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The Journalist Josef Joffe Reflects on Sources of German Pride (2001)

Based on his vast international experience, journalist Josef Joffe comments on the predictable polarization of the public over the question of whether Germans ought to be proud of their country. He rejects a revival of boisterous nationalism and instead suggests a quiet satisfaction with the civilizing learning processes of the postwar period.

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German and Proud
Of what? Of Democracy, European integration, and turning away from old arrogance

Someone who really has money doesn’t show off; someone who’s really proud of his country, child, or work doesn’t beat his chest with pride. Gorillas beat their chests for courage; it’s a gesture of insecurity. “I am proud to be an American” or “Je suis fier d’être français” are statements one hears quite rarely in unbroken nation-states. In America, the star-spangled banner flies over the post office as casually as the colorful pennants at gas stations in this country. In France, too, the republican gesture lacks the tinge of pathos; it’s blue-white-red normality. Casual normality in the Federal Republic as well? Not yet. This is evident from the most recent burst of outrage from the “chattering class,” which comes somewhere between Castor (still being talked about) and BSE (half-forgotten).* One might as well have copied this scenario from the hard drive ahead of time, seeing as it’s unfolding in the familiar, tried-and-true pattern. Someone (Laurenz Meyer of the CDU) professes: “I’m proud to be German.” Whereupon someone else (Jürgen Trittin of the Greens) suggests that he might just as well out himself as a skinhead. Now the outrage starts to froth and encourage copycats. And so Guido Westerwelle (FDP) also displays his national pride, and the federal president (SPD) confesses that he’s actually not all that proud of his country. In the end, the choruses are once again solidly united on the left and the right and are angrily trying to strip each other of the right to sing. How nice that in this disorderly world we can at least rely on the formation of camps – as most recently during the uproar over [Joschka] Fischer, when the German biography-war neatly consolidated the old ranks.

When the Politics of Emotion replace the Business of Politics

All just campaign noise? It’s that, too. After all, the opposition has to try desperately hard to find any sort of theme that hasn’t already been co-opted by the nimble New Center. Yesterday the Schröderites were still bravely engaging in reform politics; today, with 2002 fast approaching, they’re once again doling out plenty of presents to their clientele. Under these circumstances, the Union can hardly attack from the left in order to promise the “little man” security against the unstoppable change. So it attacks from the right, which gives it the advantage of not needing to pitch programs and individuals, but only symbols. National pride doesn’t cost anything, and it doesn’t demand that tough choices be made between hostile leadership figures within the party and contending interest groups within the country. In this way, the politics of emotion easily replaces the business of politics.

And yet, whoever wants to interpret this quarrel over national feelings as mere surface-noise between the camps fails to grasp its full dimensions. In other countries, the statement “I am proud to be X” would not even be quoted, let alone torn to shreds. In Germany, however, there is no such relaxed stance, nor can there be. Worse still: words like “relaxed,” or even “uninhibited,” are coded words, which, when paired with “the past” or “the nation,” signal nothing other than inhibition. They are the favorite words of those who would love to dispose of the one and re-mystify the other – in the service of a half-baked metaphysics that makes the broad, national “We” into a fortress against “the Other” and “the Foreign.” Whoever says “uninhibited” is dishonest.

* Here, Joffe makes reference to two popular themes in the contemporary media: the Castor transports of radioactive waste and concern over BSE (Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy), commonly known as “Mad Cow Disease” – eds.

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