Berlin′s cityscape illustrates evolving German identity | Culture| Arts, music and lifestyle reporting from Germany | DW | 02.03.2010
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Berlin's cityscape illustrates evolving German identity

Germany is arguably one of the most history-haunted countries in Europe. But, lately, a subtle identity makeover has been taking place. The decisions Germany makes with its cultural heritage portray that new identity.

A German flag being unfurled in a soccer stadium

Shows of national pride have been linked - and limited to - sports events

Even after Germany's big anniversary year in 2009 - celebrating 20 years since the fall of the Berlin Wall and 60 years since the founding of the German Democratic Republic - German pride is still not an easy subject. In the previous generation, shows of patriotism were most likely at soccer matches.

Last year, the Dusseldorf-based Identity Foundation found that, though Germans are more readily hoisting the proverbial flag - and sometimes even the literal one, the guilt of Germany's history "is still very present." A study involving 2,000 participants found that while 60 percent thought it reasonable to show patriotism, only 30 percent would sing the national anthem or wave the country's flag in public.

Ever since the founding of the German Republic in 1949, the question of how patriotic Germans should be has jumped repeatedly into public debate, Michael Klein, a social scientist who worked on the study, told Deutsche Welle. Throughout his research, Klein noticed that central to the debate about German identity "was the impression that patriotism, responsibility and the feeling of duty to one's country should be decreed from above, when it has to be grown - if at all - slowly from below."

In the last few years, through a controversial ego-boosting ad campaign, the tearing down of a national historical site, and the rebuilding of another, Germany - however helped along "from above" - has come to a turning point in the meaning of "ich."

Identity rescue efforts

Du bist Deutschland poster showing Albert Einstein

The "You are Germany" campaign didn't quite work out as planned

To strengthen anemic patriotism, a social marketing campaign was born in 2005 from 25 media organizations to boost German patriotism. Posters baring faces of Germans were paired with variations of the phrase "Du bist Deutschland" (You are Germany).

The GFK group, a market research institution, said some 38 million Germans saw the campaign between the end of 2005 and early 2006. The ad campaign was a public way to try to sway the very private feelings of millions of Germans.

Just as the German public was meant to be thinking of Einstein and Beethoven and feeling warm and fuzzy about being German, an archival photo surfaced in which a 1935 rally banner behind a blow-up of Adolf Hitler's face reads "Denn Du bist Deutschland" ('Cause you are Germany).

"Surely the campaign contributed to a new national Germany identity," said Klein. But just how much, no one knows.

Twenty years before the "Du bist Deutschland" campaign, independent graphic designer Kurt Braunisch was working on his own campaign, called "Excuse me, I'm German." In essence a provocation, the college project hit on the problems of German identity through fake ads.

One of them shows a choir singing with an accompanying text, which reads, "I apologize that I (…) can't grasp the past (…) and that I'm not happy to be able to live in peace and social security." Under a castle on the Rhine River another reads, "I apologize that I (…) can't swap my people and culture for another (…) all guest workers irritate me."

"In the United States, I was amazed to see American flags everywhere - even little ones stuck in pizzas - which is a totally Italian food," Braunisch told Deutsche Welle. "But I just wanted to provoke Germans with my campaign to realize they do have a history and a culture."

Palace of the Republic, pictured in 1997

Demolition of the Palace of the Republic began in 2006

In times of speedy globalization and the insecurities it brings, Klein said he and his research team found that Germans are identifying more strongly with their country.

But which Germany are they identifying with?

Historical sites and contemporary identity

Many count the 2006 destruction of the Palace of the Republic in former East Berlin as part of a selective memory that alters the people's view of Germany's very history.

The same year that Germany won third in the FIFA World Cup it hosted, the demolition of the Palace of the Republic began. The iconic Palace, once home to the East German parliament, went from being an everyday fixture in Berlin to, some say, erased history.

While the Palace of the Republic was torn down, another central East German landmark - the Berlin Wall - is being, at least partially, rebuilt.

Mark Bergfeld, a Left party member and activist from Cologne, said the difference is that the Berlin Wall symbolized the topped failed government, while the Palace was an internal tool - a symbol of an oppressive party.

"I was against tearing it down but under our current system there always has to be a commodification," said Bergfeld, adding that massive asbestos-laden events halls don't sell.

In late 2008, Italian architect Franco Stella was chosen to rebuild not the former GDR parliament building, but the Prussian (and later the German Kaiser's) City Palace, which had stood in the same location before it was destroyed during World War II. The project is expected to be finished in 2013 and cost over 500 million euros ($678 million).

"The selection of historical places reflect the contemporary identity of a people," said Klein.

In a few years, Berliners walking along the Spree River will still be confronted with the seat of a fallen government - it will just be the German Kaiser's, instead of the GDR's.

New meaning for old symbols

Franco Stella's design for the new City Palace in Berlin

Franco Stella's design recreates many details from the pre-war City Palace

In December, the Berlin Wall Foundation decided to fill a 19-meter (62-foot) gap in the 212-meter section of the Wall that runs down Bernauer Street with metal reinforcement rods. Before the decision was reached, the city and foundation discussed rebuilding the Wall with original materials.

The stretch of the Wall is now lined by a fence on either side - presumably to prevent anyone from hacking off chucks of the spray-painted concrete and selling them as souvenirs.

Locals joke about how quickly the mood went from Ronald Reagan's call to "tear down that wall!" to essentially building it back up. Ironically, the Wall has gone from a hated symbol of divide to a loved symbol of reunification.

Most of the orange-rusted steel rods have been installed over the last few months, and the surrounding 1.2 kilometers are planned to be designed as a "remembrance landscape," for which the city and state of Berlin will spend an estimated 27 million euros.

"The selection of historical buildings - which are restored and kept up - show how Germans want to remember," said Klein. "That's why collective memory, like national identity, is such a highly complicated phenomenon."

Author: Candice Novak

Editor: Kate Bowen

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