nineties berlin at the alte münze
art, Berlin, events, Germany, history, Life in Berlin, Museum, music, things to do

Nineties Berlin at the Alte Münze

“Berlin ist vorbei,” says Andreas Jeromin, a former Berlin squatter. It’s a phrase we hear often. Berlin is over. The coolest, most creative time the city had ever experienced, just after the fall of the wall in the 1990s, is long gone. But the current exhibition at the Alte Münze attempts to revisit the era with Nineties Berlin.

nineties berlin at the alte münze

The Alte Münze seems like a good choice for such an undertaking. The former mint factory now serves as a blank canvas that is regularly repurposed for different events and exhibitions, much like the morphing and the repurposing of old and abandoned spaces that took place in 1990s Berlin. The space lends itself to immersive audio-visual experiences, whether its being used for a Boiler Room event or the wonderful Monet to Kandinsky art show that was on earlier in the year, and the first room of Nineties Berlin is no different.

IMG_0854.jpg

A moving collage of old photos and video footage of pianists playing on heaps of rubble, love parade ravers and artists occupying old buildings float by, giving us a feel of the political energy, creative freedom and hedonism of nineties Berlin. A jagged passageway in the centre of the room is lined with old black and white stills of the city.  But to find out more about them, you have to log in to the website and use the ‘interactive bot’, which takes you out of the experience by making you look at your phone and seems like a case of using technology for technology’s sake. Why not just put some text beneath every photo?

The next room consists of videos of contemporary witnesses talking about Berlin in the nineties, including the former squatter mentioned above. I found this room a little disappointing: Of the 14 people featured, only two were women, and the majority were involved in the music scene. What about the rest of the people living in Berlin in the 90s? Surely there was more to the era than the Love Parade?

Nineties Berlin at the Alte Münze

The creators of the exhibition might have had the same thought, because the forth room was a breath of fresh air. No, cold air. Literally. It was a freezing room, which consisted of a brutal and effective memorial to the people who had been shot down before the wall came crashing down at the end of the 80s. However, you couldn’t spend much time contemplating these lingering political and human effects of the wall because the cold temperature moved you swiftly on to the last room, which, again, focussed on club culture before spitting you out into the gift shop.

The gift shop felt like an extension of the exhibition. Poppy and expensive, it commercialised the image of 1990s Berlin without really moving beyond the surface. Everything felt like a simulation of simulacra, making me wonder if, indeed, Berlin really is over.

Nineties Berlin is currently on at the Alte Münze, Molkenmarkt 2, 10179 Berlin.

Máret Ánne Sara, Pile o’ Sápmi (2017) Curtain made from reindeer skulls and metal wire
art, Germany, Life in Berlin, people, politics

Weekend Trips from Berlin: documenta14 in Kassel

Kassel is a 3-4 hour train ride from Berlin. It is a strange mix of regal buildings and monuments from its time as a princely residence, and bland concrete.

In the town’s main square, fountains arch hopefully into the sky only to land directly into to drains a couple of metres away. However, the small town is most notable for documenta, a contemporary art exhibition which takes over its galleries, museums and public spaces for a period of 100 days every five years.

Máret Ánne Sara, Pile o’ Sápmi (2017) Curtain made from reindeer skulls and metal wire
Máret Ánne Sara, Pile o’ Sápmi (2017) Curtain made from reindeer skulls and metal wire

After I had exhausted my two-day exhibition ticket, I visited the marble bath, where the tour guide asked me if I had enjoyed documenta 14. I said I had, very much.

“Gut,” she said, surprised. “Alle meckern.” (Everyone’s complaining.)

And she’s right. Everyone is complaining. The well-known writer Moritz von Uslar went so far as to tweet that he found the Zeit’s weekly journalists meeting more inspiring than anything he experienced at this year’s documenta. Here’s the thing: He is wrong.

different perspectives: documenta14This year’s documenta was surprising, wonderfully curated and impactful. For this first time this year, the art exhibition was split between two locations: Athens and Kassel, acknowledging the two different sides of Europe, one destitute, one rich, one central, and one at its southern edge that deals with a stream of migrants from the Middle East and Northern Africa.

And it was this alternative, disorientating, multi-sided view of Europe that dominated the exhibition. For example, Janine Antoni’s wonderful Slumber posits the idea that the fabled adventures of Ulysses had perhaps all taken place in  Penelope’s dreams. The Sámi artist Máret Ánne Sara presented us with an alternative perspective of Norwegian history, and Gordon Hookey hit us with a big, bold, political statement about Aboriginal people and Australia.

Altogether, the exhibition was political, unapologetic, anti-neo-libralist, and anti-capitalist. Probably, exactly, the kind of thing a white, German man like von Uslar, who is primarily interested in other white, German men didn’t get it, or didn’t want to, or whatever.

I found that looking at art for a couple of days was nourishing. The fresh and interesting ideas, the visual and cerebral excitement, the new perspectives and experiences you engage in, if you are open to it, makes you look at everything in a new way. At one point, me, and the entire group of people I was with, all stopped to look at this lamp fixture on the side of a building. Wasn’t it weird?

fascinating lamp fixture kassel
Fascinating lamp fixture

Artists and their works only do half the job, you have to meet them half way. Obviously, not everything is for everyone, but to call an entire, massive exhibition uninspiring and to rubbish the work and ideas of some of the most exciting contemporary artists in the world in one tweet reveals more about the tweeter than about his subject.

Documenta14 is on until 17th September 2017 in Kassel.

