Mark Espiner : Decorating Berlin

First there were a few flags flying from car windows. Then the wing mirrors started sprouting them, making cars look like they had grown German ears. The German flag obsession is fluttering over the city.

Blick in die neue Heimat. Der Brite Mark Espiner erkundet Berlin.
Blick in die neue Heimat. Der Brite Mark Espiner erkundet Berlin.Foto: Thilo Rückeis

In a style coup to celebrate simultaneously Germany’s epic clash with Spain and Fashion Week opening on the same day, Berlin has come up with the ultimate show of support. Nine hundred top German models - equally divided between brunettes, redheads and blondes - will be streaming down Unter Den Linden, parading across the town and turning the city into a catwalk celebration of black, red and gold. The city’s transport organisers have come on board too. They’ve reset the timetables so at 4.45 (half-time, of course) the red RB trains, yellow trams and a fleet of black rickshaws will congregate at Alexanderplatz to form a giant flag. And to top it all, Angela Merkel has bought new SchwarzRotGold underwear for you (she did it just the other day, apparently).

OK, so I made all that up. But with the current German flag obsession fluttering over the city right now, it’s half believable, isn’t it? In the past few days, I’m sure the flags have been breeding.

First there were a few flying from car windows. Then the wing mirrors started sprouting them, making cars look like they had grown German ears. And the other day I saw a huge flag spread over the bonnet of a car - ironically it was a Toyota, of all brands. Then there are the SRG wigs (afros or mohicans take your pick), the Hawaiian flower garlands, and little flags on the end of cocktail sticks that you can plant in your cakes or sandwiches for that special world cup pic nic or barbecue.

It’s great. I have to say - and it’s been said before - the last World Cup in Germany allowed all us non-Germans to let out a huge sigh of relief. Germany could at last fly its flag again. I remember feeling a fantastic thrill in London at the time. No longer a nation unable to express its nationhood, but after all the hell and soul searching and - for want of a better word - therapy, at ease enough with itself (albeit with a few complicated feelings no doubt) to flag wave. A little of that feeling even returned for me when Lena won the Eurovision and draped herself in the flag. As you know, I’m not her biggest fan, but the simple expression was great to see. Just so long as she doesn’t get any ideas and do a Spice Girl Geri Halliwell flag dress homage.

Funny that as you’re getting used to yours, flags are becoming a bit complicated for us Brits. The Union Jack that Geri favoured is almost defunct. It’s more of an icon of an old Empire state of mind, now that we’ve almost bought the idea that we’re not British anymore, but English. Instead we now rally around the Cross of St George for as long as we can stay in any competition. Although it has to be said a tea bag stays in the cup longer than Wayne Rooney and his mates can.

The cross was flying from every black cab in London when I was there (I saw the game against Algeria in a Kings Cross pub festooned with red-cross flags). The cross, though, has something of a nationalist image, appropriated by those on the further right. I wouldn’t be too happy to wave one, or hang one in my car (if I had a car, that is) or wear it on my socks. Although, as has been argued elsewhere, the right shouldn’t have a monopoly on patriotism.

As I was cycling though Mitte, though, I saw this. I assume that this display of an old East German flag wasn’t an indication of a kind of nostalgic patriotism for the old DDR, but more likely the only German flag the household possessed. It did look worryingly kind of new though.

And then there has been the rather odd and slightly surreal state of affairs of radical left wingers attacking those in the immigrant communities of Neukoln for hanging up the German flag. Admittedly, in the most celebrated case it was 22 meters long, 5 meters wide and had been specially made at a cost of €500 to cover five storeys - which by any view is not a shy statement.

Some dissenters said it was too much of a reminder of a tyrannical past. I, too, thought the long banner flag draping the building uncomfortably echoed those 1930s images, until I stopped to ask myself, how big does a flag have to be before it’s a political problem. Is a sandwich flag ok, but a banner no-go? Why is a German coloured Afro wig fine, but a building draped in red black and gold an offence - and does it matter who’s flying it? I haven’t got an answer - have you?

You can contact Mark Espiner at mark@espiner.com or follow him on Twitter at @DeutschmarkUK

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