Flag waving

In June of 2006, the last time we were in Europe for any extended period of time, we planned to go to Berlin for a long visit. My ignorance of sporting matters is such that the trip was almost completely planned before a more culturally aware friend (read: having any awareness at all) casually mentioned, “You know the World Cup is going on in Germany during those dates, right?” No, I didn’t, and the thought of the entire city being overrun by soccer hooligans was distasteful and a little scary to me. We changed our plans and spent the month in France instead.

Well, if you recall, France went all the way to the final that year, and it turned out that the World Cup became a huge part of our trip We watched so many publically televised matches that in the end I was dismayed to learn that our flight home was during the final; we missed Zidane’s head-butt and France’s defeat by Italy.

Up until that point, though, we were able to experience, if not completely share in, the mounting excitement as France advanced further and further. It started with an early France-Togo match in a tiny pub on the one-street town of Chaumont, where the end of the game found us doing shots of pear cognac with the locals and pogoing in the streets with delight.

We saw France beat Brazil in a small pub in Arles — rather surreally, the innkeeper started blaring Van Halen’s “Jump” from the speakers the second the game was called.

Our World Cup experience ended on what was arguably an even more exciting victory than the final would have been: the qualifying match. We were in Aix-en-Provence, where every restaurant in the entire city was restructured around a giant TV and where we were lucky to grab the last two seats in one bar to watch the game against Portugal. After France won, the entire city, from yobboes to grannies, made a run for a big fountain in the center of town where singing and much fire ensued.

It was thrilling and slightly scary to see such a whipped-up mob, but the joy was definitely contagious. Nationalism was high, and the French were reveling in their Frenchiosity with unashamed pride and delight.

Again out of complete oblivion with regards to all things sporting (at least on my part), this year we decided to make that trip to Germany after all, and wouldn’t you know it, that little soccer tournament was going on at the same time. And this time, it wasn’t France but Germany who looked to be going all the way. What are the odds??

We watched in the square of a huge Bratwursthaus in Nurnberg as Ghana beat the USA, which resulted in some surprisingly loud celebrations late into the night. Who knew Nurnberg had a Ghanan contingent? We then returned the next afternoon (two hours early to get a seat) to see Germany v. England.

To avoid our being taken for Brits due to the language we spoke, Scott displayed his new loyalty:

When the Germans took England down 4-1, the results were thunderous. The car horns started immediately and didn’t stop—and by didn’t stop, I mean not one second of silence–for several hours. We walked out to the main street in front of the Hauptbahnhof where the street had been partially blocked off and a parade of cars full of celebrating Germans was slowly circling around and around.

What struck me most was how rare it felt to see so many German flags. Though I’ve lived in Germany twice and traveled there extensively, I realized that the flag has never been a common sight.

In the next few days I asked my German friends a lot of questions about this. It turns out that Germans never, NEVER display the flag—it’s considered to be in poor taste. Although the current black, red, and gold German flag (actually the flag of the original Weimar Republic) has been a national symbol for more than a hundred years, and although the Nazis disparaged it and even outlawed it in favor of the older black, white, and red flag (oh yeah, and that companion flag with the swastika), most Germans still feel deep discomfort about the implied nationalism that flying a flag symbolizes. It’s not officially illegal to fly a flag (as it is to change your name unless it’s Hitler, for example, or to deny the Holocaust), but it’s “unüblich”—it’s just “not done” (as it is to name your child Adolf). Totally taboo. The national shame that most Germans feel has made such a gesture almost impossible for about 60 years.

The first time this changed, apparently, was in 2006, when the World Cup was in Berlin. The presence of so many people waving so many different national flags on German soil loosened something in the Germans, and there was some sort of unspoken agreement that maybe it wouldn’t be in poor taste to fly the flag as long as it was ONLY during the World Cup. And fly it they do—much like most other really invested countries, I imagine, you can buy just about anything with a German flag on it during the Cup. Between 2006 and 2010, such patriotic paraphernalia, or “Fanartikel” as they’re called, became somewhat scarce again, but a little crack had been made in the wall of shame that prevented such displays.