 

Berlin, Germany, history, Life in Berlin, people, things to do

Soviet Berlin with Holger Raschke

Berlin is a city haunted by the past, built on layers of memory. Holger Raschke, founder of Berlins Taiga, a tour company that focuses on the Soviet history of the city and its surrounding areas, is also fascinated by the past. He grew up in Potsdam, at a time when the Soviet army was omnipresent, surrounded by barracks, fenced-off military facilities and gigantic military training grounds.

Soviet_War_Memorial_in_Tiergarten,_April_2014
By Ethan Doyle White at English Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0

Holger organises tours of his native Potsdam, the hinterlands of Brandenburg where remote Soviet outposts still remain, and, of course, tours of central Berlin – one of which I took.

Soviet Berlin II – Through the Red Metropolis begins at Berlin Hauptbahnhof, crossing over to the government quarter via the red Moltke Bridge, which Soviet soldiers crossed when they took the city at the end of World War II. The Soviets amassed 2.5 million soldiers for the Battle of Berlin, and their presence still lingers throughout the city.

It lingers just beneath the grass of the Soviet War Memorial of Tiergarten, where 2,500 Soviet soldiers are buried beneath the unmarked, inconspicuous earth. It lingers in the various Soviet murals, the stark architecture and the recurring shape of the Sputnik. Holger unveils the Soviet history of these familiar sites by showing archival photos of the exact spots you visit on his tour, narrating anecdotes and recounting historical facts. The tour leads down Alexanderplatz and Karl Marx Allee, which used to be called Stalin Allee, finally ending at Berlin’s biggest Soviet Memorial in Treptower Park.

Soviet Berlin II lasts four hours and covers five kilometres by foot. It’s perfect for tourists, who would like a unique walk through central Berlin, but as a local I also learned a lot and enjoyed Holger’s extensive knowledge of the subject. Not only was he was able to answer all my questions, but he could recount personal stories about his experience, and those of his friends and family. I would be especially interested in taking his Potsdam and Hinterland Tours, which are more off the beaten track and will certainly take me into as yet unexplored territory.

Berlins Taiga operates public and private tours of Berlin, Potsdam, and the Hinterland.

Shop selling fireworks in Berlin for New Year's Eve
Berlin, Germany, Humour, Life in Berlin

Why the Germans turn into werewolves on New Year’s Eve

Over the last few days, firecrackers and rockets have been filling the air with smoke and the smell of gunpowder. As usual, the Germans have been getting warmed up for New Year’s Eve — the one night of the year when they go completely crazy.

Shop selling fireworks in Berlin for New Year's Eve
After my first New Year’s Eve in Berlin, I bought my first ever fire extinguisher — and I have been the proud owner of one ever since. For there is only one word for what takes place here on New Year’s Eve: Carnage.

People ignite batteries on the streets, throw rockets off balconies and firecrackers into bins and trams. This recording of a New Year’s Eve drive through Berlin that went viral last year illustrates the madness:

Amidst all the noise and confusion, you’ll sometimes hear a dog barking its head off as if trying to figure out what on earth possessed the humans. I, too, ponder a similar question every year: What happens to the Germans on New Year’s Eve?

Among expats, the common joke is of course that the Germans haven’t started a war in a while, so they need to blow things up once a year. I don’t buy that explanation, but maybe someone from Germany’s Ministry of Economy should look into it, because it might just be cheaper to have an actual war than to carry on like this. This year, the Germans spent 15o million on explosives. New Year’s celebrations usually result in around 12,000 fires and more than 30 million euros worth of damage to cars, houses and other property. Last year, in Berlin alone, the fire brigade responded to 1500 emergency calls. The night always ends in countless injuries and even deaths.

Just recently, the Alternative for Germany (AfD) proposed banning fireworks in Stuttgart altogether. Clearly, we have a problem when even the far right party of Germany thinks that things have gone too far. Another attempt to get things under control came from Klinikum Dortmund, a German hospital that publicised an image of a mangled hand resulting from a firecracker accident on Wednesday. I doubt this will change anything, however, because New Year’s Eve is to Germans what the full moon is to werewolves.

For most of the year, the Germans are busy wearing sensible shoes, putting their rubbish into the correct bins and following rules and regulations. Everyone is just so efficient and responsible and good. And then, on New Year’s Eve, they completely transform.

Take for example, the environment – something the Germans are usually very concerned about. On New Year’s Eve, the sheer number of fireworks let off makes January 1st is the most polluted day of the year. Or safety — if you try crossing the road when the pedestrian light is red, about ten people will point out your error and tell you that you are setting a bad example for children. But on New Year’s Eve, drunk parents will hold lit fireworks in their hands while standing next to their children without a second thought for safety.

Clearly, the Germans repress their wild sides for the entire year to such an extent that it eventually has to break out in a terrible way. They are like those children with very strict parents who at some point go completely wild. The best solution would be for everyone to just let loose a little at regular intervals throughout 2017…maybe go out in the rain without a waterproof coat, be a few minutes late for an appointment, chuck some brown glass in the white glass bin, jaywalk, go crazy.

Berlin, Germany, Life in Berlin, politics

A #Brexit Playlist

Stunned. There’s nothing else to say about Britain’s decision to leave the European Union. For the past few months, I’ve been reassuring everyone the Brexit wouldn’t happen. I mean, us Brits like to complain, but we’re not complete morons.

It turns out that we are, proving that a) people are stew-pid-er than you think, and b) there is an Abba song for every situation.

Here is your Brexit playlist – or playlists, a separate one for Britain and Europe, since that’s the way it’s going to be…

Britain:

Crazy by Gnarls Barkly

Knowing me, Knowing You by Abba

London Calling by The Clash

The End by The Doors

Europe:

Take A Chance On Me by Abba

If You Leave Me Now by Chicago

Rolling in the Deep by Adele

I Will Survive by Gloria Gaynor

What wold be on your Brexit playlist? Post any ideas below!

