THE GERMAN NATIONALIST CONUNDRUM
The rise of the far-right party in Germany flies in the face of the country’s cosmopolitan vibe and reflects the need to retrieve a lost national identity, writes Setumo Stone
In many ways, Germany’s capital city, Berlin, is a melting pot of culture – so much so, every second person on the street is probably not a German national.
Take the merry young lady from Belgium, partying to American hip-hop music at a club called Traffic, across the road from the central square, Alexanderplatz. She and her mates were dressed like the Kim Kardashians and Nicki Minajes of this world. Or the Australian lass, enjoying some “refreshment” – another word for beer – with a German companion in one of the bars on Rosa-Luxemburg Straße (street).
The Germans have made space for other cultures in the hospitality sector, too. In a Russian restaurant, I feasted on a dish called tabaka (guinea fowl) and downed a sizeable jug of golden Moskwa, a Russian refreshment.
A Nigerian colleague is unlikely to forget that one night in a Thai restaurant his meal came in a hollowed-out pineapple. He was not impressed.
All in all, Berlin reflects relatively little of its German identity besides the old buildings, statues, war memorials and heritage sites. Therein lies a possible explanation for the new rise of German nationalism and the growth of socalled populist and far-right political parties.
On a Friday night near Alexanderplatz, a Hofbräu Berlin, touted as home to the best in German food and drink, is packed with young men and women dressed in traditional German clothes. I’m talking the colourful dirndl – a ruffled apron dress worn by German women that consists of a bodice, or blouse, and a skirt; the lederhosen, or leather trousers; the Haferl shoes, with their thick leather or rubber soles, invented in Bavaria for farming; and the Alpine hat, usually made of warm felt or wool, with a brim going all the way round to offer protection from the sun.
Some folk music – which, I suspect, is German in origin – screams from the speakers. The restaurant is so full that the waiter warns us that any orders will only be ready in an hour or more. Not even a litre of dark German refreshment could keep me awake when the food arrived just before midnight.
It was clear on that night that national identity and pride was topmost in the revellers’ minds.
Another indicator of this was our guide, who hailed from Köln, AKA Cologne, the fourth-largest city in Germany. He told us that in his city residents drank their refreshments out of small glasses – unlike in Berlin, where beer is served in big jugs. “By the time you finish that big glass, the drink has lost its fineness,” he said.
So, Germans think about identity in various ways, and the controversial Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) – described as a Eurosceptic, right wing party – is tapping into exactly that. It became the third largest party in Germany’s Parliament after the September 24 elections.
Understandably, nationalism is taboo in Germany following the Nazi regime, which assumed power in 1933, and the Holocaust. Its brutal reign ended after the Allies defeated Germany in 1945, ending World War 2 in Europe.
I asked one of our tour guides where one could access information on the traditional German culture that had prevailed before the war. He replied that for modern Germans, the events that led to the war had become the furthest point of historical reference. “Medieval German history is not easy to come by,” he added.
Talk of nationalism evokes strong emotions among many Germans, young and old.
On the day of the elections, protestors gathered spontaneously in their numbers outside Traffic, where the AfD held its celebration rally. A sound truck boomed out hip-hop music in an attempt to disrupt the AfD event. It was reminiscent of 1965, when Soviet fighter jets flew at low height above West Germany’s Parliament, in a bid to disturb a plenary session. West Germany later retaliated by pointing its loudspeakers at music concerts by big names such as Pink Floyd, Bruce Springsteen and others towards the east so that East Berliners could hear.
Immo Fritsche, a professor at the University of Leipzig who studies group identity formation, told the New York Times: “There has never been a positive definition of German identity since the Nazi era.” He said after the war, national identity and national pride were seen as being too close to the aggressive nationalism that had led to Nazism.
As a result, said Fritsche: “Germany defined its national identity negatively, by what it is not. Not fascist. Not nationalist. Not separate from Europe.”