Germany fumbles with its identity on national day

Many Germans seem not to be sure what is German and what is not these days

The Irish have St Patrick’s Day, the Americans and French rally on July 4th and 14th respectively, but what about the Germans? For the past 26 years they have had the Day of German unity.

It recalls the day in 1990 when two Germanys became one, but it has always been a strangely artificial holiday, picked at random by bureaucrats.

Many people wanted November 9th as their national holiday, the anniversary of the night the Berlin Wall was breached in 1989. But ex-chancellor Helmut Kohl decided that the day was already choked with history: including the Kaiser's dethroning in 1918, Hitler's 1923 beer hall putsch and the so-called Kristallnacht of 1938, the Nazi night of violence against Jews.

Central dilemma

As an outsider looking on,

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Germany

on October 3rd doesn’t seem so much to celebrate as take note of itself.

In one way it is liberating to experience such a laissez-faire national holiday. But such a light-touch approach is a reminder of this country’s central dilemma: how do you celebrate your nation when the last century’s disasters have rendered nationalism taboo?

In previous decades, post-war Germany found surrogates for national pride: German cars, the European project or the national soccer team. While the first two have stuttered of late, the national 11 still delivers.

Younger Germans wrap themselves in the national flag at match time, but older ones still fumble with their identity like a stubborn jar of pickles. Asked a few years ago what she associated with Germany, chancellor Angela Merkel replied: well-sealed windows. Now German windows really are a wonder, as are German doors – they open and close as they should, unlike many in Ireland – but are doors and windows the stuff German dreams are made of?

After a quarter century renovating their common home, Germany is facing a crisis just as it gets to the tricky part: how to fill the home with life.

The arrival of 1.3 million asylum seekers in the last 18 months – and negative headlines involving a small number of these new arrivals – has forced onto the agenda a question the country’s leaders have avoided since 1990. What is German – and what is not?

There is a hole in modern Germany’s heart and it’s striking how, these days, those sounding the alarm are Germans with a migrant background.

"A country needs something around which people can gather," argues Lamya Kaddor, a teacher born in 1978 in Germany to Syrian parents,

In her new book – The Tensile Test: How Fear of the Other Endangers Our Democracy – she points out that people only understand a country when they feel a connection to it. But how realistic is it to demand new arrivals to Germany to connect to their adoptive home, demanded regularly in recent months, if this Germany is emotionally alien to many of the natives?

Germany is drowning in “discussion decadence”, writes Ms Kaddor fretting endlessly about a rise in racism, and xenophobia while failing to define, clearly and simply, why such behaviour is at odds with German way of life – because the German way of life has never been clearly defined.

That has provided an opening to the minority who have very firm views indeed: the “Wutbürger”, so-called furious citizens, at both ends of Germany’s societal spectrum.

Fanning fury

The far-right AfD and

Pegida

groups cultivate these “Wutbürger” by fanning both their fury at Germany’s supposed decline and their outrage over how other Germans – voters, journalists, politicians – fail to agree with them.

Their promise of certainty in uncertain times is the means by which AfD and Pegida want to bring Germany in line with Le Pen's France to the west and Kaczynski's Poland to the east. But, unlike their populist neighbours, Germany's AfD and Pegida are operating in a land where the foundation stones are uncertain national identity, making their populist, nationalist promise doubly tempting.

Unsettling times

For finance minister Wolfgang Schäuble, a negotiator on Germany’s 1990 unification treaty, these are unsettling times. While other politicians make abstract demands for new arrivals to abide by the constitution – threatening them with the law if they don’t – Dr Schäuble argues that this betrays a chronic lack of confidence: an inability to reach out to new arrivals in a positive way and make them feel that they belong.

“Self-confidence works wonders, and it has to be clear what we mean when we speak of our way of life,” he wrote last week.

“Only then will it become clear to ourselves and others what we want to achieve. And to this ‘we’ should belong as many people as possible, regardless of origin or belief.”