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The Feeling of Being German

Opera in Frankfurt

The rising generation in Germany is now as much as four generations removed from the Nazi era. Their parents were born after the war, their grandparents were still young during the war. Today’s young Germans arguably identify as Europeans as no generation before them has been. Yet the legacy of National Socialism continues to weigh on their consciousness. Antonia Bruns ruminates on this and the possibility of a new, positive, 21st-Century German pride.


The question comes unexpectedly. My friends and I are sitting in one of those rustic student bars in the old town of Santiago de Compostela, drinking tinto de verano with oily patatas bravas and trying to have a conversation in a room full of chatting students. This is when my Portuguese friend Inês asks me: “What does it mean to you to be German?” I almost choked on my hot potato. Later I reflected that this was an answer of sorts: I was too surprised by the question. I never had thought about it seriously before.

For me, it was a matter of simple fact that I’d grown up in Germany, that I had a German passport—but that was about it. I looked around the tapas-and-wine-glass-covered table to the rest of our international student group. Esteve from Gerona, for instance. When he talks about his home, I can hear his pride in being Catalan in every sentence. My friend Elodie from Lyon is clearly French – and not only because she tells us that she is missing her beloved pain au chocolat every morning. And there is Inês’ portuguese soul feeling at home only in Lisbon. So what about me? “Je viens d’Allemagne,” I introduce myself in France. “Soy de Alemania,” I explain in Spain, “Sono di Germania,” I learn to say in my Italian language course. And I greet other Germans with “Ich komme auch aus Deutschland.” But couldn’t I say as easily that I’m from Norway or from Switzerland or from Croatia in the same way? It would probably sound more natural, and there wouldn’t be this almost apologetic undertone while saying “I’m from Germany” (and often thinking: “Sorry, I can’t help it”). Why is that so?

Opera in FrankfurtOpera in Frankfurt

Opera in Frankfurt

Finally swallowing my (still too hot) potato, I think about the reasons for the strange distance I feel toward my home country. Could it be my education? Let’s have a closer look at it. After World War II (I knew I would have to mention it—which strikes me as significant), the Germans couldn’t be proud of their country anymore. While other nations had the right to criticize, to accuse, the Germans kept silent. The traumatic experience of National Socialism runs too deep and is passed on from generation to generation. As a pupil in primary school, I learned about World War II over the course of several years of history lessons. We organized exchange projects with a Polish school and visited concentration camps. I have to admit I was so filled up with horrible videos, books and contemporary witness reports that at some point, I couldn’t hear the word “Holocaust” anymore. Even so, the uncomfortable feeling of being born in a country which had perpetrated this horror remained.

It is a kind of birth heritage. I mean, strictly speaking, when all this happened, my grandparents were younger than I am now. Yes, I can try to understand. I can learn from the past. I can try to make sure that fascism and nationalism will never gain power again. But I can’t feel guilty for something neither my parents nor my grandparents are responsible for.

Nevertheless, the ghost of the German past still haunts people. During a student exchange with a French school, for instance, my class was received with homemade posters on the topic “What comes to my mind when I think about Germany?” The majority of them showed painted swastikas. How can I develop a normal, healthy national pride under these circumstances? How can I learn to feel good about my German nationality when a Korean taxi driver greets me with “Heil Hitler?” (No, it is not funny to make such jokes in front of German people—this might be one reason Germans are stereotyped as humourless.) When I think of Spain, my first idea isn’t the Franco era, and when I meet a Chinese person, I don’t automatically think of the Mao regime. If this war-era view of Germany still persists, as it appears to me it does, how can it mean something to me to be German, something that I can embrace with pride?

Opening of Oktoberfest

Opening of Oktoberfest

I sip at my tinto de verano and remember the FIFA World Cup 2006 in Germany. My experiences in other countries, as well as my training to not to be proud of my home country, impacted me to such an extent that I really felt queasy every time the German team played, and thousands of fans waved the German flag out of their car windows. The well-studied dangers of nationalism automatically came to my mind. On reflection I realized that the sign of support for the German team was in fact an act of liberation – a turning point for a new, positive German identification. Nevertheless, it still feels weird to imagine German flags in every front garden, as with Danish flags in Denmark, greeting people passing by; or like the star-spangled banner, present in every classroom in US schools. In today’s Germany, flag waving only goes with football championships.

Great St. Martin Church, Cologne

Great St. Martin Church, Cologne

But wouldn’t there be reasons to euphorically wave the German flag even between World Cup tournaments? What about reunification in 1990? Or the deep heritage of high culture in Germany with, just as one example, its unparalleled orchestra landscape of 133 professional symphony and chamber orchestras? Or Germany’s important role in the European Union (more on that later), its inner stability in times of economic and financial crisis?

