German Words of the Week: Renaturierung and Eisvogel (Spring Birdsong Bonus)

Four years ago, the city of Düsseldorf undertook a project of Renaturierung — literally, “re-naturing”. This refers to taking land which was being used for agriculture, quarries, buildings, or perhaps nothing at all, and allowing it to revert to a more natural state. In this case, the land was the Urdenbach Marshes, a wetland area on the southern edge of Düsseldorf. The Rhine river changed direction long ago, and the area between the old course of the Rhine and the new course became a wetland frequented by many bird species. Then, in the 1950s, housing was built in the area, a dike was built to prevent the summer flooding of the wetland and create a pedestrian path

In 2014, a project began to restore the wetland (g) by opening up the dike in two places and building bridges and other amenities to preserve the pedestrian path:

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Was the project successful? Judge for yourself. Yesterday I rode my bike to the marshes, picked a spot, and made a short film. It lasts about 5 minutes. I count at least 10 different kinds of birdsong, some of it downright deafening. If you just want the highlights, a kingfisher (Eisvogel, or “Ice-Bird”, in German) hovers and strikes at 4:12. Enjoy:

 

An American Who Defected to East Germany and Lived Happily Ever After

The interesting podcast Cold War Conversations interviews Victor Grossman. To call his life history exciting is a bit of an understatement. Born in 1928, he grew up in a hothouse of New York Jewish leftism in the 1930s and 1940s. Then attended Harvard, and after graduation went to work in a factory at the suggestion of the Communist Party. He was then drafted into the Army, and, faced with scrutiny over his leftist past, defected to East Germany in 1952.

And then he decided life was fine there, although he admits that he always wanted to return to the USA at some point, but didn’t want to face desertion charges, which were dropped only in 1994. Grossman got married and raised two children and became a journalist, writer and editor in East Germany. He is still very much alive, and blogs about German politics at Victor Grossman’s Berlin Bulletin.

I  recommend the interview, in which Grossman, a natural talker if there ever was one, talks about the Stasi, the Berlin Wall, East German movies, his 1,100-page FBI file, and many other things. And dances around some subjects quite elegantly.

German Word of the Week: Retortensiedlung

A while ago, I needed to get a document from one of the “citizens’ offices” (Bürgerbüros) in Düsseldorf. There are about ten of them. You request an appointment online, and get pointed to whichever office can give you an appointment the soonest. This time, it was in the neighborhood of Garath.

Yes, Garath. At the mention of these two syllables, Düsseldorfers will hear ominous string music — or perhaps a song from a band with a name like Nahkampf or Erschießungskommando.

Garath is a neighborhood at the very southern tip of Düsseldorf, a 13-minute S-Bahn ride from the center. It’s the dark-gray bit in this map of Düsseldorf. Its basic design was laid out inLage im Stadtgebiet 1959 by the notorious (and notoriously auto-friendly) Düsseldorf architect and city planner Friedrich Tamms (think of him as the Robert Moses of Düsseldorf) as a planned community of medium-rise apartment buildings, 8000 apartments capable of housing 30,000 people. Because it was largely a designed community, critics call it a Retortensiedlung — a test-tube town, as opposed to a neighborhood which grew up organically. Tamms’ plan, with many modifications and additions, was realized in stages during the 1960s and 1970s. The overall style was mild Brutalism, described (g) as an “explicitly solid and respectable style which affords no room for architectural experiments or reforms.” In other words, cheap buildings for workers.

Today, Garath is a solidly working-class section of Düsseldorf. It’s mostly white, with a percentage of foreigners of only 12.5% (g), well under the city’s average of 19.2%. There seemed to be a strong Eastern European and Russian presence — they wouldn’t affect the foreigner percentage, since many of them would be Russians or East Europeans of German descent (g), who are entitled to German citizenship.

Garath has a reputation as one of the social burning points of Düsseldorf, a cluster of sterile pre-planned buildings stuffed with the resentfully unemployed. There are stories of rabid football fans, right-wing violence, mass fistfights, urine-soaked undergrounnd passages, the whole nine yards. But people from Garath tend to be loyal to it. It ain’t fancy, but it’s nowhere near as dangerous or desolate as its reputation. People know each other and help each other, and there’s plenty of green space and even a small castle (g).

