Ars Publica Düsseldorf

Düsseldorf is a an art town, and has a long history at the forefront of artistic innovation, from the Düsseldorf School of painting in the 1830s and 1840s to the Expressionist circle around the portly patroness ‘Mother Ey‘ to the ZERO movement and, of course, Josef Beuys, who for years was a professor of ‘monumental sculpture’ at the Düsseldorf Art Academy.

So you would expect Düsseldorf to be stuffed to bursting with museums and art galleries, and it is. You might also expect plenty of art in public spaces, and you’ll find that, too. You wander through the city and see a saint in a corner niche, a giant blue lock hanging from the side of a 19th-century pile, a massive, hideous bronze with scenes from city’s history, a field filled with clocks, or an equestrian statue. And you may ask yourself: Who created these things? Not all of them are identified by plaques or signs — and that’s especially true of the older artworks found in churches or in modest middle-class neighborhoods.

But now there’s a book that explains everything, and I mean everything, about every piece of public art in Düsseldorf. I’m referring to this gigantic 3-volume compendium: Ars Publica Düsseldorf (g), which I recently bought:

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Local graphic designer Wolfgang Funken devoted 5 years to the research for this massive project, visiting dozens of artists in their ateliers, combing through dusty archives, tracking down historic photographs, and following works of art as they were moved from place to place accommodate a changing cityscape. It’s truly a labor of love, and a beautiful thing, laid out with elegance and precision and richly illustrated.

Funken provides much more than dates, though: he delves into the unique history of each work: who commissioned it, how much it cost, which techniques were used, what its symbolism signifies, how it was received by the public, whether it was denounced or destroyed during the Nazi era, what controversies it evoked, what rumors and myths and superstitions have grown up around it. There’s something surprising and fascinating on every page.

To his credit, Funken goes far beyond the big prestige projects well-known to every city dweller, to explore the humble, the local, the often-overlooked. Curious who created that strangely expressive wooden pieta in your local church? Funken found out. How about the tiny sculpture of the little girl with the goose in a workers’ housing settlement from the early 20th century? That has its own entry. Why does there seem to be a big piece missing from the “Fairy Tale Well?” Funken tracked down the whole story. To call this a labor of love is an understatement.

The book appears to have had a limited print run, and is now hard to find (I picked up a copy at the local city archive). However, Funken has created a website (g) devoted to the project. There are categories for new pieces which were created after the book’s publication in 2013, for “works which have disappeared”, for “unsolved puzzles”, cemeteries, memorial plaques, religious works, and background stories and reminiscences from some of the many artists he personally visited during the course of the book. There’s even a section devoted to “magical places and trees”.

It’s all in German, of course. If I had unlimited time, I would translate it all into English as a labor of love about a labor of love, but I have to earn a living. Nevertheless, I will pick some of the most interesting stories from the book and website and blog about them here in the coming months.

‘Winter adé’: Soulful East Germans Talk About Life

Winter adé (g) is a 1988 East German documentary directed by Helke Misselwitz (Helke is a woman’s name) (g). It’s one of the most honest and fascinating and touching documentaries there is, and the beauty part is that it’s available online here (g) at the German Center for Political Education, of all places.* The title (Farewell, Winter) is also the title of a famous German children’s song.

What’s the film about, you ask? Well, it’s about random people who live in East Germany. Misselwitz starts at a railroad crossing in Planitz, where she was born in an ambulance in 1947. Even in 1987, the crossing bars were still operated by hand. Misselwitz, off-camera, asks the guy operating it to take his shirt off and show his tattoos, which he does.

That’s the basic approach: She travels through East Germany, meets people, begins chatting with them, forges a bond, and then turns on the camera. She asks them about their past, their relationships, their lives, their hopes, fears, dreams, aspirations. That’s all. There’s no real narrative arc. There’s no agenda. There are no political statements, although political subjects — especially the role of women — do come up. There’s only a few minutes of voice-over by Misselwitz: Most of what you hear are the subjects talking about themselves. There are a few meditative dialogue-free interludes exploring atmospheres: a dance in a village disco, induction into the East German Army, a row of televisions in a shop displaying state media coverage of an official reception by Erich Honecker.

What might sound like a self-indulgent, meandering exercise is actually gripping. Misselwitz mostly interviews women, and they come from all walks of life, from a marketing consultant (yes, East Germany had those) to a worker in a coal processing plant, to two young Goth/new wave girls who skip school and get sent to a juvenile reformatory, to the owner of a dance school and a doll hospital (two separate people), to a woman who runs a home for troubled children. Something about Misselwitz’s sympathetic, low-key approach gets these people to open up about intensely private matters. I was constantly surprised by how intimate the revelations were, since Germans tend to be very private people. The end credits thank the subjects for their “sincerity”.

