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?

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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:

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

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.

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.