A New Way of Dealing With the Past: The Young Generation in Germany Sheds Its Anxiety of Xenophobia

Students in present-day Germany learn early on: there is no denying their past. History teachers tell them that what their grandparents might have been a part of during the Second World War does not apply to them directly. However, they are still faced with prejudice in some parts of the world, with lingering suspicions that Germany never quite left its anti-Semitic and racist past behind.
Ever since evidence showed that not only a handful of individuals participated in the horror of the Nazi regime, but that ordinary people silently tolerated the atrocities, a whole nation has stood accused before the world for what happened during the Third Reich. But considerably worse than the international perspective is the view Germans have of themselves. Out of long-cherished collective memory and once-necessary self-criticism has emerged a nation that 60 years later is still unsure about the difference between national chauvinism and patriotism, and therefore continues to characterize itself as guilty of xenophobia. In today's Germany, which has been reunited for almost 20 years and whose citizens rank among those who travel most, it is hard for the "new" young generation to accept such labels when it considers itself open-minded and liberal.
It seems that many Germans perceive a large-scale resistance against expressions of patriotism as a result of the stigma of the Second World War and the Holocaust. For example, a politician's statement in March 2001 that he was "proud to be German" drew massive criticism and reignited a debate whether German patriotism in the twenty-first century was to be equated with the Third Reich and its values. Another recent example demonstrates the ambiguity of dealing with the past. Jürgen Kamm, a student from Stuttgart, sold several T-shirts showing smashed swastikas and other motifs intended to promote the fight against any form of national socialism. In 2006, he was accused by the mother of a young boy who had bought some of his T-shirts, and later fined approximately $5,000 for violating article 86a of Germany's penal code, which prohibits the utilization and display of Nazi symbols of any kind. In contrast, Rafael Seligman, a German-Jewish historian, demanded that Hitler's Mein Kampf be finally published in the country, after having been banned for 60 years. He explained that liberating the book's publication would take away its cachet-which the book does not deserve-by making it freely available and exposing it to ridicule: a step in the right direction?
Unfortunately, there have been repeated incidents in recent years that have attracted international attention and added to the ongoing misconception of Germany's citizens. One happened in the East German town of Hoyerswerda in 1991, when crowds of neo-Nazis attacked a hostel for asylum-seekers and injured 30 in successive days of clashes. Additionally, recent statistics show that not only has there been an increase in violent crimes committed by neo-Nazis-six foreigners, five of them Africans, have been killed in attacks in the formerly communist East since German reunification in 1990-but there has been increased support for far-right groups, propelling them into the political mainstream. Political parties like the National Democratic Party of Germany (NPD), which has openly praised Hitler and propounded a racist stance, won seats in Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania's regional parliament after taking a surprising 7 per cent of the vote.
In April 2006, two months before the International Federation of Football Association (FIFA) Soccer World Cup, the controversial dispute between two Germans and a German of Ethiopian origin, Ermyas Mulugeta, in Potsdam ended with the latter being admitted to hospital with extensive skull and rib injuries, where doctors induced an artificial coma. Police arrested the two men suspected of racially motivated attempted murder; one of them had links to right-wing extremists. Additionally, the victim had called his wife just before the attack and her voicemail recorded one of the attackers calling Mulugeta a "nigger".
The case was immediately debated at the national level and resulted in a string of statements and condemnations by politicians and other public figures. Federal Prosecutor Kay Nehm justified taking over the case, saying it appeared similar to other neo-Nazi attacks during recent years. Federal Chancellor Angela Merkel's office said the attack was "brutal and inhuman . we absolutely condemn hatred of foreigners, far-right violence, as well as any other violence". In contrast, some politicians like Interior Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble appeared to want to play down the threat of racist violence, saying that "blond, blue-eyed people are also victims of violence". The conservative tabloid Bild wrote: "If the attackers are guilty, then lock them up for life! This is the only solution for racism in Germany."
While reporting on the case, almost all the German media faced one daunting challenge: how to refer to Ermyas Mulugeta, who was born in Ethiopia but was granted German citizenship later on. For the attackers, he was a "nigger". In the resulting press coverage, journalists- always trying to stay politically correct-variously referred to Mulugeta as "black German" to "German with African origin", to "Ethiopian-German" or "German of black skin colour". In an editorial, German liberal newspaper taz advised journalists to stick to the labels used by the groups concerned. It seems that the most popular self-identification for Germans with African origin is simply the term "deutsche Schwarze" ("German blacks").
The majority of Germans felt disturbed by the attack on Mulugeta and showed their empathy in spontaneously organized candlelight vigils and peaceful demonstrations-with banners like "Every Victim Is One Victim Too Many-United Against Nazis"-calling on politicians as well to take urgent action. However, reports in several newspapers also stated that the victim had consumed too much alcohol during that evening and had also been involved in an altercation at a disco. After Mulugeta woke up from his coma and was asked whether he believed that the suspects were the two men who attacked him, he replied he could not say for sure that it was them. The suspects were freed for lack of evidence and the case remains unsolved.
Following the attack, the Africa Council, an umbrella organization of African community groups and activists in Germany, published a guide with "no-go areas", based on concerns over the safety of "non-white" soccer fans during the World Cup. A German Government statement called the guide "nonsense" and accused it of "causing panic", and Berlin police assured travelling soccer supporters that there were no "no-go areas" in the German capital. After all, the Government and businesses had already spent more than $28 million on a joint marketing campaign incorporating the slogan "Die Welt zu Gast bei Freunden" ("The world as a guest among friends") aimed at the 1 million foreigners expected to visit the country. Against all expectations, the World Cup proved to be a very peaceful tournament and an extremely positive advertisement for the host country. This was boosted by a massive security operation, with a total of 266,000 policemen, and the cheerful sentiment favoured by an extraordinary 30 days of sunshine. The German team's entry into the semi-final against Italy did not hurt patriotism either. For the first time since the Second World War, hundreds of thousands of flags in black, red and gold were flying over town squares across Germany, where crowds enthusiastically cheered "Deutschland! Deutschland!" People from all over the world gathered in public viewing areas to watch the soccer matches and no one felt ashamed about the massive public display of the new "German-ness". In the past, such a sight would have been greeted by the rest of the world with anxiousness, even fear.
In 2006, millions of foreigners welcomed the Germans' new love for their country and joined "the biggest party ever held between Hamburg and Munich". The World Cup has indeed changed Germany's self-perception. German patriotism has experienced a peaceful resurrection and, even in the former East Germany, young people especially seem to like the new idea of a united peaceful nation. Germans are now anxious to see if the newly erupted "soccer-patriotism" will last. It is no longer a question of how many cars drive around with German flags attached to their windshields; rather, it is now about proudly standing up for the country without forgetting its dark past.
The international community has acknowledged the efforts Germany has shown as a member of the democratic world since 1945. Maybe Germans themselves will be able to cast off their racist past and begin to feel free to take civic pride in their recent democratic accomplishments. "Germany is a great country, but its dark past gives it special responsibilities", said Ignatius Joseph, a German fashion entrepreneur of Sri Lankan origin. Now there is a new generation ready to face the future.