Last week I wrote a post on cultural identity in this globalized world and in my own travel-filled life. The reactions were immediate and plentiful, and it seems that this is a subject that interests a lot of us. I am sure that this is because in travel, we always try to find ourselves. We confront ourselves with the other, the great unknown, the „cudne manowce“, as I like to call it, which is Polish for „the magical astray“. And we enjoy this because we perceive it as different only by comparison with what we are, and in this process we notice and understand our own inner workings better than before.
Along these lines, I have a few stories to tell about being German when you travel. I never noticed that I was German until I left Germany – that makes a lot of sense, because obviously most people I had known until then were German too, and this trait didn’t serve as a distinguishing attribute that would shape anyone’s individual personality. But then I went to other places. And I noticed that I was ridiculously punctual (by comparison with Mexican Americans). And well organized (by comparison with the French). And much more used to beer than vodka (by comparison with the Polish). And uptight (by comparison with Serbians). Even prude (I am SO looking at Sweden here!!). So there were moments when I felt very German, and I couldn’t believe I had never seen it before.
In becoming aware of my Germanness, I lost some of it, and that is what I wrote about last week. Other things I will most likely never get rid of, and the one thing that comes to mind fastest and that I have most been confronted with when travelling is the awareness of history and its direct link to patriotism. Let me explain with a little help of German singer-songwriter Reinhard Mey. The quotes below are translations of the lyrics to this song called Mein Land, „My Country“:
My dark country of victims and perpetrators,
I carry part of your guilt.
Country of betrayed ones and of traitors,
With you I practice humility and patience.
It all started when I was 16 and lived in Texas for a year. Kids would come up to me on the school bus and ask me questions such as: „So, are your parents Nazis?“ or „So, is Hitler still alive?“ or „So, have your family killed any Jews back then?“ Being 16 and a foreigner, I found it difficult to deal with this at first.
There was one particularly hard situation: We were talking about Auschwitz in my Sociology class. The guy behind me muttered to his friend: „What’s the big deal, it’s just a couple of people that died.“ I gasped, turned around, and gave him a huge speech after which I left the classroom in tears. Quite the drama queen, eh? But I don’t think he ever forgot it. In time, I learned that these things didn’t happen out of cruelty, but out of ignorance and I resorted to teaching people about the Third Reich instead of starting to cry.
I can’t sing to you hand to heart,
With eyes on the flag, and a word such as „pride“
won’t cross my lips even with an effort –
stupidity and pride are cut from the same cloth!
This is where patriotism comes in. I learned that while I may not identify with what happened in my country throughout history, other people will identify me with it. Whether I want it to be or not, Germany is part of me – and that includes its dark past. But with this dark past being such a dominant association with Germany, being proud of being German is something that doesn’t feel quite right. Add in the very important factor that an extremist form of patriotism is exactly what national socialism was all about, and you may understand why Germans are usually very very careful to express pride in their national identity.
I cling to you and even through your disruptions,
I am your kin in sickness and in health,
I am your child through all your contradictions,
my motherland, my fatherland, my country.
The more I have travelled, the more people I have met who never brought up the topic of collective German guilt. In fact it is often the other way around: People tell me how much they love Germany and I get all flustered and weird because it sounds strange and wonderful to me when someone has such love for the country I am from and no fear of expressing it. And then I have to explain that I am not used to that. Of course there was the soccer World Cup in 2006 that changed things for a lot of us and allowed us to wave Germany’s flag proudly for once. Things have relaxed since then, and I am happy about that. But at the same time I am not entirely sure about it. What if we forget? What if we lose awareness of the responsibility we have? What if things got out of hand?
I have learned not to think of patriotism as an innocent emotion. I have learned that it has led to evil, and I have learned that there are no grounds to be proud of something you have no power over, such as your nationality. You can be grateful for it, happy about it, and identify with it, but as long as it is not your accomplishment, „pride“ is not the appropriate emotion to me. I think that feeling so strongly about this is very German. And it is something that I really want to hang on to.
I love Germany. But being proud to be German is something I don’t even want to feel. I would be scared that it might mean that I had forgotten my country’s past.
[EDIT JULY 2014] I recently closed comments on this post because I felt its time had come. It is important to me to stress once more that all my observations are highly subjective and personal. People in the comments have largely taken offense to the fact that I generalized a German attitude. I do think that I am not an exception in my views, but I am well aware that there are many other perspectives on the issue. In fact, patriotism is not at all problematic for many people anymore, especially for younger generations. I stand by this post and its importance because this one individual perspective I have, my very own approach to the topic, still holds valid and may grant some insights to the whole interplay of nationalism, patriotism, pride and history.