Garath city center is like a small throwback to the idea of a socialism-infused, egalitarian model of German society. There are large paved squares with benches where local day-drinkers can soak up the sun:

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There are also funky small modular orange shops under the train overpass, looking as if they were plucked straight from 1974. One of them houses the “Altschlesische Speisekammer” (The Old Silesian Pantry), a which sells Polish food, including delectable sausage:

There’s a bunch of government offices right next to the main train station, and right next door, a “Leisure Center”, made of modest red brick, where people can go spend time for free, or at least a modest fee. This building was designed by Olaf Jacobson in 1974. It’s made of interlocking cubes of different sizes stacked on top of and next to one another, faced in handsome red-brick. Inside, pathways lead from one modular cube to the next, creating interesting, inviting spaces.

When I stopped by the auditorium, there was a group of at least 80 old ladies settling into their seats for some sort of concert. The local library branch is located inside the building, and offers this inviting reading nook:

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On the side of the leisure center is a quote from Heine about Old Düsseldorf’s funky nooks and crannies:

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Of course, there’s an ice-cream parlor:

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And a little bit of urban decay:

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But also delectable fruits right across from it:

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And a bar next to the train station with this oddly charming…whatever it is:

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And is there public art? Yes, the “Sunwheel” by Friedrich Becker, erected in 1976 (obviously):

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Behind it you can see the housing blocks typical of Garath. They’re nothing special, but at least they’re not Corbusian nightmares. Facing the train tracks, there’s “Countdown”, by Hans-Albert Walther:

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There’s too much concrete in the heart of Garath, a common problem with 1960s and 1970s town planning. But still, there are some interesting buildings, and a bit of funky pre-planned quasi-socialist charm. Infinitely worse things have come out of test tubes.

Andreas K. Licks the Salamander

In German nature photographer Andreas Kieling’s edutaining video series ‘Little Primer on the Forest’, he explains, in his suave, soothing voice, all sorts of interesting things about European forests.

This time the subject is the fire salamander. As Kieling notes, they were all over the place near the Thuringian forest village where he grew up. The name comes from a horrifying custom: people used to throw live salamanders into a fire to protect their homes and buildings from lightning strikes or accidental fires.

But that’s not the only horrifying thing in this video. Fire salamanders have some of the longest gestation periods in the animal kingdom: up to 2 and 1/2 years! The fire salamander he’s holding is, in fact, pregnant. Yet these mothers have no umbilical cords, so no nutrients from mommy. How do the salamander fetuses survive? By eating each other. About 20 salamander fetuses start out in the womb, then the biggest eats all the others. Eventually, only 1 or 2 make it out of the mother’s, er, cloaca.

And the final shocking scene of this video comes toward the end. Fire salamanders are somewhat poisonous, which explains their warning coloration: “The fire salamander’s primary alkaloid toxin, samandarin, causes strong muscle convulsions and hypertension combined with hyperventilation in all vertebrates. The poison glands of the fire salamander are concentrated in certain areas of the body, especially around the head and the dorsal skin surface.”

Nevertheless, Andreas goes there. Trigger warning/spoiler alert: Andreas licks the pregnant salamander. Live. On-camera. Uncensored. He doesn’t go into convulsions, fortunately. He just makes a face at the bitter taste. I suppose his vast store of forest-knowledge tells him there’s not enough poison in a single salamander-lick to harm a large human. I found the salamander-licking scene a bit much, but Kieling is hands-on — he likes to fondle, touch, and taste the plants animals he’s describing. You never know when he’s going to cram his hand into an anthill or stuff a bunch of leaves into his mouth. That’s what makes his videos so fun to watch.

Itten’s Enemas, or: Bauhaus Kooks

I’m reading James Stevens Curl’s Making Dystopia, an erudite broadside against the International Style and Brutalism in 20th-century architecture. One of the many refreshing things the book does is provide a non-hagiographical account of the Bauhaus. When I was growing up, it seemed that Bauhaus was universally revered as the most important design movement of Modernism, if not in all of human history. A famous band named themselves after it! Young female Bauhaus students looked so ahead of their time!

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Bauhaus’ progenitors were described in hushed, reverential tones, and their many glaring faults ignored. (Nobody mentioned, for instance, that Ludwig Miës van der Rohe was born plain old Ludwig Mies, and added the diacritics and extra words out of pure affectation.)