Perhaps the most affecting portrait is of Christine, a 37-year-old woman who works in a coal plant. Her job is to walk through the plant and use a large hammer to bang on various chutes and ovens to dislodge coal dust and prevent blockages. Misselwitz follows her around, bangbangbang, through hallways and over catwalks and under rows of boxy metal chutes, all against a deafening wall of background noise.. It’s hypnotic. And after Christine does one tour of the factory, she only gets a few minutes before she has to do the same exact tour all over again. It might seem stultifying, but she seems to enjoy her work.

After her shift, Misselwitz follows Christine and her fellow women workers into the showers, where they wash the coal dust off their ordinary workers’ bodies. Later, at home, she talks about her life: finding herself in a troubled marriage in her late teens, the marriage didn’t last, now she’s a single mother. One child has a mental illness. She would like to find another partner, one who loves animals as much as she does. She seems a kind and thoughtful soul, you want her to find her way in life.

Another standout interview is with the two goth girls. Misselwitz meets them under a train overpass, and follows them to a house, presumably a squat, where they do up their hair in painfully 1980s frizzes and paint the walls with their hand-prints. This segment is on Youtube:

As if its discreet charm weren’t enough, Winter adé is also beautifully shot, in pristine, carefully-framed black and white. The sound mixing is also spot-on: we hear the train clattering or the factory booming or the music throbbing in the background, but the voices come through clearly.

This warm, funny, unpretentious slice-of-life from the latest stage of East Germany has hidden depths; it will stay with you long after you watch it. Continue reading “‘Winter adé’: Soulful East Germans Talk About Life”

Sweden, Social Trust, Clans, and Crime

Over at Quillette, Paulina Neuding interviews an Mark Weiner, an American law professor, expert on clan-based societies, and volunteer paramedic on his impressions of Sweden:

Paulina Neuding: Sweden has experienced a rise in violence against first responders in recent decades, including rock throwing against paramedics in the country’s “vulnerable areas.” How do you explain this phenomenon?

Mark S. Weiner: The easy answer is that Sweden has a growing population of alienated young men, and ambulances are representatives of social and government authority. If I were a second-generation Swedish boy with an immigrant background living in an outlying suburb and experiencing the growing contradictions of Swedish society, I might be tempted to throw a stone at anything with lights and sirens.

And then I have a suspicion that some immigrants may perceive the ambulance service in Sweden through the lens of what EMS meant for them back home. In many countries, ambulance services are much less skilled than in Sweden, and they may have different institutional relationships with the police, for instance whether or not they are required to report crime. I also wonder if the way that immigrants view the ambulance service here may have been influenced by their experience with public authority in general in their countries of origin.

The country has a high-level ambulance service, a major tradition of academic medicine, and rapidly-shifting demography. But at the moment it will be hindered from doing so by the impermissibility of collecting statistics on the basis of race and ethnicity, and by the discomfort many Swedes have in talking about cultural differences.

PN: Let’s go back to your main field of study: What is clan culture and in what parts of the world can it be observed?

MW: What I call the “rule of the clan” is a form of socio-legal order that links radical constitutional decentralization to extended kin groups, or associations of fictive kinship, with a culture of group honor and shame. It tends to exist under conditions in which modern central government is weak, because in the absence of effective government, family groups and other collective actors tend to fill the remaining vacuum of power. You can broadly contrast the rule of the clan with societies governed by the liberal rule of law, which have modern government arrangements—for instance, professional, bureaucratic, neutral administration—and which take the individual as their constitutive unit, seeking to maximize individual autonomy along a variety of measures.

The rule of the clan exists along a spectrum. It’s at the core of very traditional communities that we commonly call tribal. It exists in the midst of more advanced but still incomplete or weak states, for instance in parts of the Philippines or Albania. It thrives alongside and often captures developing states, for instance under the Palestinian Authority or in former Soviet central Asia, where it sometimes goes under the name of “clannism,” to use a term from the 2004 U.N. Arab Human Development Report. And it’s present even within modern liberal democracies. Inner-city gangs act a great deal like traditional clans, especially in their feuding patterns—though of course not in their dedication to unlawful activity. Major corporations today likewise threaten to take on certain characteristics of post-modern clannism….

PN: Honor violence is a fairly recent phenomenon in Europe that has received a lot of attention in the past few decades. You say that we cannot understand honor violence without fully understanding clan culture?

MW: Such violence doesn’t grow out of individualism. It arises from a group-based culture in which people’s ability to work their will in the world is dependent upon the relative social worth or honor of their extended kin, and it’s linked in turn to a group-based socio-legal structure. Within that structure, honor violence makes sense—it has its own rationality, just like the reciprocal tit-for-tat of the blood feud. That doesn’t make it any less abhorrent from my perspective, but if you’re going to prevent the practice, it’s essential to appreciate what it represents….

