Yesterday Germany handily won Group A of the World Cup, defeating Ecuador 3-0 (their third straight victory) and advancing to the next round of competition. This wasn’t a huge surprise; Group A wasn’t exactly the strongest of groups this year, and the German team is quite the powerhouse behind stars like Miroslav Klose. So on march the Germans into the round of 16, facing Sweden on Saturday.

The press coverage of this has been very interesting. Everyone seems to feel the need to comment on the fact that the German public is celebrating and waving flags, displaying various symbols of the nation, and generally acting proud of their country. No one bats an eye when the populations of other countries engage in such behavior, but Germany — there’s a special case. Something about a Second World War, goose-stepping troops, attempts to dominate Europe by force of arms. You know, small things.

In order to understand this situation, and in order to understand why I think that this upsurge of German nationalism is nothing to be at all concerned about — contrary to the trepidation about national identity expressed by a vast number of liberal commentators and philosophers — we need to take a little excursion back to the early postwar period in Europe. Having just written a book on the subject, I think I’m reasonably well qualified to do just that.

May 1945: the German government, or what was left of it (a few officials holed up in a schoolhouse in Flensburg) surrendered unconditionally to the Allied forces. The country was in a shambles, with a lot of transportation and communication infrastructure in ruins. The invading troops also discovered evidence of war crimes and crimes against humanity as they liberated various concentration and extermination camps, and wasted no time in publicizing what they had found — especially to the local German populace, often by lining up the local residents and marching them forcibly through the camps so that they could see the horrors with their own eyes. All of this produced a very understandable break in the previous narrative of Germany as a powerful, enlightened country destined to dominate the lesser peoples of the world, and an opportunity — even a need — for a new narrative that would place these events in comprehensible context.

Enter Konrad Adenauer, who (along with his political allies) provided just such a narrative: it wasn’t Germany’s fault, Germany was fine, Germany had also suffered under the domination of an Austrian corporal (namely, one Adolf Hitler) and had been yanked away from its proper path of serving as a powerful part of ‘the West.’ If only it had stayed true to its principles . . . but it hadn’t, and the results were clearly on display for everyone to see. Returning to those principles, and allying with countries (like the United States) that shared those principles would solve most, if not all, of Germany’s problems. Through a series of political events too complicated to detail here (I spend half of the book detailing that process, in fact), that narrative became dominant in German political and social life during the late 1940s and early 1950s, enjoying perhaps its greatest success with Germany’s accession to NATO in 1955.

The funny thing about dominant narratives, though, is that they don’t stay dominant of their own accord. This is because it’s not the content of the narrative per se that explains its dominance, but a variety of social and political factors — chief among those being the function of the narrative in holding together coalitions and knitting publicly available “rhetorical commonplaces” into a compelling account. And all of this takes practical discursive work to accomplish; it’s not as simple as “telling the truth” (which truth? whose truth?) or “fitting the facts” (which facts? whose facts?), in part because a compelling and dominant narrative produces our sense of the situation that it describes. Accepting a story about Germany as a ‘Western’ country that went astray implies certain kind of policy consequences, and it does so by casting events (the German defeat, the concentration and extermination camps) in a particular light and then drawing consequences from them. Different story, different light cast on events — different consequences. So it’s not the events themselves that keep a narrative dominant; instead, other social and political processes are what keep a narrative in place. And if those processes change or mutate, then the dominance of the narrative is placed into question. The demise of the “embedded liberalism” narrative — a narrative that used to sustain both genuinely multilateral international arrangements and domestic welfare states with a concern for full employment — during the last two decades provides a striking example of this phenomenon, as does the rapid disintegration of the Cold War “bipolarity” narrative and its replacement by a more aggressively unilateral America-as-global-liberator story. In neither case should the narrative shifts be blamed on “the objective world,” since major events like the disintegration of the Soviet Union, the oil crisis, and the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington in September 2001 could have been interpreted differently, and thus could have led to very different policy recommendations.