Curl is having none of that. He acknowledges Bauhaus’ many achievements, but also holds it responsible for many of the most regrettable aspects of 20th century architecture: sandwich-like buildings with horizontal windows, flat roofs, a puritanical ban on ornamentation, soulless prefabricated cubic “machines for living”, etc.

And he points out that many people associated with Bauhaus were, not to put too fine a point on it, kooks. Case in point, Johannes Itten (from pp. 94-95):

He was a devotee of Mazdaznan, one of a great many mystical or quasi-religious cults that flourished in Germany at the time. It was related to the ancient Persian religion of Zoroastrianism, and therefore tentatively associated with Nietzsche’s Zarathustra (though any connection with the philosopher’s ideas was hopelessly corrupted). It held that the world was a warzone between good and evil, and that what is perceived as reality is really only a veil that hides a higher existence that can only be achieved by rigorous physical and mental exercises, a vegetarian diet (featuring huge doses of garlic), fasting, and regular enemas. Mazdaznan macrobiotic dishes became de rigueur in the Bauhaus canteen, and some students adopted Itten’s garb (a loose robe) and shaved their heads.

Some, of course, regarded him as a saintly figure, but many, probably more accurately, saw him as a charlatan. Itten would accept students on his ‘intuitive judgement’ without even looking at work or asking questions. One of the many problems that emerged from this régime in malnourished, bankrupted, demoralized, defeated Germany, was that dishes like the garlic paste insisted upon by Itten caused students to look rather ill, with grey-green skin: furthermore, apart from the enemas, peculiar rituals such as ‘purification of the body’ involved pricking the skin and anointing it with oils, so that the pin-pricked areas began to suppurate: resultant infections caused illnesses.

Christin and Her Murderers — Inside a German Murder Trial

I have another blog in which I mainly talk about German law. I wrote this post for that blog, but I think the case is so interesting it deserves a spot here, too.

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Poster seeking information in Christin R.’s killing

The public radio station for Berlin-Brandenburg recently released an 8-part podcast — “Christin and Her Murderers” exploring a German murder case. The podcast yields interesting insights into German criminal trials, mainly because the authors — Martina Reuter und Uta Eisenhardt — got unusual access to the main players in the case: Judges, detectives, lawyers, and even three of the defendants agreed to interviews. This may not raise any eyebrows for an American or a Brit, but this level of access is very unusual for Germany. Germans tend to be very protective of their private sphere, and German law helps them protect it.

First I’ll provide a rundown of the murder case itself, then look at the investigation and trial.

I. The Murder of Christin Rexin

The facts are mundane in some respects, but startling in others. We start with Christin (pronounced like “Christine” in English) Rexin. She was a 21-year-old woman from Lübars, a quaint village near Berlin. She loved working with horses, and was doing an apprenticeship on a nearby horse farm, the Goldnebelhof (Golden Fog Farm!). One day, a mother and son showed up to express interest in buying the place. The mother, Cornelia, worked at a bank. Her son Robin was a competitive rider on the German equestrian circuit, and owned a number of valuable horses. Robin and his mother held discussions with the farm’s owners, a divorced couple, and arranged to buy the farm, with tentative financing from a bank.

Robin and his mother Cornelia thus became Christin’s employers. The financing for the purchase fell through after a few months, but Christin fell in love with Robin, the young, self-assured businessman who loved horses as much as she did. Soon they were a couple, although the stories Robin told about his background seemed a bit inconsistent, and he was something of a braggart. His mother had meanwhile stopped paying Christin’s salary and social-insurance contributions. It became clear that Robin and Cornelia were having financial problems. They were actively trying to sell some of the valuable horses they owned. In November 2011, Christin agreed to take out a €250,000 life insurance policy in her own name with Robin as the beneficiary. Robin’s mother Cornelia would pay the premiums. They claimed their financial advisor had recommended this step as a routine precaution. Christin eventually became engaged to Robin, and the family group began searching for another horse farm to rent or buy.

And then, on April 4, 2012, something quite bizarre happened: While Cornelia and Christin were spending time in Cornelia’s kitchen, Cornelia stabbed Christin in the back. Christin defended herself. The knife wound was severe, but not life-threatening. Cornelia claimed she had stabbed Christin during a “blackout”. Needless to say, the stabbing put something of a damper on the marriage plans. Nevertheless, Christin still agreed to see Robin, although not at his house or with his mother. Meanwhile, Christin pressed charges against Cornelia, but the police — incredibly — suspended prosecution, believing her convenient story of a blackout.

