SCHLAAAAAND! How the Soccer World-Cup helps to Build a Likeable Version of the “German Nation”

Just FYI: I´m writing these lines under the impression of watching some 400.000 people on TV cheering for our successful soccer team at their reception close to the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin (picture source):

Berlin - World-Champions

Truth is: I´m not really into soccer. I hardly care about the German Bundesliga (our “major league”). But today, I´d like to write about soccer. Or rather, about the role that soccer – and winning the world-cup 2014 – plays for Germany and the “German identity”.

Where shall I begin? Let me say, that it was kind of strange growing up as a young man in Germany. I was born 33 years after the end of World War II (my father was born during the last months of war) – and very soon, each and every person that has actually fought in this war will be dead and gone (like my grandpa). In spite of this, WW II (and Hitler, and everything that comes with that…) is still the big “national elephant in the room”.

Hitler is still the “big national elephant in the room”.

On a pre-conscious, between the lines level, it still affects everything a German does (or does not). If you want to put it in terms of transactional analysis: Many things that are “OK” for just about anybody in the world, are “not OK” if your´re German – at least not if you´re “too German” (whatever that may be…). As I´ve lived in Pennsylvania for a year during my adolescence (and additionally studied there over the last couple of months) I´d like to give you some contrasting examples from the US, especially concerning the use of national symbols.

  • When you´re walking around in the U.S. sporting a t-shirt displaying the “Stars & Stripes”, people will likely smile at you and give a thumbs-up.  It´s a cool thing to do. When you´re walking around in Germany sporting a t-shirt displaying the “Black, Red and Gold” there´s a good chance that people will frown upon you. What they say without saying it: “Are you a f…ing Nazi or what?”
  • Equally, it´s a really really bad idea to sing the German national anthem – apart from those rare occasions where it´s deemed appropriate, e.g., before extraordinarily important soccer games. In the U.S., you sing the national anthem almost every day (just because the school day starts, or because there´s a middle school basketball game, or just because it´s a beautiful day…whatever…). And it´s cool. The U.S. anthem was played “for me” at Penn commencement 2014 – and I sang it with my fellow American students – not because I feel like I´m American, but because it´s a beautiful song, and it was a celebratory moment, and it was the right thing to do.
  • And don´t even try to say something like “I´m proud to be German” in public. It´s the best way to ruin your reputation, your career, and might even bring you to the hospital if you happen to do it in the presence of people from the (far) left-wing scene.

By the way, I feel it´s not a very intelligent thing to say. It´s not an achievement to be born in a specific country, so philosophically speaking, it´s an “error of category”. How can anybody be proud of something that has just happened to him/her by chance? But the point is: in the U.S. (and probably any other country on this planet), it´s OK to do so.

And this is where the soccer world-cup tournaments come into play. The tournament in 2006 hosted in Germany was at least a light episode of thaw. Suddenly, you would see Germans carrying around German flags, cheering for their country in broad daylight (and late at night, for that matter). Regular, nice-looking people – not those skinhead neo-Nazi dickheads. Of course, they would put the flags onto their cars by the millions. And people from all over the world visited our country to celebrate. They discovered that Germans are mostly likeable, party hard and welcome foreigners with open arms (aside from the aforementioned die-hard assholes from the old school…that, frankly speaking, can be found in any nation on earth). The weather was really nice. The atmosphere was peaceful. And for five weeks or so, it was “OK” again to be German – and to even show it. That´s why we call that time “Sommermärchen” (Summer Fairytale).

Winning the three titles in 1954, 1974, and 1990 was probably equally important for our “rebirth as a nation”. Earning the title against all odds in 1954 is called “Wunder von Bern” (Miracle of Bern). For the very first time after WW II, there was a glimpse of hope. For the very first time, Germans weren´t constrained to the (Ex-)Nazi role. In 1974, we won the cup in our own country, during a time of thaw with regard to the former USSR and especially East Germany. To that effect, the “world spirit” moved forward in that direction, and we won our third title in Italy in 1990 – in midst of the German reunification process.

