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New German Patriotism: The Road to Berlin Goes Via Baghdad

Marc YoungDecember 10, 2003

George Bush may have hoped that a new national identity would emerge on the streets of Baghdad following the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. Instead, the war has helped forge a new kind of patriotism in Berlin.

The Berlin band Mia dressed in the national colors of Germany.Image: H. Flug

Yes, Germany, having already undergone a transformation from dictatorship to democracy under American stewardship after World War II, is now being freed from the burdens of the past by the U.S. campaign to oust Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein. As strange as it may sound, Bush’s decision to go to war with Iraq has made it okay to be German again.

Long averse to displays of patriotism due to the excesses and crimes of the Nazis, flag-waving outside of sporting events -- either real or figuratively -- has been largely taboo for this nation of 82 million. But now many young Germans have found new pride in the country’s prominent role along with France and Russia in opposing the war in Iraq.

“I thought ‘wow’ Germany stands for peace. It wasn’t always that way, you know,” explained a 23-year-old singer from Berlin who goes by the name Mieze. Inspired by recent events, she has written a love song -- not to a person, but to her country. Only a few years ago, such a move could have quickly ended the career of a promising musician in Germany.

A new Fatherland

But instead of rejecting the Fatherland as left-leaning German youth have done for decades, a brave group of pioneers has begun to embrace a new concept of patriotism rooted in pacifism, tolerance and human rights. And as the idea of a liberal and modern Fatherland spreads, so too are the colors of the German flag -- black, red and gold -- beginning to show up in different aspects of society including fashion and music.

The movement, if it can be called that, has proven to be a boon for Cologne-based fashion designer Eva Gronbach, who for the past couple of years has created collections integrating black, red and gold along with other national symbols such as the German eagle. Far from just tapping into a growing trend, Gronbach’s inspiration for the designs come from her own personal reconciliation with her country.

After fleeing Germany to study and work in London and Paris, she eventually began to see her own vision of her country was as outdated as that of many foreigners. The traditionally conservative images of the country did not represent modern Germany’s open and tolerant multicultural society, and staid Teutonic stereotypes had nothing in common with the country’s hip electronic music scene.

Eva Gronbach Modenschau
One of Eva Gronbach's designs.Image: Eva Gronbach

“People may now accuse me of just having a clever marketing strategy, but it’s a very personal and very honest thing for me,” Gronbach told DW-WORLD.

Turning down a job with Japanese designer Yohji Yamamoto in Paris, she returned home to create a collection entitled “A Declaration of Love to Germany” with nationally colored items for both men and women.

“I used to find the colors ugly,” said Gronbach. “But I thought maybe I could consciously change what they mean to me personally.”

Breaking taboos

But breaking the taboo was not easy. She described how terrified she was when she first wore her designs on the street a few years ago. Now, with more and more of her generation rethinking what it means to be German, her designs are appearing not only on stylish people on the street, but also the cover of glossy national magazines.

Apparently sensing the nation’s changing attitudes, one new lifestyle publication has even gone so far as to call itself Deutsch.

“If you consider the word ‘Deutsch’ then it doesn’t have to stand for all of the tired prejudices that we know. Nowadays, it’s also a synonym for cosmopolitanism, pluralism and creativity and that’s what Germany stands for overseas too,” the magazine’s editor Tim Brandt said in a recent interview on German television.

Back in Berlin, Mieze’s band Mia have chosen to splash black, red and gold across the cover of their latest album and the singer even uses the colors metaphorically in some of her song lyrics to describe how her own relationship to her country has changed over the past year.

For her, a defining moment was when someone from her record label "Respect or Tolerate" told her of his trip to South America last year. While there, the visiting German was frequently approached by a number of people to thank him for opposing the war simply because of his nationality.

Mieze von der Berliner Band Mia mit Sonnenblumen Fotograf H. Flug
Mia's singer Mieze.Image: H. Flug

“The song is my reaction to that moment,” Mieze said. “Of course this is all something that one needs to approach in a sensitive manner, but I see it a great opportunity.”

The song also addresses the frequent self-loathing that many young Germans experience growing up in the shadow of the country’s Nazi past and how half a century later things may finally be changing: “If someone asks me now where I’m from/I no longer feel sorry for myself/I’ll risk something for love/I feel as if I’m ready.”

A special obligation

Most Germans believe the country has a special responsibility to work for peace and combat intolerance because of the Holocaust and other crimes committed in their name during the World War II. But it would now appear that some of the new patriots are choosing to celebrate that responsibility instead of seeing it as a necessary burden like past generations.

However, as some recent events show, it’s a difficult path to take, especially since Germany’s past can quickly overshadow any discussion on patriotism. Only last month, a conservative member of the German Bundestag was ejected from his party’s parliamentary group for allegedly making anti-Jewish comments in a speech on October 3, which is German Unity Day.

In a misguided attempt to talk of “justice for Germany,” Martin Hohmann, a Christian Democrat MP, said the label of being a “race of perpetrators” could equally apply to both Germans and Jews. After a storm of public outrage, the Christian Democrats’ party leader Angela Merkel moved to exclude him from the parliamentary group. A separate effort to kick him out of the party entirely is still underway.

Deutschlandflagge weht über dem Bodensee
Image: Bilderbox

“We can define our self-esteem from both the positive and negative sides of our history without devaluing others,” Merkel told journalists after dealing with the Hohmann affair. “There needs to be a broad debate about patriotism and love of the Fatherland.”

But as the budding cultural phenomenon of the new German pride in fashion and music shows, Merkel’s call for a national discussion on the topic is probably missing the point entirely. Anyone wearing one of Eva Gronbach’s black, red and gold creations would likely argue that the future of German patriotism doesn’t need to be debated -- it’s already here.

“This change in the society is happening all by itself. It doesn’t need anyone to help it along,” said Gronbach.