Norbert Elias on Transition to Parliamentary Rule

A little over a year ago, Wolfgang Ischinger, German Ambassador to the United States had this to say about the attempt to install a parliamentary system in Iraq: "As older [i.e. European] societies, we tend to think of ourselves as more experienced in the way societies evolve, and we tend to be skeptical of Americans who seem to think that if you believe hard enough, and you muster enough resources, you can change the world…[D]on’t think transformative change will work according to mechanistic rules. This is very complicated. Changing the way people think often has to do with religious and cultural issues–we tend to think of them as long-term, and Americans think, Let’s solve the problem in the next four years!"

I thought of this as I read the following two paragraphs, from an essay the great German sociologist Norbert Elias wrote about terrorism in Germany in the 1970s. Elias, whose specialty was the study of how social norms develop and change, had the following to say about the Weimar Republic:

The transition from the still-halfway-absolutist regime of the Kaiser and King to the parliamentary regime of the Weimar Republic came very suddenly. For large parts of the public, it came totally unexpectedly, and was joined with extremely unpleasant associations — the loss of a war. Basically, many Germans had contempt for a form of government which was based on struggles, negotiations and compromises between parties. They hated the "talking-shop" of Parliament where — so it seemed — delegates did nothing more than debate and deal. Freedom or no freedom, people longed for the comparatively simpler form of government in which all important political decisions were made by the strong man at the top. People could leave it to the man at the top to worry about the welfare of Germany. It was enough to concentrate on your own private life. From the very beginnings of the Weimar era many men and women actually did yearn for the man at the top — whether prince or dictator — who made decisions and gave orders. They yearned for him like a drug. They were addicted to him, and the withdrawal came very rapidly.

The unique characteristics of the adjustment to a parliamentary regime are easy to miss when, as often happens, one looks through an ideological lens at the advantages this form of government organization has in comparison to dictatorships. Very few people are actually aware that the weaning societies away from an order of things in which a symbolic ruler-figure bears responsibility for his subjects to a situation which requires the individual to exercise a limited form of responsibilty is a process of very long duration, which requires as crisis-free circumstances as possible, which lasts for at least three generations. European history provides many examples of the difficulty of such a re-orientation. One of the few countries in which the structure of parliament and the structure of the individual personality are relatively adapted to one another is England. And in the history of England one can well perceive the long process during which the adjustment took place. It occurred, in fact, extremely slowly, since the time when the son of a puritan dictator was required to give the reins of power to a newly-installed king who himself had been required to cede considerable powers.

[Norbert Elias, Studien Ueber die Deutschen, pp. 380-381; my translation].

In Praise of Nasty Dutch Licorice

A few months ago, I visited the "Sugar Shop" in Heidelberg. In the storefront windows were elegantly-dressed, somehow perverted-looking mannequins. (see picture!)

After entering the store, I walked past some display copies of Nazis on Speed and made a very special Zuckerladen request to the heavily-tattooed woman working behind the counter. She responded with a knowing wink, and turned around and delved deep into a drawer. She brought out something and gave it to me in a plain brown wrapper. She told a few curious children they couldn’t have any of what I’d just bought. No, I hadn’t bought an "erotic guide" featuring (G) Paul McCartney’s wife. What I bought was more dangerous: Salzlakritz, or salt licorice.

This is a Northern European specialty I’ve never seen in the States. It’s made with licorice, all right, but it’s licorice mixed with big doses of salt and, sometimes, sage. These bitter additives multiply the normal tanginess of licorice exponentially. You pop a black, coin-shaped piece of Salzlakritz into your mouth and it’s as if you’ve begun chewing on a mixture of brimstone and melted car tires. You begin salivating like a dog; not so much because it’s so "delicious," but because your body wants to dilute the poison you’ve just stupidly begun to eat. After a few minutes, it feels as if someone’s taken a pipe-cleaner to the inside of your sinuses.

Thus, it wasn’t just be chance that the woman at the Zuckerladen called it richtig fieser Salzlakritz (really nasty salt licorice), and really, honestly wouldn’t let the children try it. Why spoil their innocent childish dreams of sweet, harmless licorice coils with the tongue-thrashing XXX masochism of the real thing?

And somehow, it’s delicious, and you want more. If you want more, visit this online shop. Not only can you order any sort of licorice you’d like in all shapes and sizes (from cats to houses to keys to crayons), you also get to delight in poetic product descriptions (slightly edited):

Soft salty Hindelooper diamonds,

pithy sweet Snekers

and real full sweet ship’s knots.

Very exclusive!

Make your choice when

you check out (3 or 1/1/1).

German Words of the Week: Ursprache & Weltschmerz

This is a very special word of the week.  It will involve a personal reminiscence, a nerve-racking, high-stakes championship contest, and adults torturing young girls with German words.

First, the reminiscence.  Back when I was a young lad, I participated in the Scripps-Howard National Spelling Bee.  What is a spelling bee, some of you ask? Simple — you take young children, say a word to them, and then order them to spell the word. Because Americans are  competitive folks, you have the children all compete against each other to spell various words. If you spell one word wrong, you are thrown out of the contest. If you spell it right, you go on to the next round. The words get more and more complicated. Since English has the largest vocabulary of any language, this means the words get really f#$%ing hard to spell.  If you reach the final, they might throw at you totally fucked-up words like "eleemosynary" or "chthonic."

I don’t like to brag, but if there’s one thing I can do, it is spell. Think of me as a little bit like Stephen Wiltshire, the human camera. He’s autistic, but what he lacks in social skills, he makes up for in drawing ability. He can draw near-perfect pictures of buildings, or even the entire city of Rome, after seeing them only once, briefly. Like Stephen, I lack many social skills, but I can spell just about any word in the dictionary. Annihilate, daguerrotype, persiflage, or even hepatosplenomegaly, I can spell them all.

