Grandpa, how patriotic are you? | #prideandprejudice | Life Links | DW | 15.12.2015
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Grandpa, how patriotic are you?

How does patriotism change over generations? And what effect has the Nazi legacy had on Germans' idea of pride, borders and persecution? A conversation between three generations.

Germany has a rocky past, to say the least. Swept to power in 1933, its Chancellor Adolf Hitler was responsible for starting the Second World War and for the deaths of at least six million Jews during the Holocaust, as well as countless others. It's a history that still haunts the country and influences the decisions that politicians make and even the way children are taught at school.

Then there are the disappearances, torture and fear that many Germans living in East Germany were subject to at the hands of the dreaded secret police, the Stasi.

Arguably, the country has now turned itself around and become the most powerful, but also most open, nation within the European Union, welcoming in almost one million refugees over the past year.

But how has such a dark history shaped the way that Germans themselves think about their country?

Life Links writer Caroline, a German herself, had a conversation with her father and grandfather, to see how German history has shaped all of their ideas of patriotism and what it means to them.

Wolfgang (83) - Caro's grandfather and a former ferryman. The biggest political event he experienced: the aftermath of World War II, building up a new life from scratch in St. Goarshausen, in western Germany.

Josef (54) - Caro's father and an engineer focussing on shipbuilding. The biggest political event he experienced: the murders of the Red Army Faction (RAF), otherwise known as the Baader-Meinhof Group, in the 1970s and the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Caroline (23) - our own intrepid reporter. The biggest political event she's experienced: 'Islamic State' terror attacks and the refugee crisis.

What defines a country?

Grandfather: History is the very foundation. And a common language. People who speak German probably don't feel as at home in the Netherlands. I have a very different idea of what home means than you or even your father. I was born in 1932, I was summoned for the Deutsches Jungvolk [the section of the Hitler youth for boys aged 10 to 14] when I was 10 years old. I was allowed to sleep at home, but spent most of my time on duty - you've probably seen footage of young boys chanting "Heil Hitler". In a very strange way, this made me more attached to the place I grew up in, to my parents, to the ferry and the vineyards my parents owned.

Father: Definitely values, culture, history and the political system. All of that defines how a country presents itself to those around it. North Korea defines itself by closed borders, others by open borders. It hasn't always been such a big deal, but today it almost feels like a new era of mass migration has begun because of wars and poverty. But closed borders are an illusion. If we take integration seriously, if we say Islam is part of Germany and we should definitely allow everybody to have their own faith, then you subsequently lose the particular cultural identity of a nation. You gather a lot of different cultures and the sense of community goes to waste, but that's the price of globalization.

Caroline: The way it interacts with the countries and the world surrounding it. The way it treats people who are less fortunate. The way it fosters free speech, democracy, culture, and a variety of lifestyles, religions, and career opportunities - or doesn't. Today more than ever, I think a country is defined by its balls - the maturity it has to foster liberty - despite the threats from both within and abroad that we are facing. In a nutshell: Liberté, égalité, fraternité (liberty, equality, brotherhood).

What defines a home?

Grandfather: Well, this place here is home. I was born in this very building, I have lived here for 83 years. I'm still here. My parents used to live here. No other place is home. This was home - nearly everyone I ever knew has been buried here.

Father: Well, probably not location. I wouldn't mind moving elsewhere. I don't feel like I have roots anywhere. Now, that may relate to the fact that I started my own business early on and tried not to be held back by anyone's expectations. Towards the end of the 90s, your mother and I were seriously considering moving to Romania. Imagine, you'd be fluent in Romanian today, Caroline. It takes an hour to fly to London, so distance really loses its meaning. And it's becoming less about the location, but more about the quality of living. People move to cities, and then back to the countryside - just for the lifestyle that's attached.

Caroline: Home is never a physical place. Home for me can only ever be people… although I'm getting pretty cosy in Berlin at the moment. Before I was 18 and moved to London, my family had moved house three times (Or was it four, Dad? And I didn't know about that Romania adventure!), so it'd be really difficult to pinpoint a few streets that feel like home. The sea is home. Mountains are home. That may be cheesy, but all I need to feel at home is my best friends and some, "I totally get you" vibes - and I don't mind where that happens. It could be London, it could be Cairo, it could be Sydney. That sounds like a fun itinerary actually. When can we go?

What is important to you about your home country?

Grandfather: When Adolf Hitler rose to power in 1933, I was still a baby. But it changed things. Later on, I was always taught that now that my father is fighting in the war, I had to protect my home country, and defend it towards other powers: "You're in charge now, you're responsible." That was what mattered.

