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Germany: Public Debates National Pride

More than 50 years after the end of World War Two, Germans are now involved in a public debate over national pride. The debate was sparked by political name-calling ahead of two state-wide elections set for the weekend, but it has since spread to the general public and even to President Johannes Rau, who says nationality is not something of which one can be "proud." RFE/RL Munich correspondent Roland Eggleston has the story:

Munich, 20 March 2001 (RFE/RL) -- The ongoing German debate over national pride began a week ago when Environmental Minister Juergen Trittin described a leading official of the opposition Christian Democratic Union, or CDU, as a "skinhead."

Trittin made the accusation at an election rally, where personal attacks on opponents are common and accepted. But in Germany, the word "skinhead" is strongly associated with neo-Nazi extremism and racism. Trittin's target, Laurenz Meyer, demanded an apology and got one.

A few days later, however, Trittin again criticized Meyer by saying Meyer was "proud to be a German."

While this may sound innocuous, the phrase "I'm proud to be German" is a common slogan used by the country's extreme right. Badges carrying the slogan can be bought over the Internet from websites run by right-wing parties and groups.

Trittin's comments set off a political storm over patriotism and nationalism. On one side are those who argue that Germans should avoid overt expressions of national pride in deference to the victims of Nazi Germany. On the other are those who say national pride is natural and Germany cannot forever look over its shoulder at the horrors of the Holocaust.

Opinion polls show many Germans are irritated at seeing their history reduced to the 12 years of Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party.

President Johannes Rau last week stepped into the controversy by saying in a television interview that while a person can be glad or grateful for being German, it is not something one can be proud of. He said pride was something one takes in his or her own personal accomplishment.

Rau's comment was immediately condemned by the Christian Democrats and their sister party, the Christian Social Union, or CSU. The general secretary of the CSU, Thomas Goppel, even questioned whether Rau was fit to preside over a country of 80 million people if he was not proud of the country.

Rau responded diplomatically by drawing a distinction between a "patriot," something he defines as good, and a "nationalist," which he says is bad.

"A patriot is someone who loves his fatherland. A nationalist [on the other hand] is someone who belittles the fatherland of others. Let us therefore be on guard against nationalist sentiments. But equally we must avoid the temptation to so disparage political opponents as to create the impression that they are close to right-wing extremists."

Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder has come to Rau's defense, describing the president as a "great patriot who loves his country." Schroeder says he too is a German patriot who is proud of his country. Schroeder says he is proud of the achievements of the people and Germany's democratic culture.

The storm over Rau's comment continues. Another opposition politician, Guido Westerwelle of the Free Democratic Party, has now joined the criticism. Westerwelle says citizens must not allow neo-Nazis and skinheads to define national pride. He called on all democrats -- from conservatives to social democrats -- to show pride in their country.

German commentators say it's no coincidence the controversy erupted just ahead of Sunday's elections in the states (Bundeslaender) of Baden-Wuerttemberg and Rhineland-Palatinate. Patriotism remains a potent issue, and both states are important to all parties.