Steve Chapman
On a recent visit to Shanghai, I stopped along the grand riverfront promenade that runs through the city's downtown and, from that single vantage point, counted 31 Chinese flags visible at various places. The Chinese love their national flag, a handsome red rectangle with one large gold star and four smaller ones.

They're not alone in patriotic enthusiasm, as Americans prove on the Fourth of July, Memorial Day, Flag Day and every other day. Israelis are keen on displaying their banner. Mexicans, ditto. Even the modest Canadians are not averse to flying the Maple Leaf.

There is one country I've been, though, where flag displays seemed to be regarded as undesirable: Germany. I spent six weeks in Berlin in early 2006, and each time I saw the tricolor of black, red and gold, I was surprised, because it happened so rarely. Aside from government buildings, in fact, the flag was practically invisible.

It's no secret why. Flags are associated with nationalism, and Adolf Hitler gave German nationalism a bad name that still lingers. The burden of historical guilt tends to discourage Germans from taking pride in their country, much less expressing that pride overtly.

I visited Seoul when my kids were in grade school and brought them back shirts adorned with the South Korean flag. When I went to Germany a couple of years later, I found other sorts of gifts. It seemed to me that wearing a shirt with a German flag on it in the United States was just asking for trouble.

During my stay, several Germans told me they felt no great pride in being German. "I feel more European than German" was a common sentiment. They had internalized that the key to Germany's postwar success has been de-emphasizing its Germanness.

But that inclination may be changing. In the European debt crisis, Germans have been willing to demand their way far more than they customarily do. A couple of weeks ago, we all saw a photo of Chancellor Angela Merkel at a soccer match in Poland, wildly cheering the Germans' defeat of Greece, whose government she had rescued only with great reluctance.

Merkel has been called a Nazi in Greece, but she didn't let that inhibit her. Nor did it silence the German fans, who jeered at the Greeks, "Without Angie, you wouldn't be here!"

Apparently, their fiscal restraint and economic health have imbued Germans with a bit more pride and even assertiveness. The flag is no longer invisible. In a spectacle brought on by the European soccer championship, reports The Economist magazine, "the entire country is swathed in black, red and gold."

Steve Chapman

Steve Chapman is a columnist and editorial writer for the Chicago Tribune.

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