Singing along to the national anthem of your country while waving its flag is not an unusual sight at football games. But the scenes in Dortmund last week among German fans were nothing short of extraordinary. The German team, playing against Poland, locked their arms around each other shoulders and to the accompaniment of tens of thousands of their compatriots belted the anthem out.
“I have never heard it sung even a quarter as loud before,” says Uwe, a regular at Germany games and a car salesman. With the black, red and gold flag emblazoned on his cheek and another wrapped around him, he adds: “For the first time in my life I feel really proud to be German and the joy when we scored [in the 90th minute to win 1-0] was immense.”
Germany is being engulfed by a wave of patriotism. From grannies with their faces painted to flags flying in the smallest of villages, pride is surging through a nation that has hitherto been uncertain how to celebrate itself.
Even now, though, the progress is accompanied by hand-wringing in some quarters and questions as to whether it can last.
Take the German anthem – its first verse “Deutschland über alles” is banned in Germany. The third verse that is now used has long remained obscure to many Germans, so much so that the official singer earlier this year at a German international got them wrong. For some, even this verse is too much. The GEW teachers’ trade union has called for it to be replaced because it is a “Nazi-era relic”.
Some MPs in Berlin argue that because of its past Germany must remain more modest about being patriotic. But there is a sense that things are changing with this World Cup.
Oliver Bierhoff, Germany’s assistant coach, says: “I have never seen such scenes.” Christoph Metzelder, a defender who is known as one of football’s most intelligent voices, feels that Germany’s new confident style of play – after years of turgid focus on defending – is in part a metaphor for the country. “My generation grew up in one of the most stable democracies in the world,” he says.
“We won’t forget the reminder of 12 years of the Nazi-era. But we can live unselfconsciously and carefree and we can also play football that way.”
This sentence construction is normal when speaking to a German: they talk about the past before adding “but”. Now even the “but” may slowly be starting to disappear.
Politicians are also showing their patriotic side. Chancellor Angela Merkel celebrated the goal against Poland by clenching her fists, while sitting next to the Polish president. Earlier she had said: “People are waving flags without having to justify themselves. Fifteen years ago, things were different. Our relation to our country has become something beautiful, but in a normal and not an arrogant way.”
Norbert Lammert, head of the Bundestag, says: “It is the reconstruction of normality.”
The explosion of joy in Germany has partly been one of relief – relief that Germany are playing well as a team after months of pessimism; relief that following hundreds of negative articles about matters such as stadium safety or ticketing, the World Cup is so far an unequivocal success; and relief that things finally feel different.
Olaf, a manager at a biotechnology company, says: “As a 42-year-old for the first time I am not embarrassed by the history. I remember in 1974 [when Germany hosted and won the World Cup] there was no singing, no sense of triumph. I remember in 1996, when we won the European Championship, seeing one person with a flag and feeling it was wrong.”
One question is how long the euphoria will last and whether it is just connected with football or more deeply rooted. “It is hard to know if it is just caught up with the tournament,” says Olaf. Uwe adds: “I’d like to think I would still want to wear the flag after this but I’m not sure whether it will feel embarrassing again.”
For foreign visitors, perhaps most impressive is how Germans are throwing themselves into games between other countries. On a tram in Gelsenkirchen after Friday’s match between Argentina and Serbia and Montenegro, passengers gradually began a singalong. Suddenly dozens of fans dressed in Argentina kit revealed their true colours – and their ambition to reach the final in Berlin. And suddenly in unison, everybody sang “Berlin, Berlin, wir fahren nach Berlin,” (”Berlin, Berlin, we’re going to Berlin”) and then “Deutschland, Deutschland”.