If you know anything about German soccer, even if you're a not a hardcore fan and only pay attention when the World Cup steams into town every four years and blows its piercing, un-ignorable whistle, I'm pretty sure you're familiar with the following narrative. It comes from the 2006 World Cup, which of course took place in Germany, and it goes like this. Before the World Cup, Germans were stuck in a kind of patriotic closet, aware that they'd created a beautiful, cultured country, one that ranks favorably in just about any conceivable metric—literacy, healthcare, public transportation, poverty, violent crime, unemployment—but one in which they were unable to openly express pride. The problem had to do with World War II, and the lingering unease that signs of German patriotism would be misinterpreted outside of Germany as proof the country had taken another running start down a slip 'n slide into nationalism or worse. That all changed during the tournament. Germans went to the store, bought flags, and hung them from their windows. It was an act that under different circumstances would have been taboo. They painted their faces red and black and gold and sang songs. The stuffiness for which Germany is stereotypically famous was, for a month at least, gone. People breathed.
You talk to people today, and it's interesting how much of that narrative remains unchanged. The 2006 World Cup was a kind of cultural awakening here, something that has carried over into subsequent World Cups. I've been told by several people that the 2006 World Cup was the single greatest month of their lives, that the country existed in a kind of magical glow during the month-long tournament, that for the entire month of June it never rained on a game day. That the German team did well, unexpectedly making it to the semifinals under Jürgen Klinsmann, certainly added to the euphoria. During Germany's tournament run, a documentary crew followed the team, recording Klinsmann's impassioned team talks and the emotion with which the fans cheered the team. The film is called Deutschland, Ein Sommermärchen (it translates to Germany, A Summer Fairytale). It's unclear if the filmmakers came up with that name, or if it originated elsewhere, more organically, but today that's what the summer of 2006 is called: the Sommermärchen.
So that's one way to look at the World Cup in Germany, as a moment when Germans are allowed to be proud and dream big and hope without baggage, like little kids.
Another way to look at the World Cup in Germany is like this: "German people are openly talking about being superior (at soccer) to other nations. They're painting their faces and raving about Germany, and, oh my God, I can see that slippery slope right there!" This cautious handwringing does not represent a fringe stance in Germany. There's a sense among the older generation especially—and among more left-wing, intellectual kinds of German soccer fans—that these youngsters (and they're usually youngsters who increasingly have no living connection to the war) aren't showing enough respect for the past and the trouble nationalism has wrought in Germany. There's a worry that whatever lies between patriotism and nationalism is blurred during the World Cup, and that whenever the last ball is kicked, there might not be anything left between the two at all.
Maybe this seems a little paranoid and conservative, but then something like this happens, and, well, you get a funny feeling in your stomach.
A handful of kids burning a Portuguese flag is obviously the work of a small group, and it's the kind of thing that would embarrass just about every fun-loving, tournament-enjoying German, but it's also enough to show how questions about whether the World Cup is a positive or negative influence on German society are not as unreasonable as the Sommermärchen might imply. This is a country still trying to work through the horrors of its past.
As an American living in Germany, I often consider how the country of my birth is a kind of photographic negative of the country in which I live. You can come up with a lot of examples of this: One country is a conglomeration of a bunch of old duchies and principalities and one is made up of relatively new states. One is big, one is small. One is filled with optimistic, open people, while the other is full of private pragmatists.
But the example I think about most is the one about The War: One country won and the other lost. Is there any event in either country's history that continues to looms as large as World War II? That affects either country's foreign policy to a greater degree? That shapes how each country's citizens view themselves and their place in the world? The respective consequences of winning or losing have been equally profound for both countries. One of the consequences is that Germans worry a great deal about where unchecked nationalist zeal might take them. Nationalism in the United States, however, is hardly given a thought.
Here's another consequence, this one courtesy of Steve Cherundolo, the recently-retired defender for the US national team. Cherundolo was born in California but has lived his entire adult life in Germany. Years ago, at the beginning of Cherundolo's professional career, a young German writer named Gunnar Berndt asked Cherundolo to describe the differences between the two countries. Cherundolo said, "The US is a hero culture." He isn't the first to make such an observation, but it's pretty astute, especially in the context of soccer. In the absence of a of WWII veterans' parade, there's no better way to observe America's hero culture than by turning on the tube and watching 11 of them run around in Brazil.
There's a problem though: heroes are often impervious to criticism. It's one of their powers. Rather than look into what went wrong, the immediate aftermath of the USA-Belgium game featured a lot of praise of the US players, who never gave up and fought hard. (Did other countries give up? I can't think of any.) They did play hard, and they didn't give up, but the longer we sit around and praise their "American spirit," the harder it becomes to engage in constructive criticism and really grow. And not to belabor the point, but our view of World War II suffers from the same problem. We talk a great deal about the Greatest Generation, the important things they accomplished, and their sacrifice, but we rarely see past the heroes. We rarely wonder about the more morally murky parts of that war—the fire bombings of Tokyo and Dresden and the use of nuclear weapons against Hiroshima and Nagasaki, to name a few.
Our unchecked nationalism and love affair with heroes have created a weird atmosphere in which Americans casually take to Twitter during a soccer match to talk winning World War II, Nazis, and the US being "the best," in a general, non-soccer sense—a rhetoric that is both xenophobic and oddly dated. We nonchalantly lord moral superiority over others as though it were 1945 instead of 2014. Somewhere in the intervening years, we've lost the idea that there's a difference between wanting what's best for your country and being a dick. For Americans, going overboard has become the point.
So next time the German Mannschaft plays, consider the notion that for Germans, in one way or another, the game is the latest benchmark on their country's continued struggle to work through its past, that the match is a continuation of a discussion about how to love your country without going overboard.
It's a discussion we ought to be having too. Because if there's one lesson World War II taught us, it's be careful with nationalism. And remember, even heroes have flaws.
Photo credit: Getty