Meanwhile, Christin, her family, and friends kept discovering inconsistencies in just about everything Robin said: his supposedly deceased ex-wife kept posting on Facebook, he claimed to have participated in riding tournaments where nobody remembered seeing them, etc. He even claimed to have served in a secret special forces regiment in the German Bundeswehr in Afghanistan whose mission was to “kill and destroy” (g). Robin appears to have had some charm and self-confidence, but was also clearly a pathological liar. Nevertheless, Christin refused to break off all contact with him. Meanwhile, his mother kept taking out more and more life insurance policies on Christin, eventually adding up to more than €2 million Euro. It was unclear who signed these extra policies in Christin’s name.

Through the equestrian scene, Robin befriended Tanja, a young, horse-loving butcher with a troubled past growing up in care homes. After laying on a bit of charm, he came right out and said he wanted to help her kill someone to collect insurance money. In another plot twist too ludicrous for fiction, she agreed on the spot. She later claimed she had been manipulated and controlled by Robin, but didn’t deny he had promised €50,000 to her and whoever else she was able to recruit. For the second attempt on Christin’s life, Robin gave Tanja champagne laced with potassium chloride. Tanja was supposed to feign interest in buying one of Robin’s horses and, when the deal was concluded, offer her champagne to drink. After a few sips, however, Christin poured it out, claiming it tasted off. The second attempt to kill Christin thus failed.

For the third attempt to murder Christin, Robin and his mother pulled out all the stops. Robin, much to his later regret, texted Tanja that “the third time cannot be allowed to fail.” Robin asked Tanja if she knew someone who might be willing to pull off a hit. She said her brother Sven, a petty criminal who had spent time in prison, probably would. Sven in turn recruited Steven, who also had a criminal record, and a plethora of “social problems” so vast he lived in an assisted-living facility. Together, they lured Christin to a parking lot late at night in her hometown of Lübars, and one of the crew (it’s still not certain which one) strangled her to death.

The case wasn’t difficult to solve, although investigators had a hard time proving exactly who had played which role. They immediately focused on Robin, and discovered that his mother had stabbed Christin some months beforehand. They quickly twigged to Tanja’s involvement, and through her Sven and Steven. All five were charged with murder or abetting murder (which carry the same punishment under German law).

II. The Investigation and Trial

The podcast explores the detectives’ tactics and the court proceedings in detail, something which is surprisingly rare in Germany — a country which is obsessed with (generally unrealistic) murder mysteries. When you’re arrested for a serious crime in Germany, you will be interrogated by the police. They are obliged to inform you that you are required only to identify yourself. You are not required to answer any further questions without the presence of a lawyer. Yet the rules are nowhere near as strict and arbitrary as they are in the UK or the USA. Interrogations do not need to be recorded, as in the UK; detectives prepare a written record based on memory. Nor do police need to recite a specific speech concerning a suspect’s rights and obtain a formal written waiver, as they usually do in the USA. German police can advise you that you’ll fare better in court if you cooperate, and invariably do so. They often try to establish a friendly and laid-back tone to the interrogation. Suspects are not handcuffed or restrained unless they seem to present a threat. German courts probe deeply into how cops get confessions, so third-degree tactics — lies, threats, manipulation, especially violence — are seen as counterproductive, and rarely used.

To build rapport, a detective might chat at length about common interests such as soccer or food or television. One detective who questioned Robin quizzed him about horses, because he was genuinely interested in horses, and Robin knew quite a bit about them. What could be more natural? Later, he told the reporters about Robin: “Oh sure, I knew he was lying in lots of what he said to me, but then again, he’s got a right to do that.” One key in the questioning of Tanja was the fact that one of the detectives smoked. He joined her outside the precinct for smoke breaks, and appealed subtly to her conscience, person-to-person.

The main purpose of interrogations is to obtain a confession. If that proves impossible, then detectives try to pin the suspect’s story down early, so that they can later point out inconsistencies if they arise. A caveat: As is the case anywhere, police tactics vary in Germany depending on the officer is and the suspect. All the suspects in this case were ethnic Germans, and many had no previous criminal record. Thus, they almost certainly received gentler treatment than, say, an immigrant with a long criminal record and limited German. In fact, this case seems to contain a specific example of what you might call “German privilege”. It’s difficult to imagine that the local authorities would have suspended prosecution in a serious stabbing case based merely on Cornelia’s uncorroborated claim that she had a “blackout” if the Cornelia had been a foreigner, rather than a well-spoken German lady who worked in a bank. But even with this caveat in mind, stories of brutal third-degree interrogations are rare in Germany. German police simply don’t have the win-at-all-costs mentality that often drives American police to bend or break the rules they feel restrict them. If a suspect strictly refuses to cooperate, they’ll just give up trying to get a statement, and hope other tactics will solve the case.