Berlin, Germany, News, politics

Five Ways To Help Refugees in Berlin Now

Following on from Sara Chahr­rour’s wonderfully informative 10 ways to Help Refugees in Berlin, I wanted to share the ways I have found most effective.

BerlinEverything feels a bit ad hoc at the moment; there does not seem to be one central point of co-ordination or information, organisations like Start with a Friend aren’t even sending out standard responses to registrations, others, like Give Something Back To Berlin seem to be a little backlogged – although they do have an information evening coming up on the 18th September at Agora, and most emails go answered. I’ve been seeing a lot of How do I Help? posts online, so here’s a list of direct ways to help now.

1. Register at volunteer-planner.org and help out at Rathaus Wilmersdorf

Rathaus Wilmersdorf Notunterkunft has by far the most organised online presence. They have a regularly updated google doc of stuff they need, and a Facebook Page. If you would like to volunteer, just register at www.volunteer-planner.org and put your name down against a particular time and activity (e.g. sorting donations, translating, distributing food, being a runner, or even providing entertainment if you’re an artist / performer), and turn up. The Fluechtlingsheim Weissensee also uses this service, so there are opportunities to help out there as well.

2. Check out Free Your Stuff Berlin

The Free Your Stuff Berlin Facebook Group has become a hub for people who would like to help, and people seeking help – either in terms of specific things, or help with translating German documents etc. Just yesterday, a nice woman posted that she would be happy to pick up anything people have to donate and drop it off to the nearest station – if you don’t have stuff to give her, you can help her carry out this task.

3. Offer your spare room to a refugee

Refugees Welcome, which helps house refugees in normal homes, is a well-organised scheme that seems to be working well. It is an effective way to help and earn money from your spare room. The Guardian called this the ‘airbnb for refugees’ in a recent article.

4. Donate some stuff

Here are some direct links to what is needed and when / where to give:

The Kreuzberg Hilft List. Only accepting donations from 9th September. Donations can be dropped off at Dieffenbachstraße 15, 10967 Berlin from Tuesday to Friday from 12 to 18:30 clock.

The Willkommen in Westend List. The address is Eschenallee 3, 14050 Berlin.

The Moabit Hilft List: This list also has details of how to donate money, as well as specifics on what they need and where to drop it, and what they need in terms of help (at the moment: people to sort donations and give food from 09.00 – 18.00 and translators from 12.00-20.00)

The Spandau Askanierring List: Information on what is needed in terms of donations and volunteers.

The Lichtenberg List: What they need, and where to give it.

The Marzahn / Blumberger Damm List: What they need /address, or check out Willkommen in Marzahn on Facebook.

The Wedding Hilft List. What they need, where to give it.

5. Share these articles

Many people want to help but have no idea how. Use social media to share articles like this, the previously mentioned 10 Ways You Can Help Refugees in Berlin, The Local’s 5 Ways You Can Help Refugees in Germany and The Independent’s Five Practical Ways You Can Help Refugees Trying to Find Safety in Europe.

If anyone out there has more practical information on how to help or if you are a refugee / organisation that needs help, feel free to leave a comment, or contact me.

art, Berlin, Germany, history, Life in Berlin, News, politics

The Bode Museum marks the 70th Anniversary of End of World War Two

This year marks the 70th anniversary of the end of World War Two. To celebrate, Russia staged its biggest military parade, involving thousands of troops marching across the Red Square in Moscow, displays of ballistic missiles and over 100 war planes.

Here’s a clip of what it looked like:

While such scenes of nationalistic machismo, mirroring those that led up to the second world war in the first place, are clichéd and shallow, here, in a quiet corner of Berlin’s Bode Museum, a much smaller display makes for a deeper impact.

The Lost Museum Exhibition is about the hundreds of art works from the Berlin collections that went missing, were stolen or destroyed, due to the second world war. It consists of partly destroyed works, reconstructed pieces, photographic reproductions and information about the lost works.

The partly charred or smashed statues are devastating to see, but worse are the black and white photographic reproductions of paintings, like this Rubens:

photographic reproduction of lost Rubens at Bode Museum, BerlinA masterwork like this, drained of the colour and brushstrokes that bring Rubens’ paintings to life with fleshy sensuality, makes one feel the absence of the original even more.

IMG_20150510_140410Other stand out pieces, like this plaster cast of Donatello’s John the Baptist – the original has disappeared – demonstrate the value of such a restitution project as it reintroduces the piece to the narrative of art history.

The exhibition also raises interesting questions about itself. For example, should the few remaining fragments of works that survived the Friedrichshain Bunker fire be reconstructed, taking the artists’ original visions and intentions into mind? Or should, according to the standards of historic preservation, any change in the state of a work of art be respected? In short, is it more important to show the original idea of a work of art, or its history?

The exhibition is insightful and questioning and, on a positive note, is possible due to the ongoing and ever-strengthening collaboration between German and Russian museum professionals.

What remains though is the feeling of loss for all those hundreds of works that have vanished. It is a loss to civilisation. A fissure in art history. The visions and spirits of the people that lived in those works, forever lost.

The Lost Museum: The Berlin Sculpture and Paintings Collections 70 Years After World War II is on at the Bode-Museum until 27th September 2015.

Berlin, Germany, history, Life in Berlin, News, politics

Pegida

Icky as it is, I’m going to have to touch the whole Pegida thing because I saw this BBC video yesterday, and it’s been bugging me ever since.

Unless you’ve been living in a vacuum for the last few months, you’ll know that Pegida, which stands for Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the West (so wordy!), is a new movement that has been holding weekly marches in major German cities.

