Wednesday, 27 June 2012

Schland: Football and National Identity

In the course of the current European football championship, the exclamation, “Schland, o Schland!” can be heard and read frequently here in Germany – most commonly as an exclamation of joy by generally younger people on Facebook – after the German team has scored or won a game.

The word Schland was invented six years ago by the German TV comedian and personality, Stefan Raab. Raab is a difficult phenomenon to explain to non-Germans. He’s like a cross between Jon Stewart (though without Stewart’s absolutely biting political side) and Conan O’Brien, and is immensely popular, particularly with people between fifteen and thirty five. From his beginnings as a clown with an MTV-clone in the early nineties, he has become involved in all kinds of media projects, including a number of attempts at the Eurovision Song Contest, which his protégée, Lena Meyer-Landrut, won with the song “Satellite” in 2010.

In the course of the World Cup in Germany in 2006, Raab coined Schland as an abbreviation for Deutschland, as spoken by a drunk. When Meyer-Landrut won the Eurovision four years later, a student group from Münster, who called themselves Uwu Lena, covered her song in a spoof version as a statement of national pride in the German team playing at that year’s World Cup in South Africa. They replaced Lena’s lyrics “Love, o Love,” with “Schland, o Schland,” and landed a surprise hit.

All right, so now I’ve presented you with a load of trivia about German pop culture and you’re starting to wonder about where I’m going with all this. Actually, I see it as exemplary for the development of a new kind of national identity in Germany – an identity of a new generation which has finally managed to liberate itself both from the abomination of megalomanic Nazi racism and the cringing, ashamed self-doubt of the post-war generations.

I’ve lived in Germany for over a quarter of a century now. In many respects I feel completely at home here, yet there is a part of me which clings to my essential Irishness, that part which refuses to apply for German citizenship (though I would be entitled to do so), that part which still chooses to see myself as an outsider, an observer of the culture in which I today probably feel more comfortable, if I am to be completely honest, than in the Ireland I left in my mid-twenties. It is a Germany which – in common with most Western European countries – is becoming ever more multi-racial and multi-cultural, even if this process is (also in common with most Western European countries) accompanied by persistent teething troubles. Certainly there are nationalities and cultures which contain significant proportions who have major problems with integration into modern western societies (particularly those with an Islamic component), but the statistics now claim that nearly a third of all those living in Germany today have a migrant background of some kind, and in many areas the majority of children being born have migrant roots. If you look at the German national football team currently competing in the European Championship, five of the eleven players at the beginning of each game up to now have had a migrant background of some kind.

I’m back to football again. And this is no accident, for – in a very strange way – football has been one of the major catalysts for the formation of this new German identity.

By football I mean, of course, soccer – in common with most of the world. Sport seems to be an area in which the USA travels a different road. America may cling to that strange ritual involving quarterbacks, line-outs, touchdowns and other incomprehensible terms surrounding what seems to be some arcane form of rugby; most of the rest of the globe regards it as a weird eccentricity. And as for baseball … well, there’s no accounting for tastes, I suppose.

For Germans, at any rate, football (soccer) is very definitely a part of the national soul, and an important one at that. It is a generally accepted fact that the Football God moves in mysterious ways which cannot be divined by his countless millions of worshippers worldwide, but, in the case of Germany, football has played a significant role in the history of a country trying to redefine its national identity in the wake of the indescribable catastrophe of Nazism.

In 1954, the German Federal Republic (then in its initial West German iteration) was in its infancy, and very much under probation. The decision to grant a generous peace, to allow a rebuilding of Germany was controversial; while the American line, championed above all by Secretary of State George Marshall, prevailed, there were many among the allies (especially in France) who would have preferred to see Germany permanently politically and economically annihilated. And most Germans themselves were deeply traumatised; after having followed the ghastly Nazi chimera for over twelve years, they were profoundly defeated, dazed with guilt, uncertain as to their capabilities regarding the future, insecure about their very identity. Millions had died, millions more been made homeless and turned into refugees, hundreds of thousands of young men had disappeared as prisoners-of-war into the Soviet gulags. Numb, they had started to tidy up the rubble and take refuge in two of their most familiar qualities, their ability to work hard and organise well. The result was the beginning of the Wirtschaftswunder, the Economic Miracle.

As part of the post-war normalisation, a German team travelled to the World Cup in Bern in 1954. Against all expectations, they reached the final and defeated the highly fancied Hungarians 3-2. The Miracle of Bern became one of the defining moments of the fragile new (West) German identity. Suddenly, nine years after the end of the war, it became possible to be momentarily proud to be German. In the midst of all the guilty confusion there was an instance where there was a collective feeling of national oneness, one that was allowed, legitimate. It was a signal that things could move on, that the past – while not forgotten, never to be forgotten – could perhaps be surmounted; that whatever it meant to be German need not be exclusively, definitively and eternally defined by jackboots and swastikas, by fanaticism and Auschwitz – by shame.

It was, of course, only football. But football can be a lot – a channel where national pride, competitiveness, the innate, almost crazy human impulse to prove one’s group/clan/tribe/nation to be and be recognised to be the best, the greatest, can be ritualised, played out and expressed in a way in which nobody is hurt, exploited, made homeless, enslaved or killed. In the words of Peter Gabriel, “games without frontiers, war without tears.” In 1954, balsam for the traumatised German soul.

