Dead People, Dead Birds, and the Responsibility Silo

Image result for bird fossil

The New York Times has gotten rather scoldy about Germany lately. Judging by New York Times coverage, Germany is not doing enough to combat racism, anti-semitism, and right-wing violence. Nor has it fully confronted its Nazi past.

I’m not sure what the reason is for this critical undertone. Generally, American liberals find much to praise about Germany: free college tuition, universal healthcare, a deep aversion to war, generous social-welfare benefits. My theory is that the Times’ German aversion may something to do with the Times’ gradual conversion to full-scale wokeness. The Times now identifies with identity politics and American-style ethnic particularism. To a fully-woke American, Germany must seem backward indeed: after all, one of the highest-circulation German dailies just published a frontal attack on identity politics (g), something that no longer appears in major American newspapers.

Anyhow, enough speculation. The main point of this post is this article on Niels Högel, the German nurse who is accused of killing up to 300 hospital patients over a period of five years. The article singles out a certain aspect of German culture for criticism:

The number of killings and the amount of time it took for suspicions surrounding his actions to come to light have raised uncomfortable questions for Germany, including whether the same deference to hierarchy and predilection for procedure that once facilitated Nazi-era crimes allowed Mr. Högel to kill uninterrupted for so long.

According to Frank Lauxtermann, the only former colleague who testified openly about working alongside Mr. Högel, “A culture of looking away and keeping your head down” ultimately shielded the suspect….

She said Mr. Högel’s colleagues in Oldenburg had talked about him, but did not go to their superiors or lodge a complaint out of fear of being reprimanded or because they didn’t see it as their business in a country where citizens closely guard their privacy.

When another nurse in Delmenhorst told her superior she was suspicious of Mr. Högel, no action was taken and she never followed up….

“The course of events that took place on June 24 are symbolic of the failure of those responsible for their completely erroneous assessment of actual facts and the tragic results that ensued for the patients,” Mr. Schmidt said, announcing the results of his investigation in 2017.

That investigation came about only after years of pressure by family members, and led to the current trial.

Two former prosecutors from Oldenburg were investigated for failing to sufficiently investigate Mr. Högel in 2005, but neither faced charges. One is now a judge in Oldenburg.

I think the Times, for all its gimlet-eyed coverage of matters German, has a point here: There is a cluster of German cultural traits — many of them admirable — which often works against institutional accountability.

First is the German respect for privacy. You don’t pry into your co-workers’ personal affairs. You also don’t pry into their job performance, unless it directly affects you, and perhaps not even then. It’s the bosses’ job to evaluate job performance, not the co-worker’s. Complaining to the bosses about a co-worker’s performance comes dangerously close to informing on them, which immediately raises loud historical alarm bells. In both Nazi Germany and in East Germany, anonymous denunciations were often used to derail competitors’ careers. These historical memories metastasized into the corners of the German national character: complaining legitimately about a colleague’s serious mistakes on the job is, of course, not as sinister or serious as denouncing them to the secret police. But it’s the same overall genre of activity, the same kind of behavior. And thus it has Sinister Historical Overtones, and should be avoided.

Another factor is institutional. Germany’s public healthcare system is stretched to the limit; under-funding and under-staffing are the norm. A December 2018 EU report (pdf) concluded:

Understaffing in hospitals and residential homes is widespread, and the number of graduates completing vocational training falls far short of those leaving the job (due to retirement or dissatisfaction) and those which are additionally needed (due to the rising number of people in need of care). At the same time, working conditions for carers are poor, particularly in LTC: wages are low, the work is demanding and working hours are unattractive.

Accountability for medical malpractice is still limited in Germany. In the United States, a hospital can be sued for millions for negligently hiring or negligently retaining a worker who causes a serious accident. If you prove that the hospital knew, or should have known, about an incompetent employee, the hospital must pay. The German system creates less accountability, principally because (1) hospitals aren’t always liable for their employees’ on-duty mistakes; (2) malpractice judgments are notoriously hard to win; and (3) judgments are generally for modest amounts. German healthcare is still very good on average, but there are growing gaps in quality which Högel was obviously able to exploit.

