German Murder Rates, 1300-Present

Here’s something I came across in a recent article in the British Journal of Criminology: a graph showing murder rates in Germany from the medieval times to the present:


It’s contained in an article on European murder rates by Manuel Eisner in the British Journal of Criminology.

Obviously, the graph shows only ordinary civilian murder rates. Wars and mass extermination programs are excluded. The developments in Germany mirror those in other European states. The medieval era, in addition to being smelly, was extremely violent and dangerous; in most places, the murder rate was between 20 and 100 per 100,000. Now, in all European societies, it’s declined to around 1. Hooray for modernity!

But why has Europe become so much safer? Eisner discusses Norbert Elias’ idea of the civilizing process, of course, but there are other approaches. Eisner suggests a multi-factor approach which takes into account the declining importance of concepts of honor, the emergence of an "inward" and "disengaged" conception of human identity that fosters self-reflexion and rational discourse, and moral individualism and the decline of religiously-based "sacred obligations" that need defending by lethal means. It’s all very interesting, at least to me.

Fashion from the Social Burning Point

Anyone who knows me knows I love the German word sozialer Brennpunkt, which you could translate as "problem neighborhood." Could. But, as usual, the literal translation is much better: "social burning point." No, it’s not something penicillin will cure, it’s a neighborhood with social problems: unemployment, alcoholism, unintegrated foreigners, right-wing gangs, or some combination of these factors.

The Ruetli School (G) is located in the social burning point of Neukölln (G), Berlin. Now, I once stayed in a friend’s apartment in this social burning point for 2 weeks, found it perfectly nice and wondered what all the fuss was about. But a social burning point it is, and the students at the Ruetli Ruetlischool were making news for all the wrong reasons. They were threatening their teachers, beating each other senseless, failing to learn proper German, and generally being little b*&tards. Their teachers wrote a letter of desperation (G) which got sent to the press and received wide attention.

Like any piece of bad news in Germany, this provoked a storm of press coverage and commentary: about 25% thoughtful, 45% hysterical finger-pointing, 28% predictions of imminent doom for Germany/the world, and 2% Other (unhinged tirades about headscarves, calls for the return of fascism/communism provocative theories about the composition of the Van Allen belt).

It also prompted an influx of well-meaning professionals, to help the students adjust to German society and improve their image. One of the projects is Ruetli-Wear, clothes designed by the troubled teens themselves. Not only are the students "re-branding" their school, they’re also learning about practical things such as keeping accounts, designing clothes, and covering printing costs.

All profits go to the project. Won’t you go buy some Ruetli-wear, and spread some soothing ointment on this social burning point?

German Joys Mini-Review: Netto – Alles Wird Gut!

Anyone who spends more than a few days in Germany will meet an unemployed alcoholic. In Germany such people get meager state benefits which keep them afloat financially. This exposes them to an unexpectedly demoralizing fate: having much more time than they can ever use. They spend a lot of it hanging about in the dark recesses of pubs. They come alone, but soon gravitate to any table whose denizens don’t project the metal-plated wariness of the city dweller. When our watery-eyed friend plants himself at the table, the rest of the company will be in for some long, perhaps not particularly intelligible discussions about life, work, broken marriages, troubled relationships, petty government bureaucrats, and maybe art. (A surprising number of the ones I’ve met take up painting, and even bring their canvases along).

Netto_motiv2_gNetto – Alles wird gut! (roughly: "In the End, Everything’s Gonna be OK!") takes us into the life of Marcel Werner (Milan Peschel), a former East German who, like millions of his countrymen, never quite found a place in the unified Germany. Werner, who’s been unemployed for years, conducts long, one-sided conversations with the chef in his local Vietnamese restaurant, mostly concerning personal protection and security, the field he has utterly formless plans for conquering. Before his ship comes in, though, he supplements his government benefits by the modern German equivalent of rag-picking: taking in broken old computers and VCRs (yes, VCRs) for a pittance, fixing them, and re-selling them for a slightly higher pittance.

One day, his 15-year old son Sebastian (Sebastian Butz), whom Werner hasn’t seen in two years, comes knocking on the door of "TV Werner," Marcel’s dusty, chaotic ‘store.’ Turns out Marcel’s ex-wife has moved to the suburbs with her rich West German boyfriend, and wants to take Sebastian with her. Sebastian’s not too keen on moving to Squaresville, so he drops by to see how Dad’s doing in Prenzlauer Berg. Dad lives in one of those apocalyptic, graffiti-strewn, plastic-furniture, pit-bull terrier social deserts that pockmark Berlin. Like his neighborhood, Dad’s a wreck. He’s got no real friends, he drinks too much, his apartment is "germy" (as Sebastian puts it) and his job applications teem with outdated jargon and grammatical mistakes.