The group claims not to be racist or xenophobic, but like all “I’m not a racist but…” statements, there’s nothing not-racist about it.

Surprisingly, many people have turned out in support of Pegida. On Monday, about 18.000 people took to the streets of Dresden, while around 4,000 people joined a counter-demonstration. The group has not been as successful in other cities such as Berlin, where Pegida opponents outnumbered supporters.

The first guy in the video was predictable; “Germany for Germans” is a phrase you’d expect to hear at one of these things, along with the ‘no mosques’ stuff. Of course, he neglected to tackle details like how exactly one defines a German. Is it a race? What if you are of Vietnamese origin but have a German passport? What if you German but have converted to Islam? What if you are Turkish but support Germany in the World Cup? And what about that CDU politician who does a good job of pretending to be German, but with a name like David McAllister, has to be Scottish?

And what happens when all the non-Germans leave? The country would shrivel up and die – literally. Germany’s aging population means that the meagre working population would collapse trying to support all the pensioners. In fact, immigration is the only sensible way out of this problem. And what about Germans elsewhere? You can’t swing a cat in London without hitting one – should we gather them up and send them, kicking and screaming, back to the Fatherland?

I recently visited The British Museum’s Germany: Memories of a Nation exhibition (visited by Merkel today), which illustrates that defining Germany is a shifty business too. The German Nation was originally an idea, consisting of many different territories and peoples, ranging from Austria and the Czech Republic to parts of Romania. Clearly, the mapped boundaries of Germany were questionable to Hitler, who figured that Poland was part of German territory. By reverse logic, should Germany accept Polish, Czech and Romanian immigrants?

And about the mosques – should the constitution upon which modern Germany is founded, which guarantees freedom of religion and freedom from religious discrimination, be re-written? Anyway, I’m sure the nice man has thought it all through. He’s grand. What stunned me was the woman talking about her four daughters with long blonde hair.

It reminded me of a propaganda photograph I saw at the Topographie des Terror in which a Jewish man who had a Christian girlfriend was forced to hold a sign saying he raped a Christian girl.

The idea of the purity of one’s women being polluted by outsiders is a primitive narrative. It is the oldest fear-mongering tactic in the book. It was used in the United States to justify lynchings in the South and now, in Germany, it is toppling out of an articulate woman’s mouth – without any shame or awareness of what she is actually saying.

So why the rise of Pegida? It could be down to timing; Germany’ s recent intake of more immigrants than ever before coupled with sufficient time passing since the war might mean that people no longer feel there is a stigma attached to marching in the streets, waving German flags and expressing such views.

In theory, the Germany was supposed to be ‘de-Nazified’ after the war, but a look at Topographie des Terror exhibition demonstrates that this was not the case; judges, politicians, and civil servants remained in their positions for the most part, and there was a real reluctance to dig up the past and prosecute war criminals.

Now, these buried views appear to be resurfacing. Pegida is attracting a mix of people of all ages, from right-wing activists to ‘normal’ citizens, and a recent poll of just over 1,000 people by Stern magazine found that one in eight Germans would join an anti-Islam march if Pegida organised one near their home.

What do you think about Germany’s Pegida phenomenon?

Germany, history, Humour, Life in Berlin, politics

The German State and the Church (with Father Ted)

The Bavarian and I recently visited his hometown (well, village) to attend his nephew’s christening.

During the service, he dug a sweet wrapper out of his coat pocket and tossed it onto the pew, hissed into my ear about how fat the priest was (the priest was thin), complained about how stingy the Catholics were (the church was not heated) and muttered “useless little beggars” as he passed the priest’s helpers on his way out (they were holding contribution baskets).

Clearly, The Bavarian has issues with the church. Rather than attributing this to his usual irrational eccentricity, I’m putting it down to the unique relationship between the German state and the church.

IMG_3003Despite Europe’s secular values, Germany remains closely entwined with the church.

In fact, if Turkey were as non-secular as Germany, there would be no question of it even being considered for EU membership.

The German State currently pays about half-a-billion euros per year to the church as a result of 200-year-old contracts drawn up during German mediatisation – a series of property transfers from the church to the state that took place between 1795 and 1814. That’s half a billion euros of everyone’s taxes – whether they are Catholics, Protestants, atheists or Jedi, at a time when Europe is in financial crisis and Germany is pushing for austerity and a balanced budget.

On top of that, the German state subsidises bishops wages, priest’s salaries, events such as Kirchentage (church congresses), church-run kindergartens, schools, hospitals, care homes, the maintenance of religious buildings – the list goes on, and it adds up to billions.

The church runs so many institutions (schools, hospitals etc) in Germany that it is the country’s second largest employer after the public sector.

As if all this wasn’t enough, when you register yourself as a resident in Germany, you are asked to state your religion. If you answer with ‘Catholic’ or ‘Protestant’, you are promptly charged again in the form of church-tax (Kirchensteuer). In classic German form, when an American friend said he was ‘Southern Baptist’, the box marked ‘cult’ was ticked. He was offended, until he realised that this exempted him from paying the additional tax.

Church-tax is calculated at 8% or 9% of your income tax (depending on what state you live in) – no small amount – thereby provoking many people to leave the church upon receiving their first pay cheque – a privilege for which they must of course pay an administration fee.

In July 2008, the Federal Constitutional Court of Germany ruled that charging a fee for leaving the church was an infringement of religious liberty – but most German states still charge (between €10-60). In Berlin, it’s free, causing the church to complain that the city is positively urging members to drop like flies.

If anything is making people leave though, it’s this whole church-tax business itself. When you see a significant amount of your pay being taken away, you start questioning your beliefs and whether you really want to belong to the church.

