Friday, June 27, 2014

What Colors (are) Your Nation? Nationalism and the World Cup

Petra Kottsieper, Ph.D

A day after a vital soccer game where the US played Germany in the world cup (and thankfully both teams advanced into the next round), I have been thinking about soccer, the construct of pride and national identity.  As a native German who came to this country in 1991, I have been firmly rooting for Germany unless my adopted home team (USA) is playing. However, for yesterday’s game I went red, gold and black all the way. This raises the following question; what is it about the world cup, and soccer specifically, that has suddenly seemed to make it okay to me to paint my nails in the above colors, something I would have not been caught dead doing when younger?

This post is not about the merits of soccer, which I understand can be boring for people not raised on it. This post is about nationalism, pride and identity.  See, if you grew up German and were in my particular high school in the 1970's, your high school history curriculum consisted of pretty much the Third Reich and the Second World War.  We did not just learn “facts” but were asked questions such as “would you have sheltered a Jewish neighbor when they were in danger of being deported?” …… and the answers to these questions never came easy.  And they should have never come easily. Because how do you know for sure what you would do when your own life might be at stake? 

Grappling with my country’s WW2 history, similar to the generation before mine, left a shameful and horrible taste in our collective mouths. Were we guilty as a nation? Were we guilty as individuals?  The question of the condition under which people can commit terrible acts of torture and extermination, and if Germans had a special psychological or constitutional “propensity “ for this were investigated in social psychology research.  The famous Milgram experiments that started in 1961, uncomfortably demonstrated that “average” people administered at times deadly fake (unknown to them) shocks to others in a learning study. These experiments were some of the most famous investigations into the issue of conformity to authority.  Several other studies like this were conducted here in the US and these studies showed that under certain conditions a lot of people might do things that after the fact they themselves might be horrified by.

What does any of this have to do with soccer?  Soccer is one of the few team sports that is played all over the world. And, while of course it is as corporate as anything else these days, it can be played anywhere you can set up a goal and give people a ball. It makes people identify with their team, which really in the end for most people is about identifying with their city or town in league soccer, or their country in the case of the World Cup.  I also learned quickly, and to my utter amazement, that in the US seemingly few people have issues with showing their pride of being American at sporting events.

Just yesterday, an extremely vocal contingent of US fans had decided to watch the game in a German bar, which initially I thought would make watching the game even more fun.  However, it became clear very quickly that these particular fans seemed kind of oddly determined to drown out the Germans present, shouting them down with “USA USA” chants and “We believe we can win” (even when the game had 1 minute left and they were clearly losing). This had the rather odd effect of making the Germans become quiet instead of yelling back, and I observed several Germans in my vicinity shaking their heads at these fans, or just laughing at this very overt display of nationalism. 

You need to know, if you do not already, that draping yourself in flags and national colors and walking about the street chanting “Germany” is something you would have never seen when I grew up in Germany unless you had some kind of fascist tendencies. Nationalism, or national “pride” was often equated with fascism. And seeing this kind of display yesterday in the US carried out with such ease and apparent thoughtlessness, makes me uncomfortable....

However, as I think back to the World Cup in 2010, I see a change in the outward display of German nationalism.  I, for the first time, noted significant numbers of people carrying German flags (both here and in Germany) and wearing little cute face flag painting etc.  And I painted my nails for the first time. It was and remains odd for me to do, but I have come to realize that identifying with my heritage is not the same as thinking it is better than anyone else’s. I identify with being German, because I was raised on Rainer Fassbinder movies, read Herman Hesse, Boell, and Grass in high school, grew up on the humor of Loriot and Otto, love Broetchen and Nutella for breakfast and knew that when the bus schedule says the bus comes at 10:02 am and I showed up at 10:03 I was sheer out of luck.   

I watch World Cup soccer because I love the game. I wear the colors of the country that shaped me with joy, but also with a sharp awareness that we can and should never forget its victims;  and hope that our re-identification will never be equated with exceptionalism.