11 March, 2014

Berlin, German History, and Patriotism

Last weekend and part of this past week I was in Berlin, an exciting city by all accounts and one with lots of history to explore. I'd already been there twice before, but Berlin is the type of city that one can visit three times in less than a year, as I have, and still get something new out of the experience each time. This time, the experience led me to reflect on Germany's past and to ponder the historical context behind some of the cultural peculiarities I've witnessed in Germany.

This trip was heavily museum-focused, which meant I was steeped in German history, as it is easy to be in Berlin. Over the course of three days, my friends Laura and Theresa (who were visiting from Spain :D ) and I went to the German Historical Museum (Deutsches Historisches Museum), the DDR Museum (a museum describing details about life in the Soviet-influenced German Democratic Republic, or Deutsche Demokratische Republik, following WWII), and the German parliament, or Bundestag.

The German parliament, or Bundestag, one of the few places in Germany you'll see displays of German flags.

One of the days, while my friends were visiting Poland, I also went to the Berlin Gallery (Berlinische Galerie) and the Jewish Museum (J├╝disches Museum) on my own. These museum visits -- especially the visit to the Jewish Museum, which included an extensive exhibit about the Holocaust -- reminded me how turbulent Germany's recent history is.

When Germans talk about WWII, they most often do not say "World War Two" or "The Second World War"; they simply say "The War," and no other clarification is needed. Everyone knows which war is meant. The aftermath of World War II had a lasting impact on the German psyche and national identity, and affected the culture in interesting ways. As a result of the mark WWII and the Holocaust left on Germany's history, and the fierce campaign of propaganda that aided the rise of Hitler's regime, the German people are, to this day, skeptical of blatant displays of patriotism. Up until very recently it was uncommon for German people to feel strongly proud of their country, or at least not to show it openly. Germany lived through such horrible events before and during WWII that people did not feel they could be proud of such a history. Even though Germany has much to be proud of since WWII ended, open displays of national pride are still rare. For example, such things as hanging excessive numbers of national flags from every home and in every town center, which Americans do often, are frowned upon and practically never occur. The German people have seen national symbols used as powerful propaganda during the Nazi era and they are naturally hesitant to go down that road again.

While totally normal in America, displays like this are rarely seen in Germany. (Photo: pixabay.com)

The issue of patriotism is one of the most striking differences I see between Germany and the United States. In the United States, the American flag is flown often, seemingly without cause or necessity. Nearly at random, large groups of Americans are likely to start chants of "USA, USA!" in a wide range of situations, from parties to concerts to sporting events. Many Americans say they are proud to be an American and believe that America is the best country on Earth, often without having any solid evidence to back up such a claim (and ignoring statistics which suggest otherwise). This firmly patriotic national identity, however, is combined with an unhealthy level of distrust in the government. People have no problem saying how much they love their country and then in the same breath saying how they hate the government and don't want to pay taxes to the country they love so much. There seems to be no recognition of the contradiction between those two beliefs.

Germans, on the other hand, seem to feel the opposite. There is not nearly as strong a sense of national pride that plagues America and not nearly as many visual displays of said pride, but people are generally trusting of the government. Most Germans do not balk at paying taxes in order to support the proper functioning of government programs, at least not as vocally as Americans often do. In Germany, the government is seen as a necessary and benevolent institution, while in America it is often seen as the cause of people's problems rather than the solution.

I can foresee a very near future in which a sense of national pride among the German population grows stronger, especially as today's younger generation gets older. Germany has worked hard to crawl out from under the shadow of WWII, and the country has made an amazing amount of progress since then. German patriotism is beginning to change even now, especially since vast numbers of Germans alive today did not live through WWII or its immediate aftermath. A real turning point, as I've been told by several people, was when Germany hosted the FIFA World Cup in 2006. Soccer is where national pride is most likely to come out in Germany, and in 2006 soccer-related displays of this pride were more common than before.

It's certainly easy to forget about the history behind certain cultural trends as I go about my day-to-day life in Karlsruhe. However, I think it's important to be aware of the historical background and context of a culture, and not to forget how fragile political stability can be. As I've watched American politics descend into gridlock and corruption due in part to public indifference and propaganda, it's nice to see that there is still some awareness of those dangers here in Germany. I'm certainly not asking Americans to give up their enthusiastic brand of patriotism in favor of the more mild-mannered German variety, but some historical and political awareness to go along with the chants of "USA, USA!" certainly couldn't hurt.

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