I used this odd skill to win the Houston, Texas spelling bee, and then the East Texas regional spelling bee. That won me and my family a free trip to Washington, D.C., to compete among 150 other contestants for the national spelling championship. I represented East Texas, which wasn’t really to my taste, but I did it anyway. I lost in an early round because I couldn’t spell "novena". I attribute this bitter humiliation to my parents, who were pretty secular, and to the fact that there is no mandatory religious education in Texas schools. To this day, I have a hatred of the number 9, and refuse to pronounce it. As a consolation prize, I won an entire set of the Encyclopedia Britannica. I must admit, that’s a pretty fantastic consolation prize. But I was 13, and I wanted a stereo.

End of personal reminiscience. Now on to the contemporary relevance of all this. On Thursday, the final round of this year’s National Spelling bee took place on national television. The kids who make it to the final round are the cream of the crop. They’re odd, they’re bright, they love words, and they’ve usually been drilled by their over-achieving parents to memorize the craziest words you’ve never heard of.

If you want to stump these blooming nerds, you’re going to need a really freakish, unspellable word. You know where to turn. To German! The New York Times reports a coincidence too freakish to be believed: the winner won the contest because she could spell Ursprache, and the second-place finisher was cheated out of the title because she couldn’t spell Weltschmerz:

WASHINGTON (AP) — A 13-year-old New Jersey girl making her fifth straight appearance at the Scripps National Spelling Bee rattled off ”ursprache” to claim the title of America’s best speller Thursday on prime-time television.

Katharine Close, an eighth-grader at the H.W. Mountz School in Spring Lake, N.J., is the first girl since 1999 to win the national spelling title. She stepped back from the microphone and put her hands to her mouth upon being declared the winner. She recognized the word as soon as she heard it.

”I couldn’t believe it. I knew I knew how to spell the word and I was just in shock,” said Katharine, who tied for seventh-place last year. ”I couldn’t believe I would win.”

Runner-up was Finola Mei Hwa Hackett, a 14-year-old Canadian, a confident speller during two days of competition who nonetheless stumbled on ”weltschmerz.” The word means a type of mental depression.

A type of mental depression? Well, that’s a start, I suppose. German wikipedia defines Weltschmerz ("world-pain") thus: "A concept introduced by Jean Paul for a feeling of grief and painful melancholy one feels when observing the state of the world. The feeling stems from one’s own inadequacies, which are simultaneously seen as the inadequacies of the world. The concept is linked to pessimism, resignation, and the flight from reality."

We’re on very German territory here, so I’ll end with another German quote, which might console the bitterly disappointed runner-up: "The fact that various agonies of life take turns with one another makes life bearable." (Christian Friedrich Hebbel).

Tips for World Cup Tourists

So you’re thinking of coming to Germany for the World Cup? Fabulous! I’ll probably be leaving for Rome. If you’d like advice on how to behave, here’s an archive of tips written by foreign residents of Germany for you, courtesy of the Spiegel magazine.

But why rely on foreigners? Instead, I’d advise looking at page 36 of this month’s Titanic, which contains valuable hints written by actual German Mark-Stefan Tietze. What follows is my slightly abridged, and very very loose, translation, of this important contribution to cultural understanding:

Don’t even think about it!

As a World Cup tourist from some underdeveloped region of the world, you should know: not all Germans are Nazis, some of them just want to make a nice profit from you. Nonetheless: there are also tourist traps in Germany, and plenty of behaviors you’re better off avoiding:

Blathering on pointlessly

In Germany, communication is always goal-oriented ("Out of my way!" "Show me your papers!" "Give me the money!").  Things that might count as charming banter in your culture ("May I help you cross the street?" "What glorious rainy weather!" "By the way, I come from Burundi") will be regarded in Germany as superficial blather and a waste of time.

Turning down invitations

If a German actually manages to invite you to his home to show you his own personal recycling system, you must never turn down the invitation. Otherwise, you’ll make another enemy, and what it means to make enemies of Germans you can learn from any history book.

Speaking during meals

It is considered improper to speak during meals in Germany. According to old German custom, you should poke around the plate gloomily for a while, then suddenly choke it all down in one fell swoop. As soon as you see the German national dish, "Sludge with Goo and Meat," before you, you’ll know why.

Conceal your fears

In Germany, culture, economy and cuisine are traditionally based on fear. Germans are accordingly proud of their fears and delight in spreading them. Currently, Germans are afraid about their pensions, dying-out as a nation, and being eliminated in the first round. Don’t be afraid to talk about your own fears (floods, nuclear war, sauerkraut) — but always admit that your hosts’ fears are more important.

Inappropriate Appearance

An inappropriate appearance can injure religious feelings in Germany. Of course, nobody will complain if Catholic Brazilian girls visit churches in their traditional costume of sequined bikinis. However if you happen to be in East Germany, you should avoid provoking the natives by having an unusual skin color. The ancient Germanic gods that are worshiped in these areas strictly forbid it.

Remaining sober during the evening

During the day, Germans like to appear lifeless and stony. During the evening, however, they drink several liters of beer and then suddenly go out of their minds and begin screaming like banshees. You should absolutely join in! Anyone who doesn’t will quickly get smacked in the chops. Of course if you join in, you’ll also get smacked in the chops, but you won’t notice it as much.

Forgetting to mention the war

Never forget to mention the war to Germans! Germans love to prove, in hours-long conversations, that they know a lot about the rather unfortunate parts of their history, and that they’ve learned important things from it. As a follow-up, they’ll be happy to explain to you all the things that suck about your country, and which genocides you should feel responsible for.

I hope this helps apprehensive tourists.  Welcome to Germany, and don’t forget to root for Togo if Germany gets eliminated!