So what happened to the “Germany went astray but we’re back on the right track now” postwar narrative? For a variety of reasons, the generation born during and immediately after the war was nowhere near as fond of the notion of a virtually blameless “German nation” that had somehow been duped by its leaders. Part of this was just the temporal distance from the war; part of it was a series of controversies over German rearmament and the military service requirement; and part of it, quite frankly, was the death of Adenauer himself, who had been the lynchpin of the ruling coalition for years. Canny political strategy had something to do with it as well: the opposition Social Democratic Party gave up the program of extreme social revolution in favor of a slightly modified version of the “social market economy” that Adenauer’s party had instituted after the war, and used the popular dissatisfaction with military issues to articulate an alternative story: the problem was nationalism, and Germany ought to focus on being a good citizen of Europe and the Western Alliance instead of making gestures in the direction of a stronger and more independent German nation. (In fairness, this was part of Adenauer’s strategy too, but it was framed differently: Adenauer wanted to redeem the German nation, whereas the new Social Democratic strategy was in many ways more about getting over the German nation.)

The punchline here is that sometime in the 1960s, German nationalism went rather out of fashion. The equation — reinforced by observers and commentators both inside and outside of Germany — was something like: German nationalism = Nazism = A BAD THING. Exit German popular nationalism, and enter “constitutional patriotism” — the rather thin alternative offered by public intellectuals like J├╝rgen Habermas, in which people were admonished to cultivate an intellectual appreciation of the governmental structures of their country instead of a more emotional attachment to a national community. (Does anyone else think that this sounds rather suspiciously like John Locke’s condemnation of “enthusiastic” religious movements for abandoning the firm constraints of cold reason? Maybe it’s just me.) Whatever the merits of “constitutional patriotism” in a detached, ethical sense, the major drawback is that it’s just not fulfilling. As Benedict Anderson once wryly pointed out, one cannot imagine a “cenotaph for fallen Liberals,” even as the notion of a Tomb of the Unknown Soldier makes all kinds of social and political sense. There’s something emotionally compelling about waving a flag and cheering for one’s national community — or the team representing it — that doesn’t normally happen when one is engaged in a rational discussion about the strengths and weaknesses of particular constitutional regimes. But this option was largely taken off of the table for Germans, as nationalist outbursts were roundly condemned.

One of the most fascinating things about global football, and the World Cup in particular, is how firmly nationalist it all is. The country of Ghana is basically closing down early tomorrow so that people can go watch the US-Ghana match; the English are flying the St. George’s Cross in preference to the Union Jack; and a quick glance at the stands in any World Cup match reveals a sea of flags and national colors. Yes, the World Cup is about bloody good football (sometimes — Brazil has been very disappointing on the field so far), but it’s also about national pride. So it’s not at all surprising that Germans are celebrating their team’s success, and doing so in nationalist terms and terminology, with flags and banners and chants of “Deutschland, Deutschland.” What we are seeing here, I think, is yet another mutation in the dominant narrative that constitutes “Germany” — one that embraces nationalism, but combines it with anti-militarism (one does not see such cheering for German soldiers — not like in, say, the United States, where soldiers returning from Iraq get parades and celebrations galore) and a commitment to Europe. [But not to ‘the West’ — but that’s material for another post entirely.] It’s not a return to an older story; it’s a new story that, like every socially sustainable story, combines older elements into a novel construction.

Personally, I’d much rather have vigorous cheering for a football team than for soldiers — much less chance of innocents getting slaughtered, many fewer adverse effects on public discourse, and virtually no chance that a country’s population will mistake their success (or their “success”) on the field with a mandate from God to forcibly convert the whole world to their way of thinking. German nationalism, I think, is becoming normalized, and isn’t the sort of thing that keeps me up at night. American militarized nationalism? That’s another matter.

Filed as: and