Saturday, July 19, 2014

WELTMEISTER! Reflections of a German-American on a World Cup and a World War

My jubilation at Germany’s fourth World Cup title is tempered by the fact that I was born and raised in America. Of course, I also rooted for Team USA but secretly prayed that the two teams would avoid a head-to-head confrontation in the Final – the consequential strain on my loyalties would have been too much to bear. (It was a very remote possibility had USA survived the knockout stage.)

I prepared for the Final by donning my Deutscher Fußball-Bund t-shirt and fan scarf and painting my toenails in the tricolors of the German flag. Ecstasy erupted for a few seconds from the Argentine fans when their team scored an “almost-goal.” (The ball hit the back of the German net but was quickly erased by an offside call.) I now feared that I might be the only Germany fan in the New York City sports bar where I was watching the match. (My companion was more interested in beer than football.) But when Germany scored the decisive goal in the last minutes of overtime, joy erupted again. Aha…I wasn’t the only spectator in the bar cheering the Schwarz, Rot und Gold.

By now you are rightly wondering what any of this has to do with “World War II…with a German accent.” I assure you there is a connection. Had World War II never happened, Germany would not be what it is today. Guilt over their role in arguably the most horrific atrocities of the twentieth century still lingers in the German psyche.

Germany, despite its prosperity and world influence, has become a nation of handwringers and pacifists. Their participation in the current Afghan war as a member of ISAF (NATO’s security force, which includes troops from the US, Italy, the UK and many other nations) has been controversial at home. Memories of the devastation inflicted by Germany on the rest of the world have made most Germans loath to sending their soldiers to kill other combatants. Hence, German politicians have tried to limit their ISAF role to humanitarian missions.

How does this relate to German football? Even the word “Weltmeister” stirs painful memories. Though usually translated as World Champs, its similarity to the phrase “Masters of the World” evokes the contemptible Nazi goal of world domination. Yet Germans are still able to celebrate being German, as evidenced by the rapture unleashed at securing their fourth title in the world’s favorite sport. Hundreds of thousands packed the Fan Mile in Berlin, many waving German flags, to see their beloved football heroes hoist the trophy in front of the Brandenburg Gate. There are few other occasions where Germans exhibit unrestrained pride in their country, and I contend that reluctance is a result of their culpability in supporting the Nazi regime. Though few Germans alive today bear direct responsibly, remnants of guilt for their ancestors’ crimes remain.

Even I, as a German-American, feel the ambiguity of rooting for the German National Team. I find myself in “defense-mode” when friends, co-workers and even family members question my loyalties. When Germany played the USA in the Group Phase, I avoided declaring my sympathies, lest people reproach me. I, too, experience the guilt of rooting for players whose grandparents may have committed unspeakable crimes. But then I remind myself that my own forebears came to these shores from Germany in the mid-nineteenth century and therefore bore no responsibility for the acts of twentieth century Germans. Indeed, my own father served in the US Army during World War II.
There is more to German identity than the dishonor of the Second World War. There is Beethoven, Kant, von Steuben and now a World Championship to instill pride. Flag-waving and self-respect need not be shameful things. And that comes with the gradual realization that Germany has more to offer the world than its Nazi past.