Why the Judges Wear Red

The German Federal Constitutional Court (FCC) (Bundesverfassungsgericht) have decided that Gerhard Schroeder’s decision to call for and lose a no-confidence vote was within his "margin of appreciation," to put it vaguely European-ly, and therefore that the new elections scheduled for Sept. 18th can take place.  No big surprise.

Here’s a picture of some members of the Court, similar to many that have been flickering on many TV screens lately.  I am now going to answer a question some of you might have been asking yourselves: why the bright-red judicial robes and hats?

The answer comes from page 80 of Der Gang nach Karlsruhe ("The Route to Karlsruhe," the city in which the Court is located), a recent popular history of this fascinating Court by the German legal journalist Uwe Wesel.  I turn to this book whenever the official treatises on the Federal Constitutional Court were too turgid, abstract, and boring, which was very frequent. 

Wesel discusses not only the major decisions and doctrines of the FCC, but also the personalities on and around the court and the political context in which it operates.  What’s more, he does so in crisp, lively, tangy prose.  On page 80 he describes how the Justices chose their robes.  By the early 1960s, The judges of the FCC, Wesel writes (in my informal translation),

no longer wanted to wear the same robes as their colleagues [on Germany’s other high courts].  They formed a Robe Committee, and had a theater director from Munich visit, carrying a thick book full of colorful costumes.  From this book they chose the most fitting costume.  They were the robes worn by the highest judges of Florence in the 15th or 16th century.  Thus we have the red robes with white band and red cap.

I know, it’s utterly useless trivia.  But still good to know, no?

German Word of the Week: Hurrapatriotismus

It means "rah-rah patriotism" or jingoism; a blind, reckless, willful extolling of the virtues of one’s country at the expense of all (or certain) others.  I like it because it evokes a crowd screaming "hurra" after various exhortations; quite a resonant image. 

I am happy to report that there is very little of this indeed left in Germany.  Every card carrying member of the educated classes rejects patriotism with a sneering ferocity that I often find a tad extreme.  But then again, George Bernard Shaw once said "You’ll never have a quiet world till you knock the patriotism out of the human race."

I don’t have a real-world example at the ready; doubtless many of you readers will.  But what I do have is even better: a description of Hurrapatriotismus from someone who saw it in its rawest form.  I speak of the bilious Englishman Henry Mayhew, who wrote, in 1865, a 2-volume book entiteld German Life and Manners (full title: German Life and Manners, as Seen in Saxony of the Present Day: with an Account of Village Life–Town Life–Fashionable Life–Domestic Life–Married Life–School and University Life, &c, of Germany at the Present Time: Illustrated with Songs and Pictures of the Student Customs at the University of Jena). I previously quoted this masterpiece of cultural chauvinism here.

Here is Mayhew’s prim and disapproving accoung of Hurrapatriotismus among the Jena students:

During our residence in the Thuringian capital, the city was lighted, for the first time, with gas, and it was astonishing to hear how the benighted townfolk rave at the expense and uselessness of the innovation, asking one another where was the need of so much light in the streets at night-time, and vowing that the old oil-lamps were good enough for them.  And yet the beer-befuddled fools would go off to their tavern that night, and sing in their cups, about their "Deutschland!  Deutschland! ueber Alles (Deutschland, before everything!) though not one of them would forego a single glass of small-beer for the sake of bettering it.

With boys this sentimental and inactive patriotism may be excusable; but with men, whose deeds you expect to correspond with their words, the continual windbag-braying about their love of their country becomes rank fustian, when you know how much is required to be done for it, and how not one of the pot-house brawlers is ready to do the least thing for its advancement — beyond, indeed, marching through the streets in some boyish procession, with a big banner flying, and a band of music playing at the head of them.

[Vol II, p. 77]  The next two pages go on in a similar vein, even calling Germany a "Mud-Utopia"!

The Marxist-Leninist Party of Germany

Yes!  It exists!  Read more about it here.  (Note their complaint that the "bourgeois" German press maintains a "deathly silence" toward their existence.)

Pl01_die_soz_alter But most of all, go visit their campaign poster section, and enjoy a trip down Marxist memory lane.  So colorful!  So piquant!  Actual pictures of Marx and Lenin!  A demand for a 30-hour workweek with the same salary!  And, best of all, socialist workers in overalls with healthy, cheerful, big-boned New Women waving red flags over their heads!

Oh, if only I could vote in Germany…

The most-stolen street sign in Austria…

…belongs to the tiny (pop. 150) village of Fucking.  Apparently the town name derives from a prominent 6th-century resident named "Focko", and the -ing signifies that the town is full of "Focko’s people."  The street sign is routinely stolen, and replacing it is a big expense; nevertheless, the population has decided against changing the name. 

There must be nothing quite like driving past a sign that simply says "Fucking."  What makes the experience all the more surreal is the sign right underneath it, which features a picture of two children (!) and the motto "Please, not so fast" (!!)

Heintje turns 50

According to a radio documentary I just heard on German public radio, a little boy was born in rural Germany 50 years ago on August 12.  Flash forward to 1967.  Heintje (a Dutch diminutive: "our little Henry"), for that is his name, loves to entertain the guests in his parent’s restaurant with his versions of hit tunes.  He loved to sing.  His voice itself was, you could say, a penetrating falsetto.  But "spine-cracking metallic falsetto" comes closer. 

Heintje wants to perform on the national star-search show Der goldene Schuss ("The Golden Shot").  His father, bemused, tells him he’s really got no chance.  People aren’t interested in the bathetically sentimental songs about Mommy that Heintje sings.  They’re into those crazy Beatles, and those decidedly unwholesome Rolling Stones.  Surely some pale German imitation of these bands will win the contest.  But he lets Heintje perform anyway, wary of crushing the young boy’s dreams.