Rinkeby looked a lot like many neighborhoods in Los Angeles, where I grew up, and I’m looking forward to spending more time there. They certainly don’t look like “bad” neighborhoods as you’d expect them in the United States—though the only times I’ve visited with either the ambulance service or on my own have been during the day. In a Somali neighborhood in Gothenburg I walked into a bazar with a burly Swedish police officer whom everyone treated like a long-lost brother.

But statistics tell a different story about crime, and about political radicalization, as do newspaper reports about grenades and the new high-level trauma gear that I saw in the back of a Stockholm ambulance. And some things about these neighborhoods were really concerning. For one, their architecture. They seem designed to be alienating and depressing, but then that’s the case for a lot of Swedish housing. Also, although socially vulnerable neighborhoods are troubled by definition, I never saw a single police officer walking the beat. That probably hurts the vast majority of law-abiding community members who deserve public support. Finally, unlike in the United States these neighborhoods are very easy to ignore.

PN: Let’s talk about the “the Nordic gold”—i.e. high levels of trust between individuals, and between the public and the state. Is this something that you’ve experienced first-hand during your time in Scandinavia?

MW: Absolutely—it’s incredible, at both an interpersonal and social level. There’s just a lot less mutual wariness, conflict and friction than in the United States. If you’re at a dinner table in Sweden with people you don’t know, but to whom you’ve been introduced by a friend, the sense of being part of an in-group is deeply palpable, and very nice. I can’t tell you how many times people here have invited me and my wife to their summer homes on first acquaintance, or even to use them while they’re away. And the comparative lack of crime and the comfort people have in public places is wonderful. I suspect that at least aspects of this social trust were historically dependent on Sweden’s ethnic homogeneity, just as the greater social disorder in America stems partly from its pluralism. The trick for Sweden will be to maintain its high levels of social trust under its new demographic circumstances, which is one reason why I’ve advocated that Swedes embrace a thicker sense of national identity—one that’s as robust as it is inclusive….

PN: Finally, you define yourself as a liberal, and you also volunteered for the Hillary Clinton campaign during the presidential election. Is there a right-left divide when it comes to the willingness to speak about problems of multiculturalism, such as clashes between individualist and clan-based norms?

MW: My experience has been that I have much freer, more open and genuinely inquisitive conversations with intellectuals on the center-right than on the left in Sweden—and I’m eager to talk with absolutely anyone and everyone I can.

My concern is that the left here is closing itself off, and that its resistance to thinking about cultural differences is a progressive parallel to right-wing climate change denial and that it could eventually eat it intellectually from inside. I have the sad impression that public thinking on the left here is ossifying, which would be terrible for everyone, on the right as much as the left.

I like Weiner’s balanced, earnest tone. He touches on many themes I’ve addressed in this blog, such as social trust, the clan mentality of many immigrants, and the European left’s callow dishonesty when it comes to immigration debates. Wiener also notes something that strikes many Americans as strange and suspicious: the refusal to collect statistics by ethnicity. The consensus behind this see-no-evil hear-no-evil policy is breaking down, but the taboo still remains, and there are forces on the left still eager to enforce it.

I think Weiner’s take is too optimistic, though. He’s right that immigrant-heavy neighborhoods are not particularly dangerous in comparison to poor American neighborhoods (the main difference being cheap, omnipresent, illegal handguns and drugs). But the few statistics that do reveal ethnicity show European immigrants, on average, doing poorly in comparison to people of the native ethnicity. Gains are slow, and there’s still much ground to cover.

Clan-based criminality is notoriously hard to eliminate, and no legal system of any European state — much less the lenient, rehabilitation-oriented, consensus-based justice systems of Northwest Europe — has the tools necessary to make a dent in it. The only way to effectively destroy clan-based criminal structures is to get insiders to betray the clans and furnish reliable, admissible evidence to the authorities. And for that to happen you need criminal sentences which are (1) more intimidating than the clan punishment for betrayal, and (2) a sophisticated and effective system for keeping the identity of informants secret. No Northern European justice system has anything like these tools at its disposal.

Which all goes to show nations need to take care about whom they let in. And why they need to take a very close look at their “family reunification” immigration policies. Both Sweden and Germany screwed up on both points in the past, and are living with the consequences today.

#DüsseldorfMatters

A fine English band, Teleman (a conscious play on the composer’s name) wrote a song about the most attractive, sophisticated city in Germany. And the song’s a winner, too.

Well, not really about Düsseldorf, but related to Düsseldorf. And with the city’s name as title — spelled correctly. And pronounced correctly in the song. And with some actual German inside. Not bad for a bunch of lads from perfidious Albion!

They sing other fine pop songs. I like to think of them as an Anglo-Saxon Erdmöbel.

The Curious Case of “Owl”, the Unknown Prisoner

German environment activists have been protesting the planned destruction of a part of the Hambacher Forest to allow the expansion of a coal mine. There have been many arrests, injuries, and even a death (a journalist fell from one of the treehouses activists have built).

