Reclaiming a German Identity

Watching Germany v Australia at the Berlin FIFA fan fest

As a longtime fan of US soccer, I was hugely disappointed to see the USA lose out to Qatar last week in the contest to stage the World Cup in 2022.  But I still have fantastic memories of the World Cup that ended just a few months ago in South Africa – a tournament that led this American Jewish guy to feel an unexpected surge in pride for his recently-adopted nation: Deutschland.

How could I feel pride in Germany given the legacy of that nation’s Nazi-era crimes against the Jewish people?  The answer begins with a visit I made to Germany in June with 12 other U.S. broadcast journalists as part of a fellowship program organized by the RIAS Berlin Commission.  Its purpose: to educate us about Germany’s media, political system, history, and culture.

The 2010 World Cup dominated my RIAS experience from the outset.  On the day I flew out of Washington to start the program, I staged a World Cup public viewing that managed to draw thousands of people to Dupont Circle – the first event of its kind in the U.S. capital.  The one-day fan festival grew out of an idea that I created in March 2010 and pursued relentlessly in my spare time, recruiting soccer supporters, community groups, businesses, and even diplomats to make it happen.  After seeing the event unfold smoothly and watching the U.S. national team’s heroic 1-1 draw with England, I rushed to Dulles airport to catch my flight to Europe.

The next day, I found myself in the German capital, Berlin, for the first time.  I had been to Germany twice before, but many years previously, as a teenager in the mid-1990s, when I made brief visits to Munich and Trier.  In those earlier trips, I entered Germany as a foreigner.  This time, I was arriving as a German, with a passport to prove it.

I have my dad to thank for that!  As his father was German, he was able to take advantage of a German law that allows descendants of German Jews to reclaim the citizenship that the Nazis took away in the 1930s.  In 2005, his application succeeded.  My siblings and I were now Germans, too.

After unpacking my bags at a Berlin hotel, my thoughts turned to what I could do with my Sunday evening.  It was the night before the fellowship program was due to begin.  I knew that Germany’s soccer team was scheduled to play its first match of the World Cup, and I wondered where to watch it.  Then it hit me – Berlin was one of the few cities in the world hosting an official FIFA World Cup Fan Fest.  I hadn’t yet met the other RIAS fellows, but I called up as many as I could in their hotel rooms, and persuaded some of them to join me for a train ride to Berlin’s Olympic Stadium Plaza.  There, we watched Germany thrash Australia 4-0 on giant outdoor screens with tens of thousands of German fans roaring their approval.   I had just been cheering for America at a Washington fan festival, and here I was in Berlin a day later supporting my new country at an even bigger festival.  I bought my first German flag at the plaza and wrapped myself in it.  My transformation was underway.

Over the next two weeks, the other fellows and I followed the progress of the U.S. and German teams closely as we explored the major sites of Berlin, Bonn, Cologne, and Brussels, in addition to meeting with German, EU, and NATO officials and German journalists.  In those meetings, I learned about how Germany is dealing with major challenges such as integrating millions of immigrants, maintaining the stability of the euro, and fighting climate change.  I also was impressed by Germany’s openness in confronting its Nazi past.  A visit to Berlin’s Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe convinced me that the country is sincerely remorseful for the Holocaust.

Berlin FIFA fan fest.

My focus returned to the World Cup as I prepared to fly back to Washington from Brussels on the same day that the USA would battle Ghana for a place in the quarterfinals.  As (bad) luck had it, the match would be taking place while I was flying over the Atlantic, and I couldn’t find a way to change my flight or follow the match in the air.  I resigned myself to waiting until I was back in the United States to find out what happened.

As the plane descended into Dulles, the pilot suddenly announced that he would be telling people the final score.  I braced myself! I heard him say “Ghana – 2,” and after what seemed like an eternity, he continued: “USA – 1.” I raised my hands to my head in shock.  A Ghanaian lady who, ironically, was sitting right next to me, cheered.  I walked off the plane with mixed feelings: pride for the U.S. team’s achievements, and great disappointment with how its World Cup ended.

Later, I remembered that I still had one team left in the tournament – Germany!  I spent much of the World Cup’s remaining two weeks at my favorite DC soccer bar in my newly-acquired German regalia, watching Deutschland make an exciting run to third-place, and making some new German friends in the process.  And I have the RIAS fellowship to thank for inspiring me to embrace my German identity.