Sport, unification and reconciliation

The New York Times carries an interesting profile of Germany’s captain Michael Ballack, who grew up in what was East Germany, but is now a focus of the expectations of the entire country.

Pierre Gottschlich, a political scientist at the University of Rostock, said of Ballack. “Think about it as a game played on certain levels. We’ve gone from the first level, where everybody thinks of him as East German, to the second level, where some see him as East German and others don’t, and we’re getting to the next level, where it doesn’t matter at all. Probably in another 10 or 20 years, we’ll get there.”

What’s interesting, and may bear comparison to our own experience, is the variety of feeling about him, and how people’s perceptions of him reveal something of the different speeds of reconciliation, post-unification. In the places that were West Germany, no one cares where he’s from. But in his homeland, to some, he’s a figure of hope, of pride and of progress.

Beate Neuss, a professor of international politics at the Technical University of Chemnitz, said that eastern Germans were regularly told by the Party of Democratic Socialism, the former communists, that unification made them second-class citizens. “It’s good to have someone on top,” Neuss said of Ballack.

But then again, to those born after the Berlin Wall came down, it seems largely irrelevant.

As Ben Heber, a 14-year-old decathlete, trained Tuesday at the same Chemnitz sports club that produced Ballack, he said of Ballack’s eastern heritage: “We were born after reunification. It doesn’t matter at all.”