Broken Daughters

Picking up the shattered glass of fundamentalism

America/Europe: National pride


The following are my observations and in no way evaluations or judgements on either side.

National pride was something I grew up with, like most Americans. You may not even consider yourself a distinctively “proud” or “national” American. But after a year in Europe, I can tell you that you most likely ARE a very proud American.

My Dad was very nationalist and very proud to be American. As it’s a duty for most fundamentalists my Dad is very republican in his political views. I grew up saluting the flag, wearing flag colors for July 4th and repeating phrases like “There’s no country like ours” and “America, Land of the free”. My Dad was convinced that no country in the world had freedom of religion like the US. So, growing up in an environment where publically showing pride was a standard I was used to expressing this pride and never was shunned for it.

When I moved to Europe, specifically Germany, I quickly realized that things were different. Very different.

You, my readers, and I, we should make a bet. If you ever come to Germany and you can find one single person on the street who will tell you “I’m proud to be a German”, I’ll pay for your hotel. You can stay at the Berlin Hilton President suite if you like. I’m not worried to lose this bet.

My mother too put very heavy weight on our german heritage. She raised us believing that our “German” qualities like reliability, timeliness and good work ethics were something to be proud of. As kids, we were really proud to be both German and American, to speak both languages. We pretty much thought we were the best of two worlds.

So when I arrived here my very republican point of view how things should be done as well as my typical American national pride turned out to be a shocker for everyone around me.

It starts with flags. In the US you see the American flag pretty much everywhere, houses, public buildings, taxis, you name it, there’s probably a flag on it. You won’t find any flags here. People are ASHAMED of their flag. A flag is not a sign of national pride but a sign of being a national-socialist. A person with a flag somewhere is automatically a Nazi, and I’m not making this up. The Germans themselves consider this to be true. You could literally burn a German flag on the biggest square in Berlin, I doubt anybody would show a negative reaction or a reaction at all. Sure, they might look your way, but they’d mostly ignore you. Nobody would be hurt or offended.

Singing the national anthem is another thing. For one it’s rarely done, but people also don’t take much pride in it. Matter of fact, many people don’t even sing along out of fear they might be considered a Nazi.

When I first started finding friends here they asked me a lot of questions about the US, many which I couldn’t answer. But I remember somebody saying something along the lines of “You Americans are so proud of your country, why is that?”. I blurted out all those lines my Dad told me and received quite a bunch of funny looks. “Don’t you think it’s arrogant? How can you be proud of something you didn’t earn but were born into? How can you say this when you haven’t been anywhere else in the world?”. I was surprised and said “Well, I don’t know, but you’re proud to be a German too aren’t you?”. His answer flabbergasted me: “No, I’m not. If anything, I’m ashamed.”

I was longing to know why people were rejecting their own country, their nationality. They will not tell you when they don’t know you, when you aren’t friends with them. They will end the conversation and feel very offended that you had the guts to ask things like that. Nationality is a very very sore spot for them.

Over time however I was introduced to the mindset behind this lack of pride. And to my surprise it’s a very strange one.

My generation here in Germany takes blame for the holocaust, as simple as that. They feel personally responsible. It’s not something their grandparents or great-grandparents did, it’s something THEY did. They don’t differentiate between two generations ago and now. They feel responsible for what happened as well as responsible to avoid it happening again. And for them the only way to avoid it is to completely avoid every hint of pride in their nationality. It isn’t something “they” did, it’s something “we” did.

As a matter of fact people are very hurt that movies depict the Germans as the bad guys even when it’s not a WW2 movie. These movies actually hurt the people in a way that is almost incomprehensible to us Americans. They make them feel shamed, exposed, just as if you would undress them and make them walk down the street.