Nevertheless, Sebastian doesn’t turn and run. Marcel, for all his many flaws, can be pretty entertaining. The wholesome, gravelly-voiced optimism of American country music (as embodied in Peter Tschernig, the "Johnny Cash of East Germany") provides the spiritual soundtrack to Marcel’s life, and he generates a sort of halfway-convincing rhetoric about the world of work, responsibility, and success that convinces the naive that he really might just turn things around. Although nobody believes his claims to be constantly rushing from one appointment to another, he can occasionally summon enough charm and focus to make you believe in him. Marcel grudgingly accepts some career advice from his bright, introverted son (such as attributing a two-year stint of joblessness to an overseas posting with "Belgium Security International"). Despite misunderstandings and resentments, the two glue together a surprisingly strong relationship.

The director, Robert Thalheim, used a small crew and a semi-improvised script to keep everthing vivid and fresh. All of the performances are lived-in and affecting, and many of the scenes (such as Marcel and Sebastian clowning around in Sebastian’s apartment, pretending to be Secret Service agents, or Marcel hanging about in front of government buildings, pretending to be a bodyguard to departing ministers), are memorable. The sub-plot involving Sebastian and a neighborhood girl’s attempts to deflower him is charming.

A few of the scenes did verge a little too far into after-school special territory for my taste. However, Netto doesn’t airbrush its subjects, and eschews a happy end. In the end, Netto‘s an unpretentious, involving story about a sidetracked human being trying to pick up enough speed to rejoin the rushing freeway of life and love.

Quote of the Day

From a billboard advertisement for the tabloid newspaper Bild:

"Complaining is the death of love." (Noergeln ist der Tod der Liebe) — Marlene Dietrich

(From their "Every truth requires someone brave enough to say it" series).

Duesseldorf World’s 5th Most Livable City

According to ratings from Business Week, Duesseldorf, Germany is the world’s 5th most livable city. Up from No. 6 last year.

I could not agree more. Because it doesn’t have any real tourist attractions, Duesseldorf doesn’t get much international press. But it scores high on all of my personal livability factors: it’s green (in both senses of the word), studded with museums, easy to navigate, well-ordered, and safe (2006 featured a whopping 11 ‘crimes against life’ in a city of 580,000 — virtually all of which resulted from private grievances).

Three cheers (again) for German urbanism!

Quote of the Day


Foreign Minister of the Czech Republic, Prince Karel Schwarzenberg, on the different level (G) of anti-Americanism in Western Europe and the former Eastern bloc: "Here, you don’t see the kind of virulent anti-Americanism that dominates Western Europe. After all, our nations weren’t nourished back to health on American Marshall Plan funds, and we therefore have less occasion to cultivate our prejudices."

P.S. I could tell he was Central European royalty just by the moustache, couldn’t you?

Due Process for Trees

Spring has sprung in Germany, and I am having a hard time staying in the office during this glorious weather, even though I’ve got far too much to do these days. In honor of Spring, a little story about trees.

Over the weekend, I spoke to a friend who had trained as a lawyer in Berlin. A friend of hers did an internship with a local court (Amtsgericht) in Berlin. These courts have jurisdiction over local and routine matters, which, in Berlin, includes the protection of trees (probably under this law (G)). In larger European cities, trees are considered precious commodities, and protected by law.

If you want to tear one down for any reason, you’ll have to submit a special petition to the local Amtsgericht. This will turn into a real legal controversy, since the standards for removing trees are very high. In some cases, you may be denied permission to cut down the tree, even if you planted it yourself. According to the Berlin ordnance, the principal reasons for permitting the removal of a tree are that the tree is ill or dead, has largely lost its "ecological function," or has become a danger.

Once presented with a petition, the judge will often hold a hearing in situ. He will summon his interns, his secretary, and often at least one of the lawyers, and visit the tree itself, holding an open-air hearing. Many judges actually look forward to these petitions, since it gives them a chance to venture out into the open air. The judge usually begins the proceeding with a thorough, careful description of the tree. Speaking into his dictaphone, the judge tours the tree: "Subject of this proceeding is an elm tree located near the intersection of Krupp and Wilhelmstrasse, approximately 10 meters tall, currently in bloom. Approximately three branches appear to overhang the street…"

I don’t have much to say about this, I just found the idea of a judge holding an open-air trial on the fate of a tree to be charming and Spring-appropriate.

German Words of the Week: Sargzwang and Friedwald

"The costly aversion of the eyes from death–", Philip Larkin called it. Not in Germany. A popular children’s books over here is a German translation of a Swedish book called "The Best Funerals in the World," (G) in which a team of three children provide funerals for dead animals they come across. One of them shovels up a grave, one writes a "poem by the gravesite," and one sheds appropriate tears.

