Na­tional pride rises again in a Ger­many wary of its past

The Washington Post Sunday - - THE WORLD - BY ISAAC STAN­LEY-BECKER isaac.stan­ley­becker@wash­post.com Stephanie Kirch­ner and Alexan­dra Ro­jkov con­trib­uted to this re­port.

ber­lin — If the ori­gins of Ger­many’s tri­color flag are not widely known, that is be­cause the banner is rarely dis­played in a coun­try still aton­ing for the crimes it car­ried out in the name of na­tional pride.

There may be a his­tory les­son, then, and not just an elec­toral gam­bit, in the prom­i­nent use of black, red and gold in posters ad­ver­tis­ing Chan­cel­lor An­gela Merkel’s bid for a fourth term in the fed­eral elec­tion in Septem­ber. Ger­many’s col­ors have ap­peared in pre­vi­ous mod­ern po­lit­i­cal cam­paigns but more mut­edly — and hardly ever to am­plify so blunt an ap­peal to the na­tional in­ter­est.

“For a Ger­many in which we live well and hap­pily,” pro­claims one poster.

Ger­mans’ wary at­ti­tude to pa­tri­o­tism and the idea of a na­tional culture is decades old. But cir­cum­stances both global and do­mes­tic are forc­ing a re­con­sid­er­a­tion. As the coun­try de­cides how it might serve as a cus­to­dian of the lib­eral in­ter­na­tional or­der, it is also sort­ing out how to in­te­grate mi­grants who be­gan ar­riv­ing in enor­mous num­bers in 2015. Both un­der­tak­ings bear cru­cially on Ger­man val­ues — and on the is­sue of whether a uni­fied set of na­tional prin­ci­ples even ex­ists.

“The ques­tion is re­ally, ‘What’s the ce­ment?’ ” said Arnd Bauerkäm­per, a pro­fes­sor of mod­ern Euro­pean his­tory at the Free University in Ber­lin. “What should Ger­mans have in com­mon?”

One an­swer has come from Thomas de Maiz­ière, Ger­many’s in­te­rior min­is­ter, who has cham­pi­oned the con­cept of “Leitkul­tur,” or lead­ing culture, a term some­times used as the con­ser­va­tive re­join­der to mul­ti­cul­tur­al­ism.

“Strength and in­ter­nal cer­tainty about one’s own culture leads to tol­er­ance with re­spect to other cul­tures,” he wrote this spring in Die Zeit, a weekly news­pa­per.

The con­cept makes some on the left un­easy.

Ef­forts to de­fine Ger­man culture are “of­ten used to draw a line be­tween us and oth­ers,” said Katha­rina Zim­mer­mann, a 32year-old who works in mar­ket­ing in Ber­lin. She added: “It makes me shiver when I see a Ger­man flag.”

In June, Merkel her­self took to the pages of Bild, the top-sell­ing Ger­man tabloid, to an­swer the ques­tion, “What is Ger­man?” She gave a slew of an­swers in­clud­ing fed­er­al­ism to Ok­to­ber­fest.

Even law­mak­ers in Merkel’s cen­ter-right Chris­tian Demo­cratic Union dis­agree about such things, though widely re­garded as na­tional trea­sures, are grounds for pride.

“I wouldn’t say ‘proud,’ though I like to be Ger­man,” said Thomas Strobl, the party’s chair­man in Baden-Würt­tem­berg, Ger­many’s third-largest state. More so, he said, he feels pas­sion­ately about his re­gion, as well as about Europe as a whole.

Wolf­gang Bos­bach, an­other lead­ing con­ser­va­tive law­maker, had a dif­fer­ent an­swer, not­ing that Ger­many was able to over­come “Nazi bar­barism” to be­come one of the world’s most sta­ble democ­ra­cies. “I am proud of my coun­try, yes,” he said.

The ap­peal to na­tional feel­ing by Merkel’s cam­paign would hardly raise an eye­brow in the United States, or in­deed in much of the rest of the world, where love of coun­try is ha­bit­ual, if not pre­sumed. Flags ex­press that de­vo­tion, and they en­code his­tory.

But Ger­many’s flag has a more com­pli­cated his­tory than most.

The use of black, red and gold — ar­ranged in hor­i­zon­tal bands — pre­dates the Nazi era. The design emerged in demo­cratic move­ments for a uni­fied Ger­many in the mid-19th cen­tury and first be­came the na­tional flag in the short-lived Weimar Repub­lic be­tween the world wars. Dis­carded by the Nazis in fa­vor of the black-white-red im­pe­rial tri­color and the swastika flag, to­day’s em­blem was rein­tro­duced in 1949.

De­spite its demo­cratic as­so­ci­awhether tions, the flag has long been a source of dis­com­fort, and it has been mostly con­fined to gov­ern­ment build­ings or else un­furled at spe­cific mo­ments of na­tional ju­bi­la­tion, such as in 2006 when Ger­many hosted the World Cup.

Thomas Kleine-Brock­hoff, direc­tor of the Ber­lin of­fice of the Ger­man Mar­shall Fund of the United States, said at­ti­tudes have changed in some spheres.

“I don’t think other na­tions, or other sports fans, see Ger­mans’ dis­play­ing their flag as ag­gres­sive; it’s just what ev­ery­body else does,” he said. “That wasn’t the case be­fore.”

But the change hasn’t been re­flected in pol­i­tics, he said. At a 2013 elec­tion party, Merkel went so far as to take the flag from the hands of a col­league.

“Her party won, not the na­tion,” Kleine-Brock­hoff said. “For Amer­i­cans, that’s hard to un­der­stand.”

The cal­cu­lus ap­peared to shift, slightly, ahead of this year’s fed­eral elec­tion.

Merkel’s cam­paign ma­te­ri­als fea­ture “the most prom­i­nent dis­play of the color code ever,” said Thomas Str­erath, head of the Ham­burg-based ad­ver­tis­ing agency that de­vel­oped the de­signs.

Orig­i­nally in­tended to fend off a chal­lenge from the far-right Al­ter­na­tive for Ger­many, the color scheme is meant to ap­peal to pa­tri­o­tism, not na­tion­al­ism, Str­erath said. In in­ter­nal pa­pers, the agency set­tled on the con­cept of “fall­ing in love again with Ger­many.”

“Trump had been elected, [Ro­drigo] Duterte in the Philip­pines and [Re­cep Tayyip] Er­do­gan in Turkey were tight­en­ing their grip,” Str­erath said. “We re­al­ized that what they have in com­mon is that they don’t come up with the best ar­gu­ment but in­stead ad­dress emo­tions. If we’re good at some­thing in ad­ver­tis­ing, we’re good at ad­dress­ing emo­tions, and we didn’t want to let the in­ter­pre­ta­tion of what Ger­many means be the ter­ri­tory of the far right.”

Merkel, who meets with agency ex­ec­u­tives weekly, thought it was a slam dunk, Str­erath said.

AXEL SCH­MIDT/REUTERS

ABOVE: Ger­man Chan­cel­lor An­gela Merkel at­tends the weekly cabi­net meet­ing at the Chan­cellery in Ber­lin on Wed­nes­day. LEFT: An elec­tion cam­paign poster in­cludes Merkel’s por­trait with the col­ors of the Ger­man flag. Such a bold use of the na­tional col­ors in a par­ti­san po­lit­i­cal con­text is highly un­usual in post­war Ger­many.

MICHAEL SOHN/AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

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