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Germany: How patriotic should the country be?

June 4, 2023

Germany's conservative opposition parties think the country needs more patriotism — to overcome political polarization and make eastern Germans feel more included.

Football fans with German flags and face paint in 2014
Germans have no problem flying the national flag at sporting eventsImage: Daniel Reinhardt/dpa/picture alliance

The center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU) presented a proposal to the German parliament last week that touches a nerve that has been bothering the country since the end of World War II: When can Germans be proud to be German again?

Germany, the conservative party said, should hold a national commemoration day on May 23 to mark the adoption of the German constitution, or Basic Law, in 1949, along with a new "Federal Program of Patriotism." The latter would include plans to:

  • Increase the "year-round visibility" of national symbols — especially the national flag — in public spaces
  • Have the national anthem sung more often on public occasions.
  • Have the German military hold more public ceremonies and roll calls "in order to emphasize the bond between the armed forces and civil society and to develop the patriotic potential of this connection."

The Christian Democrats did their best to couch these ideas in inclusive terms — this modern patriotism, they said, should invite immigrant communities to get behind the values set out in the Basic Law. What they called "the potential" of patriotism was not to be left to the political margins.

Far-right anti-government protesters with German flags on the streets in eastern Germany
Far-right protesters often fly the national flag at demonstrationsImage: Patrick Pleul/dpa/picture alliance

That means the CDU is hoping to wrestle the issue of patriotism from its electoral rivals on the far right, the Alternative for Germany (AfD). A renewed sense of national pride would counteract the "increasing polarization and the fragmentation of our society," CDU party leader Friedrich Merz and his CSU floor leader Alexander Dobrindt wrote in their proposal.

A culture of pride, a culture of shame

The problem of German patriotism is virtually as old as the Federal Republic itself, with scars from the wounded pride that came in the aftermath of World War II still felt today.

A poll taken in 2021 by the Insa Institute showed that 61% of Germans thought schools should foster a "more positive" connection to Germany among children. What that might mean exactly is unclear, but Germany's history obviously means that patriotism is always going to be deeply problematic.

"Who can, unreflectively and without inhibition, profess their connection to the German nation?" asked Martin Sabrow, Professor emeritus of the Humboldt University Berlin and former director of the Leibniz Center for Contemporary History in Potsdam. "There's a Holocaust Memorial in the government quarter [in Berlin] with steles that commemorate 6 million murdered Jews and however many millions of people killed in the war. It would be strange if we didn't have a queasy sense of nationality."

Black, red and gold: Controversial colors in Germany

And there are even older reasons why patriotism is not as straightforward in Germany as it is elsewhere. The German national colors — black, red and gold — have had a highly politicized history, and rarely served to unite all Germans in the same way that, say, the US Stars and Stripes or the British Union Jack always did.

Germany’s problem with flags

The black-red-gold colors were first waved by individual corps of the Prussian army fighting to liberate Europe from Napoleon. They established themselves as the German Confederation's national colors in the early 19th century, and the flag itself was adopted by the national assembly following the 1848 revolutions, when national identity, liberty and individual rights became intertwined with an anti-monarchist surge.

But the colors went out of fashion as Prussia's power increased and the monarchy reasserted itself and in 1871, black, white and red became the colors of the new German Reich.

the Reichsflag being shown at a far-right demonstration in 2017
The German Reich's flag was black, white and redImage: Hendrik Schmidt/dpa/picture alliance

The black-red-gold pattern was readopted by the Weimar Republic in 1919 after the fall of Kaiser Wilhelm II, only to be dropped yet again by the Nazis in 1934.

Even after the war, the colors were contentious. "There was a row with the GDR," said Sabrow, referring to the German Democratic Republic ― East Germany after the country's division in 1949. "They were actually the first to nominate the black-red-gold, and only afterward did the West follow suit. To that extent, it was a combination of colors that has no tradition of being taken for granted by different political camps."

Germans have become less squeamish about flying the national colors in the past two decades, especially when supporting the national sports teams. The 2006 men's football World Cup, which was played in Germany, is often fondly remembered as the dawn of a new positive, optimistic patriotism. Throughout that tournament, nicknamed the "summer fairy tale," the German national flag was flown from countless balconies and car wing mirrors, and the nation got behind a (noticeably multicultural) team of athletes.

Yet in the past few years, the black-red-gold colors and the issue of patriotism have been increasingly co-opted by far-right political forces like the Islamophobic PEGIDA movement and the anti-immigration political party AfD, founded in 2013.

Funeral of Walther Rathenau 1923 with people bearing the flags
The black, red, gold flag was used during the time of the Weimar Republic, between the two world warsImage: akg-images/picture alliance

CDU trying to bring back 'constitutional patriotism'

The CDU has now made it its business to win back national pride from the far right, but is also, according to political analyst Uwe Jun of Trier University, trying to reestablish the tradition of "constitutional patriotism" — that is, patriotism rooted not in national identity but in the values set out in the German Basic Law.

"They're saying: This Basic Law, which created a stable democracy in Germany, should be used as an occasion to celebrate," he told DW.

But Jun is uncertain whether simply showing the flag more often will have the effect that the CDU hopes: Winning back voters from the AfD, which is experiencing a resurgence in current opinion polls.

"That will be difficult," he said, as so many core AfD voters are protest voters who seem to have grown to distrust centrist parties like the CDU.

For his part, Sabrow is also skeptical. "It is an effort to want to return to a so-called 'normality,' without denying one's own historical responsibility," he said. "But I think such attempts are completely useless. I don't think that it's possible in modern society to impose such an attachment from above."

Grzegorz Szymanowski contributed to this report.

Edited by: Rina Goldenberg

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Benjamin Knight Kommentarbild PROVISORISCH
Ben Knight Ben Knight is a journalist in Berlin who mainly writes about German politics.@BenWernerKnight