A large tricolour hung outside the window near Barmbek station in a Hamburg neighbourhood. Further down the street, smaller flags festooned the balconies, and at the end of the road another giant flag swayed in the wind beside a screen showing the Belgium-Italy game.
Euro 2016 is upon us, and the football has brought with it a cosmetic change to Germany’s cities: the red-gold-black flag is everywhere – on poles, on bicycles, on hats and keychains, on faces and mugs.
But it was not always this way.
Until the start of the past decade, flag waving or any display of nationalist pride – tainted by the ravages of a Nazi past and all the negative historical connotations of Hitler’s Third Reich – was anathema to Germans
The 2006 turning point
“Many Germans are not proud of the country, because it was not ‘allowed’,” said Andreas Kenji Pfaff, a football correspondent for The Hochi Shimbun, a Japanese sports newspaper. “We started two world wars and we get reminded of that every year again. But the younger generation like me is proud especially in sports, to be a four-time World Cup champion.”
Pfaff, who has been watching football since he was a child, said the game was a safe space for Germans to express nationalist sentiment. “After the Second World War the win at the 1954 World Cup was the only thing we could be proud of,” he said. “So football gave the people hope for a better future. The first World Cup was very important for Germany, because you could show the world that we changed.”
Unlike places like India, where nationalist pride and flag waving are not just normal but actively being encouraged, Germany has had a weak tradition of nationalism for several years now.
But in 2006, all that changed in what has been broadly described as the turning point for German flag waving.
Germany hosted the football world cup that summer, a moment that widely came to be known as the Sommermärchenor – the summer fairy tale – that yoked together football and national pride in a way that it became okay to be proud to be German.
Diethelm Blecking, a professor of sports history who has studied sports and migration, was not prepared for the moment.
“In 2006 a Guardian correspondent asked me, can Germans wave their flag?” he said over the phone from Freiburg where he teaches at the Institute of Sport and Sport Science. “I said, ‘This is impossible, the German flag is poisoned by the flag with the swastika of the Third Reich and Germans will never have anything to do with flags.'”
He laughed. “I was completely wrong.”
Loving the flag
Flags proliferated through the summer of 2006, leading to a rash of commentary on the turning point for Germans becoming comfortable with their national identity. And ever since the football began two weeks ago on June 10, flags have flowered everywhere.
“I would say that especially in regard to soccer the use of national symbols in Germany has become much more relaxed and is nowadays just part of fan culture and entertainment,” said Sven Hansen, editor of the Asia Pacific desk at the left-wing newspaper Die Tageszeitung.
Hansen said older leftists and he himself would never wave a German flag, although his 11-year-old daughter would. “[She] has no problems with the German flag and sees this just as part of typical behaviour of soccer fans,” he said.
The Nazis ruled between 1933 and 1945, building on ideas of racial purity, exclusion and a narrow definition of who is a true German. The country was later occupied by the Allied powers after its defeat in World War II. It is now more than 70 years since the war ended and for young people those memories have receded.
“The younger generations like me think ‘it was over 70 years ago, so I don’t have to be ashamed of my heritage’,” said Pfaff. “After the war we built up a great country with a good law and managed to be one of the most important countries in the world…we are proud to be German, but we only show it during sport events.”
And hosting the tournament helped in a big way. “Up until 2006, you had to feel sorry to be German,” said Francis Hunt, an Irishman based in western Germany, who has lived in the country since 1986 when Germany was still divided. “In 2006, suddenly the flags were everywhere. The millennial generation really didn’t have anything to do with the past. Like the Danes or the British or the Dutch, they could wave their national flag, and it was okay.”
The country was divided from 1949 until the Berlin Wall fell and triggered the reunification of East and West Germany in 1990. That moment itself led to an upsurge in nationalist feeling, one quickly matched by the growth of the radically left anti-German movement battling against racism and xenophobia. So it wasn’t until 2006, that flag waving actually became a little more mainstream, with migrants whole-heartedly embracing the German flag.
The German tricolour, or the Schwarz-Rot-Gold, was first raised in 1848 but only officially adopted as the national colours under the Weimar Republic in 1919. Once the Nazis came to power in the thirties this was replaced with a different tricolour of red, black and white along with the Nazi flag with the swastika.
Following the end of the war and the division of Germany, both East and West Germany went back to the Schwarz-Rot-Gold combination, which has since reunification been retained.
Germany’s national football team has itself given Germans enough cause for pride lately, winning the World Cup in 2014 and going into Euro 2016 as one of the favourites. The team has several players of Turkish or other migrant backgrounds, a reflection of German society that has transformed over the past few years, and that is poised to become more multi-cultural with a fresh influx of refugees.
“The team has become a symbol of successful integration and of a modern Germany in the sense of a successful multicultural society,” said Hansen. “So rightist people have a problem with this. They don’t like dark or Muslim people in our national team.”
With the rise of the right-wing as exemplified by parties like the Alternative for Deutschland, the struggle over defining nationalism and national identity is as charged as ever with calls to stop the flow of migrants, attacks on refugees, and a deepening insecurity. The Alternative for Deutschland now has representatives in eight out of 16 German state parliaments.
Then there is the broader spurt in right-wing tendencies in general: from Hungary to Poland to Austria, something young people on the Left are still cautious about. “The continent is now experiencing a process of renationalisation,” said Blecking. “The French are becoming more French, the Poles more Polish, the Brits more British. Young people here see this and think this shouldn’t happen in Germany.”
The fear of the Right
So even though football may be a relatively safe space for most people to express nationalist feelings, there is also the concern over a chest-thumping idea of national identity expressed on the Right.
Football is an occasion to bring out the flag, but to do so in daily life is perhaps still not quite kosher. For instance, in March, the Hamburg city parliament rejected a proposal from conservatives for public schools to raise the national and European flags. In the past chancellor Angela Merkel set aside a flag given to her during her birthday celebrations.
Last weekend, the youth wing of the Green Party in Rheinland-Pfalz in Southwest Germany called for flags to not be waved during the ongoing Euro tournament. The party’s Facebook post stimulated more than 8,000 reactions, many of them decrying the flag boycott.
Chancellery Minister Peter Altmaier of the liberal-conservative Christian Democratic Union of Germany tweeted that these flags were opposite to the flags of the past, and “a symbol of an open, friendly Germany”.
Though anxieties over past associations remain at the same time as football nationalism proliferates, the debate to define what it means to be German continues.
Moritz Schulz, has been following football since childhood, but all things considered would still not wave a flag. “For me, this remained a strange thing even after 2006,” he said.
Would he or people like himself consider it a matter of pride to be German? “I would never say something like “I am proud to be German” and I don’t feel that way either,” he said. “But this does not mean that I associate only negative features with Germany. I like living in Germany and prefer that over any other country. I am fine with being German. And I like quite a few things about Germany.”