Father: What I like about Germany is its humility after WWII, which is still tangible today. I appreciate the human rights, the rule of law, how there's relatively little corruption and how the government looks after those who can't work, those who are ill. I'm also fond of the relative reluctance to go to war. You're pretty much free to decide the course of your life, religion and education. There's a certain basic protection from violence through the police.

Caroline: I like the relative freedom there is in living here. I like how there are basic human rights and how there's quite a strong sense of what's right and wrong in terms of invading someone else's privacy. But I've only really come to appreciate that since I went to Beirut and saw a system that was so chaotic (and charming), and where people fully accepted and even embraced that the government isn't really doing its job. Corruption abounds there. Germans who complain about social wrongs are doing so on a pretty high level (that doesn't mean they should stop though, please don't!) but we're very privileged and it's easy to forget that if you've grown up in that environment.

Could you imagine living in another country than your home? And what do you think how that influences your national identity?

Grandfather: That's a good question. At 83, when you've traveled around a bit, you've seen a lot of different countries. Often I couldn't communicate with people well despite having studied English in school. In London, I took the bus once, and I remember people queuing on the street and then getting on the bus in the correct order. Nobody would ever do that here, right? Here, you would try to squeeze yourself in at all cost. Anyway, I'm too old to move now - and thinking about what I would or wouldn't have done 50 years ago is theoretical. I feel at home here, simply because my family and everything I have are here. You live and work in one place, then you get your pension. Why would I go anywhere else?

Father: Definitely. I could easily immerse myself in another culture, and I wouldn't necessarily want to preserve my own. A hint of Germanness will always be preserved, say discipline (laughs), but not in the sense of patriotism, of being proud of it.

Caroline: Absolutely. I have done and I surely will do in the future. Hey, New York Times, wanna hire me? I've never felt particularly "German", so moving abroad would probably drag me even further away from that national identity, if there even is such a thing. Is there such a thing? I think it's all about what you're used to. The longer you live abroad, the more you'll notice that identity is quite a fluid business and that what grounds you isn't locations on a map but people and experiences.

What associations come to your mind when you hear the world 'patriotism'?

Grandfather: When I was 40, patriotism played a stronger role in my life. When Germany was divided, both parts still felt kind of German, but I was still glad to be in West Germany. I was always hoping for governments that supported us, gave us enough privacy and would look after the economy. Maybe if there hadn't been the East, our sense of patriotism wouldn't have been as distinct. But it was.

Father: The Third Reich. Making a fuss about the love of one's country. I guess not being ashamed of your flag and standing by your country isn't bad as such, but we need to be extremely cautious because these things used to be fostered here without limits. There a certain emotion that comes with thinking and saying, "We are someone". Patriotism equals saying, "I'm proud to be German or Italian," but then, however nice you may have meant it, there's always a hint of isolation. You're shutting yourself off from the rest. That mindset doesn't really fit in 2015 anymore. I enjoy living here, but there is no such thing as love for my country.

Caroline: It makes me want to puke. To me patriotism means being proud of something that's not in your hands. It's being proud of something we haven't achieved, something we've randomly or not so randomly, been born into. Let's love our motherland just because it's all we've got? It feels weird. I've been to the US on Independence Day and to Canada on July 1 and while it was nice to hang out with locals who so obviously love their country and the community - I still couldn't help feel excluded and somewhat uncomfortable. I think patriotism ultimately means, "We're better than you are." I just don't get the concept or why we should foster it particularly. The idea that your passport has so much power over the course of your whole life, the decisions you make or are forced to make and the opportunities you are given or refused, is absurd. I really would like to live in a world without borders (and bullshit), but then maybe that's the naive dream of a 23-year-old hippie who has no idea what the political consequences of that would be.

Have you ever been politically engaged?

Grandfather: No. And I never thought about it to be honest. I had enough work to do over the course of my life. I had the vineyards, and the ferry, I never had time for anything else. And to be honest, you've got to pay the bills and get the job done. Going after political fantasies or dreams on top of that? Nah.

Father: I think people probably have different priorities in life. I'm definitely interested in politics, I vote, I'm curious as to how policies and conflicts develop. But I've never been politically active, I was never in a party - I just don't feel that's my thing.

Caroline: Yeah I was in a party once for about two months but only because the guy I fancied was in it (Oh, hi Dad). Of course I left when he suddenly turned up with his girlfriend. But seriously, I'm literally always torn between different parties because I can't identify with one at all. It always feels like choosing the least horrible one. But it's crucial to vote and to stay on top of politics. I think some of the things I do, the demonstrations I go to, or the things I write about have some political value, but I don't need to be member of a party for that.

Are there moments when you feel patriotic?

Grandfather: During all of the Olympic Games! There were at least two or three where I soaked up everything I could get my hands on in newspapers, the radio or television. Whenever Germans got a medal, even if it was only third place, I was very proud! (laughs) After the war, it meant the Germans were back - I never took that for granted.