A while ago, a Tom Cruise movie, Valkyrie, came out. It tells the story of a group of German rebels trying to kill Hitler and it’s a real story. This movie came up in one of the discussions I had with my friends and I was surprised just how strong the emotions were towards this simple Hollywood movie. People were actually emotionally hurt that this actual event was made into a Hollywood movie and even worse, that none of the actors were German. People felt this was violating one of the very few things and German heroes they were proud of. They felt that Americans were trying to make it “American”. It’s very hard to explain how exactly they felt about it, and I couldn’t really understand at first but I do now. It’s an almost sacred part of history to them and one of the very few sources for them to base “We weren’t all monsters” on.

On the other hand Inglorious Basterds by Tarantino was praised and loved here. Yes, it is YET ANOTHER WW2 movie and people are really fed up with it, but Tarantino made one smart move: He invited some German actors. And the fact that he ended up with not only one but THREE actors was seen as something very healing for them. Finally, they get to take part in how Germans are depicted in Hollywood movies. Yes, there was a really terrible monster German in it, but he was played by an actual German and that alone was enough to help people deal with the movie. It gave them the chance to say “Yes, we are bad people, but at least we can play ourselves for once.”. How strange is that?

Even if I sometimes get strange looks and even negative reactions I refuse to take part in the general blame-taking mentality here. I’m still proud to be 50% American and I’m still proud to be 50% German and I show both. I will keep celebrating July 4th openly and I will run around with German flags if we ever win the Soccer world championship again. Yes, both sides made a fair share of mistakes in the past and still do, there are idiots in both countries, but I’m not taking the blame just because someone I have never met screwed up once or twice.


23 thoughts on “America/Europe: National pride

  1. Wow- this is one of your most interesting posts, Lisa! I had no idea that many German’s feel this way… It’s interesting to me, because of an experience I had recently:
    There is a movie out in the States right now called “The Help”. It’s about the black maids living and working in white people’s homes in Mississippi in the 1960s, and the racism they endured. The book is even better than the movie. However, the realization that this sort of racism and hate took place in our country, not that long ago, shocks and hurts me. And, I too, feel shame and remorse for the the fact that the US had slaves, lynchings, public beatings, made them use separate facilities, etc. Although I wasn’t even born for another couple of decades, I still felt great shame that these things have occurred. I guess that is something to remember: that what we do as a generation will be carried by the next, and even the ones after that!
    Thanks for your thought provoking writing!

    • You know, when I started understanding this whole “German shame” mindset, I started wondering how Americans can so easily forget about the slavery times. Suffering is suffering is suffering. Of course the holocaust has a completely different dimension, but it’s not fair to say “oh come on, it wasn’t as bad as the holocaust” to any suffering individual. I read this book where German war witnesses talked about meeting the American military after the war. There was one story that provoked some thoughts in me: A man talked about meeting a black soldier. He was 12 years old and had never seen a black person before. He said that he was very afraid of him but the soldier was very nice and gave him candy, so he quickly forgot about the bad things he thought of black people. But what I personally was wondering: This black soldier certainly went back to America, and what was he treated like there? A war hero, certainly, but did he still have to sit in the back of the bus? Was he still excluded from white benches and restrooms? How did he feel about the fact that he brought freedom to a country, a freedom he himself would not have back home? I think this was a very torturous feeling for all black people at the time – knowing that they fight for a freedom they can’t live.

  2. I have to disagree with you here. You are saying you’re proud to belong to a country, but you won’t take the blame for the bad things this country did. But if you won’t take blame for that, would you take credit for the good things? And, finally, if you don’t feel as part of yourself neither the good things or the bad things your country did, then what are you proud of?

    I think I understand the Germans in this story. When part of your identity is shared with the identity of your country, then the things your country did are also at some extent part of you. That’s why you feel strongly about things you personally didn’t do. I’m a citizen of a country with a nasty history, too, and so I can identify with the Germans in this story. That’s the reason why two generations or ten generations don’t matter: it’s part of the country’s history, and that history is part of the german’s personal identity.