This year, according to my friends, the availability of “Fanartikel” was even greater. We saw German flags everywhere, including several cars whose hoods had been repainted in those colors. The frenzy was intense.

I even saw the Bundesdienstflagge, which is normally only used by the government; this has even sketchier connotations because of the “iron eagle.”

However, it’s really just the flag that the DDR used between the war and the reunification, at which time the old Weimar flag (sans the eagle) was chosen for the country as a whole.

I mean, it’s not like the Spanish were restricting themselves to a patter of polite applause on Sunday—pretty much everyone but the US goes bananas for the World Cup, and I imagine by 2014 our already shamelessly jingoistic nation will be close behind in this trend—but I couldn’t help wondering whether the repression of any sort of display of national pride, the almost formally enforced guilt and anti-patriotism with which many Germans live, had created a climate in which during this one short period when it’s okay to wave the flag, they really blow it out with all they have before they have to fold up the colors and cloak their national identities in their historic shame.

5 responses to “Flag waving”

  1. A White Bear says:

    I share your attraction to and mild fear of sports fandom. Part of me really gets caught up in it, but I can see how it could turn so quickly into destruction and violence–even in me! Maybe as far as expressions of jingoistic furor go, worldwide sports might be a lot more reasonable an outlet than, say, nation-building or immigrant-hating, and soccer is great for it. Olympic games are fun to watch, but don’t angry up the blood the way tournament soccer does.

  2. jeremy says:

    It’s interesting how, when other countries root for their team, or when immigrants root for their home country, I find this sort of charming and quaint and wonderful (which seems like a sort of condescending elitism, no?), but when my own country roots for its own team, or when my own neighborhood roots for its own neighborhood team (in this case, most prominently, the Lakers), I find it so completely obnoxious… I wonder how many Germans out there feel similarly about their fellows rooting on the German team?

    Anyway, thanks for the post, Steph–despite my own fascination with sports, in many ways I feel sort of similarly to you. At any rate, I don’t like letting my sports-flag fly too obviously…

  3. Tim says:

    I read this post this morning and have been meaning to carve out some time to respond all day.

    First off, there is a really interesting connection between Ghana and Germany, which has grown up specifically around soccer. It started about 60 years ago when a German club team from Dusseldorf toured Africa and played some matches in Ghana. Shortly thereafter, the German club invited one of the Ghanaian players to join them in Dusseldorf. Since then, there have been a good handful of Ghanaian players in the German leagues and a few on the national team, either from having a German parent or having become naturalized German citizens. (Much more here, on the website of the German embassy in Ghana.)

    Remarkably, two half-brothers of Ghanaian and German descent, both born in Germany, play for each country. Kevin-Prince Boateng, one of Ghana’s big stars, actually played for the German national under-21 teams but then switched to play for Ghana (players who have dual citizenship aren’t forced to choose until they are 21; after that, they cannot play for any other national team). His brother Jerome plays for Germany. Ironically and controversially, K-P Boateng fouled and injured German captain Michael Ballack in a match between their English club teams in the spring of 2010. This injury kept Ballack out of the World Cup. Since then, Jerome has more or less disowned his brother because of the foul. Intrigue!

    Okay, one thing that this brings to the front of my mind is that soccer (football) is not just a sport but actually, verifiably, a device of international relations. The relationship that has developed over the last decades between Ghana and Germany is a great example.

    Next, I loved what you had to say about flag waving in Germany. It was very, very interesting. I wonder how things were in 1954, 1974, and 1990, when (West) Germany won the World Cup. It must have been really weird for Germans to root for their team without demonstrating it at all in the ways that fans of other nations do.

    Also! Those beers that Scotty is holding in that photo look just so delicious. Want.

  4. J-Man says:

    Stephanie, your world-cup-winning trip plans are downright octopodlian. Maybe you should plan your next vacation to some Swiss bank or something.

  5. swells says:

    I forgot the photo credit for this essay! S. Godfree, of course. How rude of me. And thanks for your comments, all–I feel like you all really got what I was trying to express (or how I feel about the WC, in AWB and JZ’s case).

    Jen: remember that my travels predict the almost-winner, not the winner. I’m no Paul the German Octopus.