Germany’s Nervous, Totally Ambivalent Reaction to Its World Cup Win

Germany’s Nervous, Totally Ambivalent Reaction to Its World Cup Win

A championship is usually a chance to gloat. But on Sunday, the German national team was restrained. “It was 10 years’ hard work,” German coach Joachim Löw said. “I can’t really celebrate yet,” the defender Mats Hummels said, following the match. “I’m still in another world.”

German analysts have followed suit. “It was simply this team’s turn to win the title,” Marko Schumacher wrote for the Stuttgarter Zeitung on Monday. Michael Horeni, of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, echoed Löw: “This wonderful success is no miracle…. The foundation for this victory was laid a good 10 years ago.” 

Germany is happy to win. But Germany — considering its effort, its teamwork, and its experience — also feels like it had it coming. And to have it coming is to shrug the shoulders, not to boast.

The general humility of the German team and the restraint of columnists in the major newspapers don’t quite fit with the nationalist imagery that has proliferated around the country during the World Cup. On Sunday morning, the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung ran a black and red cover plastered with the eagle of the Deutscher Fußball-Bund, or German Football Association, already sporting a fourth championship star — a move daring for both its presumption of victory in a game that hadn’t taken place yet and for its loud use of national iconography. Police cars have been seen driving with flags held from their windows, in a symbolic display that would have been taboo two decades ago. The Washington Post claimed on Sunday that German celebrations “seemed to mark a new leap forward here, moving Germany down a path toward a 21st-century relationship with patriotism and identity.”

Triumph has dangerous connotations in German history, and recent displays of patriotism have raised the ire of some commentators. On Monday, Spiegel columnist Jakob Augstein compared Bastian Schweinsteiger’s return to the field, blonde and bleeding after an injury late in the game, to the 1977 war movie Cross of Iron, in which a German soldier returns to the Eastern Front following hospitalization, willing to risk his health for his comrades. Germans wouldn’t benefit, Augstein suggested, from the sight of a martyr to any type of national cause, even an athletic one.

For Augstein, the political lessons of Germany’s World Cup victory are clear: Athletic successes shouldn’t bleed into nationalism, which he sees as inevitably tied to a militarized and overly aggressive foreign policy.  “The meister [champions] from Germany should use their new confidence carefully,” he wrote. This warning is explicit, but its connotations are dark, and perhaps a little heavy-handed. Augstein isn’t referring only to Germany’s new status as Weltmeister, or world champions. He is also alluding to the refrain from Paul Celan’s famous Holocaust poem, “Death Fugue“: Death is a master [meister] from Germany.

But what is the political content of the German national team, anyway? Bastian Schweinsteiger has a scary haircut and an Aryan jaw line, but this year he’s taken the time to console players from losing teams. After Germany’s win, Schweinsteiger pantomimed a kiss with a teammate of Polish descent. If anything, the composition of the Mannschaft, as the national team is known, has encouraged tolerance, not exclusion: Mesut Özil, Sami Khedira, and Jerome Boateng — all of at least partial non-European descent — have become some of Germany’s biggest stars, and through them immigrant groups have identified with Germany’s native-born population.

The sense of unease in Monday’s commentary testifies to the worry that accomplishments on the soccer field might lead to the kind of nationalism that once fueled Nazi aggression, despite Germany’s staunch postwar commitment to a modest, often anti-war role on the world stage. Germany is an economic superpower, but it refused to join Western airstrikes in Libya, opposed the war in Iraq, and has positioned itself as a broker between Russia and the West in the current crisis in Ukraine.

No one is claiming that the German win over Argentina is about to spark an invasion of France, but it is perhaps a uniquely German phenomenon that the feelings sparked by athletic triumph be linked with an old and rejected brand of nationalism that once led to war. For decades, German political expression has been a balancing act — between enthusiasm and restraint, pride and humility. On Sunday, the apparent contradictions of those priorities were gracefully smoothed over. “The team remained calm and patient,” captain Philipp Lahm said after the match. Earlier, he had walked to the top of Maracanã Stadium to hoist the trophy, and to meet the chancellor.

That same sense of calm isn’t evident among some of the German commentariat.