German Word of the Week: Jammertal

Jammertal  — literally, it means "valley of whining."  Here’s an example from a recent interview with two people who have been writing about East Germany.  As most of you surely know, the Wall between East and West Germany fell in 1989, and by 1991 a series of contracts and treaties had been signed dissolving the former East Germany.  Under these treaties, the West promised untold billions in assistance to bring East Germany’s infrastructure up to date and modernize its industry. 

Unfortunately, things didn’t work out as planned: the economy is still lagging far behind the West, brain drain has depleted the East of its most talented residents, and the remaining residents seem to be trapped in a cycle of despair and dependence.  The author Ines Geipel concisely explains (translation courtesy of Sign and Sight) the current condition of Jammertal Ost: "Looked at in broad daylight, East Germany is a pure social desert. The bright flash of clear-minded civil consciousness in autumn of ’89 has now flagged, weariness is visible everywhere. All the posts are occupied, the structures are inflexible. The game is up, as they say. A debate on the constitution? Communicating the rule of law and democratic values? It would really take courage, not to mention a good deal of wit, to seriously try to change things now."

To end on a lighter note, let’s look at another German phrase.  In the former East, almost everyone could receive West German television and watched it regularly, even though you could get in trouble for doing so.  The only exception was Dresden, where reception was blocked by a mountain chain.  Because Dresdeners were therefore a little out of the loop culturally, the city became known as the Tal der Ahnungslosen, or "Valley of the Clueless."

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