“Every German is a Potential Source of Trouble”

And now, a little detour into German history, courtesy of some kind readers.  The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum is now displaying a photo album taken near the Auschwitz death camp by SS-Obersturmführer Karl Höcker.  You can page through the album, which was given by an anonymous donor, here, to see Nazis at play and rest. In this picture, officers and Helferinnen (female auxiliaries) dance down a bridge in Solahutte, an SS retreat outside of Auschwitz [h/t Ed Philp]:

After the war, Höcker (in the center) became a bank clerk in Lubbecke. The International Herald Tribune’s Europe correspondent wrote about the photos for the New York Times here,  and a gigantic thread of 230+ comments about his piece can be found on the International Herald Tribune’s website.  Nothing too blindingly original, but proof of how intensely this subject still grips people.

And now, to a 1946 propaganda film intended for U.S. soldiers stationed in post-war Germany. According to online sources, the movie was directed by Frank Capra ("It’s a Wonderful Life") and written by Theodore Geisel, none other than Dr. Seuss. Enjoy!

Why all the warnings against being taken in by the German landscape, the music, and the pretty girls? A couple of reasons. First, Americans of German descent are the U.S.’s largest ethnic group, so surely some of the troops felt certain ancestral stirrings of the blood, so to speak. 

Second, many U.S. troops found ordinary Germans sympathetic. Not so the French: U.S. troops stationed in post-war France complained about the arrogance, laziness and poor hygiene of the French. One propaganda booklet given to U.S. soldiers said the French stank because all their soap had been stolen by the Germans. The Germans, on the other hand, struck many American soldiers the way they strike me: well-mannered, hard-working, and well-groomed. Once all the nasty, nutty naziness was gone, many American soldiers wondered exactly why we had gone to war against such nice people. This film reminds them. [h/t James R.]

“Do You Feeling Alright?!”


I can’t figure out if this is real Denglish, or contrived, "I know it’s wrong, I just think it sounds cool" Denglish. But I like it.

I also like the name Gwildis. Sounds vaguely Austrian — they seem to have more odd consonant combinations than Germans. 

Also, according to his website, he seems to be a pretty entertaining live act.

And finally, in the picture for the album cover what the hell is he holding? An inverted pomegranate? A grossly oversized hand-knit Christmas ornament? Some sort of Austrian folk emblem?


“Thomas Mann Would Make TV Series Today”

Christian Petzold — none of whose films I have yet seen (although I plan to see ‘Yella’ soon), has this to say about television:

The most interesting it gets are the crime series by Dominik Graf or imports like "The Wire" or "The Sopranos". These are the best things I’ve seen on television. Cinema is nouvelle, TV is roman and "The Sopranos" is an absolute epic. Thomas Mann would make TV series today.

Why Do So Many German Suspects Confess?

Just recently, police caught (G) a 22-year-old German of Afghan descent who is accused of carrying out a stabbing attack on an orthodox rabbi in Frankfurt. A few days before that, police arrested a 25-year-old who stands accused of raping and murdering a 14-year-old girl from Königswinter. In the last case, the police asked hundreds of men to voluntarily give authorities a DNA sample to compare with evidence from the crime scene and got a hit for a 25-year-old Czech immigrant.

What strikes me is that in both of these cases, the accused parties have already confessed to the crimes (according to news reports.) And, in fact, it’s quite common for people to confess to violent crimes in Germany. In both of these cases, it appears that the evidence against the defendants was very strong (in the rabbi case, the defendant had described the attack on an Internet forum). However, it’s not unusual for American defendants to refuse to admit involvement in such crimes, even when the evidence seems to be overwhelming. A lot of them do confess, of course, but I’ve read numbers that suggest that confessions to violent crimes are much more common in Germany than in the United States.

The question is: why? There are a couple of hypothesis I might mention:

1.  Skilled interrogation.

2.  No death penalty, no life in prison sentences, and a rehabilitation-oriented criminal justice system (thus, much less to lose).

3.  Near-certainty of reduction in sentence in return for confession.

4.  Less adversarial criminal-justice system. Any U.S. defense lawyer worth her salt will tell all suspects never to say a word to the police for any reason without a lawyer (see #2, above for why). Many German lawyers will do so, but not all.

