town or that country, solving this feud or that fight. Most of the time, it’s shit. This time, it was as well. Soccer wasn’t the reason national pride returned to Germany. Simplifying the situation with that explanation cheapens the entire narrative. But, the World Cup served as a catalyst that helped Germany move beyond its burden of guilt.
Jurgen Klinsmann, the beautiful stadiums, the wonderful train system, and the overall national efficiency helped nearly 100 million natives find the voice behind their national identity. The kids, two generations removed from the horrors of World War II, were the most affected. You could see it in their eyes, in the bounce in their step. They didn’t know what they had been missing.
Ten days into our month-long stay, Germany defeated Poland 1-0 in Dortmund to start the second round of group-stage games. When substitute Oliver Neuville broke the tie in the first minute of second-half stoppage time, we heard the celebratory roars echoing around Gustrow. Hours later, the five of us and two of the older high schoolers, who, in my head, are named Hanz and Franz, grabbed a couple crates of beer and walked to a secluded pond on the edge of town. (They were definitely not named Hanz and Franz.) We lit a massive bonfire and discussed American-German relations, the evils of George Bush, the wars, the world, and the other weighty topics upon which increasingly inebriated chatter inevitably alights.
Conversation dwindled as the sun rose, remarkably early because of the town’s high latitude. The kids were drunk and happily babbling about their country. The first rays of morning light illuminated beer bottles—hurled away from the fire in the middle of the night—as they floated randomly in the water within throwing distance of the shore.
This was a new day for Germany. It was beautiful.
Five years later, German chancellor Angela Merkel finds herself tasked with saving the continent. The euro zone is fracturing, strained to near collapse by the Greeks and their Dionysus-inspired gifts as well as skyrocketing bond rates throughout, well, virtually every other country. The fiscally responsible Germans—the last trusting suckers to buy the crap credit default swaps dreamt up by Goldman Sachs and the other villains of the financial crisis—are the only ones with enough money and political willpower to keep the situation from deteriorating further. Merkel’s political future rests in the balance.
But what of the general population? Does the national pride remain? In his epic Vanity Fair article, Michael Lewis argues no. He argues that today’s Germany resembles the Germany of the 1990s, a land where saying “I’m proud to be German” is politically incorrect. Another quote: “The streets of Berlin can feel like an elaborate shrine to German guilt.”
Dramatic certainly. And it fits the story Lewis wants to weave so well … perhaps a little too well.
But the World Cup forever altered the country. As Stephan Seiler, a journalism fellow from Hamburg, Germany, writes:
The Germany Lewis describes is not one that I recognize. In the last couple of years, the country has changed enormously. We are liberal, open-minded, and multicultural. Our head of state is a woman; our minister of state is gay. Berlin and Leipzig have become centers for the arts, attracting many Americans—and not just because it’s so affordable to live there. How could he have missed all this during his reporting trip?
The Germans, whether they like it or not, are leading Europe. Their chancellor is masterminding the financial salvation, while their soccer team plays beautifully with a style that’s reproducible. It is not based primarily on the success of one club (see: Spain/Barcelona) or one engrained philosophy (the Netherlands’ total football). Those countries are both ahead of Germany in the FIFA rankings, but no other nation could mimic their great successes on the field. The model for improvement lies in the example set in Berlin and beyond when Klinsmann took over. Revamp the youth program, play to your strengths, counterattack, execute.
Cut to 2011, where Joachim Loew is continuing the work he and Klinsmann began before the world came to their country a half decade ago. Die Mannschaft and their quick-strike brilliance were the talk of South Africa. The industrious Germans are a little bit (a lot?) fun to watch. Hell, even the Bundesliga is experiencing a renaissance of sorts.
Germany freed itself in 2006. The transformation continues, despite the setbacks of the global recession. The Germans continue to look forward, drawing ever closer to what they seek.
In a recent op-ed in The New York Times, Todd Bucholtz wrote:
Germany’s real motivation to help Greece is not cash; it’s culture. Germans struggle with a national envy. For over 200 years, they have been searching for a missing part of their soul: passion. They find it in the south and covet the loosey-goosey, sun-filled days of their free-wheeling Mediterranean neighbors.
Not-Hanz and Not-Franz, now in their early 20s, know they have a strong, passionate country. The pair and its age-mates learned this fact during those wonderful four weeks five summers ago.
Slowly, the rest of the nation is beginning to believe as well. It’s a beautiful thing to watch, as long as it does not all come crashing down.