One of the activists was tried and convicted of attempting to kick a police officer. The first remarkable thing about this case is that, at the time of the assault, her hands and feet were bound (g). Officers gave conflicting accounts of how exactly she planned to kick one of them in this position. Another odd thing is that the judge gave her an extremely harsh sentence by German standards, 9 months’ imprisonment without probation. She was just released from prison.

But the most curious thing about the case, at least to me, is that the court never found out who she is. She had no identification with her when she was arrested, and refused to cooperate with police and court attempts to identify her. She’s still known only as Eule (Owl). I know of no other criminal case ever in which the defendant was arrested, put on trial and prosecuted, without their identity ever being confirmed.

This shows you, on the one hand, how powerful Germany’s obsession with privacy can be. If you’ve never been arrested, your fingerprints will not be on file anywhere. Even cops can’t force you to reveal your identity, or take other steps to investigate and determine who you are. So if you stubbornly refuse to cooperate, there’s no way even the combined force of the German state can find out who you are.

On the other hand, this seems like yet another rule of German criminal law which is going to have to be tightened. This case involved an arrest at a protest, which isn’t a major threat to public safety, in my view. But what if word gets around that you can hide your identity from the state forever? Do we want violent criminals to be able to be convicted, and even serve their sentence, and then be released in to the community without anyone knowing who they are?

I’ve argued here before that German criminal laws were written in an era in which Germany was a relatively homogeneous, tight-knit society with a broadly-shared sense of right and wrong, high social trust, and low crime levels. Believe it or not, German criminal law is based on the idea that accused criminals will cooperate with the system, and in return the system will treat them more like wayward family members than dangers to society. Confess, my son, and we will help you get back on the right track.

This system was never designed to foil active attempts to undermine it by clever, determined criminals — especially foreigners who don’t share, and may not even be aware of, the presumptions and ethical world-view of the average German. If Germany wants to achieve meaningful sanctions and deterrence of these folks, it’s going to have to tighten its laws.

The ‘German Genius’ and its Friends in the Wrong Places

A book I just finished reading played a part in unraveling a minor mystery concerning a right-wing German politician.

The right-wing politician is Björn Höcke, Thuringian state chair of the Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) party.

The book is The German Genius, a 2010 English-language book by the British journalist Peter Watson.

First I’ll talk about the political mystery, then the book.

I. The Political Mystery

The mystery is whether Höcke, under the name “Landolf Ladig”, wrote articles (g) for an extreme-right publication of the German NDP party.

Let’s keep both parties straight. The AfD (g) Party, founded in 2013, is a right-wing, anti-immigrant nationalist-conservative political party. Although controversial, it currently polls at 10-15% of the vote and is represented in the German federal parliament, the Bundestag.

The NPD (National Democratic Party) (g) is a far-right political party which is considered the just barely legitimate political face of extreme right-wing German nationalism. There is considerable overlap between neo-Nazis and fanatical nationalists and the NPD. German law allows the Federal Constitutional Court to ban political parties which oppose the ‘liberal democratic order’, and several attempts have been made to ban the NPD party, but they failed on technical grounds. The NPD polls at 1-3% nationwide, and is not represented in the federal parliament, although it did get into some state parliaments in East Germany.

So in American terms, the AfD would be Donald Trump — controversial, often rude and crude, but with genuine support in the population, and generally smart enough to avoid openly embracing white nationalism. The NPD would be Richard B. Spencer — white nationalist and proud of it.

Trump is controversial, Spencer is radioactive.
The AfD is controversial. The NPD is radioactive.

Now back to Höcke. Höcke, a high-school history teacher (g) (which means he’s a civil servant) and “German Patriot”, is easily the most controversial member of the AfD. Appearing on a major German political talk show, he unfurled a German flag and set it on the armrest of his chair:

Bildergebnis für höcke will fahne

Höcke is part of the AfD’s ‘right-wing’ fringe, and there have been moves to try to kick him out of the party (g) to give it a more mainstream image. They were unsuccessful.

The question in this post, however, is whether Höcke is “Landolf Ladig”. The texts Landolf Ladig wrote for the radioactive NPD party are filled with extreme-right rhetoric. This doesn’t mean they’re openly neo-Nazi; even the NPD avoids that sort of rhetoric, which would earn it an immediate ban and criminal charges. But they’re full of völkisch-nationalistic code phrases popular among the German far-right. They’re even more controversial than what Höcke normally says, and some of the arguments in those articles may even be unlawful in Germany.

