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.

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, Life in Berlin, politics

Exhibition Opening: Compass, drawings from MoMA New York

twombly, Kompass Zeichnungen aus dem Museum of Modern Art New YorkThe Bavarian, ever since deciding that we ought to buy some art for the flat, has been insisting that I refer to him as A Collector of Contemporary Art. I wouldn’t mind, if it weren’t for the fact that he has collected exactly zero pieces of art thus far. As usual, unlike a normal person, he has gone completely over the top with this art-business; we’ve visited artists’ studios, planned a trip to Leipzig (home of the New Leipzig School and Germany’s thriving art scene), and most ridiculously, he has convinced a gallery to DHL us a couple of paintings to hang in our flat while we decide whether we want to buy them or not. They arrive today.

It’s due to this new obsession that we attended the opening of Compass, a collection of 250 drawings from the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) New York, curated by Christian Rattemeyer from over 2500 works aquired by Judith Rothschild between 2003-2005 and subsequently donated to the Museum.

Penis Hat, Paul McCarthy, 2001, Compass MoMAThe title of the exhibition – as well as referring to the compass as a drafting tool – reflects its aim of representing geographically distinct artistic centres; London, Glasgow, Los Angeles, New York, Cologne/Düsseldorf and Berlin. It features a wide range of artists including Jasper Johns, Georg Baselitz, Robert Rauschenberg, Hanne Darboven, Jeff Koons, Mona Hatoum, A.R. Penck, Donald Judd, David Hockney and Martin Kippenberger, bringing together historical, minimalist, abstract and conceptual works, detailed narrative drawings, collages and large-scale installations. The works range from the 1930s to 2005, providing a panorama of the state of drawing today, and are displayed in the freshly renovated rooms of Martin Gropius.

AereiThe Bavarian, due to his other obsession – planes – was particularly impressed by Alighiero e Boetti’s Aerei (left) and Mona Hatoum’s map of flight routes. He was unimpressed by the fact that the wine was not free, and that we had to sit through some boring speeches before getting to see the collection.

On the subject of speeches, the American ambassador made one and I was shocked to discover that he speaks German like a two-year-old. Yes, that’s right; the American ambassador to Germany cannot speak German because, unlike Britain and Germany who choose their ambassadors based on sensible criteria such as political experience, knowledge of the language, culture e.t.c, the Americans simply give these positions away as thank you notes. So it turns out that the US ambassador to Germany, Phillip Murphy, is a former Goldman Sachs banker who gave a massive donation to the Obama campaign. I never knew that…

Compass – Drawings from the Museum of Modern Art New York is open from 11 March to 29 May 2011 at Martin-Gropius-Bau, Niederkirchnerstraße 7, 10963 Berlin

Life in Berlin, music, News, politics

Gazprom celebrates 20 years in Germany at the Berliner Philharmonie

You can say what you like about Russia’s largest energy company Gazprom, but they do know how to throw a party. Yesterday evening we found ourselves amidst a bunch of people, a disproportionate number of whom had face-lifts, celebrating the company’s 20 year partnership with BASF’s Wintershall in Germany.

Valery Gergiev Berliner Philharmonie 3 November 2010And how did Gazprom celebrate? They hired out the entire Philharmonie, invited 2000 people along to fill it, employed the services of Berlin Rundfunk Choir (Germany’s oldest radio choir) and flew in an entire orchestra from St Petersburg (the Marinsky Theatre Orchestra no less) along with conductor Valery Gergiev, who the New York Times describes as one of “Russia’s most potent cultural symbols.” Oh and they had pre and post-concert receptions flowing with food and wine, and dress code that stated that women should wear short dresses. Ah, the Russians…. 

The concert was wonderful; Tchaikovsky’s Francesca da Rimini followed by the third act of Wagner’s Parsifal – music chosen to represent Russio-German co-operation.

The evening, however, displayed a different type of co-operation; that between money, politics and music – a fact reflected by the attendees, from Vladimir V. Kotenev, former Russian Ambassador to Germany and recently appointed CEO of Gazprom, former politicians Egon Bahr , creator of the “Ostpolitik“, and Otto Schily ,  Minister of the Interior in Schröder’s cabinet (Schröder is currently head of Gazprom’s shareholder committee, and his taking the position was widely criticised as in this Washington Post article) to singer Vicky Leandros and Janice White, young ex-wife of German music producer Jack White.

