German pride awakens

BERLIN – As a youth
in the 1950s, the film director Volker Schlondorff tried to hide his German
origins by learning to speak unaccented French. This summer, his daughter
painted German flags on her cheeks and joined crowds of thousands on the
Kurfurstendamm, a historic avenue, waving their black, red and gold banners to
celebrate the country’s World Cup victories.

Elena Schlondorff
confessed that she never watched her father’s Academy Award-winning adaptation
of “The Tin Drum,” Gunter Grass’ World War II epic, until a new director’s cut
was released earlier this year. She had little interest in the Nazi era. “I
don’t really feel touched by it,” said Schlondorff, 18, with a teenage shrug.
“In our generation, we’ve gotten past it.”

Twenty years after
reunification, Germany has come to terms with itself in a way that the postwar
generation proclaimed would never be possible and Schlondorff’s post-Berlin
Wall generation finds completely natural.

The shift is evident
on the airwaves, where German songs are staging a comeback against the
dominance of American pop, and in best-sellers about Goethe and Schiller or in
discovering Germany by foot, by car and by train from the Bavarian Alps to the
old Hanseatic ports on the Baltic Sea.

In parliament,
politicians have debated ending conscription, threatening the post-Nazi ideal
of an army of ordinary citizens, as German soldiers fight in Afghanistan.
Despite fears of rising income inequality, Germany’s economic engine is humming
and unemployment has fallen significantly in the former East Germany.

And Chancellor Angela
Merkel has led a bloc of countries fending off President Barack Obama’s calls
for stimulus spending to combat the economic crisis, certain that the world
should follow Germany’s example of austerity.

German pride did not
die after the country’s defeat in World War II. Instead, like Sleeping Beauty
in the Brothers Grimm version of the folk tale, it only fell into a deep
slumber. The country has now awakened, ready to celebrate its economic
ingenuity, its cultural treasures and the unsullied stretches of its history.

 

CONCERNS AND CAUTIONS

Diplomats and
politicians have voiced rising concern over Germany’s direction in recent
years, whether in striking a contentious gas-pipeline deal with Russia or
blocking NATO membership for Georgia and Ukraine.

Germans, most of
whose salaries and standard of living have not improved as the economy has
strengthened, are more disenchanted than ever with the financial demands of the
European Union. It was Questions about Germany’s commitment to the bloc that
found renewed urgency during the Greek debt crisis, which had threatened the
stability of the euro. Signs had emerged well before that, though.

In the rush to pass
the Lisbon Treaty, an accord intended to increase the European Union’s
political and foreign policy powers, Germany’s Federal Constitutional Court in
Karlsruhe declared in June 2009 that the country’s constitutional identity “is
not open to integration” and that the public perception of politics remained
connected “to patterns of identification related to the nation-state, language,
history and culture.”

While the court
approved the treaty with several conditions, the strident tone of the decision
was cause for alarm among supporters in Berlin and Brussels of a more unified
Europe. A confidential analysis prepared for the president of the European
Parliament said that the decision meant “this far and no further” for European
integration.

The resistance to new
demands partly reflects the transformation Germany has undergone in recent
years. The country fused a dynamic economy in the West with a bankrupt one in
the East. Germans were forced to realize that foreign guest workers were never
going home – one-fifth of its residents are now immigrants or of immigrant
background. The return of the capital to Berlin and the construction of a
national Holocaust memorial stirred the nation’s darkest memories.

Concern about a more
independent-minded Germany surfaced before the Berlin Wall fell on Nov. 9,
1989. Partly to dispel such fears, the political elites of the day, such as
Chancellor Helmut Kohl, actually accelerated Germany’s commitment to its
neighbours and helped the European Union expand eastward and create a common
currency.

Germans were not
eager to give up their beloved Deutsche mark at the time. Their reluctance has
only grown as Germany has been called on to help bail out Greece and perhaps
other European countries that have mismanaged their fiscal affairs. While
European partners see Germany as a powerhouse of productivity with enviable,
competitive export companies, the debate over the future here centres on an
aging, shrinking population and the rising deficits that a smaller, older
population will have to pay off.

In particular, the
country’s municipal governments are heavily indebted. A recent study found that
one in every 10 museums or other cultural institutions may be forced to close
by 2020, as public funding is cut back.

When France’s
economic minister suggested earlier this year that Germany could try to promote
consumer spending to support its struggling neighbours, her German counterpart
shot back that countries that had lived “beyond their means” should not “point
the finger.” Another leading conservative politician declared that “jealousy
cannot be a factor in politics between European neighbours.”

A significant
generational shift has taken place as the World War II generation has been
dying off. For younger Germans, war in Europe is no longer a palpable memory or
a tangible fear. In Merkel’s cabinet today, only one minister was born before
the end of the war. Three were born in the 1970s.

 

GROWING PRIDE

Despite the uproar
over integration, the country celebrated as one over its soccer team’s surprise
success this past summer. The players’ ethnic backgrounds spanned from Brazil
to Poland to Tunisia, including the young German star Mesut Ozil, whose family
comes from Turkey, Germany’s largest source of immigrants.

“I told my Turkish
barber that I thought Argentina was going to beat Germany,” said Shayan
Parvand, 35, a Hamburg businessman and one of the 16 million people in Germany
with what is known here as a migration background. “He got really mad at me,
and said, ‘Ozil is going to shoot a goal.”’

Parvand’s family
could well represent the proud but complex new Germany. He was born in Iran and
his wife grew up in the former East; they have a 4-year-old daughter and
2-year-old son.

“I said to my wife
recently that I’d like to build a house,” Parvand said, “and get one of those
German flags to go with it”.

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