Also, the binding of money with religion seems crude. After all, wasn’t it the Catholics trying to sell places in heaven that incensed Luther to nail his Ninety-Five Theses to the Wittenberg church door, causing one of the biggest schisms in Western Christianity? Have they learned nothing?!

And on a spiritual level, can one really leave the church via bureaucratic means? I thought Catholics had to be ex-communicated by the pope himself, like Henry VIII.

I know a woman in Ireland who wanted to officially leave the church to demonstrate her outrage following the child-abuse scandal – she was still writing letters to Brussels a year later. It’s almost impossible for the Irish to leave the church (she eventually did it), unless they move to Germany, in which case they just need to fill out some paperwork.

The Bavarian was the first person in his family to leave the church. He waited till he was far away from his village so as not to embarrass his mother. However, his glee was cut short, because soon afterwards, the Protestants started charging him church-tax. He was practically foaming at the mouth when he wrote to them saying that he was not nor ever had been a Protestant. The response he received said he had to prove it. This would have been tricky if he hadn’t recently left the Catholics, which was proof enough that he would never go near the Protestants – but the system does sometimes prove Kafkaesque.

What is especially opaque is the question of where all the money goes. Despite being financed by German taxpayers, the church is not obliged to disclose its spending – and it doesn’t. The bureaucracy is clueless as to how much real estate the church owns in this country, even though it’s one of Germany’s biggest property owners. For any other individual, corporation or body, this would be unthinkable.

What was revealed earlier this year is that the Bishop of Limburg spent over 10 million euros on his private residence alone – who knows what other skeletons are clacking around in the church’s walk-in wardrobe.

Despite all this, people are still christening their children in the alpine villages of Bavaria. One aspect of this is faith, although I suspect The Bavarian’s sister does not really believe in the prospect of her child languishing in purgatory in the after-life. It didn’t seem like the right time to survey the congregation about the strength of their belief, but I suspect the conversation would have gone something like this:

So why the christening? Tradition. What The Bavarian’s wrath blinded him from was the warm sight of children lighting their Taufkerzen (baptismal candles) together. The ceremony was the chance for the family to unite in good faith, and then eat cake.

On the other hand, the desire to protect tradition supports a deep-rooted conservatism; a system in which doctors and nurses are afraid to leave the church or re-marry because it affects their job prospects in church-run hospitals, a patriarchal system (it was only yesterday that the first female bishop for the Church of England was named, which indicates just how behind they are – not to mention the Catholics), an unaccountable system (how is the money being spent?), a system under which The Bavarian was taught ‘religion’ in school by a priest who only covered Christianity (in London, we were taught about the five major religions by a person who had a degree in the subject), and a system which allowed the abuse of thousands of children.

The New Yorker’s recent, brilliant profile of Merkel pointed out that the current trend of German conservatism is keeping her in power (Merkel, as leader of the Christian Democratic Union, does not support any change regarding the relationship between church and state).

The need to keep status quo and fear of what will replace the Christian tradition prevails, but there are still other European traditions – enlightenment, humanism, democracy – to build on. Maybe it’s time more people left their crumpled sweet wrappers on the pews and walked away.

Berlin, Germany, history, Life in Berlin, News

Fall of the Berlin Wall Celebrations at Potsdamer Platz

Last night marked the 25th Anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. To celebrate, 8000 lit balloons on 3.6m poles, match the height of the wall, were released into the night sky.

The balloons were released one by one along a 15 km stretch that followed the dividing line of the wall, symbolising the breaching of the wall by protestors.

Here are some photos of the event from Potsdamer Platz:

DSC_3017

DSC_3020

DSC_3028

DSC_3041

DSC_3047

Find out more about the celebrations marking the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall at Visit Berlin.

Berlin, Germany, Humour, Life in Berlin

Will Arnett on Wetten, Dass…?

Wetten, dass..? is Germany’s biggest Saturday night entertainment show, attracting around 10 million viewers (at its high point, it drew 23 million – in terms of figures, it remains Europe’s most successful show). It’s been on air since 1981, runs from between 2 and 4 hours, and centres around celebrities betting on outrageous stunts performed by ordinary people.

The first time I saw it, I thought, “The Germans are crazy.” I remember the show – it was this one, in which one of the bets was whether these lovely people could guess the animal by smelling its faeces:

So when I stumbled across this clip of Will Arnett talking about his recent experience on Wetten, dass..?, I could sympathise:

Wetten, dass..? is due to come off the air soon, due to a number of reasons, among which is falling ratings since the show’s popular long-term host Thomas Gottschalk resigned.

Read more about ZDF pulling the plug on Wetten, dass…? at The Local.

art, Germany, history, Life in Berlin, Literature

Weekend Trips from Berlin: Weimar

One of the nice things about living in Berlin is its easy connections to other towns and cities. This weekend, The Bavarian and I went to Weimar, which is a two-hour train ride away.

Weimar

Berlin may be the heart of Germany’s cultural scene today, but Weimar was once one of Europe’s most important cultural centres. It’s the home of German Classicism, Bauhaus, and renowned figures, from Goethe and Schiller, to Liszt, Liebermann, Kandinsky, Klee, Feininger and Gropius.

In fact, so many famous people have ties to Weimar that it’s littered with signs like this:

Bach, Weimar

And this:

Hans-Christian Andersen, Weimar

And you get the feeling that the Weimarians are simply showing off.

The most famous resident of Weimar was Goethe. There are so many references to him in the city that The Bavarian and I started playing the ‘Goethe-Game’, where you gained a point for screaming ‘Goethe’ every time you saw his face or name. (I would record the winner, but really, it’s the taking part that counts…)

Goethe’s Residence and the adjoining Goethe National Museum provide a fascinating insight into his life, work and ideas. He had many interests and collections – from Italian majolica to rocks – so there’s plenty to see. (Below, Goethe’s study)

Goethe's study, Weimar

As we continued to tour Weimar screaming ‘Goethe’, we saw Schiller’s residence, Goethe’s garden house, ate a traditional Thüringer Rostbratwurst at the market square (Markt) and enjoyed coffee and cake at Cafe Frauentor.

