My Lufthansa seat mate was understandably proud of Germany’s technological prowess (they invented the mp3, among other things), status as a financial and political bulwark for the European Union, and its compassion and support for the down and out. The outstanding food, beautiful scenery, and dramatic, tragic history are nothing to sneer at either. But was he proud to be German? Well, um, that’s actually a very hard question, he told me.
If you want to make a German squirm, just ask them if they’re proud to be German. It’s actually difficult for them to answer. Because of their Nazi past, they’re highly leery of nationalism, though they’ll cheer for the German soccer team in the world cup just as enthusiastically as any other European would do for his. They’re more comfortable with their regional identities. A Colognial knows down to the marrow of his bones that Cologne is the best freakin’ most awesome city in the entire universe, but is Germany the best country? The answer to that question requires an hour or two and several glasses of Kölsch, and it still won’t be clear.
Now I love my country, and I’m proud to be American, and I don’t have any trouble saying it. But modern day Germany sure didn’t look like a country that needed to stand in our shadow. It was a-bustle with business, and the number of Chinese business people clearly in the country to make business deals even surprised me. The cities were full of people who’d come in from all over the world to work and enjoy the high living standard. Everyone was on the cutting edge of technology, with advanced-feature cell phones, high speed internet, and automated text messaging simply being a fact of life. The euro hit record highs while I was there, and public transportation, which included carshare programs and bike rentals, got me everywhere I wanted to go. So why do the Germans care so much about what America says and does?
When I spoke a man on Cologne’s Cathedral Square at a Falun Gong demonstration against civil rights violations in China, one of the first things he told me was that Bush hasn’t done anything about it. Well, given that China is a sovereign country, I’m not sure there’s much the U.S. can do. And besides, we were presently in Germany. “What’s Germany doing?” I asked innocently. Certainly they could worry the Chinese business people more than we could, with our tepid dollar.
“Angela Merkel has expressed her concerns,” he told me, a little embarrassed and maybe surprised that an American would even think Germany could do anything itself. I think we both realized at that moment that Hu Jintao’s gonna keep on doing what Hu Jintao wants to do, no matter how much any Western country stamps its feet and shakes its fingers.
And though you’d be hard pressed to find an American who even knew who Angela Merkel is (she’s the president of Germany), everyone in Germany not only knows who the U.S. president is, they know who’s in the running for the 2008 election, and they have an opinion about it too:
I swear, Barack Obama could campaign in Germany and get money, they love him that much.
So maybe I should have just basked in the acclaim that I come from the important country every pays attention to, but mostly I just thought it was weird.