Hessian Soldiers in Maryland

The US branch of the Goethe Institut has a report (g) on the history of the Hessian soldiers who fought for the British during the American revolutionary war:

It is estimated that 30,000 Hessian soldiers fought for the British during the American Revolutionary War (1775-1783)….

The Hessian soldiers who fought for the British are often referred to as German mercenaries – but their background is a bit more complex: George III, the king of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland at the time, was a Hanoverian king with a family background from Hesse, Germany (as in “Hessian”). And these Hessian soldiers who fought during the Revolutionary War were actually paid by Germany, not by England, to come over and fight the war. So they were not pure mercenaries, it was also like a family affair: they were fighting for the British Crown because it was German.

After losing to the US Army, the surviving Hessian soldiers were brought to Frederick, Maryland as a curious kind of prisoners of war; they could go anywhere they wanted – downtown, shopping or working on farms. As Frederick was a town of German immigrants, there was no language barrier and as the Hessian soldiers were continuingly paid by the German army, even as prisoners, they supported the local economy during their detention. Follow our producer Rob Sachs to Maryland as he finds out more for this episode of The Big Pond.

Many of the Hessians stayed in the USA, often marrying into local families. More about them here.

There’s a bit of Hammel family lore which holds that we are descended from one of these mercenaries, although we have no proof as yet.

 

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.

‘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”

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”

My Contribution to the Enlightenment Now

A friend who’s reading Steven Pinker’s defense of the European Enlightenment, Enlightenment Now, alerts me to the fact that I am name-checked on page 210:

pinker name check.JPG

Nice to encounter a fair and reasonable summary of your work in a best-selling book, especially one whose argument you find congenial.

If you’d like the longer version of this argument, you can buy, or borrow, or otherwise acquire my 2010 book, Ending the Death Penalty: The European Experience in Global Perspective. And if you’re wondering: Yep, it’s written for non-lawyers.

‘Growing Up in Germany’: Meinhof, Meins, and Fassbinder Yelling at an Old Woman

On a recommendation from John of Obscene Desserts, I watched this joint French/German documentary about the origins of the German terrorist group the Red Army Faction. (The title of this post is my translation of ‘Eine deutsche Jugend/Une Jeunesse Allemand’). It consists of nothing but media documents from the late 1960s: political talk shows, revolutionary student films, Germany in Autumn, and contemporary news reports, and contemporary documentaries.

Those who aren’t familiar with this era in German history may have a hard time following it, because there’s no voice-over explanation or modern interviews to explain dated references. But that’s the point of the movie: the story of the RAF has been encrusted with decades’ worth of commentary, analysis, and speculation. This movie scrapes these barnacles away and shows you what a reasonably well-informed German or French person would have seen as events unfolded in real time.

‘Growing up in Germany’ also presents some excerpts from Germany in Autumn, an odd omnibus movie made by four German directors which, at least nominally, addresses the wave of RAF terrorism and the state’s response to it during the autumn of 1977. We see Rainer Werner Fassbinder, the most overrated (I didn’t say bad, just overrated) German director of the 1970s, harassing his own mother in a (likely coke-fueled) interrogation designed to reveal her alleged authoritarian tendencies. At the time, the interview was celebrated by some as a ‘devastatingly personal reckoning’ with the ‘hidden authoritarian conformism’ of elderly Germans. Now it just looks like some greasy-haired guy yelling at an old woman.

The film offers a few interesting insights into the “leaden years” of German political terrorism, especially Ulrike Meinhof’s early appearances on German political talk shows. In the mid-1960s, she was a fairly well-known commentator for the radical journal konkret (g), and represented the leftmost fringe of respectable German public opinion on political talk shows, usually as the only female on the panel. She emerges as equally smart and dull. Her arguments, conveyed in agonizingly long sentences, are sometimes pretty convincing — the troubling authoritarian holdovers in German society in the mid-1960s which she criticizes were all too real. However, she always speaks in a near-monotone, sometimes almost mumbling, with very little eye contact with fellow panelists. She seems incapable of humor in any form. Today, we might put her somewhere on the mild side of the autism spectrum.

The director also dug up some of the student films made by Holger Meins, who later participated in several RAF terrorist actions, was imprisoned, and starved himself to death during a hunger strike, thus becoming the movement’s martyr. The excerpts of Meins’ films show young, smart, middle-class Germans striking poses while discussing revolutionary thought and assessing the contemporary state of German society and its readiness for revolutionary transformation, reminiscent of Godard’s ‘La Chinoise’. It all seems quite dour, lacking Godard’s wit, and, not to put too fine a point on it, German.

The verbosity of the RAF’s communiqués provides one of the few points of comic relief, as a West German news commentary shows scenes from the life of one of the ‘exploited workers’ the RAF claimed to be saving from the clutches of capitalism. We watch a montage of him leaving work, riding home in his nice little car to his nice little wife, pouring himself a frosty beer from the refrigerator, and settling in for an evening of bland, inoffensive public television. Meanwhile, a narrator reads a typical passage from an RAF communiqué, an clot of German caterpillar-sentences about objective and subjective conditions, revolutionary potential, alienation, consumer terrorism, the continuity of post-war German society with National Socialism, etc. The narrator asks whether any ordinary German worker could even understand this gobbledygook, much less be moved to give up his rather comfortable life for it.

I found the film a bit depressing. Germany, in the late 1960s and early 1970s, was, overall, a prosperous, stable, pleasant place to live — at the time, probably one of the most prosperous, stable places to live on the planet. Yet, through a rigorous program of tunnel-vision indoctrination, a small group of student radicals managed to convince themselves that it was actually a grisly, contradiction-riddled nightmare of exploitation, just waiting to be swept away by revolution.

‘Growing up in Germany’ shows you just how this echo-chamber process of self-radicalization evolved in real time. It’s not a pretty sight, but an informative one. The intellectual tropes which drove radicalization still exist on the German hard left: the tendency to conflate all coercive state actions — even those which are part of the necessary functioning of any state — with fascism; the failure to draw distinctions between isolated social problems and total corruption; a hermeneutics of radical suspicion discerns conspiracies behind every unanswered question; cynicism toward every claim by authority figures to be acting in the name of any ideals higher than profit.

Underlying all of this is a tendency toward totalizing, principle-driven conceptual critiques (also a very German thing) which, followed to their logical conclusion, require rejecting Western society as a whole. In the words of one of the most famous revolutionary slogans: “It is impossible to live rightly within a wrong system” (Es gibt kein richtiges Leben im falschen). Adorno coined this phrase in Minima Moralia, published in the direct aftermath of National Socialism. The fact that student radicals blithely applied this formula to the very different Germany of the late 1960s is a useful reminder of the human capacity for self-delusion.