Football brings to surface complex changes in German identity


BERLIN LETTER:Members of Berlin’s thriving extreme left have launched a campaign to stem the tide of flag-waving flooding Germany during the World Cup

FROM WATER pipes to weapons, you can buy almost everything in Berlin’s Sonnenallee. But the main drag of the multicultural neighbourhood of Neuköln, home to countless families with Turkish, Arab and Palestinian roots, is not known for embracing all things German.

Four years ago when the world – and the World Cup – came to Germany, the young men who populate the Sonnenallee tea rooms round the clock cheered on every other country but Germany. But since 2006, as the sea of German flags now fluttering from Sonnenallee balconies and kebab stands suggests, something has changed.

One apartment building has gone all out with a massive flag – 20 metres by five metres – fluttering from the fifth floor down to the ground-floor shop of Yussuf Bassal.

He organised the flag with his neighbours, he says, to show his pride in Germany’s most multicultural national side to date. But not everyone is happy with the minor miracle on the Sonnenallee.

Last week, black-clad men in masks stormed up to the building’s attic and snipped the flag cord, sending it tumbling to the street.

Another tried to set the flag on fire – without success.

Last Friday, matters came to a head when another group of black-clad young men entered Yussuf Bassal’s mobile phone shop and ordered him to remove the flag.

They are members of Berlin’s thriving extreme left scene who have launched a campaign to stem the tide of flag-waving and national pride flooding Germany during the World Cup.

In left-wing internet forums, their Canute-like campaign has turned into a competition.

Currently in the lead is a group calling itself the Kommando Kevin-Prince Boateng Berlin-East – named after the controversial German-Ghanian football player.

“We’ve have relieved 1,657 red-black-gold idiots,” wrote the Kommando in an internet posting.

For the left-wing “autonomous” scene, the World Cup flag-waving is another stop on the slippery slope of pride-soaked national events that began with the election of Pope Benedict XVI and continued with this year’s Eurovision win.

“It seems as if the Germans are longing for a new basis for identification that makes it possible for the German state to push its past into the background,” said Ines Müller, spokesperson for the Kommandos.

“But present and past cannot be denied. The wars in Serbia and Afghanistan, the EU’s uncontrolled thirst for power and innovation capitalism . . . are all the new German reality.”

It’s a somewhat simplistic campaign against a German national identity that has never been more complex.

From 1913 to 1999, German nationality was decided not by place of birth ( jus soli) but by descent – jus sanguinisor “right of blood”.

You were either born German or you weren’t – preventing millions of long-time resident migrants from obtaining German passports.

Loosening the restrictive citizenship laws had many unintentional effects such as winning new football talent that might otherwise never have donned the German jersey.

It was only with the 2006 World Cup team that public notions on nationality began to shift – helped along by a new generation of brilliant young players like the Polish-born Lukas Podolski.

The 2010 team is even more mixed, with new national heroes bearing names like Özil, Cacau, Gomex and Khedira.

“That this team is successful has a lot of symbolic power and attracts much positive attention,” says Prof Gunter Gebauer, philosopher and sports sociologist at Berlin’s Free University.

“Players like Özil are appealing young men who help carry the team discipline, enrich the German game and lift the ‘traditional’ German players.”

Ahead of Germany’s quarter-final clash with Argentina on Saturday, the massive flag on the Sonnenallee has become a symbol for the ever-prickly question of German nationality.

On an internet forum, left-wingers have put a “100 point bounty” on the flag – to steal it or “put it out of action”.

After organising round-the-clock watches, the families in the Sonnenallee removed the flag but will hoist it again for Saturday’s Germany match.

For Mr Bassal, his family and neighbours, it’s a bizarre situation.

For decades German right-wingers have either ignored them or accused them of rejecting German culture.

Now they are being targeted by left-wingers for embracing their new home.

“They see us as immigrants,” said Mr Bassal who, like all his family, holds German citizenship.

“They don’t understand that there are Germans who aren’t from Germany who would like to defend Germany and cheer it on.”

As the battle over the Sonnenallee rolls on, culture watchers believe the effects of the 2010 championship will linger.

“Football only ever brings to the surface change that is already happening deep in a society,” says Prof Gebauer of the Free University.

“And there’s a lot changing in Germany’s attitude to its nationality.”