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Italy and Germany: the deeper meaning of soccer

June 30th, 2012 - 3:05 pm

And what about the Germans?  I haven’t lived in Germany, but I’ve known a lot of Germans, from academia to politics to special operations commanders to champion bridge players.  To my great surprise, I have found them the opposite of the stereotypical aggressive, self-assured, even arrogant bully of film and recent history.  Back when I attended a lot of international conferences about fascism (in the sixties and seventies), most of the Germans invariably took pains to apologize for the terrible things their country had done.  Fair enough, I thought, but after a while it got to be annoying.  One day I said to a German historian of my age, “listen, Jens, it’s enough already.  You didn’t have anything to do with it, and you’re a terrific historian, so just get on with it.”  He couldn’t.  He continued to ask forgiveness.

I think most contemporary Germans are ashamed.  They know what the others think of them, and they’d prefer to think of themselves–and have others think of them — as something else.  As Europeans, say.  But not stereotypical Germans, the sort who, left to their own devices, will kill again, because that’s what “Germans” do.

Kohl was that sort.  He imbibed the nastiest stereotype of “Germans,” and I believe his passionate embrace of the euro project has a great deal to do with that stereotype.  I think he believed it was necessary — in the cause of peace — to make Germany disappear.  The euro, for him and  for many of his countrymen, was supposed to be the solvent in which “Germans” would blessedly dissolve.  You cannot imagine how many Germans came to Washington to explain to us that the euro wasn’t just, or even primarily, about economics.  It was about peace.  It would guarantee peace for Europe, after hundreds of years of war.  I heard that over and over again, and I can well imagine the terrible frustration of such Germans today, as the other Europeans are asking Frau Merkel to take charge and dictate policy to the others.  It’s one of those things that reminds us of the Almighty’s refined sense of humor.

The Germans have no desire to take charge, indeed it’s the last thing they want to do.  Like the Swedes — long among the most warlike peoples of Europe — after the Napoleonic wars, the Germans have lost their military vocation.  I don’t really understand what happened to the Swedes, who after all were among the victors on the Plains of Virtue after the demolition of Napoleon’s armies.  But it’s easy to understand the Germans.  They lost twice in thirty years, and they created a monstrous regime that came to define genocidal evil.  It’s easy for me to understand how and why contemporary Germans want to work hard, do well, and try to enjoy life, without telling anybody else what to do.

So why does Italy invariably defeat Germany at soccer?  I think it’s because, over the years, most of the crucial matchups have favored the Italians, because the Italians are better improvisers than the Germans, and because the Italians, unlike so many of the other European teams, aren’t the least bit afraid of the Germans. They know better, and they know they’re as good as anyone, as their history demonstrates.

Don’t buy into the stereotypes, please.  And enjoy Spain vs. Italy.  Spain has more talent, and when they are playing well, they are elegant, imaginative and explosive.  Italy’s very hard to beat.  They’re tough guys. But then, so are the Spaniards.  No surprise that they tied 1-1 in an earlier round of the tournament.

For those of you who love Braudel’s great The Mediterranean World, the final is best understood as a Mediterranean phenomenon, in which each side is hoping to win…elegantly.  I hope it’s a beautiful game.

(Thumbnail image on PJM homepage by Shutterstock.com.)

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