Shepherding 11 Yale seniors through the narrow streets of Old San Juan is no easy task, particularly with 11 shepherds and no sheep. So it was no surprise when three of us found ourselves separated from the rest of the group at one point during our spring break trip to Puerto Rico. Figuring that we’d run into our friends eventually, we wandered down to the port and saw a small flotilla of navy ships flying large German flags.

As three 22-year-old overgrown teenagers, our reaction was something to the effect of “Cool — massive weaponry.” We walked along the ships, past an iron cross-emblazoned helicopter, to a gangplank. My suitemate Alex had the composure to ask the German sailor standing guard if we could have a tour. After a brief discussion with some officers on the deck, he nodded his head and showed us around the ship.

Posing for a photograph with the sailor in front of a rack of missile launchers, I could not help being struck by the irony of me — an American Jewish college student — standing on the deck of a German warship and chatting with a seaman two years my junior. My, how times have changed.

That encounter with the Deutschemarine was in the back of my mind when I saw a New York Times article on a similar topic yesterday (“Schroder Joins Debate, Taking Side of Pride in Germany,” 3/20). Reunified Germany has spent the last decade trying to define its position in the world in the context of World War II, the Cold War and the European Union. Many, both in Germany and elsewhere, view those periods in the black and white terms of Nazis, Communists and Globalists.

A particularly explicit controversy over German nationalism began last week when President Johannes Rau, a Social Democrat, said he could not be “proud” to be a German. Rau’s comments infuriated the country’s conservative opposition. Thomas Goppel, a leader of the Bavarian conservatives, said, “One must ask whether a president who does not have this pride can represent a country of 80 million citizens.” A few days ago, Chancellor Gerhard Schroder, a moderate member of Rau’s left-of-center party, entered the fray, calling himself “a German patriot, who is proud of his country.”

It seems odd a declaration of patriotism by the leader of Europe’s largest and most powerful stable democracy would cause any stir at all. French politicians devote themselves to little other than exalting the glories of France, its language, its people and its culture. The British and the Italians take great pride in their countries, and Europe’s smaller states also covet elements of their national identities in the face of greater European integration.

To single out Germany as a nation unworthy of patriotism is an insult to everything the Federal Republic has accomplished over the past half century. It built a stable democracy, took a leading role in European integration, placed its military might squarely within the NATO Alliance and incorporated East Germany into its political structure. We should all be proud that a country that once perpetrated the unspeakable evils of the Third Reich so quickly and effectively transformed itself into the modern, mainstream Federal Republic.

Indeed, to tell Germans that pride in their country is shameful is to hand the far-right a powerful weapon. Guido Westerwelle, general secretary of the centrist Free Democrats, said, “We must not allow neo-Nazis and skinheads to define what national pride is. We democrats, from conservatives to social democrats, must show pride in our country.” The Nazis rose to power in part because Hitler convinced Germans that, without fascism, they could never be proud of their country.

Today, it is critical that mainstream Germans take pride in Germany in the context of mainstream values. Such a path will guarantee the permanent marginalization of skinheads and neo-Nazis.

Germans should take particular pride in the changes Germany has seen in the last few years. Chancellor Schroder’s government finally liberalized the country’s unfair immigration laws, granting many German-born children of Turkish immigrants the opportunity to become German citizens. In addition, German Jewry rebounded during the 1990s. Germany now has the third largest — and fastest-growing — Jewish population in Western Europe.

As Germans struggle to shape their national identity amid fears that patriotism will lead to a resurgence of their regrettable past, we must support their right to national pride just as we watch the French celebrate Bastille Day, the British cheer the Queen and the Irish toast to St. Patrick.

I must admit the sight of the German tricolor flying proudly from a half-dozen armed warships docked in an American port initially struck me as a bit troubling. But just as I’m proud to be an American, I thought about it for a moment and was heartened the German Navy was proud enough to make a highly visible visit to San Juan, with its flag fluttering alongside those of the United States and Puerto Rico.

John Schochet is a senior in Jonathan Edwards College. His columns appear on alternate Wednesdays.