And finally, there’s the “that’s not in my job description” effect. This is not solely a German phenomenon, but it’s very strong here. My job is to take care of my patients, not to make sure everyone else is. I have my tasks and my duty area, and I’m going to do my tasks within my duty area, then go home and forget about work. North Americans, in particular, notice this strong silo mentality. In a restaurant or a start-up, you do whatever is required to keep the customer happy and the business afloat. In a bureaucratic institution such as a hospital or university, the average Joe or Jane will normally do their jobs reasonably well, but feel no need to show any extra initiative.

Here’s a story. At the university where I used to work, a dead pigeon lay in front of one of the buildings. A friend of mine, also from the New World speculated on how long it would lay there. Hundreds of people walked past it every day, noticing it with disgust. But nobody did anything. Professors would never stoop to touch a dead thing. Nor would secretaries. Students reasoned that the university paid for cleaning crews, and it was their job to pick up the dead bird. But the cleaning crews were paid only to clean inside the buildings. Day after day, the cleaners wheeled their carts right by the rotting pigeon, ignoring it. The pigeon, you see, lay on an exterior brick walkway, and nobody had been clearly assigned the task of keeping that specific walkway clean.

The pigeon lay there for over ten days.

Not for nothing did Georg Christoph Lichtenberg once ask (g): “Tell me, is there any country but Germany in which people are more likely to learn to wrinkle their noses in disgust than learn to clean?”

The Political-Correctness Gap is Closing

The German hardware store Hornbach thought it had a clever idea for an ad called “This is How Spring Smells”. You can watch it here; there’s no dialogue in it, so you don’t need to be German-powered:

I hope you didn’t find this advertisement amusing. The South Korean and Japanese embassies did not; they denounced it as “racist”. Dozens of complaints were filed with the German Advertising Council. Hornbach briefly tried to defend the ad on a special website, claiming that it merely illustrated the “longing for springtime” in a humorous manner. “To do this, we leverage the supposed taboo subject of “smell fetish” in a humorous way and put a twist on well-known gender clichés.” Eventually, though, it climbed down, removing the ad from television and movie theaters.

This little episode sheds light on a few characteristics of the German national character. First, the earthiness. Germany is still the land of breasts on prime-time and self-fellating gargoyles on ancient public buildings. The existence of Japanese vending machines which sell used underwear appears to be a myth. But even putting that aside, you would never see an ad using such a tangy, moist conceit on American television. Is that a good thing or a bad thing?

This episode also shows that the political-correctness gap between Germany and the “Anglo-Saxonsphere” is closing. It’s been interesting to watch this phenomenon in action. Many Germans consider the Anglo-Saxon model of political correctness censorious and prudish. Most of these Germans are on the right, but not all: A German travel writer (g) with thoroughly wholesome political views (as far as I know) recently took to the pages of Die Zeit to complain that political correctness was hampering her ability to write interesting stories — for example, she had to remove a description of a cockfight from a story about life in a Colombian village because editors feared it would unleash a “shitstorm” of controversy which would eclipse the rest of the article.

It’s not an exaggeration to say that part of the self-definition of what it means to be German — a small part, of course — is to resist political correctness. If you ask Germans what distinguishes them from the English or especially the Americans, one argument will inevitably be that Germans are more ready to recognize that life can be gritty, hopeless, brutal, and filthy. That people have complex motivations, and even underdogs can be flawed. That airbrushing reality leads to shallow and hypocritical thinking. That problems need to be faced head-on and pointed critique is no sin. And that jokes can be as funny as they are tasteless or insulting.

But the politically-correct insurgency has seized most of the highlands and villages, and launches increasingly frequent raids into the capital city. They haven’t seized power quite yet, but they can’t be dislodged — especially since the number of ethnic minorities in Germany, the natural infantry of the army of correctness, steadily grows.

As for me, I’m watching from the sidelines. I like to think I don’t have a dog in this fight. Not that I would ever attend a dogfight.

