JULY 28, 1914, was when the First World War broke out in Europe. Preceded by assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria, the conflict quickly spread across the continent and enveloped its major powers. Germany, which had emerged as an industrial powerhouse following unification under the leadership of Otto Von Bismarck, jumped into the fray in the hope of containing the threat from France and curbing the ascent of Britain. Germany's defeat in the war sowed the seeds for the Second World War, which led to the division of Germany and its ouster from the club of powerful nations. Since then, Germans have sought redemption in many ways. They buried their Nazi past and rebuilt the country from scratch. In recent years, Germany has emerged as an economic powerhouse carrying the European Union on its shoulders. In the centenary year of the First World War, it is appropriate that Germany's victory in the soccer world cup be hailed as the moment when a country and its people truly emerged from the dark shadows of the last century.
In his last days, Hitler proclaimed that the German people must be held responsible for the government they had given to themselves, and therefore for the Second World War. Destroyed, dismembered and enslaved after the war, Germany paid reparation in both cash and kind. The scientific, technical and industrial knowhow plundered by the allied countries from post-war Germany were worth billions of dollars. The hardship lasted many years, but without impeding reconstruction efforts. The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 marked a new beginning for the Germans. But the cost of German reunification was not easy to bear, and the country carried the tag of the sick man of Europe for many years after. Germany may have won the world cup on three prior occasions, but it is the latest win, coming on the heels of a long and arduous path to complete recovery that is being seen as culmination of the series of challenges that the German people faced and overcame at different moments over the last hundred years.
One remarkable achievement of post-war Germany has been the near total elimination of retrograde nationalism from its politics, culture and discourse. The exploitation of Germany by the allies could have been fertile ground for sowing the seeds of resentment. It could have been the wellspring of reactionary ideologies, especially among the new generations of youth. Banned from taking pride in a rich civilisational heritage, young Germans did not indulge in angry rebellion. There was, instead, an active process of internalisation of the horrors inflicted by a government on its own people. School curriculum played a central role in facilitating this transformation. Denial of the holocaust was criminalised as Germany went about reclaiming its leadership role in international affairs. Such harsh and painful methods of learning democratic attitudes over three-quarters of a century have paid rich dividends. The German team is being lauded for exemplary conduct and remarkable shows of sportsmanship, while graceful German fans are being eulogised in the western media. The conduct of fans in both victory and defeat is being invoked in comparison with countries where emotions have found release in violence.
Politics and sport have seldom belonged to separate universes. The history of twentieth century sporting events is testimony to this. In the last one hundred years, several countries including Germany faced sanctions from the international sporting community. After the First World War, the International Olympic Committee banned Germany, Austria, Hungary, Turkey and Bulgaria from participating in the summer games of 1920. Germany was disallowed in 1924 as well. After the Second World War, Germany was disqualified from the Olympic Games of 1948 and the soccer world cup of 1950. When West Germany lifted the world cup barely four years later in 1954, the country was already on the path to economic recovery. The catastrophic conditions of the post-war years were left behind, and Germany was soon to be a leading industrial nation with low levels of unemployment and a rapid rate of debt repayment. West Germany's second world cup win in 1974 coincided with reconciliation efforts with East Germany amidst fears that this would enlarge Moscow's influence in Europe. The third victory in 1990 was when the two Germanys were just three months away from reunification. Thus, the latest triumph happens to be a first for united Germany.
Germany's fall from grace began with its invasion of Belgium on August 1, 1914. It is only fitting that its triumph in the world's grandest sporting event has happened on the eve of this day one hundred years later. An economic powerhouse, a cultural worthy and a sporting champion, the redemption appears to be finally complete.
The writer is a London-based political scientist.
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