Today on the local radio call-in show (G) the subject was again death — a woman from Hesse wants to have her father’s ashes transported to Switzerland and compressed into a diamond. The dead man’s mother objected, and a court in Wiesbaden upheld the objection. Under German law in most states, unconventional burials are either forbidden or strictly regulated. Everyone must be either cremated or buried in a coffin, in an actual grave in a conventional cemetery. Although they can choose to be buried anonymously if they wish.

The guest during the call-in show was "Gerold Eppler, Kunstpädagoge, Stellvertretender Direktor Sepulkralmuseum Kassel (G)" I haven’t any idea how to translate Kunstpädagoge except literally — someone trained in the pedagogy of art. The "Sepulchral Museum" has, let me assure you, just been added to my next in-Germany tourist itinerary.

During the ensuing discussion with Mr. Eppler, most of the people who called in were in favor of liberalizing Germany’s burial laws. One aggrieved-sounding fellow even claimed they were a desperate measure by the Catholic Church to preserve its relevancy by means of government monopoly. Nevertheless, liberalization continues apace. The state I live in, Northern-Rhine Westphalia, for instance, got rid of the Sargzwang four years ago. Adding Zwang (compulsion; something mandatory) the the end of any word in German connotes lack of choice, so Sargzwang is "casket-compulsion" — the requirement that everyone be buried inside some sort of coffin.

Many nature-lovers wanted to be buried in a Friedwald — a forest (Wald) that serves as natural cemetery (Friedhof). You scatter your loved one’s ashes at the base of a tree, and they are reunited with nature during the coming decades. The first one of these was opened in my state in 2004 (G), and had 250 reservations before it had even opened it doors.

German Joys Mini-Review: Schnitzelparadies

SchnitzelparadiesI saw Schnitzelparadies (‘Schnitzel Paradise’, in case you hadn’t guessed), last Friday. It was Holland’s biggest box-office hit in 2005. Nordip (Mounir Valentyn), a young guy from a Moroccan family, is our hero. He lives in a drab Dutch town with his wastrel brother and devout Muslim paterfamilias, who runs a small grocery.

Nordip got fine grades and could go to medical school, which would please his father no end. However, he needs to find himself, and decides he can do this only by taking a job in the kitchen of the local restaurant/hotel, "The Blue Vulture." Its mainstay is Schnitzel, the fast food of Northern Europe. There he falls in with a motley crew of sweating, profanity spewing service-industry stereotypes: the portly stoner boss, two fellow immigrants who speak a heavily-accented Dutch hipster slang (liberal use of proper English words such as "fucking" "cool" and "shit"), a half-mad, mohawked Serbian butcher, and the refulgently gorgeous Agnes (Bracha van Doesburgh), the hotel owner’s daughter.

Need I add that she falls for the earnest, curly-haired young immigrant’s son with the souful eyes? Obligatory multicultural misunderstandings ensue. How can Nordip (whom everyone calls ‘Nordil’, presumable because it sounds Dutcher) explain this love to his father, who is so devout that he has a giant illuminated plug-in picture of the Golden Dome Mosque ( a running visual gag) hanging on his living-room wall? How will Agnes explain the steamy details to her properly petty-bourgeois Dutch dad? I wasn’t all that interested in the answers to these questions. None of the characters rises very far above ethnic stereotype, and there are plenty of big gaps in the plot — the biggest of which is Nordip’s decision to explore his inner Nordip not by hiking the Moroccan desert but by scraping slime-encrusted plates — a job so degrading he has to hide it from his father by pretending to work in a library.

No, the movie doesn’t make sense, and the ending is egregiously tacked-on. However, it’s got a certain goofy, slapdash charm. I wouldn’t be surprised to find that the director, Martin Koolhoven, got his start in music videos, since none of the scenes seems to last for more than 20 seconds, and the soundtrack is intrusive, in a funkily upbeat way. There are also some amusing gags. At one point, Nordip sees two swarthy immigrant types snatch a purse and runs after them, with the fearsome Dutch police not far behind. They take one look at Nordip and, recognizing him for the nebbish he is, leave him alone. Surely this is the first scene in which a young minority male looks vaguely disappointed not to have been harassed by the cops. The crew of kitchen galley slaves also thinks up plenty of satisfyingly disgusting hi-jinks involving schnitzel, bodily fluids, and cigarettes.

A family-friendly comedy can’t hurt once in a while. Also, a light-hearted multikulti film is a nice relief from the normal tone of the European immigration debate — a mixture of soapy earnestness and white-knuckle, stock-up-on-canned-foods doom-mongering. The principal message of this glorified after-school special is that most of our swarthier neighbors live lives pretty much like ours and are decent folks. Even if they sometimes spit in the schnitzel batter.