So, to sum up, what Landolf Ladig wrote is well outside the pale even for right-wing Germans. Therefore, if Höcke is Ladig, this would be a major blow to his political career. In 2015, a German sociologist Andreas Kemper, began publishing pieces in which he noted the similarities between Höcke’s writing and that of Landolf Ladig. Here’s a representative video:

Unfortunately it’s only in German, but it makes a strong case that Höcke wrote the Ladig pieces. Kemper’s work, among other things, eventually led the AfD to commission a legal expert opinion on whether Höcke was Ladig, which, according to news reports (g), concluded that it was likely he was, indeed, Ladig (g).

Höcke has always denied being “Landolf Ladig”, and in 2015, he threatened to sue anyone who said he was. This has led a German left-wing group to troll him by devoting an entire website (g) to claiming that Höcke is Ladig. You can even buy mugs and T-shirts with Höcke’s picture identified as “Landolf Ladig” on them. So far, Höcke has declined to sue.

And now, finally, we get to the book! One of the pieces of evidence mentioned by Andreas Kemper in a recent interview and article (g) was that Landolf Ladig told his NPD readers to read Watson’s book The German Genius, which bears the German title of Der deutsche GeniusBut Ladig got the name wrong, calling the book Genius der Deutschen. And guess what? Höcke made the exact same mistake! It’s only one element of the Höcke=Ladig case, but it’s an interesting one. Allow me to say, just for the record, that I am not interested in being sued, and don’t really care, so I hereby expressly declare that I have no opinion on whether Höcke is Ladig.

II. The Book

So what about the book? In a word, it’s a nearly 1000-page long compendium of German achievement, summarized thus in a positive Guardian review:

Peter Watson’s colossal encyclopaedia, The German Genius, might have been written for me, but not only for me. A journalist of heroic industry, Watson is frustrated by the British ignorance of Germany, or rather by an expertise devoted exclusively to Adolf Hitler and the Holocaust. Watson wonders not just why the nation of thinkers and poets came to grief between 1933 and 1945 but also how it put itself together again and, in 1989, recreated most of the Wilhelmine state without plunging Europe into war or even breaking sweat.

Watson has not simply written a survey of the German intellect from Goethe to Botho Strauss – nothing so dilettantist. In the course of nearly 1,000 pages, he covers German idealism, porcelain, the symphony, Johann Joachim Winckelmann, telegraphy, homeopathy, strategy, Sanskrit, colour theory, the Nazarenes, universities, Hegel, jurisprudence, the conservation of energy, the Biedermeyer, entropy, fractals, dyestuffs, the PhD, heroin, automobiles, the unconscious, the cannon, the Altar of Pergamon, sociology, militarism, the waltz, anti-semitism, continental drift, quantum theory and serial music.

Watson’s approach is mainly biographical — the book is essentially a series of potted biographies of German achievers, complete with birth-and-death dates. However, Watson’s summaries of their achievement are accurate and interesting, and he revives many forgotten figures and controversies. Watson probes every single nook and cranny of modern German culture and achievement.

The argument of the book is basically that although German thinkers and doers have shaped huge portions of our modern intellectual and political landscape, the English-speaking world underestimates this achievement because of its excessive focus on the ‘Prussian militarism’ and of course the Nazi era. Germany was a world leader in universal public education, modern research universities, and modern healthcare, chemistry, and physics.

And before the mid-20th century, the English-speaking world recognized this. Watson points out (twice), for instance, that the New York Times dedicated its entire front page to the death of Alexander von Humboldt in 1859. There are thousands of American cities, towns, and institutions whose names reflect the heritage of German settlers (including Humboldt County, California, now famous for something very different). German intellectual rigor and distinction was once proverbial in the English-speaking world, and German language ability and a tour in a German university was a mark of distinction for young British and American intellectuals. Watson’s book is intended to remind us why this was the case, and that the specifically German aspects of German-speaking culture still has much to offer the world.

I enjoyed the book immensely and learned an enormous amount from it, so it’s a solid recommendation from me, Landolf Ladig, and Björn Höcke. Although I should point out, in capital bold letters, that Peter Watson is in no way an apologist for völkisch German nationalism. He devotes exhaustive attention to the horrors of the Third Reich, and points out how aspects of the “German Genius” (excellence in chemistry, philosophical and social radicalism, völkisch nationalism, German historiography) either helped lay the foundations for Nazism or furnished it with tools. Watson admires modern Germany’s culture of remembrance, and doubtless has zero sympathy with the AfD, NPD, or any of those fellows. This is not a book intended to warm the hearts of German nationalists (although, as we have seen, it does that), but rather to encourage respect for and interest in one of the world’s great, and distinctive, cultural traditions.

My Translation of Uwe Kischel’s ‘Comparative Law’ Published

The book I spent over two years translating, ‘Comparative Law’, by the German expert Prof. Dr. Uwe Kischel, has just been published by Oxford University Press, and I recently received my translator’s copies:

They look handsome indeed. The book is 928 pages long and not cheap, but worth every penny — a monument of scholarship, filled with fascinating insights. No lawyer’s bookshelf is complete without it. Claim it as a business expense!