Hofmannsthal on Prussians and Austrians

A brief survey of the Prussian and Austrian national characters by Hugo von Hofmannsthal recently popped up (g) on my Twitter timeline:

hoff

Here’s my translation, based on a slightly different online source (g):

Hugo von Hofmannsthal

Prussian and Austrian: A Typology

In General:

PRUSSIA: AUSTRIA:
Made, an artificial construction, country is naturally poor, Organically arising, fabric of history, naturally rich,
Everything in people and from people, therefore: Orientation toward the State as a unifying force, Everything from outside: Nature and God,

God, love of homeland as a unifying force

more virtue, more piety,
more diligence. more humanity.

[…] The Individual:

THE PRUSSIAN: THE AUSTRIAN:
Up-to-date worldview (cosmopolitan around 1800, liberal around 1848, now Bismarckian, with almost no memory of bygone phases). Traditional mentality, almost unchanging through centuries.
Lack of historical sense. Possesses historical instinct.
Strength of abstraction. Minimal talent for abstraction.
Incomparable in orderly execution. Quicker on the uptake.
Acts according to regulations. Acts according to ideas of decency.
Strength of dialectics. Rejects dialectics.
More skilled in expression. More balanced.
More consistent and responsible (Konsequenz) More ability to come to grips with his given situation.
Self-confidence. Self-irony.
Apparent masculinity. Apparent immaturity.
Transforms everything into function. Turns everything towards the social.
Stands up for and justifies self. Prefers to remain ignorant.
Self-righteous, arrogant, schoolmarmish. Bashful, vain, witty.
Forces things to crisis. Gets out of the way of crises.
Fights for rights. Nonchalance.
Inability to imagine what others are thinking. Ability to think self into others going all the way to loss of own character.
Character is product of will. Drama.
Every individual possesses one part of authority. Every individual possesses one entire humanity.
Striving. Love of pleasure.
Predominance of business. Predominance of the private sphere.
Hard exaggeration. Irony going all the way to self-dissolution.
First printing: Vossische Zeitung 25 December 1917. In: Hugo von Hofmannsthal: Gesammelte Werke in zehn Einzelbänden. Reden und Aufsätze II (1914–1924). Hg. von Bernd Schoeller in Beratung mit Rudolf Hirsch. Frankfurt a. M.: Fischer Taschenbuch Verlag 1979, S. 459–461.

Advanced Colloquial German: Apotheken Umschau

Take a look at this ad:

All these fun, friendly people are telling you to be on the lookout for new issue of Apotheken Umschau (g)

Apotheken Umschau (roughly, ‘Pharmacy/Druggist Gazette’) is a free publication lying around in every German pharmacy, and many other places as well. It contains articles designed to appeal to the prime customers of pharmacies: old people, of which there are a lot in Germany. Open it up, and you’ll find nutrition tips for aging bones, how to choose hearing aids, the best insoles for your aching feet, natural arthritis remedies, how to strengthen your immune system with homeopathic globuli, etc. You get the picture. The only sizzle comes from the occasional article about unusual funeral choices or erectile dysfunction.

Because of its safe, soft, soothing content, Apotheken Umschau has become a by-word for boring in all contexts of German life. You might hear someone described as being “about as exciting as Apotheken Umschau“; or a young journalist for a local newspaper might complain about being assigned “Apotheken-Umschau type stories”. Die Zeit once sardonically labeled the magazine: “The Nation’s Support-Stocking.

Armed with this knowledge, you can now begin your next conversation with “I just read an interesting article in Apotheken Umschau…”. The response will reveal what sort of person you’re talking to. For better or worse.

‘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”

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.

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”

“Why Is There Straw Everywhere?” and the Naturalness of German Pornography

Pop culture generates random flecks of absurdity which lodge themselves in a nation’s soul. In Germany, one of these gems is this scene from a 2002 movie Eighteen-and-a-half (g), a type of flick we used to call a ‘specialty feature’ in English:

Girl: “So, here’s the fuse box we’re having problems with, so you can take a look.”

Man: “Sure, but why is there straw everywhere?”