Father: When Angela Merkel said "We can do this" [on dealing with refugees in summer], that was top-notch. That refers more to the person than to the country, I guess. A country is too diverse for me to be proud of it. Really, our political system is a system designed to minimize damage. If Germany didn't need the police anymore because it embraced peace and values, I could probably be proud of it. But that's not the case.

Caroline: No, I've never been proud of being German. it's something that may be due to the whole 'You're guilty' education in school. I never got quite over that. The bitter taste of the German past - although I wasn't there - was tangible in every history and German lesson. Barely a book we read didn't to some extent try to comes to terms with the Nazi regime and how on earth people - people like you and me - could let it happen. Maybe I'm being too hard on myself here, but it would feel like an insult to the families of those who died in Auschwitz or Dachau to be a proud German. I'm surprised I'm the only one who says that here. Don't you feel like that, Dad?

Father: I used to. But I think Germany dealt with it really well, it tried to make amends and is humble on every memorial day. If you look at it from a non-German perspective, other nations have a lot of blind spots. Look at Mussolini, Stalin, look at the French Revolution - nearly every country has been involved in brutal murder. But because of the technical developments before and during WWII, the very worst parts of humanity became visible all the more. You no longer fight with bow and arrow. And in general, I can't think of a country where I could honestly say I'd be happy to say that I come from there.

Is history repeating itself? Looking at the Pegida marches and the violence against refugees in Germany.

Grandfather: I don't think you can compare the two. The migration streams during the Third Reich were completely different, although they may have had a similar cause. Speaking of the refugee crisis today, it feels incredibly unfamiliar to me. I don't understand Arabic, I've never been to Syria - and Islam? I can't identify with it. But of course I pity the people, they haven't chosen to come here after all. I would support them. I would offer for one of them to live here and help with the garden a little bit, but I haven't seen a refugee in our village yet.

Father: I think these a completely new channels of selfishness. People are scared, and gather on the streets. But nothing in life is secure or certain. If we talk about borders again for a second, it apparently takes one million refugees for borders in people's minds to be closed again. If values like acceptance and tolerance really were implemented in Germany, people wouldn't protest. If values are becoming a drawback for people, they abandon them - as you can see with Pegida.

Caroline: Not sure if comparing the two will get us anywhere, but the level of violence against refugees is deeply shocking and saddening to me. I honestly feel like crying when I see the footage of burning refugee shelters or look at how many people take to the streets in Dresden on Mondays to protest against helping people who've just escaped the kind of horror we only know from tv screens. At the same time, I'm so happy about the thousands of volunteers here in Berlin and in other cities that help and help and help without getting anything back. That makes me proud, but from a human perspective, not a German one.

Does the development of nations growing further together (at least in Europe) scare you or does it make you feel privileged?

Grandfather: In general I'm optimistic about the fact that nations have moved a lot closer to each other. I still think the independence of every nation should still be protected. But I'm a pensioner now, I don't have the big urge to travel to South America or China, when I can go spend Christmas with my family in Munich. When I went to school, the world consisted of four occupation zones: England, the US, France and Russia. The world was just smaller.

Father: This country used to be my world, there was nothing around it (laughs). In school, we've learned that apparently there are people who only speak English, but we never saw any of them. Later, when the EU was founded and I started getting to know the world around me through the news and media. So as my horizon expanded, my national consciousness shrunk. This has enriched me in some ways, but it's also a constant mental overload because of the sheer variety of problems and crises that cannot be solved within 24 hours. When I look 30 years back, the most vivid event was the RAF attacks, but you can count on one hand how many people were killed. In my personal view, the Iraq War had a much lower impact on public opinion. But problems have become so much more complicated to the extent that it's impossible to solve them on a national level. Of course, that's overwhelming.

Caroline: From my 20-something perspective, it's been a privilege all my life. I could go on school trips to Scotland, take walks through the World War I cemeteries site in Verdun (France) after a three-hour drive and meet my pen pals from Norway or Austria. And they all speak English because we've been raised in similar conditions. Win, win. But I don't know how long it'll be like that. Looking at Europe's financial crisis, we're already seeing the downsides to being so connected and intertwined - only time will tell whether the positive outweighs the negatives. I think the refugee crisis has a lot of potential to bring Europe back together, to really share some of the burdens and to help collectively instead of making each other's lives (and those of the refugees) more difficult.

Edit 15.12.2015: An earlier version of this article stated that Hitler was "elected" to power in 1933. Though the Nazis won the election in 1933, Hitler only seized absolute power with the Enabling Act. We have changed the passage to make it less misleading.