BERLIN (Reuters) - After six decades atoning for the crimes of the Nazis, Germans are rediscovering a sense of patriotism and are no longer ashamed to wave their flag and sing the national anthem.
They are even daring to discuss bringing back a bravery medal -- unthinkable a decade ago in a country which rejected militarism and turned fiercely pacifist.
This non-aggressive self confidence, also evident in a more assertive foreign policy, is increasingly manifesting itself as Germany this year celebrates 60 years as a democracy and the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall.
“The German soul, bruised and discredited by the Nazi era, has to a large degree been healed,” said Eugen Buss, a sociology professor at the University of Hohenheim.
“We’re seeing a normalization,” he told Reuters. Buss was a consultant for a recent study on German identity, published before celebrations for the constitution’s 60th birthday get going this month with street parties and public events.
The study, carried out by the Identity Foundation in Duesseldorf, showed twice as many Germans were “very proud” to be German as eight years ago, said Buss. Almost 73 percent think they should show more confidence about being German.
The experience of managing a successful democracy and economy have taught both eastern and western Germans they are entitled to feelings other than shame about the past, said Buss.
The nation startled itself during the 2006 soccer World Cup tournament, when millions of people painted flags on their faces, wearing red, gold and black hats and chanting the national anthem.
Younger generations seem to be particularly relaxed.
“I‘m not ashamed of being German -- maybe my parents or grandparents were because they were closer to the National Socialist era,” said Nina Krause, a 14-year-old student in a group visiting Berlin’s German Historical Museum.
“To me, being German means I am comfortable and have the chance to have a good future,” she said.
The museum, which attracts 50,000 visitors a month, opened its permanent exhibition on German history just three years ago.
It starts in 9 A.D. with the battle of Teutoburg Forest when German tribesmen defeated the Romans and stopped Germania beyond the river Rhine becoming part of the Roman empire.
Exhibits include a cavalry mask from that battle, a giant globe that sat in Hitler’s office with a bullet hole through Germany -- probably inflicted by a Soviet soldier -- and a section of the Berlin Wall.
The most popular exhibit, however, is a large changing map of Europe which shows how borders have emerged and disappeared over 2,000 years, says the museum’s Director Hans Ottomeyer.
After World War Two defeat and the realisation that millions of Germans took part in or knew about Nazi atrocities, a collective sense of shame weighed on Germans for decades.
Former West German President Gustav Heinemann summed up Germans’ inability to feel an emotional tie to Germany in 1969 when he said: “I don’t love the state, I love my wife.”
The country’s post-war division into military occupation zones, aimed at reining in expansionist aims, and the Allies’ insistence on approving West Germany’s 1949 constitution were a warning to Germany not to show too much muscle.
But recently, Germans have helped themselves by adopting a more mature attitude toward the past, say historians.
“History was a burden. It used to mean the 12-year Nazi era but now we have a much broader understanding. I can’t keep up with all the books and documentaries,” Ottomeyer told Reuters.
Bookshops have in recent years reported a surge in sales of history books from a variety of eras, such as the time of the kingdom of Prussia and the Middle Ages which, academics say, makes for a more balanced outlook on life.
Germans’ commitment to Europe also defines their psyche.
After 1945, politicians embraced the European project as a way to ground the country’s new political system: public support for the EU still runs deep.
The conviction about Europe has a profound effect on German lawmakers, who traditionally avoid showdowns with Brussels.
But governments are starting to take a more assertive stance in the EU -- take Chancellor Angela Merkel’s strong defense of the car industry and her own response to the financial crisis.
Finance Minister Peer Steinbrueck has even risked drawing the wrath of European neighbours including Switzerland and Luxembourg by attacking their bank secrecy rules.
To reflect this, the museum’s Ottomeyer has given a broad focus to his German history exhibition, which embraces the country’s European heritage. Exhibits include Napoleon’s hat from the battle of Waterloo, mementos of the Portuguese empire and a Turkish tent from the 1683 siege of Vienna.
“The best we have experienced has been European and the worst was national hatred and national superiority,” he said.
This does not mean interest in the Nazi era is diminishing: “Young people are fascinated by the Nazi era as it poses the question of existential evil,” said Ottomeyer.
Television channels broadcast hours of documentaries on aspects of Hitler’s rule every week, and the Third Reich section of the Historical Museum is still the most comprehensive.
According to the Identity Foundation survey, Germans see themselves as a nation of poets and philosophers in the tradition of Goethe and Schiller, liking rules and “ordnung” and -- increasingly -- having strong democratic tendencies.
That is striking given Germany had a relatively short tradition of democracy before Hitler’s rise to power in 1933 compared with countries like Britain and France.
National identity is also deeply rooted in regional customs, said Buss, noting that citizens in the former communist East and western states alike shared the newfound patriotism, alongside a strong conviction that they belonged together as one nation.
Bavarians are proud of the Oktoberfest beer festival and lederhosen. Swabians love their distinctive, at times unintelligible, dialect and thrifty lifestyle, and Rheinlanders live for their annual carnival processions and sweet wine.
“Yet they all feel German,” said Buss.
However, there are limits to the newfound pride.
While Germans feel close to the fatherland, they lack a sense of duty toward it, said Buss, noting that only 14 percent of Germans are prepared to die for their country, far fewer than in such countries as the United States and Britain.
And while Germans want their politicians to be more assertive, they are still nervous about flexing military muscle.
Immigrant communities say one of the main reasons for integration problems is Germans’ lack of self confidence and a fear of diluting their own culture.
Turks in Berlin staged a show of unity with Germany in the 2006 World Cup by wrapping themselves in the red, gold and black flag and honking car horns after German victories.
“Turks helped Germans celebrate and gain self-confidence,” said Kenan Kolat, head of the Ditib Turkish-Islamic Union.
“If a country is self-assured, it can have a more open attitude. I hope the new self-confidence among Germans will lead to a greater openness toward other cultures,” he told Reuters.
Editing by Sara Ledwith