So Heintje performs his bathetically sentimental ode to a Mother’s love, titled simply "Mommy",  on Der goldene Schuss.  The lyrics are so ghastly that I refuse to translate them into English.  It could lead to a diplomatic incident. 

So who wins the show: Heintje, with his voice like a colony of enraged wasps stinging the listener’s eardrum into pulp, or some more modern "beat" performer? 

Dear reader, do I even have to tell you?  If you are German, or if you know the tastes of a certain sector of German society, you know already.  Heintje wins, hands-down.  He then records an entire album, and receives payment in the form of a pony.  His records eventually make him a millionaire; the second-best selling recording artist in Germany — right after the Beatles.  Then follows the usual child-star story; complete with a serious brush with the law. (No, not drugs, something to do, oddly enough, with a videocassette-pirating scheme).

The Heintje phenomenon eventually becomes impossible even for Germany’s stuffiest newspaper, the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (FAZ) to ignore.  The paper usually maintains a dignified silence toward anything that has to do with popular culture in Germany, which is confined to the tabloid ghetto.  The FAZ, in 1970, eventually describes Heintje thus: "People just love him.  His voice spans three octaves, he can really belt it out and bring a song to life.  He sings utter garbage, but he knows how to draw his audience in."  After the reunification of East and West Germany, Heintje even enjoys yet another "mini-boom," caused by older East Germans using their new-found capitalist freedom to treat themselves to his innocent, eardrum-torturing melodies.

So, on the occasion of his 50th birthday, here’s to Heintje, and here’s to the fact that nobody in the English-speaking world will ever have to hear him sing!

German Word of the Week: Stoibern

Ahh, Edmund Stoiber [pronounce it "SHTOY-bur"].  He’s the Minister-President of Bavaria.  Germany’s most prominent conservative, except for Angela Merkel.

And certainly the most despised, as Carl’s recent comment, in which he declares he becomes physically ill when hearing Stoiber, indicates. 

I don’t know what sparks such animosity toward Stoiber — I find his Bavarian accent adorable.  And in his funny costumes, he looks just like Germans are supposed to look, for God’s sake. 

Plus, his name is just irresistible.  It sounds like a Yiddish insult: "This Finkelstein fellow (says the Jewish paterfamilias), my dear Aviva, you will certainly not marry!  Ach, what a stoiber he is!

Apparently other people find his name just as versatile.  I once visited Cologne during a gay-pride parade once [nota bene — I am gay-friendly, but not gay, despite occasional use of pretentious Latin phrases].  There, I saw a bunch of fairies prance by waving "magic brooms" with which they were going to Entstoibern ("de-Stoiberize") the surroundings. 

Herr Minister-Präsident Stoiber has also unwillingly lent his name to a frequent vice of his: saying impolitic things about, say, homosexuals or East Germans.  In fact, just recently the Stoibmeister was recorded vaguely implying he thought it was terrible that "frustrated" people in the East might determine who becomes Germany’s next Chancellor, and that everything would be better in Germany if everyone in the country (hint hint) were as smart and disciplined as Southern Germans like Bavarians.

Now we see that a new German word has been created: stoibern, or "to stoiber."  For lovers of German grammar, one declines this verb stoibern, stoiberte, hat gestoibert, etc.   In fact, the picture caption here poses the question whether another prominent German conservative politician "stoibered" (hat gestoibert).  Ahh, it reminds me of bowdlerize

The Teppichfresser Incident

First, go read Carl’s comment to the last post, which contains a fantastic vignette from a John Cale concert.  I agree with you, Carl, that pairing John Cale with Level 42 was perverse.

Carl notes that Cale, after mutilating Heartbreak Hotel, crawled under the piano and began tearing at the carpet.  In the hallways of the Editorial Department at German Joys, you could hear cries of "Eureka" as the staff recalled another famous incident of carpet abuse.

Which leads me to the question for Joysters.  According to a war diary entry by the American journalist William L. Shirer, Adolf Hitler went one better than Cale and actually began to eat the carpet:

Sept. 22, 1938. This morning, I noticed something very interesting. I was having breakfast in the garden of the Dresen Hotel, where Hitler is stopping, when the great man suddenly appeared, strode past me, and went down to the edge of the Rhine to inspect his river yacht.  [Here follows a passage in which Shirer criticizes Hitler’s walk.]  I think [Hitler] is on the edge of a nervous breakdown. And now I understand the meaning of an expression the party hacks were using when we sat around drinking in the Dressen last night. They kept talking about the "Teppichfresser"’, the "carpet-eater".  At first I didn’t get it, and then someone explained it in a whisper. They said, Hitler has been having some of his nervous crises lately and that in recent days they’ve taken a strange form. Whenever he goes on a rampage about Benes or the Czechs he flings himself to the floor and chews the edges of the carpet hence the Teppichfresser. After seeing him this morning, I can believe it.

[Gad, what awful prose.  And does Dresen have one or two S’s, sir?]  I believe the "Teppichfresser" incident also made it into Shirer’s later book, The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich (a readable, if not particularly reliable, work of popular history).  There is much speculation about whether the Teppichfresser story is true, or whether it was the result of Shirer’s evident distaste for the Fuehrer and/or a mistranslation of some colloquial expression.

My query is this: does anyone know of any independent confirmation of this story?  That is, did anyone else see the leader of the Thousand-Year Reich chomping on Stainmaster, or did Shirer make this up?  Dear readers, let us jointly make a contribution to the historical record!  I will then forward out conclusions to the Carpet and Rug Institute.