Girl: “Why are you wearing a mask?”

Man: [sighs] “Oh well. How ’bout a blowjob?”

Someone found this stretch of dialogue amusing, and stuck it on the Internet in 2002. It went viral, as they say, and now every German under the age of 40 knows this scene. All you have to do is mention “straw lying around” somewhere and people will break out in knowing smirks or, if there’s been drinking, lusty re-creations of the “electrician’s” visit.

A German documentary team later investigated this piece of history tracked down the director of the movie, Nils Molitor. Here is his interview:

Molitor is the friendly bald guy. He explains that as a porno director, he always took care to make sure his movies had at least some semblance of a plot and dialogue. He tried to make the actors look as good as possible, and to “bring out the acting talent hidden inside some people”.

For the scene in question, he had hired a guy from Berlin who “had a giant cock”. When the guy showed up, he insisted on playing the scene in a mask, since he had a job in Berlin and people who didn’t know about his side-hustle. So Molitor, with the ingenuity of a Cassavetes, integrated the mask into the dialogue.

Molitor goes on to describe the basic philosophy of German porno: “Naturalness” (Natürlichkeit). American porn stars, he complains have “everything done”, from breasts to lips to privates. As for Eastern European women, they’re so beautiful that no ordinary German schlub (the Deutscher Michel) could imagine bedding one of them. German porn, Molitor insists, should be made with German women. They may have some imperfections: a few crooked teeth, or a little roll of belly fat. Yet this brings them into the realm of the maybe-beddable, the guy watching the flick thinks: “Yeah, that might just happen to me one day, if I get really lucky.”

I hope you enjoyed this little foray into German pop culture. Later, if I have a moment, I’ll explain why certain Germans, the best kind of Germans, burst into laughter if you repeat the phrase: “60 kilograms (g) of ground meat”.

The American MegaSmile and Wal-Mart Chant

 

Olga Khazan on why Americans smile so much, and so broadly:

After polling people from 32 countries to learn how much they felt various feelings should be expressed openly, the authors found that emotional expressiveness was correlated with diversity. In other words, when there are a lot of immigrants around, you might have to smile more to build trust and cooperation, since you don’t all speak the same language.

People in the more diverse countries also smiled for a different reason than the people in the more homogeneous nations. In the countries with more immigrants, people smiled in order to bond socially. Compared to the less-diverse nations, they were more likely to say smiles were a sign someone “wants to be a close friend of yours.” But in the countries that are more uniform, people were more likely to smile to show they were superior to one another. That might be, the authors speculate, because countries without significant influxes of outsiders tend to be more hierarchical, and nonverbal communication helps maintain these delicate power structures….

[W]hen Wal-Mart opened stores in Germany, the company also had to tweak its chipper ways to better suit the sober local mores, as The New York Times reported in 2006:

Wal-Mart stopped requiring sales clerks to smile at customers—a practice that some male shoppers interpreted as flirting—and scrapped the morning Wal-Mart chant by staff members.

“People found these things strange; Germans just don’t behave that way,” said Hans-Martin Poschmann, the secretary of the Verdi union, which represents 5,000 Wal-Mart employees here.

I give you the Wal-Mart chant:

Say what you want about the Germans — this proud race’s refusal to perform the Wal-Mart chant can only be pleasing in the eyes of Odin.

I’ve noticed Germany getting distinctly friendlier over the years, which I think is a welcome development. It’s never the kind of fulsome, fake, enforced American friendliness, but just a greater tendency to make eye contact and exchange a few simple greetings and a joke or two. If the optimal level of friendliness is 5 on a scale of 1 (Soviet Russia) to 10 (Disneyland), Germany has slowly crept up from 2.5 to now 4.6. America is at 8.1, and needs to get that number down.