And yet even after considering all this, the sentence “I’m proud to be a German” sounds uncomfortable to my ears. Neither am I very happy when I meet other Germans in a foreign country. I have to admit that sometimes, I want to deny my origins, so as not to be just another one of these travel-mad Germans found all over the world. How should I feel then when I apparently have a problem with my “German-ness”? Should I think of myself as European? It is natural for me to go to a French boulangerie and ask for a “sandwich” when I want to have a baguette with toppings. I love to dance and sing to folk music in Galician bars. The languages I speak have become part of me and are not “foreign” anymore. Am I perhaps a cosmopolitan because I host people from all around the world, am able to feel at home even on the other side of the planet, and have Canadians and Australians among my facebook friends? Maybe.

The Berlin Philharmonic Concert Hall

The Berlin Philharmonic
Concert Hall

On the other hand, I can’t ignore my origins. I love listening to German Christmas songs and finding chocolate-filled boots on St. Nicholas’ Day. No, I simply can’t come late to meetings and make others wait, even if that means that I have to wait for them for half an hour. And, yes, I like Apfelschorle (to brush up on your German: that’s apple juice mixed with acidulated mineral water) and Kassler mit Sauerkraut (smoked pork chop with sauerkraut)—though, interestingly, I had to live a year in a foreign country to discover it. Before I went to live abroad, it was normal for me to listen to The Three Investigators radio plays with my brothers, to drive on toll-free highways without speed limit, and to have the choice of three orchestras at university. Could it be that – even if I might not be especially proud of my German nationality – I feel really good with my German culture and traditions? The longer I travel through Europe, the more I live with other cultures, the more I actually feel German. Which doesn’t, however, mean I like drinking beer or would ever wear a Dirndl.

One day I might develop a normal German national pride, without the burden of historical anxieties, and manage to fully identify with my home country as Inês does with Portugal. Suddenly I become aware that she’s still waiting for my conclusion. “Well”, I start, noticing at the same time that there is no more wine in my glass, “when I have a look at our international student group, at the way our generation copes naturally with our globalised world, I wonder whether the strong bond to a certain nation is still necessary. As far as I’m concerned, I feel like more of a European than I do part of a specific country. Maybe that’s kind of a modern phenomenon, an answer to recent processes in Europe and the world.”

I lean back and watch the stocky waiter bringing tapas to the table next to us. But Inês doesn’t let up. “So,” she presses, “even if you’re not especially proud of your national identity, don’t you think that the situation of Germany in the economic crisis stirs nationalistic feelings?” That Portuguese girl apparently likes hard questions.

Inside Reichstag building.

Inside Reichstag building.

I have to admit that, yes, it is possible that the reserved attitude of many Germans toward their home country could change because of the new leading role Germany is taking in Europe at the moment. It is as if Germany’s image had finally shifted from the sinner to the saviour of Europe, and this could be more than just a simple German ego booster. Here again the fear of growing nationalism stirs, provoked by crude phrases like “Now Europe is speaking German,” from CDU parliamentary group leader Volker Kauder (not very well framed, if I’m allowed to criticize), and by the news of the latest neo-Nazi scandal in Zwickau. No wonder some Europeans look suspiciously at Germany.

But the nascent fear of German nationalistic tendencies is quite far-fetched in my opinion. First, I don’t feel much social resentment. People in Germany are still not affected by the crisis in their daily lives when compared to other European countries. The social welfare state seems to work more or less, and the German economy is running confidently. Roughly speaking, for most Germans I know, the economic crisis is still something passing in the news, a matter of politicians, not a real threat yet. My government scholarship, for instance, was increased last year. In contrast, the European grant for my master’s programme was cancelled. Second, the Germans, in my observation, do not make knee-jerk denunciations of government spending and financial aid as a disproportionate burden. It might be because of its history that Germany feels obliged to show solidarity with European partners, as it received help from others after the war as well. As long as government spending doesn’t impair the German standard of living, the act of sending money to Greece saves one’s conscience, a bit like donating to charities at Christmas.

German house facade

Of course, Germany can’t compensate for its European neighbours and overlook waste and corruption forever. And sooner or later, the crisis will reach German front doors as well. That’s when we should look at the common feeling of the Germans again. I’m sure that they won’t accept a 20-30% reduction in living standards due to redistribution of income in Europe. There will be some who develop nationalistic tendencies and want to blame someone, be it Italy or Portugal or Greece or Ireland. But I’m convinced that this will be less than would be the case in other countries. For the moment, the Germans are just starting to worry about where they will end up. Real estate prices are exploding and, I am also asking: What about the money I put aside? Do I have to plan a world trip right now before the Euro loses half of its value? What about my European Master’s degree? Will it be worthless in a couple of years?

The secure feeling I still have when I walk around the streets in Germany dissipates completely when I look at my future in Europe as a whole. I am not assured that the feeling of a European identity of my generation did really arrive in the European Union. It appears that rather the idea of a united Europe exists as long as everything works out well and breaks apart when it comes to national interests. At any rate, the crisis will show if Europe is able to act in concert and think as Pan-Europeans, or if the “European mind” is just an empty shell.

Inês wants to order more tinto de verano and patatas bravas now. I’m definitely in.


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