The Bielefeld Sandwich Poisoner and the Meaning of “Especially Culpable”

One of the strangest cases in modern German crime has just ended in a life sentence (g) for the defendant, Klaus O. Klaus was a metalworker in a medium-sized firm near Bielefeld. He’d worked there for 38 years.

A few years ago, people at the firm started falling seriously ill for unknown reasons. They had been poisoned by substances such as lead acetate. One was left in a coma, others with permanent kidney damage requiring dialysis.

One of Klaus’ co-worker noticed a suspicious white substance on his sandwich. He advised the firm management, which installed a security camera. The camera caught Klaus O. poisoning his colleagues’ lunches. The authorities suspect he poisoned up to 21 people.

Klaus never made a statement to the authorities, and never revealed his motive. He seemed to have chosen his victims more or less at random, and there was no evidence he had grudges against them. A psychiatrist appointed by the court to evaluate him said his attitude was like a scientist conducting “experiments”. The Bielefeld Regional Court sentenced Klaus to life in prison for attempted murder and a series of other crimes. The Court also made a special finding that he was ‘especially culpable’.

To understand why this is important, we need to go in to German sentencing law. In Germany, ‘life’ in prison is a specialized legal term. In 1977, the Federal Constitutional Court of Germany handed down the Life Imprisonment decision (g). The Court held that a life sentence was constitutional under German law, but that, to respect human dignity, a prisoner sentenced to life must always retain some chance of being released at some time. So absolute life without parole is unconstitutional.

The German parliament eventually created a new system of punishment to implement the Court’s decision. The law now provides that someone sentenced to life in prison must be considered for parole after serving 15 years of their sentence, and parole should ordinarily be granted if, after serving that time, there is a “favorable prognosis” for the defendant to be re-integrated into society. However, this rule can be superseded if the trial court finds that the defendant’s actions showed a “special” or “unusual” level of culpability (besondere Schwere der Schuld, literally: An unusually heavy load of guilt). According to a recent decision (g) of the Federal Supreme court of Justice, a finding of special culpability “requires that the overall context of the crime, including the personality of the offender, deviates so far from the court’s experience of ordinary murder cases that the release of the prisoner on parole after the minimum of fifteen years appears inappropriate, even if the defendant has received a positive prognosis.”

The Bielefeld court went even further, though, and entered findings which can later be used to impose post-sentence protective custody (Sicherungsverwahrung). This allows offenders who have served their official prison sentence to be kept in secured ‘treatment’ facilities if a court finds that they have “a tendency to commit serious crimes which pose a threat to the community.” Formerly, German courts could order this sort of preventive detention when an offender was about to be released from prison, even if nobody had raised the possibility of preventive detention when the offender was initially sentenced for his crime. The law allowing “retroactive” preventive detention was then successfully challenged in the European Court of Human Rights, triggering a series of German court decisions and legal reforms, as the Strasbourg Observer blog notes:

Since 2009, the European Court had to examine in several cases the compatibility of German legislation on detention of serious criminal offenders for preventive purposes. In its judgment of M. v. Germany, the Strasbourg Court characterized it as a “penalty”, applying to it the guarantees of Articles 5 and 7 of the European Convention. The preventive detention must be regarded as a “penalty”, on the one hand because its aim is not only preventive but also punitive and, on the other, because of the gravity of the measure provided by the German Criminal Code. Following this judgment, and called by the Federal Constitutional Court to completely recast the system (see BVerfG, 4 May 2011, 2 BvR 2365/09, BVerfGE 128, 326), a new law has been adopted on 5 December 2012 (Gesetz zur bundesrechtlichen Umsetzung des Abstandsgebotes im Recht der Sicherungsverwahrung). It is in this context that in 2016, the Court rendered the Bergmann judgment, which constitutes a turning point in its position. This was the first case in which the Court examined the compatibility of the Convention with the new German legal framework on preventive detention. The Court stated that, since the measure is ordered for therapeutic purposes in respect of an applicant suffering from a mental illness, the nature and purpose of the measure change substantially, to the point of no longer as amounting to a “penalty” (para. 182). Preventive detention is therefore exempt from the guarantees of Articles 5 (1) and 7 of the Convention.

To sum up the current state of the law in plain(er) English, German courts can still order offenders detained after they have served their official prison sentence, as long as (1) the court which handed down the initial sentence enters a finding that preventive detention may later be necessary; and (2) preventive detention after sentence is done for therapeutic purposes instead of punishment and conditions in detention are sufficiently “distanced” from ordinary prison confinement (Abstandsgebot).