    In order to feel nothing personally about my country’s bad deeds, I’d have to change my perspective and think it really wasn’t the country who did the bad thing; it was just some individuals. And I’m not one of those individuals, therefore the bad thing has nothing to do with me. That’s a rather individualistic perspective, but then of course Americans are famous for, among other things, their individualism.

    • Ah, you pretty much hit the nail on the head. I thought about your questions for some time now and I can’t really come up with a good answer. Maybe it’s really part of my very individualist American viewpoint.
      You see, coming from a religious background where sin is transfered to everybody and where you believe that you still have to suffer for Adam and Eve’s sins, I very much struggle with the concept of sin now. It feels very much like just with Adam and Eve’s sin, the sins of the people in the past are transfered to me and I’m just sick of suffering for a sin I didn’t commit. I actually reject the belief system of sin by mere birth now and that’S probably why I refuse to see past sins of a country as my own. I think rememberence is very important, I believe things CAN happen again if we don’t watch ourselves, but taking the blame isn’t right either. And no, I also don’t think you should take credit for anything you didn’t take part in. If tomorrow an American doctor comes up with the ultimate cure for cancer, I’d never be proud of America, or even be proud to be American just cause that guy was American. It’s his accomplishment, not mine.
      I think what I’m proud of are the values each country stands for. I’m proud of the American values, such as pursuit of happiness, and I’m proud of German values, such as helping each other via public health care and such. My pride is rather unhistoric.

      • Thanks for your reply. I see what you’re saying. The values thing adds a new, more important dimension to this which totally went above my head yesterday. It’s not so much individualism vs. collectivism as it is theory (values) vs. practice (history). America is founded on values: the preamble to the declaration of independence; the bill of rights; Manifest Destiny. It’s a designed nation, a fresh start in a way none of the other American countries are. It makes sense for the citizens of such a nation to stand for the principles upon which the nation was built rather than for its history. Ours on the other hand are evolved nations; there are no foundational values, we just kind of went along through time. That’s where I think the difference on how our respective countries influence us personally comes from.

        • Personally I think it’s very important to take pride in values. It makes it easier to actually stand up and do something when things go the wrong way. Unfortunately I feel like this is often forgotten, in the US just as much as in Europe. A lot of things are going wrong but hey, we’re proud citizens so we won’t critize the practices, kind of like that…

  3. Amazing insights. I would never have guessed. When I was in college many, many years ago, I was taught that the pre-World War II generation talked of the greatness that was Prussia and the generation born in the late 50’s and 60’s were interested in reuniting Germany from West, East and “Lost” but the World War II generation was ashamed of bringing the Nazi party and Hitler to power. Since then, the only thoughts I’ve actually heard from Germany was a couple of years ago. We had a couple of exchange students from Germany and at the beginning of the school year they were reported to have said to the other students: “you really do talk to your flag.”

    Thanks for your insights. It’s interesting to see how other cultures feel about themselves as well as how they feel about us.

    • “they were reported to have said to the other students: “you really do talk to your flag.”
      That sounds like something they would say. It’s very hard for them to watch people be so proud and nationalist, no matter where they are from. They don’t even mean to hurt anybody by saying that, it’s based more on two thoughts: First, “we” are responsible to stop radical nationalism, and second, “we” don’t want to look like Nazis so we better say something totally unnationalist. It’s their way of protecting themselves really. I don’t think they even thought much about their statement.

  4. Ask a German where is he from and he’ll answer with the name of a city, almost 100% probability. Here in Lisbon we have this giant flag on Paque Eduardo VII, a small park right in the heart of the city really close to my old univ campus; everyday I look at it I feel sick. Portuguese fascist nationalist regime fell just three decades ago, do you really expect us to be ok with national symbols ostentation? I’m openly against exacerbated nationalism since it always implies a value judgement of the “we’re better than…” type. I’d rather bet in people than in nations. I work in the international cooperation area and I can assure that such feelings are suficient to break any cooperation project. Good article though!