Life in Berlin, News, politics

Christopher Street Day (CSD) Parade

christopher street day berlin 2010Yesterday was the CSD Parade (or the Gay Pride Parade) in Berlin. The parade ran from Ku’damm to Brandenburg Gate and the entire area from Brandenburg Gate to The Victory Column was converted into a party zone crowded with gays drinking champagne, lesbians drinking beer, drag queens strutting about with seemingly no effort at all in six-inch high-heels and everyone in between.

The location ws perfect due to its proximity to the Tiergarten, which meant that people easily coud slip into the woods for a bit of hanky panky. (Tiergarten has traditionally been a gay cruising area). More poignantly, the city’s memorial for gay holocaust victims is also nearby. Approximately 54,000 men and women were convicted of homosexual acts under the Nazis and 7,000 died in the camps.

Berlin’s gay mayor Klaus Wowereit gave a speech encouraging tolerance, and the motto for the day was ‘Normal ist anders’. The parade involved 64 groups, and attracted half a million people. However, of the groups in the parade, most of them – apart from the five political parties and a footballers’ group – were commercial groups such as Ikea and DildoKing.

Compared with Pride London, where almost every institution from the Metropolitan Police to teachers’ unions have a float, the Berlin parade seems to be politically impotent. Even the political parties were handing out general manifestos and agendas rather than specific info pertaining to gay rights. Perhaps this is an indicator that despite appearances Germany lags behind England when it comes to championing diversity and equality…

American gender theorist and Berkley lecturer Judith Butler, who was presented with a prize for civil courage on the CSD stage last night, critisied the march as too superficial and commercial. She rejected the prize and claimed preference for the alternative CSD, which due to take place is Kreuzberg next Saturday (see her speech on YouTube).

For more photos, the Tagesspiegel has a good gallery.

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Language, Life in Berlin, News, politics

English perverting the German language?

Last night, The Bavarian and I went to a terrace party in the Bundestag. At some point, Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle showed up. Someone suggested that I should go and talk to him – in English. The joke being that Guido’s English is nicht so gut. Here’s a clip of him trying to answer a question in English a few years ago:

Did I mention that he’s the Foreign Minister? Then, at the end of last year, he was asked a question in English by a BBC journalist. This was his response:

Now, this man has turned his little insecurity about his ability to speak English into a political campaign to promote the German language and purify it of anglicisms. According to a recent article in The Economist, Guido would like the European Union’s diplomatic service to hire German-speakers, probably so he’ll finally be able to understand what the hell is going on.

Transport Minister Peter Ramsauer also jumped on board, saying that he would replace English words like ‘brainstorming’ and ‘meeting-points’ with ‘Ideensammlung’ and ‘Treffpunkte’. According to him, there is “no country in the world where people treat their own language so disrespectfully.”

He obviously hasn’t been to England. The English language is about as pure as the Gulf of Mexico right now. I’m pretty sure that English is polluted with more German words than vice versa: angst, kindergarten, sauerkraut, hamburger, lager, zeitgeist, schade, blitzkrieg, schnapps, schadenfreude…

If I were to get as touchy about my language as dear Guido seems to be about his, I would say that Germans are actually perverting English rather than the other way round. The use of ‘Handy’ to refer to a mobile phone, for instance. Or that jerky idiot Lena winning the Eurovision Song Contest by singing “Like a satellite I’m in an orbit all the way around you”  with terrible pronunciation. But I won’t, because the English model of openness has proved more successful than the French protectionist model that Guido would like to imitate. Sure, it leads to a lot of messed up English, but this gives entire blogs a reason to exist.

 (And why are the French and the Germans always so concerned about anglicisms? Why not go the whole way and say you’d like to purify the language of Italian and Russian words too?)

Languages are alive; they grow and evolve organically through usage. To try and curb that is futile, not to mention anti-democratic. The state has no business interfering with this process. The last time Germany tried, with the orthography reform of 1996, it proved disastrous; there were many opponents, including  Günter Grass, Siegfried Lenz, Martin Walser, Hans Magnus Enzensberger, Walter Kempowski and Christian Wulff, and the issue was taken up in the courts. Many editors refused to implement the new rules, and only very recently have newspapers incorporated them into their in-house orthographies (and not all of them at that). Most German people still disagree with the reform.

So, Guido, if you would like English lessons I’m available…