Germany’s laws on preventive detention are controversial, as the judicial back-and-forth described above makes clear. However, the question is: what are the alternatives for protecting society from especially dangerous people? The most lenient approach is to simply release them after a fixed term, and accept the fact that some offenders (not that many) will commit fresh crimes. The American approach is to hand down either death sentences or life-without-parole sentences which afford prisoners no hope of release at all, no matter how much they change while incarcerated. The German system represents a middle-ground: Monitor how the offender does in prison, and then decide, shortly before release, whether to confine him afterward for “therapeutic” purposes.

In any case, the Bielefeld sandwich poisoner received the highest penalty allowed by German law: After serving 15 years of his sentence, he will not be immediately parole-eligible. The court will assign an additional period of parole ineligibility. And even after he serves out the additional period of parole-ineligibility, he may be kept in preventive detention. Given his age, then, Klaus will probably spend the rest of his life behind bars.

Three Hours of Brother Theodore on Letterman

Behold Brother Theodore (g), German Jew, Düsseldorf native, Holocaust survivor, philosopher, metaphysician, podiatrist, inventor of “stand-up tragedy”, and subject of the documentary: To My Great Chagrin: The Unbelievable Story of Brother Theodore.

In the early years of David Letterman’s talk show, Letterman invited Brother Theodore to harangue and insult the audience at least once a month, and some fine man has put them all together with good picture and audio.

Watch the first five minutes, and you’ll know whether you ‘get’ Theodore’s shtick. If you do, then you’re in for 180 more minutes of unsafe, unclean fun.

German Justice in Action: Acquitted in 20 Minutes

Occasionally, when I’m in the neighborhood, I like to drop in and watch a German trial. German court proceedings, especially criminal proceedings, are governed by the “openness principle” (Öffentlichkeitsgrundsatz), which means that anyone can visit them.

Today it was the Amtsgericht, which is where most criminal trials in Germany are held. You have to pass through security screening, but it’s fairly routine. The court building, quite new and handsome, is usually mostly empty; most of the actual business is done inside courtrooms and offices. People arrive and leave to participate in trials without hanging around.

This trip to the courthouse was pretty interesting, because I got to see a complete trial from beginning to end, and it only lasted 20 minutes. The defendant was a Kurdish guy in his late 20s, who arrived with a few family members. The trial began with the prosecutor reading the indictment, which was “resisting a law officer” (Widerstand gegen Vollstreckungsbeamte). The prosecutor was a young lawyer who seemed pretty detached — this was just one of several cases he was going to handle, and, seemingly, not a very important one. After the indictment was read, the judge — also a young male lawyer — turned to the defendant and asked for some basic background information, which the guy gave. (Judges and prosecutors in district courts tend to be young; it’s the first step on the judicial career ladder, which starts directly after law school).

The judge then asked if he had anything to say, while reminding him he wasn’t obliged to say anything. The young man gave a short statement: the charges were totally unfounded; he never kicked or punched any law enforcement officer, and the video evidence would prove it. He admitted he was “aufgebracht” (upset), but that’s because the police had ordered the demonstration to be dispersed “because of the flag” and then blocked in some of the demonstrators with a cordon.

Nobody mentioned it at trial, but this was a pro-Kurdish demonstration (g) in Düsseldorf which took place on 4 November 2017 which devolved into chaos and resulted in numerous injuries. An administrative court had authorized the demonstration, but forbidden demonstrators to display images of Abdullah Öcalan, the leader of the militant Kurdish nationalist PKK party, who is currently imprisoned in Turkey. The PKK has been banned in Germany since the 1990s, and this ban has been interpreted to include images of Öcalan. About 6,000 demonstrators showed up, and waved flags with Öcalan’s image. The police then ordered the demonstration dispersed, and things got ugly.

At the trial, though, the only question was whether the defendant had actually resisted a law officer. The judge was supposed to call a witness, presumably a cop, but the witness was sick. After a brief conversation, the judge decided to go ahead anyway. He whipped out a video disc containing a film of the encounter, and played it at the witness stand, so the defendant and the prosecutors could both see (but us visitors could not). Eventually, everyone agreed that the video only showed the defendant shoving a private security guard, not a law enforcement officer, and that even this didn’t show anything damning, since the situation was chaotic, and the crowd was milling about, shoving and pushing against the police cordon.

The judge asked the prosecutor for his plea, and the prosecutor stood up and basically said that in light of the video evidence, he had no choice but to argue for the defendant’s acquittal. The judge agreed, and asked us all to rise, then entered the official verdict. The defendant walked out of court a free man.

I find the informality of German court proceedings interesting, because it’s such a stark contrast with American courts. The judge controls the proceeding and asks common-sense questions to gather information. The defendant can show up without a lawyer, as this defendant did, and speak for himself about the charges directly to the judge. The judge also doesn’t engage in elaborate, scripted questioning routines to remind the defendant of his or her rights. Most judges don’t insist on much formality. As soon as lawyers and judges leave the courtroom, they remove their black robes and walk out of the courthouse looking like normal people. There’s not even a barrier between the witness stand (which is in the middle of the room, facing the judge), and the chairs for observers and visitors. When the defendant and his family left the courtroom, obviously happy with the outcome, they called an informal Tschüss (“Bye!”) to the courtroom personnel, and nobody was offended.

