Nationalism and Ice Cream
At a time when Britain and the US backslide under illusions of past glory, when millions of Indians, Italians, French, and Israelis prove willing to vote for an extreme and overtly racist nationalism, and China interns millions of Uyghur Muslims in the same pursuit of a homogenised population, the successes of Germany are noteworthy.
It might be seen as an insight that the country that tested nationalism to its furthest limits now has the least interest in it. Despite a right-wing voice that argues young Germans should not be raised to be ashamed of their national history, the obvious response is probably that they should be, but – more seldom observed – that in a world of misplaced pride there is maybe no shame in being ashamed of national nostalgias.
Each time I visit or journey through, Germany feels like an example of the value in shedding an indiscriminate sense of historical pride. As an outsider that over the years has come to know the culture fairly well, Germany always felt to me like a great celebration of the joy in ordinary life.
Munich is no exception. Bicycles outnumber cars, the air is clean, once spring is more advanced, people will swim from the beaches along the Isar river that runs through the city. I always have a strong admiration for the ability of Germans to have either ice cream or beer even in the morning, as if this reflects some deeper understanding of the need to enjoy life sensibly but at all times. Having been involved over the years with politics concerning improvements to London’s urban design, the word “liveability” is often used to name the culture I am trying to describe, but where in London I’ve only really known the word spoken by committed campaigners, in Munich it comes up a few times as people simply describe what they like about their city. “It’s very liveable.”
Something about all this seems like an antidote to nationalism. If liveability is concerned with an actual healthy enjoyment of the present, and lower needs for ideas of a glorious past or future, nationalism is much the opposite: the offer of a glorious past or high promises for the future, but often grounded squarely in the declining living conditions of the present.
The German creation of this counter-nationalist discourse is of course not entirely painless, nor is it without reminders of how such a thing came about. Dachauer Strasse, a once-industrial part of Munich now gentrifying as central rents climb higher, leads out of the city and towards Dachau, where under 20km away is the site of one of the most infamous Nazi concentration camps. More subtly, and maybe at-odds with the wider spirit of public health, the presence of smoking indoors in so many German bars is a testament to a culture that takes it as a duty to reject a state’s power to control people’s personal choices.
Despite this maintenance, still, the boundaries of debate are far from clean-cut. The 2014 World Cup win by a young and mixed German football team, overlapping as it did with the country’s strong commitment to hosting Syrian refugees, became a convenient marker for this new Germany and an age in which, after the horrors of the twentieth century, it was finally OK to be proud to be German.
Four years later, however, the German-Turkish playmaker, Mesut Özil – one of the stars of that team – retired from international football after insults he received for poor performances and having a public meeting with Turkish President Erdoğan. “I am German when we win, an immigrant when we lose,” was his synopsis of the situation at the time, and he has not played since.
Whether because of Germany’s vocal objection to certain types of visitors (best enshrined in Berlin’s actions to curb the airbnb platform), or some hostility towards a British person at a time of Brexit, one afternoon I end up in an argument with a waiter annoyed at the size of a tip. He quickly finds his way to the sentence, “I don’t know where you’re from but …” trailing away but having already invoked the words’ spectre of racism.
And so, as everywhere, things are far from straightforward. Germany continues to show quietly that investment at home, exports abroad, and support for a rules-based global order are a good path to prosperity. Despite the dangerous resurgence of its far-right AfD Party, it is also unique as a global power in regarding nationalism as mostly a force to be feared rather than cultivated.
At a time when Britain and the US backslide under illusions of past glory, when millions of Indians, Italians, French, and Israelis prove willing to vote for an extreme and overtly racist nationalism, and China interns millions of Uyghur Muslims in the same pursuit of a homogenised population, the successes of Germany are noteworthy. Implicit to its achievements, whether footballing or economic, is a reminder that nationalism tends to deliver not just moral failings but also poor outcomes. While the word ‘strongman’ is erroneously used to describe the most weak-minded and hypersensitive overreactions of today’s dominant groups, a world of liveability, stripped of its delusions, might, in the end, offer the truer version of what national strength really looks like.