The World Cup: a poison chalice for Germany’s left?

Germany may have won the World Cup, but for many on the left, this will be a mixed blessing.

In Germany, FIFA’s championship is marked by black, red and gold popping up in every window, bar and corner shop. The German flag is emblazoned onto special editions of everything from T shirts and mugs to – my personal favourite – washing up sponges.

But for the German left, the World Cup fever sparks one discourse above all: the debate about nationalism.

I was living in Germany during the 2010 World Cup, doing a weekly shift in a studenty cafe. Come the Cup, we had a big screen up, and during one Germany game, a coworker exuberantly smeared black, gold and red on my cheek. I didn’t mind. But not everyone saw it that way.

What is this nationalist bullshit?” asked one friend, pointing at the paint like offensive graffiti. He was well aware that I wasn’t German, of course, but that was beside the point. It was a symbol of the nation, to be interpreted in some way as being pro-German. As far as he was concerned, it was too much.

That wasn’t the only time I came across such sentiments. I once made the apparent faux-pas of uttering the words “national identity”. As a student of German, the term was as much part of the academic vocabulary as “Middle High German” or , you know, “Berlin”. However, my companion stopped me mid-sentence to reproachfully inform me: “You know, ‘National identity’ is the kind of language that Nazis use.” Attempts to explain that this was an academic term, or that it didn’t imply the slightest soupçon of national pride, fell on deaf ears.

National identity, is one of the plethora of ways of analysing the differences between some human beings and others, along with gender identity, cultural and subcultural identity, religious identity, and anything else you might care to name. It is the product of a subset of a shared language, culture, history, education system, and everything else that makes a country.

It is the question of what parts of our history, traditions, national leadership and families have created a world where great moral store is set by being “happy” in some places, while others condemn this same trait as superficial or dishonest.

It should not be taboo. Of course, making sweeping generalisations based solely on someone’s nationality is not OK. There are huge cultural differences within some nations, and perhaps these make distinction along borders pointlessly arbitrary. There are regions where it has been argued that division into nations in the modern sense of the word doesn’t actually make sense.

This is a trait which lays us wide open to massive cultural faux pas. In practical terms, this means racism, xenophonbia and violence. It cannot be taboo.

I’m a citizen of Berlin, and a citizen of Europe, but I’m not a German,” another friend told me confidently.

To these people, it seemed, “German” is a word that is quietly printed in your passport, and sees the light of day as little as the unfortunate mugshot it shares the page with.

When I lived in Germany as a green-haired student, I once told my housemates that I was venturing to Dessau, deep in the former East Germany, for a festival. They told me to be careful, almost as a parent might a teenager off to a party. But unlike a parent, it was not benign nagging, but genuine fear in their voices.

This is a country still haunted by the evils of the Holocaust, the Third Reich and the Second World War. It is also a country where a string of arson attacks in the early nineties left people dead, and where as recently as the mid-2000s, right-wing extremists are believed to have gone on a killing spree targeting those with an immigrant background.

It is beyond the scope of my post to say whether right-wing extremist killings happen more in Germany than in other countries. For the left, along with the rest of the country, the horrifying part is that they happened at all. Perhaps this is why the rejection of symbols of the nation remains high on the agenda.

It is certainly a big enough deal for direct action. In 2010, Berlin shop-owner Ibrahim Bassal and his cousin, Cengiz Kaan Kocyigit, hung a giant Germany flag from their balcony during the World Cup. It was summarily burned. The pair replaced it. The replacement was stolen. Both acts were seemingly by anti-nationalist activists. Originally from Lebanon, Ibrahim Bassal and Cengiz had both arrived in Germany twenty years earlier, and hung the flags up in celebration of what they perceived as Germany’s multiculturalism, judging by an interview with AFP.

German is a multi-cultural country and you can see that in its football team. As for the fact that the flag is gone, I would say that people are definitely jealous, and if they were proud of it, they wouldn’t steal it,” Kocyigit told the agency.

We don’t know who exactly stole the flag. Perhaps they had lost loved ones to right-wing extremists. Perhaps they had suffered relentless racism at the hands of German nationalists. But to take action against people who are themselves of a demographic often on the receiving end of such abuse seems a little presumptuous.

In a blog post so self-righteously overwritten it would have made Nietzsche proud, the “autonomous World Cup group” argued that people use the multiculturalism of the German team as an excuse to show that Germany is past the Nazis, when in fact there are plenty of xenophobic attacks and Nazi salutes during the tournament. Point taken.

What they don’t appear to consider is that most people, irrespective of their background, don’t tend to think it through that far. The sociopolitical theorising often comes with a certain degree of education and cultural capital not accessible to everyone. That’s not to say that the “Don’t you think that nationalism could still be a problem?” conversation shouldn’t be had. But perhaps shouting it in people’s faces before burning their mascots is not the way to create change.

The German media are well aware of this issue, of course. Over at the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, Marco Herack argues that the Germans follow the World Cup with such gusto because it allows them to experience a sort of long-forgotten glory. “…the sporting act cannot be disentangled from a certain vicariousness,” he writes. “In a society said to be in a ‘post-heroic state’, struggles take place on the sports pitch that people, as members of this society, have not experienced for this society, or with it, for a very long time. This is the context in which we must understand the public viewings where the masses drunkenly gather and cheer their team on together. It seems understandable, or at least becomes visible, that in these times of peace, the heroics of our ancestors are searching for another means of expression.”

Herack is referring, apparently, to gladiators. An excessively psychological reading? Perhaps. He does also make the point that much of the heap of flag-branded merch is little more than advertising, intended to promote a sense of belonging. Santander is doing it with the best (worst?) of them, and that’s a Spanish company.

The fear that our society might begin to call our nation forth once again is not entirely wrong. However, the symptoms of it have changed. It’s nothing to do with wanting ‘more land’ anymore… as Joachim Gauck put it, it is human rights which have us reaching for our weapons today. Or, if you go by his predecessor Horst Köhler, through trade and markets.”

In the UK, we view the Nazis as atrocious war criminals, yes, but also as a thing of the past. The British media responded to Germany’s World Cup victory with articles like The Guardian’s “Whisper it softly: it’s OK to like Germany” and The Mirror’s “Official: it’s cool to be German – and it’s OK to love them now”.We are sealed off from the past by many years of history.

As an almost cariacature-like epitome of evil, we regard the Nazis more than anything else as a hilarious synonym for authoritarian strictness and power tripping. We talk about parking Nazis or grammar Nazis as a sort of idle insult and little more. But in Germany, their spectre looms large, and its mark is still keenly felt in activist culture.

Plus, who knows? Maybe they just like football so much because they’re so much better at it than the Brits. That much you have to hand them.


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