Katja Hoyer Katja Hoyer

The Euros couldn’t come at a worse time for Germany

(Photo: Getty)

Like many Germans, I remember the summer of 2006 with fondness. We hosted the football World Cup, and for a few glorious weeks the country was transformed. The sun literally didn’t stop shining. Every cafe, bar and park seemed to have the football on TV. The country was in an exceedingly good mood. 

When it became public that German police would not be allowed to display German flags, opponents pointed out that rainbow colours were still allowed

The ‘summer fairytale’ of nearly two decades ago holds such a cherished place in collective memory that it would be difficult to rival even at the best of times. But Euro 2024 isn’t coming at the best of times for its German hosts. There is an atmosphere charged with political tension, fear and pessimism.

The German team’s dream start against Scotland on Friday, which ended with a 5-1 thrashing and a devastated Tartan Army, gave some indication as to how transformative football can be to the national mood. But such spectacular victories would have to keep coming to pull the country out of its malaise.

One thing that made 2006 such a pivotal moment is the way Germans draped themselves in their red-black-and-gold tricolour, without the usual inhibitions that come with growing up in a country that has Nazism, humanity’s deadliest war and the Holocaust on its collective conscience.

The German flag was everywhere: drawn on people’s faces, hung from their houses, fluttering from car windows. This ‘party patriotism’ as the press soon dubbed it, was still controversial and debated in the media. But even the then-president Horst Köhler endorsed it, saying ‘I’m glad I’m not the only one with a flag on my car anymore.’

But 2006 was a time when debating degrees of nationalism seemed an intellectual argument rather than a sensitive trigger point. The discussion was framed by relative political stability. Angela Merkel was in her first year as chancellor. Her Christian Democrats had formed a Grand Coalition with the Social Democrats with nearly 70 per cent of the vote share between them. The Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) wouldn’t even be formed for another seven years. If Merkel – a former East German and leader of the most right-leaning party in the German parliament – could be seen indulging in a bit of ‘party patriotism’, then why shouldn’t everyone?

Fast forward 18 years, and the debate around what patriotism means in modern Germany has gained rather than lost political explosivity. Vice chancellor Robert Habeck of the Green party, for instance, has repeatedly been attacked for not showing enough loyalty to the state. In a book published before he took on a role in the federal government he wrote, ‘I have always found patriotism, which is to say love for the fatherland, sickening. Germany meant nothing to me and it still doesn’t today.’ The quote made the rounds again when Habeck failed to sing the national anthem at a public event in parliament last year. AfD politicians and others called him a ‘Germany hater’.

It’s one example of many that suggests Germany might be less at ease with itself today than it was in 2006. For Euro 2024, the flag is once again in the centre of the debate. When it became public that German police would not be allowed to display German flags during the tournament as this would be an infringement of their neutrality, opponents were quick to point out that rainbow colours were still allowed. 

In a major U-turn Interior Minister Nancy Faeser lifted the flag ban for the federal police one day before the start of the tournament, arguing ‘our officers stand behind the German team.’ In light of the results of the European elections in Germany last Sunday, in which the AfD made huge gains, it’s possible that this was also an attempt to calm the deep divisions in German society. The AfD had previously called the flag ban for police ‘absurd’. Whatever the reasons, one thing is clear. While the cheerful flag waving in 2006 was regarded by many as a sign of growing German unity, in 2024 it has become a dividing symbol. Colours will be worn – or avoided – more consciously.

Another thing that has palpably changed since 2006 is Germany’s fear of serious violence at mass events. In 2006, many Germans still felt terrorism happened elsewhere – in America, Britain, France or Spain, but not in Germany. Subsequent events like the Christmas market attack in Berlin 2016, the 2015–16 New Year’s Eve sexual assaults in Cologne or the increased violence against politicians and public figures in recent months have all sharpened the fear that public spaces may not be safe anymore. 

In a recent survey, only 14 per cent of people said they had few concerns about safety in football stadiums during Euro 2024. Around 42 per cent said they harboured ‘great’ or ‘very great’ concerns. Nearly half were worried about possible terrorist attacks during the tournament as well. 

The authorities, too, are nervous. Earlier this week reports emerged that German police are expecting up to 500 Serbian hooligans intent on causing violence at their team’s game against England on Sunday. The fixture is now classed as ‘high-risk’. Police are trying to do what they can, conducting dry-run practice for mass brawls as well as collaboratingwith nearly 600 officers from all the nations involved in the tournament. But the tension is palpable.

Many German commentators still believe that a solid performance from the national team could break through the general gloom and lift everyone’s spirits. While the hosts didn’t win in 2006, they managed to get through to the semi-finals where they lost against Italy. There was enough momentum behind the run of games to build up a real belief in victory and accordingly the mood was enthusiastic. Even the noticeable dip after Germany was out didn’t diminish the general belief in the nation’s footballing prowess for some time. After all, the team won the World Cup again in 2014. 

But dropping out of the 2018 World Cup during the group stage provided a serious and permanent knock to German confidence. It was the first time this had happened for the national team. It happened again at the 2022 World Cup, and at Euro 2020, Germany were knocked out in the round of 16. It’s hardly surprising that the country shows little enthusiasm for the tournament this year. Surveys suggest that only one third of the population is looking forward to the games. Only one in five believe Germany will win.

In light of the tense atmosphere in Germany and the general feeling of gloom, I’d like to think that football can provide some levity and excitement as it did in previous years. But I’m not the only one who is sceptical. In one poll, only 28 per cent of people believed 2024 will have another football fairytale in store for Germany. The fear that this summer may be memorable for all the wrong reasons hangs over the tournament like a thick cloud.