Nevertheless, German police do get suspects to talk about the crime, and often to confess, with surprising frequency. There are a few reasons for this. First, German law is quite lenient in international comparison. A suspect in a country which imposes 10 years in prison for crime X is going to be much more circumspect than one in a country where crime X is usually punished by 2 years with a suspended sentence. Second, German judges are often suspicious of confessions, and will explore the circumstances under which they were given. This is part of the “duty of investigation” (Pflicht zur Erforschung) which requires judges to independently establish all relevant facts of a case. Did the suspect confess to protect or appease a third party? Does her confession square with the known facts of the case? If not, why not? Even a full confession which squares with the facts will not prevent a later full examination of the facts of the case, during which the defense will be able to make its own arguments. Even if a case is settled by a plea bargain, the judge is still obliged by law (g) to carefully examine the circumstances of the confession, although some overburdened judges cut corners here.

Perhaps the most important reason for the high rate of confessions in German cases is that suspects know they will receive more favorable treatment from the judge in their case if they come forward. In the Christin R. case, Tanja, Robin, and Steven all decided to talk to the police. Tanja gave a full account of everything that happened, saying she wanted to “get the pictures out of her head”. Steven — who talked so quickly and with so much slang that detectives had trouble keeping up with him — corroborated much of what Tanja said, but claimed Robin, not he, had strangled Christin. Robin, for his part, provided a carefully curated and selective account, confirming facts which he knew could be verified, but denying any murder plot. He had also tried to carefully arrange an alibi for himself by visiting a gas station.

After a long investigation came the trial. It was held before a Schwurgericht, an untranslatable term which is officially rendered into English as a “criminal division with lay judges”. It originally meant court with twelve “sworn” jurors, but is now composed of three professional judges and two lay judges (Schöffen). It is reserved for the most serious offenses involving the death of a victim. It is still not allowed to record criminal trials in Germany, but the podcast’s authors were in the courtroom and provided a careful account. The trial opened, with the reading of the indictment. Directly after this, the court turns to the defendants and asks them to provide their personal information.

After they have done so, the court asks them if they want to make any comment on the case. At this point, an Anglo-Saxon criminal defense lawyer’s hair would catch fire. Speak informally, directly to the judges in the case, right there in open court? Clearly, we are in another procedural universe here, one with many fewer strict rules and formalities than in England or the UK. Of course, defendants aren’t obliged to make a statement at the beginning. German law respects the presumption of innocence and the right to silence. In this case, Tanja decided to make a full statement in open court at the beginning of the case. She explained her version of exactly how the crime occurred, and expressed remorse. She had been advised to do this by her lawyer, with an argument like this: “You already said all this to the detectives, so the judges are going to find out about it anyway. This way, you get out ahead, portraying yourself as the only member of the conspiracy willing to come right out and be honest from the beginning, come what may. This will help speed the trial and earn the judges’ respect.”

After the initial statements comes the wearisome task of establishing what happened. As noted, German courts have an independent duty to probe as deeply as possible into all the circumstances of a crime. The judges dominate the proceeding, directly questioning witnesses and commissioning expert testimony. There is no clear “prosecution” and “defense” case — each side merely intervenes occasionally to highlight facts it considers helpful to its side. Trials often last for months or even years — they’re not held day after day, but rather in a sporadic series of sessions. In the Christin R. case, there were numerous seemingly minor inconsistencies in the testimony and evidence — Tanja said the attacker was wearing a certain color jacket, but another witness said it was a different color. Fiber evidence was inconclusive. There was no DNA evidence. In an Anglo-Saxon courtroom, these minor weaknesses would become fodder for back-and-forth argument by the lawyers. But in German courtrooms, the judges are obliged to try to resolve these seemingly minor inconsistencies in mind-numbing detail.