Germany may have a reputation for unnecessary bureaucracy, but German criminal trials belie this stereotype. Of course this was a low-level case, and more important trials will be more formal and have more security. But even those never approach the rigid, rule-bound style of American criminal justice. The guiding principle of a German trial is to quickly find out what the important issue is and decide it without a lot of fuss and bother. This is why many American observers, once they understand how the German justice system works, come away impressed with its no-nonsense efficiency.

German Word of the Week: Thingstätte

This GWOW amuses English-speakers because it begins with a false friend. But then it gets very German, in all senses of that word.

A ‘Thing‘, Wikipedia tells us, was “the governing assembly of an early Germanic society, made up of the free people of the community presided over by lawspeakers.” In other words, a sort of proto-parliament, usually held outdoors at a symbolic grouping of stones or large tree (perhaps a Gerichtslinde or “court linden”). There are very few records of Things left, and few ruins which can be positively identified as Thingstätte (Thing-places, pronounced approximately TING-steh-tuh). Nevertheless, they were important institutions — many Scandinavian parliaments have some form of the word “ting” in their official title.

But Germanic Thingstätte had a disturbing second life, as with so many things Germanic. The völkisch movement in Germany, and later the National Socialists, decided to revive the ancient tradition of the Thingstätte. The new versions weren’t supposed to be parliaments, but rather outdoor gathering places where the faithful could assemble to revere nature, the Germanic soul, and other nationalist topoi*.

Party groups, or the Hitler Youth, would assemble at the Thingstätte for Thingspiele, multi-disciplinary events which might feature torchlight processions, speeches by academics or ideologues, choral singing, patriotic dramas, sporting contests or similar collective celebrations of things young, healthy, vigorous, and Teutonic. Nazi-era Thingstätte in Germany — of which 400 were planned, but only 40 built, are often huge, with oval-shaped amphitheaters with seating for thousands, usually set on hilltops. This means they’re quite hard to get rid of, and still generate controversy, since they are massive and indelible reminders of the Third Reich. They attract visitors from the unsavory right-wing fringes of German society, as well as from people who want to revive ancient Germanic traditions such as Walpurgisnacht (there is some overlap between those groups, but it’s far from 100%). I once visited perhaps the most famous Thingstätte, in Heidelberg, and saw only yuppies jogging up and down its steps.

And today I just learned, from the magnificent ars publica düsseldorf** site, that Düsseldorf had its own Thingstätte, way off in Gerresheim, a working-class suburb in the eastern part of the city. It was built in 1935, partly as an employment-generating measure for World War I veterans. Now, it’s pretty much completely abandoned, and surrounded by privately-owned houses:

It included a big 220-step path up a large hill, at the top of which was a massive boulder with a memorial inscription. I bet a ruined Thingstätte would be pretty interesting to visit (after getting necessary permissions, of course), so it’s now at the top of my list of things to see and do in this endlessly-fascinating city. Continue reading “German Word of the Week: Thingstätte”

The Slow Death of Movie Theaters

German movie theaters experienced a 15% decline in ticket sales in the first half of 2018 (g). This is part of a long-term downward trend:

Bildergebnis für besucherzahl deutsche kinos

The linked article says the 2018 results were mainly due to the lack of “Hollywood blockbusters” like the Harry Potter franchise, but industry insiders also pointed to long-term trends: better home theater experiences, excellent TV series, the usual suspects.

Some of this, though, is the fault of movie theaters themselves. Germany early on adopted a strange culture of movie-going: the main feature invariably starts 20-30 minutes later than the advertised start time. The delay is taken up by an endless series of trailers, promos, and advertisements, and is often interrupted to give the audience time to go buy more snacks. Sometimes ushers even walk the aisles offering treats.

Most Germans seemed to take this for granted and obediently show up on time. Back when you could only see movies up close in the theater, it was a place for like-minded people to gather and socialize, so why not treat it like part of a night out?

Now, though, movies stream excellent quality in your own home, and quite a few people, like me, don’t want to be hit with advertisements when you’re captive in a movie seat you’ve already paid for. Further, there’s it’s hard to get in the mood for a movie you want to see by being forced to watch 5 trailers for movies you don’t want to see, including some movies whose very existence makes you question the wisdom of further human procreation.

I love me a good movie, but only see flicks in a theater maybe twice per year anymore. When I do go, I visit only funky, subsidized art-house theaters which are just plain fun places to be (often because they’re part of/next to a lively bar). Multiplexes are going the way of the video store for many reasons, but the annoying over-dependence on trailers and advertisements surely is one of them.