Restaurant Elephantenkeller, WeimarWe sampled more traditional Thuringian fare for dinner at the Restaurant Elephantenkeller, which is part of The Elephant Hotel (as is the Michelin starred Anna Amalia).

The Elephant Hotel is the place to stay in Weimar. It was established in 1696 and has a reputation for being a social and cultural meeting point for poets, artists and intellectuals. Thomas Mann immortalised the hotel in Lotte in Weimar and was a guest, as was Wagner, Feininger, Ahner and others.

Of course, that was why I wanted to stay at The Elephant. The Bavarian wanted to stay there because of the eggs – specifically the eggs in a glass. He had stayed at the Hotel Fuerstenhof in Leipzig once, which belongs to the same hotel group, and has been going on about eggs in a glass ever since. I had no idea what he was talking about, but when you’re married to a nutter, you learn to nod and not ask too many questions.

Hitler at The Elephant

After dinner, we prowled the hotel floors examining the Baselitz and Liebermann prints on the walls, and the exhibition about the hotel’s history – where this photo of Hitler at The Elephant was displayed – on the first floor.

We stumbled across the suites (all named after esteemed guests) and discovered that a couple with a dog were staying in the Thomas Mann suite, sending The Bavarian into a tirade about how a dog had a better room than him, although it was kind of fitting because Thomas Mann was fond of dogs.

I had to admit though, while sitting in front of my shrimp omelette topped with caviar and watching the Bavarian delicately spoon a soft-boiled egg covered with truffle foam from a little glass, that he was right about the breakfast.

– Satisfied? Will you stop going about eggs in a glass now? I asked.

– Yes. This is better than the other place – it’s a Wagenfeld glass. From now on, I will only talk of one egg, in a Wagenfeld glass.

Rococo Hall, Anna Amalia Library, WeimarDue to our early start, we were able to get a ticket to visit the Anna Amalia Library (there’s a limit to how many are sold per day, so be there early if you’d like a slot).

The library houses an impressive collection focusing on German literature around 1800, and its Rococo Hall (right) is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. As well as old books, there are items from the library’s cabinet of curiosities, paintings and sculptures.

The last thing we had time for before catching our train back was a visit to the Bauhaus Museum, which has a great collection of art and design works from the school, as well as information about its history and development.

If we had a little longer in Weimar, I would have liked to visit Buchenwald – a place that marks the barbarism that followed the high culture of Weimar – as well as the Nietzsche Archive, Liszt House, City Castle and the Bee Museum  – all that calls for at least one more weekend trip to Weimar.

The Bavarian’s verdict: The egg was the best.

Germany, history, Literature

Vansittartism

Last Wednesday, I  learnt a new word that filled me with a mixture of glee and shame at Hans Vaget’s lecture Vansittartism Revisited. Thomas Mann, Bertolt Brecht, and the Threat of World War III at The American Academy Berlin.

“Vansittartism” is a  Germanophobic doctrine, set out by former British foreign minister Lord Vansittart in his BBC radio addresses and book Black Record: Germans Past and Present (1941). It states that there is no difference between German leaders (at that time the Nazis) and the German people.

According to Vansittart, the Germans are characterised by “envy, self-pity and cruelty” and Nazism had “finally given expression to the blackness of the German soul”. He based his view on the fact that the Germans had been involved in five wars in the past 100 years (the three wars of German unification and the first and second world wars.) His analysis completely ignored the role of Austria, where Hitler was born and his views formed, (like the Austrians themselves, who in an act of collective amnesia forgot their Nazi past and blamed the Germans.)

As you can imagine, I was nudging the Bavarian with glee during this definition of his people. When I was young, I read Roald Dahl’s The Twits, and I think it is the book that has most defined my approach to marriage – a series of pranks and oneupmanships. The glee came tinged with shame, because Vansittart’s rhetoric is both ridiculous and racist. As Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil makes clear, peoples of every occupied country (except maybe the Danes) were complicit in the terrible crimes committed during WWII.

The lecture, however, provided food for thought. Vaget focussed on the reception of Vansittart’s ideas in the German exile community. Famously, it was a matter of contention between Thomas Mann and Bertolt Brecht in the USA. While Brecht dismissed Vansittartism completely (as a communist, he made a strong distinction between the German people and those in power), Mann was more ambivalent. His thoughts on Vansittart’s ideas varied at different times in his life, but the lecture proposed that overall, he took Vansittartism seriously and his view was closer to that Willy Brandt – at that time in exile in Sweden.

What is clear, however, is, notwithstanding the fact that Vansittartism is a racist product of the British Empire at war with Germany, the questions it raises – Why the Germans? How could a country that produced some of Europe’s greatest intellectuals be responsible for such barbarity? Who is to blame? – are still relevent.

Germany, Life in Berlin, News, politics

Opening of the Google Offices in Berlin

Opening of Google Offices BerlinOn Wednesday night, Google officially opened its offices at Unter den Linden 14. We used our best gate-crashing skills to get in, but the party was disappointing.

Google’s presence in Berlin will help the company influence government Internet policies. Germany’s strict privacy laws have recently resulted in a couple of high-profile cases being brought against the company here; Max Mosely is making a fuss because the site references photos of him taken at a sex party, and former wife of German President Bettina Wulff says it’s defamatory that her name appears in combination with ‘prostitute’ and ‘escort’ when typed into search. (Bettina happens to be releasing a book; the publicity can’t be bad for sales).