But it took 16 more years for the German nation to come to terms with itself – at least for the above-mentioned five weeks of the summer miracle. I mean, looking down from space, there are no “borders”, no “countries”, and no “governments”. But as long as we have to live in a geo-political system that endorses national states, in my opinion it´s a valuable and utterly healthy thing to feel at least a decent level of identification with regard to the country that the “karma lottery” has put us in.

Yet, being born in Germany still means carrying a small share of a huge “historical hypothecation”. And while there may be political entities in other countries that – once in a while – like to remind the Germans of their “historical guilt”, that burden is mostly renewed from within. As a nation, we´re still kind of obsessed with Hitler. Of course it´s not an obsession in an admiring sense. Rather, it´s that mode where one is not able to take the eyes off of a horrible car accident. You´ll find a Hitler story at least every other week or so on the cover of one of the important German weekly magazines. And sometimes, I get the impression that there´s a law requiring our German news channels to broadcast WW II documentaries on a daily basis after 10:00 pm.

To make things worse, there is a well-developed “self-abashment industry” that includes a big chunk of the (far) left-wing journalists in this country. I suspect that – out of utterly low self-regard (and even less self-compassion…) – their greatest pleasure and joy lies in trying to prevent other people from discovering and developing those qualities within themselves. Where foreign newspapers start to write really nice things about “Ze Germans” (please see the Washington Post, the Guardian, and for current examples), those poor creatures desperately try to find something to grouse about while the rest of the nation is busy celebrating “Jogis Jungs” (Jogi´s Boys).

This morning, they finally found the fly in the ointment so they could raise their priggish fingers: While stepping onto the stage in Berlin, a group of – most-likely dead-tired and hung-over German players – engaged in a dance/song that (in an utterly harmless manner that you´ll find in every German soccer stadium on any given Sunday…) lampooned the Argentinian players for ten seconds or so. The leftist press now tries to talk that up to a #Gauchogate – invoking images of the “Master Race” humiliating the rest of the “free world”.

Dear German self-abashment complex (including the political correctness thought police…): Even the British yellow press starts to really like the Germans. Maybe you want to join them?

I am not proud to be German. That´s bullshit. But I am proud of “our boys” – and how hard they´ve fought and suffered for their title. And I´m proud of my fellow Germans, seeing how they have supported and cheered for the team over the past five weeks, and how they have suffered vicariously by the millions in front of their TV screens and the countless public screenings.

We must never forget. But it´s time to forgive. And that includes ourselves.

We must never forget. But it´s time to forgive. And that includes ourselves. My son is 20 month old now. He was born 67 years after the war. I will work hard to make sure that he can grow up unaffected by that shadow of the past.


Why I buy Flowers for my Wife (almost) every Week – not only on Valentine´s Day


First thing to say: Because she deserves it, obviously! Second: the headline includes “almost”. Let´s be honest here. I travel a lot, but on a lot of Saturdays, she gets ´em.

Now, there is reason and a story behind this. I buy flowers for my wife because of my grandpa. He served in World War II, got wounded several times, and was a prisoner of war for about a year towards the end of the story. When I was a boy, he used to tell me stories of that time over and over again: Mostly horrible stories of him seeing his comrades being torn to pieces by grenades – but there was one story that I particularly liked. He used to recount:

You know, I am not a very religious guy. But when I was a prisoner, I prayed to God. And I told him: Please God, if you let me return home to my wife, I promise you I will buy her roses every weekend until the end of my life.

And as far as I know, he kept his promise. Later, when I was a young man and my grandpa could hardly walk any more due to long-term sequelae of his battlefield injuries, I used to do the grocery shopping for my grandparents on Saturday mornings. Grandpa would always give me an extra 20 Deutsche Mark so I could buy roses for grandma at his favorite flower shop. And I would bring home the roses – and he would give them to her. We did this right to the end.

So that´s why I buy roses for my wife (almost) every week. I´ve learned from the best. Here´s to you, Opa…

2051: Positive Psychology, Optimism, and the Florentine Moment in Time…

Tempus fugit. The first half of the MAPP program 2013/14 is over. Actually, the second and final semester is well on its way already. New subjects, new lecturers, lots of new homework…

I guess this is a good time engage in a little retrospection – and to have a look at the future as well.