    • “Ask a German where is he from and he’ll answer with the name of a city, almost 100% probability.” Oh I wanted to mention this but forgot about it! 100% accurate, they’ll either name the city or the German state they’re from (e.g. Bavaria). A research even proved that a vast majority of Germans considers themselves members of the city – then the state – then European. “German” is hardly ever considered their identity.

      Of course I believe many other countries have similar issues and problems, but I didn’t want to generalize or talk about something I don’t know about (like the Portugese situation). Thanks for your comment and input, though!
      “it always implies a value judgement of the “we’re better than…” type. I’d rather bet in people than in nations.”
      Exactly my point of view!

  5. “When I moved to Europe, specifically Germany, I quickly realized that things were different. Very different.”
    Well…take a trip to a local sauna. THEN you know how different things are 😉

    PS: if you are in Berlin, I would rather look for the word “spa” then the word “sauna” if you wanna try out.

  6. Really interesting post Lisa! I’m sure that Germans’ attitudes are shaped partly by the holocaust, but not entirely. In general Europeans just don’t do national pride. I’m British and here anyone who expresses patriotic views or national pride is seen as extremist and a little dangerous. In fact, we’re quite proud of not being proud. I think you’re right that we see nationalism as arrogant so we’re proud of not being arrogant. Does that make sense? I guess you have to be European to understand it. I think it’s partly due to Europe being post-colonial and reacting against the imperialistic mentality of the 19th century. The differences between America and Europe are so fascinating and I love hearing your insights.

    • “In fact, we’re quite proud of not being proud. I think you’re right that we see nationalism as arrogant so we’re proud of not being arrogant. ”
      Yes that makes sense and I think your statement sums up a very strange fact about Europeans.
      Talking about proud not to be proud and being proud not to be nationalist in any way: I once encountered a person who, when I asked him what nationality he was, told me “I don’t believe in nationalities. I see myself as a citizen of the world.” I had to do my best to stop myself from laughing out loud. Yeah, right, cause we all get along so well and help each other like brothers and sisters. If that’s the nation you’re from, I don’t want to be a world citizen because people kill and torture each other in the most cruel ways all over the place.

  7. It’s not just the holocaust, this is a very European thing. For example, I grew up in Switzerland and I never knew(nor do I still) what the Swiss national anthem is. Even in England, I heard the anthem on TV sometimes, but I certainly was never encouraged to learn the words. But when I was 15, I moved to the States and suddenly I was told that I had to say the Pledge every morning, and I had to learn the anthem, and if I had a flag, I couldn’t let it touch the ground (something I learned around the fourth when the teachers were handing little flags out to the students and I dropped mine).

    I thought it was insane. For one thing, I resented being forced to pledge my allegiance to a country I had been dragged to by my parents. But combine the ubiquitous flags, the chants, the songs, the special hand signals (put your hand on your hearrt), and the giant portrait of Clinton in the school lobby and I seriously started to wonder if the US wasn’t heading towards its own Nazi party. And the Bush got elected and I moved to Canada as soon as I could.

    • I never went to a public school so I don’t know about the morning rituals and such, but I heard that before. I’m not trying to insult anybody but I do think that, if it’s mandatory to take part in this, it might be unfair or hard for some students who come there for only a year for exchange and have no intention to stay. You know, kind of like I learned to despise every politican who claims that America is “God’s chosen nation” or “One nation under God” even. I think that’s a blatant act against religious freedom of those who have more than one God, or a different God than the Christian one, or no God at all even. I think they should keep their hands off anything religious because that’s just not right. It’s kind of like saying “Yes, you can have any religion you want, but remember: We’re one nation under THE CHRISTIAN GOD.”
      I totally understand your comparison to the nazi party, I’ve heard that several times. I think it’s very hard for Europeans to hear and see these things and the extreme national pride. As I said, I never reflected about this in America because it’s just normal. It’s what everybody does and you don’t think about that there might be people/countries which don’t do it that way.