Although the Berlin office functions as a lobby, it has that colourful, nerdy, Googly feel aGoogle Offices Berlinbout it. The meeting rooms are named after Berlin clubs like Berghain and Weekend, you can doodle on chalkboards, lounge around on bean bags etc.

German newspapers such as Die Welt and Bild have been fascinated by the interior deco, but it felt predictable. Besides, hanging kinky toys on the wall is trying too hard…

The attempt to combine lobbying with the image of cool new media company also made the party fall flat. It started off promisingly, with proffered trays of cocktails in Google colours (blue, red, yellow and green) and an interesting flying buffet  (smoked quail eggs served with vegetarian caviar etc). A hypnotizing projection of a globe showed searches going on in different languages around the world, there was a photo booth to mess around in and a massive screen rendering Google Earth in 3D.

Google searches around the world; different colours represent different languages

This was ruined when chief lobbyist Annette Kroeber-Riel began her speech. It took 5 minutes for people to realise she was speaking, her speech was over-long and she read from paper. Then followed speeches from Hans-Joachim Otto (Deputy Economy Minister) and Nicolas Zimmer (Deputy Minister in the city of Berlin) and an uninteresting three-way video conversation using Google Hangouts, by which point everyone had stopped listening again. This would have been tolerable if alcohol was allowed to be served during speeches, but the folks at Google Berlin had told the bar staff to stop serving during this time, showing their true, dull colours.

There were a few celebrities on show, including Jette Joop, but altogether, it was pretty boring…

Looking at other coverage of this party makes me wonder whether those writers were at the same party as me, or whether they’re just making sure their articles will appear in search…

For more, read The Spiegel’s article on How Google Lobbies German Government

art, Berlin, Germany, history, Language, Literature

Book Review: Remembrances of Copper Cream

Remembrances of Copper Cream CoverThis unique little book by Berliner Johannes CS Frank, (illustrations by Felix Scheinberger and translations by Florian Voß, Ron Winkler, Judi Hetzroni and Merav Salomon), combines prose and poetry, words and images, diverse voices and languages (with sections in Hebrew, English and German).

This might sound confusing, but the different elements flow together, washing over the reader to create a visceral experience.

The book is a series of impressions of Israel, evoking the heat and illusions of the desert, the hustle and bustle of Tel Aviv, the people and places of Jerusalem, the violence, the religion, the wall.

The copper cream of the title colours the scraggly ink sketches depicting electricity lines, men of religion and soldiers.

Remembrances of Copper Cream

It’s an interesting collaboration; the author grew up in England and Germany and lives in a city that is also haunted by war and the division of a wall…

Remembrances of Copper Cream (German title: Erinnerungen an Kupfercreme) is out now, published by FIXPOETRY. An exhibition of the art work can be seen at the ACUD Gallery, Veteranenstraße 21, 10119 Berlin-Mitte, until 17th June 2012.

Germany, history

The British Germans

Interesting radio programme on the BBC called The British Germans, currently available on iPlayer. Programme summary from the BBC below:

The British armed forces are due over the next decade to complete a final withdrawal from bases in Germany. But they’ll leave behind a remarkable human legacy – many thousands of former soldiers who have decided to stay in Germany. In this programme Chris Bowlby goes in search of these ‘ British Germans’, and traces their relationship with Germany and Germans. He meets a soldier who was punished by the British army for marrying a German woman just after the end of the Second World War. He hears about the pubs where Brits and Germans learnt each other’s language, the struggle to understand each other’s humour, the belief among many ex-soldiers that Germany offers a better society than Britain. And he finds that the children of British-German relationships are becoming increasingly influential in today’s German society as he meets a potential future German chancellor called David McAllister.

Listen here or read the article on The ‘British’ Germans the war left behind

Berlin, Germany, history, News

Hitler and the Germans

Unlike the Austrians, the Germans have always been open about the whole business of Hitler and the Nazis. Slovenian philosopher and psychoanalyst Slavoj Zizek famously said that the nature of German toilets, where “the hole into which shit disappears after we flush is right at the front, so that shit is first laid out for us to sniff and inspect” revealed their existential attitude as a nation; that of “reflective thoroughness”, and it would seem that he is right.

Spiegal Magazine covers featuring Hitler
Spiegal Magazine covers: countless articles have been written on Hitler

Policemen stand outside synagogues, countless books, articles, studies and films have been produced, and almost every discussion, from politics to art, comes back in some way to the Nazis. (Godwin’s Law, that as a discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison to the Nazis or Hitler approaches 1, is a fact of life round here).

However, of the many exhibitions about the Holocaust and the Nazis, the one currently at the Deutsches Historishes Museum (German Historical Museum) is a first. The exhibition Hitler and the Germans: Nation and Crime focuses on the dictator and his relationship with the German people.

It opened in mid-October amidst fears that such a strong focus on the dictator would attract and encourage Neo-Nazis. However everything on display – Nazi flags, street signs, decorations, swords, medals, newspapers, Hitler busts, portraits, propaganda images and films – serves to illuminate the relationship between Hitler and the Germans, from the hopes that he embodied for them when he first came to power to disillusionment, resistance, and representations of him in the media up till the present day. It shows how fiercely the dictator permeated every day life in the Third Reich, and throws a unique light on questions such as ‘How could such a thing have happened?”

Street sign: Adolf Hitler Platz
Street sign: Adolf Hitler Platz

Most strikingly, it draws attention to the volume of things that have been hidden, taken away and replaced, such as grave stones featuring swastikas. It also raises the fact that although the process of denazification did remove Nazi iconography from public view, its success did not extend to people and institutions.