Finally, after the relevant facts had been established, Robin and his mother Cornelia decided to testify. In German courtrooms, defendants are not obliged to testify under oath because, as any professor or lawyer will tell you, “they’re going to lie anyway, and have a right to do so.” As best they could, Robin and Cornelia tailored their account to match the facts — Robin’s damning Internet searches for poison were meant to protect his horses from eating the wrong weeds; Cornelia had taken out all those life insurance policies merely as a precaution; Robin only wanted to sell Tanja a horse and had no idea of “her” plan to murder Christin. To call their versions unconvincing was an understatement.

Eventually, after all the suspects were heard, and the judges retired to deliberate. Eventually, they returned their verdict (g). All five of the defendants — Tanja, Robin, his mother Cornelia, Tanja’s sister Sven, and his friend Steven (who probably actually committed the murder) were found guilty. Robin and his mother were sentenced to life in prison with a special finding of especially severe culpability (besondere Schwere der Schuld), which means they will have to stay around 25 years behind bars. Sven and Steven were sentenced to life without a special finding, which means they’ll become eligible for release in around 15 years.

As for Tanja, the judges made use of §46a of the German Criminal Code, which allows sentence reduction if the offender “voluntarily disclos[es] his (sic!) knowledge” of the offense. She received not a life sentence, but a term of fourteen and one-half years. With good behavior, she might well be released in half that time. Some of the defendants appealed their conviction, but on 9 March 2016, the Supreme Court of Justice (g) dismissed the appeals as “evidently unfounded“. At this point, the verdicts and sentences became formally legally binding.

As I mentioned above, Cornelia, Robin, and Steven all agreed to be interviewed from prison. This is quite rare in Germany, both because prisoners generally want to avoid calling attention to themselves, and because prison authorities often deny access to prisoners because it may “hinder resocialization”. Robin and Cornelia apparently wanted to increase their chances of early release by making a show of coming to terms with their sentence. However — at least from the edited excerpts presented in the podcast — they still seem to deny the charges against them.

Interestingly, the authors of the podcast, after all their research, believe that important aspects of the case still remained unsolved, and attribute this to gaps in the investigation and the judges’ examination during trial (g). I personally don’t see this, from an American or British perspective, the evidence is much more than adequate for conviction. German law punishes abetting the crime identically to committing it, so the various levels of involvement are not particularly important, as long as there is evidence the abettors had a common purpose and plan. But the German criminal justice system is oriented toward finding out the entire truth, as far as possible.

German Word of the Week: Machtwort

Here’s a headline from the German daily Die Welt: “Impeachment? Democrat Pelosi speaks a Machtwort“.ApplicationFrameHost_ujsNtxY00A

I provided no translation because there isn’t one. A Machtwort — literally “power-word” is a word that only someone in power can speak. It’s something like a command or order, usually with a specific purpose: to shut down debate among underlings once and for all.

This word needs to be transferred into English. However, it’s a bit too hard to pronounce (“mocht-vort”). Thus, as Ohrwurm became earworm, we’re going to need to finesse Machtwort a little bit.

First we ditch the voiceless velar fricative in the “ch”. This sound — something like a cat hissing, transposed down an octave or two — is notoriously difficult sound for non-German speakers to make. So we’re going to just turn it into “mocked”.

Why keep Macht instead of just going with the English “power-word”? Because we want it to sound at least a little German. After all, the Machtwort is concept built on authority imposing order through intimidation, and what could be more German than that?* Plus, Macht is such a common German word that many English speakers will have at least some familiarity with some form of it, from the notorious “Arbeit Macht Frei” to the Yiddish term macher, for “big shot”.

We’re just going to turn Wort into “word”, though. No need to overdo things. So I propose that people start using “Machtword” in English:

“The chatting students were silenced by the teacher’s Machtword.”

“Listen, your ideas have been stimulating, but time’s pressing and we need to move on. Machtword!”

When people ask you what you just said, tell them it’s the hippest new concept from Germany. Maybe add a slight trace of a condescending sneer that they don’t already know about it.

Continue reading “German Word of the Week: Machtwort”

The Langen Foundation Museum by Tadao Ando

Easter is a four-day weekend in Germany, so it was time for Art. I biked to the Langen Foundation, a splendid little museum on the outskirts of Neuss, just west of Düsseldorf. It’s part of a loose network of cultural organizations in the area which includes the Museum Insel Hombroich, the Raketenstation, a former NATO missile base converted into an artists’ colony, and the newest addition, a small ‘Sculpture Hall‘ created by the Düsseldorf artists Thomas Schütte to display his and others’ works. These cultural institutions are all housed in small, carefully-designed buildings scattered around farmers’ fields and meadows.