Communism for the Children

Years ago, I visited the famous “M99 Dry Goods and Revolution Supplies Store” in Berlin, a must on any tourist itinerary. The name is ironically-old fashioned. It’s a legendary store and meeting-place operated by a cantankerous old anarchist, and it’s filled with spray-paint, balaclavas, supplies for occupying houses and keeping the cops out, and of course, revolutionary literature. It’s been repeatedly searched by cops, and the owner threatened with eviction. Yet it enjoys the support of the Berlin left scene, and is still going, albeit not in its original location (Manteuffelstraße 99, hence ‘M99’)

While there, I bought a small pamphlet entitled: “Communist Child-Rearing:”

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The contents are:

  • Socialist work with education problems today
  • Socialist child-rearing in the family
  • Socialist education
  • Communist children’s groups (Weimar)
  • Toleration or encouragement of children’s sexuality
  • A socialist children’s home

The inside cover:

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Here we find a list of other pamphlets in the series, including a few writings by notorious quack Wilhelm Reich, and works on “The Sexual Revolution in Russia”; “Children’s Sexuality in Nature-Peoples”; and “Theses on Self-Help” by the “Patient Collective”.

A few pages in, we see this pronouncement:

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This brochure must be and is: a slap in the face to anyone who believes they can win back a piece of their lost happiness by psychanalytic (sic) tinkering, who — sunk into a left-bourgeois subculture — now want to pull their children into it as well, to create a happy little garden colony on the margins of the repressive society.

Drive forward the organization of the working class by exposing the class character of modern education!

What we have here, obviously, is a mirror into the extreme-left subculture of Germany in the early 1970s.

I must say, it’s about as drab as this pamphlet makes it look.

German student leftists, true to stereotype, took things very seriously indeed, and — also true to stereotype — situated their rebellion within a logical, systematic intellectual superstructure — in this case, Marxism-Leninism. The most prominent student leader, Rudi Dutschke, wrote his graduate thesis on Marx and Engels, and his speeches are rather dull dissections of post-war German society along these lines. After the umbrella SDS group split up, most radical students joined one or another Marxist organization, which had fractured into so many sub-splinters that they’re now referred to collectively as the “K-Groups“, as in Kommunist.

Dipping into memoirs of old hippies, the main motif is discussions. Interminable, stultifying discussions. Discussions about which classes were ready to be ignited by the spark of revolution (Habermas’ correct answer: none), how children could be taught to avoid the straitjacket of repressive tolerance, how factories should be organized, how chores should be assigned in anarchist collectives, how to define ‘sanity’, how much violence is permissible and against whom, what to use instead of money, how to elect leaders — the list is endless. These smart, unworldly kids were trying — with German thoroughness — to draw up a blueprint for a completely different kind of society.

Of course, almost nobody else wanted to live in that society. So, the discussions involved the same people, discussing the same topics, ad infinitum. Which leads to small differences being exaggerated, resentment building, splinter groups forming, and, eventually, dissolution. As I see it, the reason leftist groups almost always splinter and deform is because of the kind of people who join them — a motley collection of drifters, artists, perfectionists, individualists, malcontents, cranks, geniuses, visionaries, misfits, and the occasional sociopath. Right-wing groups attract many of the same types, but are saved by their strong sense of hierarchy.

A necessary disclaimer: The 1968 generation did, in fact, force major ruptures in German society which were urgently necessary, and made the country the humane place it is today.  But the hobbyhorses of the more extreme German left — all of which are present in this brochure — would come back to haunt hippies in later life. The critique of “mainstream” psychiatry led a lot of severely mentally ill people to avoid therapy, convinced society was crazy and they were the real “sane” ones. The very weird and insistent focus on children’s “sexuality” led the Green Party, in the early 1980s, to briefly embrace pedophilia (g) as just another liberation movement like gay or women’s rights. This turned out to be a disaster on every level: Creepy-looking men were invited to participate in “working groups” to formulate policies which would grant them access to children. Several Green and left politicians got in trouble for violence during demonstrations before they settled down in the late 1980s.

Worst of all, everyone smelled quite ripe, since daily bathing was considered a bourgeois compulsion to profit Big Soap and “natural human scents” were signs of honesty.

I’ll post a few more excerpts from this pamphlet as time permits. Join me as I explore the dogmas and delusions of the years of lead!