Although a few elite were brought to trail, the majority of people who were complicit, from CEOs of companies to government officials, kept their positions – especially as the Americans abandoned their denazification programme at the onset of the Cold War. This enabled people such as Kurt Georg Kiesinger, a member of the Nazi Party and official at the foreign ministry, to continue in politics and eventually become German Chancellor in 1966.

As if to illustrate the point, just a week after the exhibition opened it came to light that the German Foreign Ministry, who had for years maintained that they had disapproved of the Nazis and their aims, had in fact, according to historian Eckart Conze, “actively supported all measures of persecution, rights deprivation, expulsions and the Holocaust.”

So it seems that Germany is suffering a kind of schizophrenia regarding its history; on the one hand there is an open, even over-compensating attitude, (I saw an example of this yesterday around Mauer Park when a group of people felt the need to protest against war whilst coach loads of old people attended a military music concert), and on the other, silence and secrets.

Yesterday around Mauer Park: People protest against war during a military music concert
Yesterday around Mauer Park: People protest against war during a military music concert

Günter Grass embodies this contradiction; he acted as the moral voice of Germany, but took 60 years to admit that he was a member of the SS.

Maybe Zizek was not entirely correct about the Germans; after all nobody has even begun to inspect the history and Nazi involvement of the Bundesnachrichtendienst (BND, or Federal Intelligence Service), and I’m sure there is a lot of shit lurking there…

The exhibition “Hitler and the Germans” is on until February 6, 2011 at the Deutsches Historishes Museum.

Germany, Humour, Life in Berlin

Berlin vs Munich 2

Recently came across some hilarious videos from Broken Comedy that epitomise the Berlin / Munich conflict.

In Berlin, as in many cities in the world, you’ll sometimes stumble across a Bavarian pub; they are friendly, fun, the waiters are dressed in lederhosen, the women in dindls and the beer is great. This video, however, shows a typical Berlin pub opening up in Munich (sorry couldn’t embed it). So funny because it’s so accurate.

And here follow two songs – one for Berlin and one for Munich…

Germany, history, politics

When in doubt, blame the Germans

One of the great things about going out with a German is that you can always have the last word in every conflict by saying, “Yes, but we won the war”. Or something to that effect. “Yes, but we didn’t murder six million Jews” or “Yes, but you started two world wars” also work. Even if the argument is about whose turn it is to mop the living room, The Bavarian will invariably feel a stab of guilt, pick up the mop and start cleaning in the furious manner in which Lady Macbeth scrubbed her hands. It’s a dirty trick, but I’m not the only one exploiting the great burden of German Guilt.

It seems that the EU’s policy of ‘don’t mention the war’, which is essential if Europe is to move on unitedly, is not working. Germany has paid her reparations and shown much good will and support to both Poland and Greece (Walter Wullenweber of Stern Magazine recently calculated that Germans have given each Greek $12,200 since 1981), which begs the question, when will the wounds of the war heal in Europe? Will this guilt trip ever end?

For a full account, Time magazine has a good article covering this Greece-Germany conflict.

Germany, history, Life in Berlin

Berlin vs. Munich

Every time I mention the fact that my other half is a Bavarian to a Berliner, they raise their eyebrows and ask how he’s getting along. It’s condescending, this idea that a Bavarian in Berlin is some sort of lederhosen-wearing in-bred farmer holding a weiß wurst in one hand and a weiß beer in another as out of place as Crocodile Dundee in New York.  I tell them that he is getting along just fine, which he is – he likes the laid back atmosphere, the brunches, the culture, the coffee places, the cinemas and drinking beer from the bottle on the U-Bahn. Why shouldnt he?

What I failed to understand was that the Berliners were not merely being condescending in their reaction – they were being nasty. When we went to a Skunk Anansie concert in Berlin a while back, Skin informed the crowd that they were performing in Munich the following night: the crowd booed magnificently.

The obvious reason for this antagonism is that Berlin and Munich are completely different. Even the swimming pools are different, as we discovered today when we visited the Spreewaldplatz swimming pool in Kreuzberg. The Bavarian was devasted to discover that there was no bubbling hot-tub that he could laze in, and that the only thing for him to do was swim. It was not only the lack of big slides and water refuges of over 30° that caused him to mumble “everything’s better in Bavaria” but the fact that you had to stick a Euro into the lockers instead of those little plastic entry coins you get in Bavaria, and little coins into the hairdryers as he used to do as a child. Coming from England, where we have functional swimming pools, I’m more or less delighted by every single German swimming pool I visit, but I have to admit, the swimming pools in Bavaria are the best.

Like most things, it comes down to the fact that Munich is rich, while Berlin is poor. But the differences are endless; Munich is pretty, Berlin is a building site; Munich is conservative, Berlin is liberal; in Munich everything opens early, while Berlin eases itself into the day; Berlin is significantly more multi-cultural; Munich is significantly more Catholic….when I asked a school-friend of The Bavarian’s whether these differences were the reason behind the Berlin/Munich divide, he simply shrugged and said that the Münchners didn’t really bother hating the Berliners too much – they had better things to do.

So what prompted the open-minded peace-loving Berliners to rage against the Münchners? It’s the war, stupid.

Munich was the birthplace of the Nazis. Hitler was popular there, while Berlin had always been a leftist city. In fact, Hitler hated Berlin – it was Goebbels’ idea that the new government should set up in Berlin. As a result, the city was damaged by air raids, and especially by the Battle of Berlin. After the war, Berlin suffered once again when she was split among the allies and consequently the divided by The Wall. While Berlin paid for Munich’s mistakes over decades, Munich prospered – and still prospers now, while Berlin, the great building site, is in ruins.