HAMBURG, GERMANY — Only two years ago, saying "I love Germany" was practically taboo.
But now, in a sudden burst of pent-up patriotism, Germans seem anything but hesitant to profess their national pride. Giddy World Cup fans frolic through the street wearing flag togas and red, black, and gold mini-dresses, mohawk wigs, gummy bracelets, and jester hats.
"It's been long enough. I think we can be proud of Germany now," says student Vanessa Trimpe, her face painted in thick bands of red, black, and gold.
Her countrymen seem to agree. One of the biggest flag-makers says sales are ten-fold what they were during Germany's jubilant 1989 reunification. Indeed, such patriotic zeal hasn't been seen here since Hitler's nationalism wreaked havoc on the country's collective identity.
While part of the elation may stem from the nation's three-game winning streak, the fervor is more than just World Cup fever. Indeed, sociol scientists say it's a cathartic moment for a people who have struggled for six decades to loose themselves from guilt over Nazi-era atrocities.
"It's a turning point," says Micha Brumlik, a professor at Johann Wolfgang Goethe University in Frankfurt. "For the first time the public is showing that they don't feel ashamed for crimes committed by others in the past," though he adds that many still feel responsible.
For decades after World War II, only far-right German parties flew the flag proudly and patriotic talk was shunned. In 2004, when Horst Köhler left his International Monetary Fund post to become Germany's president he told a packed Parliament, "I love Germany." A hush fell over the room.
Suddenly, all that has changed. Speaking to Bild am Sonntag newspaper recently, Chancellor Angela Merkel lauded the fact that, "People are waving flags without having to justify themselves."
But it's not just the lack of shame that separates today's celebrations from past moments of revelry.
"They're far larger, and the outpouring of emotion is much greater," says historian Erik Eggers. "There's never been anything like this before since World War II."
The surge of patriotism has been a boon for some businesses. Manfred Kronenberg, who owns the 150-year-old Dommer flag company, says sales are 10 times higher than during two previous peaks: the 2002 World Cup and Germany's jubilant 1989 reunification. "It seems everybody wants to have a flag," he marvels.
The connection between soccer and patriotism runs deep. Germany's surprise 1954 World Cup victory helped the nation's economy rise from the ashes of World War II and made a humiliated people feel they were "somebody again."
Millions took to the streets to celebrate. But the revelry was quickly dampened.
After Germany scored the final goal, a few stadiumgoers began singing the banned first verse of the German national anthem. This caused a stir in the foreign press. One Danish newspaper wrote that the only thing missing was a "Sieg Heil" salute.
Alarmed, politicians tried to rein in the public's glee. West German President Theodor Heuss urged the 80,000 fans who had gathered at Berlin's Olympic stadium after the game not to cheer too loud.
But now, no one is hushing German declarations of pride. And there are other signs, too, that this World Cup is a turning point in Germany's quest to come to terms with its Nazi past.
The German soccer federation has struggled for decades to keep its zealous support for Hitler's regime under wraps. In the run-up to this year's games it threw open its archives and commissioned a book on the subject.
What's more, Germans are beginning for the first time to speak about their own suffering during World War II, when Allied bombings laid waste to many cities. And they're starting to see the Third Reich-era in less black-and-white terms.
In his recent book, renowned historian Götz Aly, for example, looks at why Hitler was so popular, despite being undeniably sinister. Mr. Aly argues that it was largely his generous social programs, remnants of which benefit Germans to this day.
And Hitler humor, unthinkable just a few years ago, is starting to crop up in Germany. Turkish-born comic Serdar Somuncu has been known to read from "Mein Kampf" as part of his routine. The first German-made film to portray Hitler in a comic light will hit theaters next January. It's name: "Mein Führer: The Truly Truest Truth about Adolf Hitler."
Another Hitler spoof, this one a theatrical production, is running at Hamburg's Schauspielhaus through the end of June.
The action centers around the Führerbunker, where the defeated dictator is planning his suicide. Then, suddenly, he hits on a scheme to save his empire from ruin: plan a World Cup soccer tournament.
The kitschy slapstick pokes fun at German soccer zeal. But there's a dark undercurrent. In one scene, Hitler and his bunker mates, overjoyed at the prospect of a World Cup victory, burst into John Lennon's "Imagine" as they swoon over a soccer ball.
Just then, the Führer's secretary unfurls a giant swastika flag. Echoing through the theater is the line: "Someday you'll join us and the world will be as one." Suddenly, the audience quits laughing.
"I want people to remember," says Director Erik Gedeon of the scene, "that when it comes to national pride, in a second the dream can become a nightmare."
Mr. Gedeon's play has caused something of a stir. A handful of theatergoers have stomped out. Others have booed throughout the production.
But it has also gotten standing ovations and mostly positive reviews. Die Welt called it "fantastic," while the German Press Agency said it was "brilliant." Just one more sign, says Eggers, that "for Germany, World War II is finally over."
He pauses, then adds, "Over, but not forgotten."