Thirty-six years later, in a period of less than a year, the post-war European (and world) settlement, stabilised and set in a concrete balance of fear between two blocs was swept away. In a historically unprecedented peaceful revolution, the hegemony of the Soviet Empire in Eastern Europe had basically dissolved and even in the USSR the Soviet system was winding itself up. The most concrete symbol of the Iron Curtain, the Berlin Wall, had been torn down and the reunification of the divided Germany had been agreed and was in the last stages of preparation.

1990 was once more a World Cup year and in Rome West Germany, playing in their final tournament before the accession of the GDR to the federal union established by the western allies in their zones of control after the war, once more became the world champions. Those were months of euphoria in Europe, and especially in Germany, where anything seemed possible, where everything seemed positive. Germany winning the world cup appeared, as it happened, to be almost inevitable, the Football God for once in accord with all the other portents and tendencies of history. The icing on the cake, the unity of heaven and earth.

Yet 1990 also marked the end of an era. The World Cup of that year was the last major global event in which West Germany appeared as a separate entity. It was not only the GDR which disappeared; though formally the states making up the former territory of East Germany simply joined the already existing Federal Republic of Germany, in fact this accession factually also meant the end of that entity in which Germans had proved that they could be good European democrats, what German historians today are increasingly beginning to call the Bonn Republic. Seen from this aspect, the victory of the West German team in the 1990 World Cup can be regarded as a final accolade, a way of proclaiming to a brave new world, “Mission Accomplished!”

These brave new world moments tend not to last. In the euphoria of unification, the elder statesman, Willi Brandt proclaimed, “Now let what belongs together grow together!” That growing together has not always been an easy process, economically, socially, culturally, and it is by no means complete. But in 2006 an event occurred which became a moment of coalescence, when a new kind of German identity first expressed itself.

In the months before the World Cup began in Germany there was a lot of the usual public worrying about the whole affair. No nation or culture (except possibly the Jews – that itself some kind of statement about the complex, close, fateful relationship between these two cultures) is as good at public worrying as the Germans. The opening ceremony had to be completely cancelled because of a row. There were warnings about possible dangers for blacks and orientals in particular areas of the former East Germany, because of neo-Nazi gangs.

And then the competition started and a month-long spontaneous party broke out. For the first time since the war, Germans started waving their flags, decorating their cars and themselves in the national colours of black, red and gold, simply cheering the fact that they were German – just as the visitors from all over the world were cheering the fact that they were Italian, Portuguese, Brazilian, Australian. The German team reached the semi-finals, with every game being watched by literally millions in public viewings in the major squares of every German city. The event became known as the Sommermärchen, the Summer Fairy Tale.

The phenomenon has been repeated biannually ever since, whenever the European Championships or the World Cup take place. And it has become even more than just a celebration of being German; the other nationals resident in Germany also celebrate their identities and German towns become a multicoloured carpet of German, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, Croatian and Turkish flags – with good-natured rivalry and ribbing between the various nationalities.

Sixty years after the end of the war, young Germans finally seem to have become comfortable with their own identity – and the vehicle they choose to express it is football.

They could do worse.

* * *

This is all, of course, a very particular view. It is true but it is not the whole truth, for reality is more complex. Nationalism, in all its expressions, has a dubious pedigree and is, arguably, the most destructive ideology the world has seen in the past two hundred years. And German economic nationalism is a major component in the current complex of financial and economic problems currently facing Europe.

In an ideal world, I would hope we could go beyond those bloody, sterile, exclusivist expressions of nationality which have so shaped and malformed the world in the past centuries, to a more inclusive, sharing vision of our common solidarity on this planet which so many of us share. More and more thinking Europeans are beginning to see these deeper questions as a positive possibility resulting from the current Euro debt crisis. (Angela Merkel, the current German chancellor, seems unfortunately completely ignorant of these deeper questions.) But the need to belong, to feel part of a nation, and to express that identity seems to be very deeply rooted in us – probably part of our primate hard-wiring. And, for as long as a deeper feeling of fundamental human solidarity remains in a (hopefully growing) state of development, I’m prepared to see those expressions of nationalism like the German one I’ve described here as basically positive. Better by far than pogroms, marching armies and terrorist bombs anyway.

Pictures retrieved from:


  1. What a pleasant and very hopeful overview of recent history and current events.

    ps: Baseball is an amazing game too when left to those who love the sport.

  2. Very interesting thoughts. I, being a native German, can relate to what you write about "being proud to be German and not ashamed/afraid to show it" with regards to the 2006 championship held in Germany. I am still proud of how welcome _we_ germans made the fans of many other nations in _our_ country. This occassion was indeed the first time for me, that I actuelly thought of being proud to be German.

    Of course I have been reflecting over that feeling in the past six years. While I did not think much of it at the time it happened, the very peaceful protests in the former GDR, which could have easily turned into a blooy affair, are something for me to feel proud about today.

    You already mentioned Lena, who showed the world some very unexpected, but very much welcome, traits. In that one week she spent in Oslo in 2010, the world saw that we Germans do not always worry about this or that, do not always make dour faces, that we can be carefree and even funny. Not all of us all of the time, of course. As I see it, Lena also made us Germans aware of these things.

    Anyway, from 2010 on I have been watching/following the national selection for the ESC and the ESC itself. I could stand behind Lena and Roman Lob, see them as "my candidates", which was new at least for me.

    In fewer words: I think you are right, _we_ Germans are slowly developing a new sense of national pride.

  3. Although I have lost interest in football over the years - and not just because of England's perennial under performance - it's a far better peg to hanf one's national identity on than most of the others that have been tried and happily failed!

  4. nice posting.. thanks for sharing.


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