Whether he laughs a little too loudly or shakes hands a little too forcefully, whether he whines or whoops it up, skimps on food or drinks too much beer, or whether he (young man) drives too fast or she (old lady) too slowly – there’s one thing your garden-variety German can be sure of: some wise guy is always liable to mosey on over and say, “You’re acting typically German.”
But what’s ironic is that this smart-aleck is bound to be a typical German himself. In his strained efforts to set himself apart from the common run of his ill-famed tribe, he is actually outing himself as one of its active members.
Thomas Mann considered “kerndeutsch” (quintessentially German) the “collective penchant for self-criticism, often to the point of self-loathing, self-execration,” and deduced from that penchant that it could readily be amplified to the opposite extreme, namely to “the idea of world dominion”.
A good gauge of German self-loathing is the almost weekly polling of the population to monitor German sensibilities – and, particularly since German reunification, the resurgence of national pride.
One fairly ambitious specimen of this sort of survey – it took three years to complete – came out just last week. It bears the somewhat kitschy title “Being German: A newfound national pride in harmony with the heart”. Subtitle: “German Identity”.
The main findings of the study, in which some 2,000 German citizens age 14 and upwards filled out a questionnaire of unprecedented thoroughness and nuance, are rather surprising. Nearly 60% of those surveyed shared the sentiment “I’m proud to be German.” Even more, 69%, rejected the notion that Europe or the international community is more important than their own country. And 78%, if free to choose their nation, would opt for German nationality with “near or absolute certainty”.
60 years after the founding of the Federal Republic of Germany, concluded the authors of the study, “Germans seem to be gradually breathing freely again and overcoming their historical guilt”. But that doesn’t mean repressing the past. So rest assured: the right to normality that chancellor Gerhard Schröder (Social Democrat) once claimed for Germany is no cause for alarm.
This new attitude was conspicuous in the German reaction to the election of a Bavarian cardinal, one Joseph Ratzinger, to the papacy in 2005. The ingenious line in the Bild newspaper, “Wir sind Papst” (“We are Pope”), blending pride with self-mockery, was at once spot on and deliberately, blithely, wide of the mark. When, a year later, the cheerful, hospitable hosts of the FIFA World Cup were actually quite content with third place for the German team, the emerging picture came more sharply into focus: there was a new sense of togetherness – but of the street-party, not the street-fighting kind.
The compelling reasons why Germans identify with their nation are entirely ahistorical and harmless – sometimes even verging on the ridiculous. Every other German is proud of the Teutonic knack for invention: they think Germans are the “world’s best tinkerers and inventors” and can “make something out of anything”. 91% of those surveyed have a high opinion of their compatriots’ sense of duty and achievement; almost just as many believe the love of regional customs and of rules and order is a characteristic national trait. The accomplishments of their engineers, business leaders, craftsmen and even athletes are evidently more important to most Germans than those of a Goethe, Bismarck or Adenauer.
Germans have undeniably become patriotic again, but this new brand of patriotism is laid-back, pragmatic, federalist, regionalist, individualistic – in a word, contradictory.
In his latest, remarkable book Die Deutschen und ihre Mythen (“The Germans and Their Myths”), Berlin political scientist Herfried Münkler writes that the Federal Republic is a “territory by and large devoid of myths”, a country without a “grand political epic” like that of the French Revolution in 1789. Suchlike epics are, he says, important for the development of a sense of togetherness as well as for a national identity.
The fall of the Berlin wall in 1989 had all the prerequisites to qualify as just such a founding myth. But not much came of it because the freedom-seeking heroes of the story only came from one part of the country: the east.