The Langen Foundation houses art — mainly Japanese — collected over decades by businessman Viktor Langen and his wife Marianne. They commissioned a building from the Japanese architect Tadao Ando, who is known for his minimalist designs in concrete and glass. The building consists of a long, narrow, enclosed exhibition space above ground, with two large halls built underground. It’s all in rectilinear, unfinished concrete, surrounded by a carapace of glass. The lines are crisp and clear, almost clinical. It’s a building that discreetly steps out of the way, so that your attention can rest squarely on the art inside.

The current exhibition begins with the installation ‘Japan Diary’ by the Düsseldorf artist Anne Pöhlmann (g), documenting a 2017 fellowship (g) in Japan. She combines photographs, designs, and textiles, some hung on the wall, some draped over plinths on the ground. The exhibition proper features Japanese art from the collection: a few sculptures and lacquered objects, but mostly silk scrolls and screens with landscapes, still lives, and portraits of the Buddha and various deities. Many are extremely well-preserved, with colors that still pop.

They’re presented without any identification, which is typical of the curatorial style in this “cultural area” (the Museum Insel Hombroich also has no identification next to the works). Most of the scrolls are hung directly on the wall, without any guardrails or glass, allowing you to get quite close to them and inspect the details. It’s this intimacy which marks all the museums and galleries in the area. You have to seek them out, which means they attract a more sedate and sophisticated kind of visitor. There’s no intrusive security or announcements or loud tour groups or bored children.

The Langen Foundation is one of the many discreet jewels of cultural life in and around Düsseldorf. And if you go there by bike, you’ll ride next to the picturesque Erft canal.

Langen Foundation General View of EntranceLangen Foundation Side AisleLangen Foundation Detail of 'Japan Diary' by Anne PöhlmannLangen Foundation Detail of 'Japan Diary' by Anne Pöhlmann Rocks05-Langen Foundation Detail of 'Japan Diary' by Anne Pöhlmann Girl Making GesturesLangen Foundation Interior View from Second StoryLangen Foundation Detail of Landscape PaintingLangen Foundation Abstract TreeLangen Foundation Painting PersimmonsLangen Foundation WaxwingsLangen Foundation PeacockLangen Foundation - Ogata Korin, Chrysanthemums and Bush Clover by a RiverLangen Foundation Elephants Supporting the BuddhaLangen Foundation Portrait of the BuddhaLangen Foundation Interior View with LionLangen Foundation Death of the Buddha Detail Distraught MonksLangen Foundation Death of the Buddha Detail Distraught Dog(?) Offering FlowerLangen Foundation Death of the Buddha Detail Tiger and Leopard Offering FlowerLangen Foundation Statue of Buddha with Radiant Crown and Wish-Granting JewelLangen Foundation Detail of DeerLangen Foundation Lion and ScrollsLangen Foundation Approach Path

 

 

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.

 

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:

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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.

German Word of the Week: Fundschlange

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The German for find is finden, and the past tense is gefunden. Carve out the middle 4 letters of gefunden, and you have fund. Which doesn’t mean fund in English, that word, in “German”, is Fonds, pronounced the French way, since it’s a French loan word (g). Oddly enough, Fonds, in German, is a singular masculine word, even though it has an ‘s’ at its end: “I invested in a Fonds.” Go figure.

Fund is one of those German prefixes which can be attached to almost any word — in this case, to describe something which was found. The lost and found office is a Fundbüro (find-office), and the objects stashed in it are Fundsachen (find-things). Fundkind (find-child) is one German name for a foundling. I can’t be sure (little help, anyone?), but I suspect the English word “findspot” might be derived from the German archeological term Fundort. These words, by the way, are called Determinativkomposita in German.

And now back to the image above. It’s from the Munich Reptile Rescue Center, and describes the woeful condition of a Fundschlange (find-snake) brought into the center by the Unterbiberg Fire Department. The poor bastard had been chewed on by rats, but is expected to make a full recovery.

And in case you’re wondering, a rescue dog is, in fact, a Fundhund (“foond-hoond”) (g), which is one of those German words which gets funnier every time you pronounce it.