      • It’s not just for visiting students, but I’d even question the legitimacy of forcing any children to pledge their allegiance to anything is such a socially coercive manner (schools technically aren’t allowed to punish you from abstaining, but it looks quite different to a kids in the situation), let alone force them to reaffirm their pledge on a daily basis.

        I don’t mind national pride, but it needs to come from the individual, a spontaneous response to something the country is or does. This kids of top-down, enforced, public pride is simply never appropriate.

        And I agree totally with your “Christian nation” complaint. This isn’t a Christian nation – it’s a melting pot comprised of a great many people from a great many backgrounds.

        • “And I agree totally with your “Christian nation” complaint. This isn’t a Christian nation – it’s a melting pot comprised of a great many people from a great many backgrounds.”
          And it should stay that way because anything else only fuels disrespect, suspicion and eventually hate between the different groups of people. “I am more American than you because I’m a christian”. Reminds me of “We are all equal, but some are more equal than others”.

  8. I know a number of German people living in the US for work and I agree that partially Germans think of any patriotism as nationalism and dangerous. They are very conscious of the fact that they don’t want anything like that to ever happen again. I am glad I am American and am happy I was born here. It is a great piece of land with many wonderful people and aspects about it. I am not overtly patriotic because the USA is not all good, it is not always right. How can I feel pride in something I had nothing to do with? Lucky me for being born here!

  9. In Sapin, it’s quite curious because some people feel very proud of being spanish and others don’t but invariably the flag has been taken as a personal symbol by the most repressive hating people. The ones who want to beat up gay people, to prohibit the other languages except the Spanish in Spain or look over the shoulder to people with less money than them are the ones who have the spanish flag in all their possesions. This makes that the only times a normal person is proud of using Spain’s flag is when we win a football match or when we are in a foreign country OTL

  10. The German people took part in a systematic slaughter of 6 million Jews, and initiated a war that killed millions more around the entire world. I am not saying the USA or any other country is immune to that sort of thing, but in the timeline of history, the events are still fresh enough that veterans of that brutal war and victims of the concentration camps are still living. You don’t get over that sort of collective shame in 100 years. Maybe not even 200. It is the massive number of Germans who saw the railroad cars filled with screaming prisoners on their way to death camps, or the ones who did not question the ashes falling from the skies of concentration camps, and the national pride that went beyond healthy patriotism into worship of the Volk that has Germans now erring on the side of humility, and that is exactly where they should be. Anyone who says they are proud to be a German is insensitive to the pain that nation caused our world. Perhaps when victims of the holocaust are no longer unwilling to even set foot on German soil because the very language makes them shake with terror . . . perhaps when all the lingering racism and antisemitism that still exists in Germany fades away – it has taken the US over 100 years after eliminating slavery to recover some sense of pride, but even now I do not gloat and brag about my pride in being an American. I have no pride – I am grateful to be born in a nation of so much wealth and opportunity, but it is only by chance I was born here, and I personally do not feel pride in something as predetermined and chance-oriented as the location a person is born is of any good. It only divides.

  11. I’m German and I too find it hard (if not even impossible) to say “I’m proud to be German”. I’m not because it’s something I didn’t “deserve” in any way, but simply got like I got blue eyes. However, Im very much connected to our history and espeically our culture – and that’s something I am proud on. And – as ironic as this may sound – I’m rather proud on how my country handles its terrible past. My father, born in 1918, was part of it in so far that he just kept quiet and laid low. However, he learned from this past and he taught his children (my brother and me) to stand up for our democracy and for human rights. I think Germany as it is today is a great country to live in and we Germans have learned our lessons. So perhaps I’m a bit proud to be German – only it’s difficult to say so because one doesn’t want to become mixed up with Neo-nazis and other idiots.

  12. German “Vergangenheitsbewältigung” is great. Something we sadly lack in Hungary…

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