I still remember sitting in the classroom at Penn on the first day, listening to Martin Seligman´s deep and sonorous voice, where he lectured on the history of positive psychology. At some point, one of my MAPP classmates asked him about his vision for positive psychology. What should be its contribution to mankind in the future?

Without much hesitation, Marty told us about his moonshot goal for positive psychology. “By 2051, I want 51% of the world´s population to be flourishing (according to the PERMA outline)”. Now in 2051, Marty will be 109 years old. So there´s good chance he´s talking about his legacy here. Could this be possible? After all, we still seem to be very far away from that number. War, poverty, and hunger are still raging in many parts of the world. But the truth is:

Things are getting better day by day, year by year.

Now I am a die-hard optimist. So if you feel I am not to be trusted, you may trust some experts (and their stats…).

  • Over the last 40 years, people have managed to rise above hunger and poverty by the billions. And this trend is very likely to continue. If you would like to know more, please watch this fabulous TED talk by Hans Rosling.
  • The likelihood of dying via homicide has decreased dramatically over the last century. Yes, there still are wars – and there still is murder. But the truth is: on a global scale, life on earth has never been safer. And once again, the trend is likely to continue. If you would like to take a deep dive, please watch Steven Pinker´s TED talk on the decline of violence.
  • Overall, we have very good reasons to be (fundamentally) optimistic about the future of mankind. Again, if you´d like to know more, please watch this TED talk by Robert Wright on zero-sum-games, optimism, and human progress.

Positive Psychology wants to play its part in this overall development by teaching people the art and science of flourishing – how to lead a meaningful, positive, and accomplished life while being actively engaged in our closer and larger social networks.

Positive Psychology has first been embraced by coaches, psychotherapists, and physicians. It is now entering the workplace more and more. And the next important step will be:

How can we bring Positive Psychology into education, community management, and policy-making? How can we bring it to China and India – those countries that account for almost 40% of the global population?

Marty Seligman believes that we (at least the western/developed world) now are at a Florentine moment in time. During what came to be known as the Renaissance, the Italian city of Florence became very rich via trading, and therefore at the same time developed into a flourishing center for all kinds of arts and culture because of all that affluence. So where are we – today? In Marty´s words (taken from his book “Flourishing”):

The wealthy nations of the world – North-America, the European Union, Japan, and Australia – are at a Florentine moment: rich, at peace, enough food, health, and harmony. How will we invest our wealth? What will our renaissance be?

Time will tell. I´ve decided for myself that I want to be a part of that movement and upward trajectory. Not only does it feel better to be optimistic – it´s also rational. The alternative, being a (fundamental) pessimist, doesn’t make any sense to me (and I´ve got the data on my side…). What´s the use of being pessimistic? I am a young father – and I would love to have more children. How could I want to want this without believing there´s a good (or at least: better) future ahead, without believing this world fundamentally is a good place to live in?

Once again, time will tell. The picture beneath these lines was taken at a party at Marty Seligman´s house when he generously invited the 2013/14 MAPP students and faculty to have a Christmas celebration at his house on December 7, 2013.

MAPP 9 - Christmas Celebration

The next day, final day of the first MAPP semester, it was also Marty´s part to speak the closing words. Quite obviously very moved, he cited a passage from Kim Stanley Robinson´s book The Years of Rice and Salt:

“We will go out into the world and plant gardens and orchards to the horizons, we will build roads through the mountains and across the deserts, and terrace the mountains and irrigate the deserts until there will be garden everywhere, and plenty for all, and there will be no more empires or kingdoms, no more caliphs, sultans, emirs, khans, or zamindars, no more kings or queens or princes, no more quadis or mullahs or ulema, no more slavery and no more usury, no more property and no more taxes, no more rich and no more poor, no killing or maiming or torture or execution, no more jailers and no more prisoners, no more generals, soldiers, armies or navies, no more patriarchy, no more caste, no more hunger, no more suffering than what life brings us for being born and having to die, and then we will see for the first time what kind of creatures we really are.”

Time will tell, Marty. But I´m with you…