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click opera
February 2010
June 15th, 2006
Thu, Jun. 15th, 2006 12:34 am

As I write this late on Wednesday night, there's a palpable tension in the Berlin air. The whole city -- except me, obviously -- is watching a protracted, so far painfully goal-less contest (so my BBC results ticker tells me) in which the German and Polish teams battle for supremacy. It's tense not only because Germany and Poland are neighbours in today's peaceful Eurozone, but because, as we all know, the most devastating war of the 20th century broke out when one of these nations invaded the other. As if to recall that war, the evening is wracked with explosions and the sound of crowds shouting.

Ah, apparently Germany has scored, has won, and now "goes to the brink of qualification for the knockout". I'm actually rather dreading what will happen if Germany wins the World Cup. Such things, as the British found in 1966, can trigger big changes in the psyche of a nation. Eleven men can put a swagger in the stride of 60 million. Whether you think this is a good thing or not comes down to how you feel, generally, about swagger.

Cycling up Prenzlauer Allee this afternoon I saw an O2 billboard showing a man watching the World Cup on his mobile phone. On his knees on a bed placed incongruously in the middle of an empty football arena, the man was making the familiar "phallic thrust" gesture with his fist -- a gesture which, in football, means "goal!" and "victory" but in Freud would mean "sticking it in" and "killing": Eros and Thanatos.

German culture has always been quite explicit about this; it's "admitted to consciousness". We know from Buchner's Woyzeck and Brecht's Drums in the Night that it almost doesn't matter whether the thing being "stuck in" is a phallus or a bayonet: for the delusional prostitute-killer or the Great War soldier, the message is clear: "when he kills," said Brecht, "he comes". This terrible connection, this "thrust", is why peace is always, and should always be, tempered by socialization, repression and guilt. That equation of penis and knife is always waiting, just at the edge of every society, to be made explicit.

I wasn't surprised to see that the phallic gesture -- the civilised-looking man on the bed, for once untrammelled and making that uncharacteristic thrusting-winning-saluting-killing gesture -- had been crossed out with two strips of green tape.

It wasn't the first time I'd seen that image crossed out. For some reason it had worried certain Berliners, people like me who think that guilt and repression are necessary, and that to encourage triumphalism is to play with fire, to mess with the strong force. Almost every example I've seen of the poster has had the "thrust" trussed -- the unapologetic man crossed out or covered up. It's as if Berliners -- some of them, anyway -- are saying something like: "This is not the time to reverse the current of guilt, moderation and anti-nationalism which has prevailed in Germany since our defeat in the last war."

But reversals do seem to be happening. A call comes in from a German friend. "It's football hell out there," he tells me, "you really have to watch out for your life if you're on a bicycle tonight. People in their cars aren't caring, they aren't looking. I never saw this before in Berlin!"

Something else rarely seen in Germany is Germans proudly brandishing their national colours. Suddenly flags and face-painting are booming. Even my Spanish friend Mario is thinking of getting into the flag-on-face painting thing. He's heard that face painters can earn €300 a day doing it. I can think of only one other reversal in national character so swift: the way New York, not a big displayer of US flags, suddenly had them everywhere after 9/11. Now, even bus windows are blocked by gigantic stars-and-stripes flags. If you're in the wrong seat, you literally can't see chunks of real New York for the proud red, white and blue.

Riding around Berlin today on my bike, I was thinking.... well, see what you make of this. National identity is not something fixed, but something dialectical. It's always reacting against some recent event, swinging the way fashions swing; correcting perceived imbalances, making amends, defining itself negatively against its own past or the present of others. This has the peculiar result that countries can completely change places because of their perceived identities.

Take Germany and Britain, and take the matter of surveillance. In East Germany the STASI, the secret police, were surveying everyone. When communism fell, it was understood that this would no longer be the case. Now, Germany has relatively few surveillance cameras. Britain, which never had a STASI, is now the world's most surveyed country: as Liberty reports, "There is one CCTV camera for every 14 people in the UK. If you live in London you are likely to be on cameras 300 times a day."

The current "fashion" in former Eastern Germany is to "refute" the system that brought us the STASI. The excesses of the STASI have, for the moment, innoculated us Berliners against high surveillance. We're still travelling away from that. Britain has no such innoculation. Because the UK never had the STASI, its government is free to assemble a mechanism of surveillance which is STASI-like in every detail. We changed places, because we were reacting to different things. Blair could invade Iraq because Britain had no Hitler invading Poland in living memory; Schroeder couldn't, because Germany had.

Similar reactive repulsions have been seen in other societies. New York's sudden turn against street crime, for instance, as the 80s turned into the 90s, or the way the British and French completely traded greetings codes. Whereas in the 18th century it was the French who shook hands and the British who kissed, in the 20th it was the British who shook hands and the French who kissed. And now we're just on the cusp of seeing that polarity shift once again, at least in metropolitan areas like London which, as Malcolm McLaren pointed out when he ran for mayor, are increasingly adopting "Latin" styles... sitting at cafe tables on the pavement, being emotionally effusive, perhaps because the weather's changing, or, more likely, as a cultural reaction against the old image of British people as frosty and formal.

I don't say identity is random. What I say is that it's dialectical: liberalism is held in a close binary tension with fascism, and people who've experienced fascism know this all too well. At any given moment, national character (or even city identity, if it's particularly strong) may be swinging towards or away from a fixed set of traits. Thesis and antithesis (to use the classic Hegelian terminology) make up the cardinal points between which the pendulum swings. That's why I believe the former fascist states, Germany and Japan, are, in many ways, currently some of the most liberal around. Guilt and reaction make it so. And I don't want some stupid little thing like winning the World Cup changing that.