5.  Danger of spending long periods in pre-trial confinement (desire for speedy trial).

Those are a few of my hypotheses, some of which are more convincing than others.  Feel free to add your own in comments. 

The New York Times Discovers Karl May

The article opens with a portrait of Jürgen "Lonely Man" Michaelis, a Karl May fan who lives near Dresden, and goes on from there:

A few months ago the director of the Panhandle-Plains Historical Museum in Canyon, Tex., told me in passing how his museum was frequently overrun by visiting Germans, so the curious German obsession with the Wild West — which newly arrived Americans repeatedly discover to predictable eye-rolling from Germans, for whom it’s hardly news — was not exactly unknown to me.

Still, the extent of it is a little astonishing. At powwows — there are dozens every year — thousands of Germans with an American Indian fetish drink firewater, wear turquoise jewelry and run around Baden-Württemberg or Schleswig-Holstein dressed as Comanches and Apaches. There are clubs, magazines, trading cards, school curriculums, stupendously popular German-made Wild West films and outdoor theaters, including one high in the sandstone cliffs above the tiny medieval fortress town of Rathen, in Saxony, where cowboys fight Indians on horseback. A fake Wild West village, Eldorado, recently shot up on the outskirts of Templin, the city where Angela Merkel, the chancellor, grew up.

German Words of the Week: Angstschweiss and Angstlust

It is often said that Eskimos have over 40 words for snow. Which is bollocks. The Economist once said that "If Eskimos have dozens of words for snow, Germans have as many for bureaucracy." Which is not bollocks.

Germans also seem to have as many words for fear. People here break out in "fearsweat," (Angstschweiß), and just a few days ago, I read a glorious new German word in my fancy weekly newspaper: Angstlust (G). The enjoyment of fear. Not just horror-movie, roller-coaster fear, but everyday fear. In my experience, if you ask a German "What are you grateful for?", the conversation will last 30 seconds. If you ask one "What are you afraid of?", it will last 30 minutes.

So what are Germans afraid of? This handy chart says it all:


The source of the chart is this paper. For those of you who aren’t yet German-enabled™, the chart’s title is "Developments in Various Forms of Fear Since 1991" (no, really — that’s the title!) and the legend reads, in order:

  • Increase in cost of living
  • Worsening of the economic situation
  • Becoming unemployed
  • Serious illness
  • Become a long-term-care case when old
  • Terrorism
  • Lower living standard when old
  • Crime

The conclusion is clear. In the past six years or so, Germans have become much more scared about everything. Except crime.

But don’t feel sorry for them. First, it may well be the case, as most Germans say, that Germans seem much more scared than other people you meet simply because they are more honest about their fears. Second, do not immediately associate fear with misery. You cannot grasp the German character until you learn one profound fact: Germans enjoy being afraid (Angstlust, people!). Especially when they can all be afraid of the same thing, which produces feelings of Gemeinschaftsgefuehl, social togetherness.

Richter’s Confetti Windows

Over the weekend I dropped by Cologne to see Gerhard Richter’s new windows in the south nave of the Cologne Cathedral.  My picture of them is here, although you can find better ones on the web.


Richter, who was born and trained as an artist in Dresden and came to West Germany in the early 1960s, flits from style to style like a dragonfly from reed to reed. Austere abstraction, mass-media quotation, black-and-white paintings based on blurry vacation photographs, giant, aggressively painterly canvases, microscope images, and even paintings which he himself unashamedly calls "beautiful" — subjects such as a candles, a summer day, or clouds over open sea. As he once said — in a phrase used as the title of a documentary about him — "my pictures are cleverer than I am."

A few years ago, he was commissioned by the Diocese of Cologne to fill the windows in the south nave of that city’s great gothic cathedral. The previous windows, installed after WWII, were featureless and almost clear. That blinded the faithful in the northern nave during winter days. At first, the Domkapitel (the cathedral’s governing body) wanted windows that showed 20th century martyrs, but they couldn’t settle on an appropriate design. They asked Richter, and he decided on complete abstraction. His model was a 1974 work called 4096 colors — a painting composed of small squares painted completely at random in one of 72 different colors. The window has about 11,500 squares (G). Although the distribution of squares is random, Richter supposedly favored Mediterannean colors, which does come through in the shimmering wash of light which the windows produce.

The Cardinal of Cologne, Joachim Cardinal Meisner, is not pleased. To him (G), the windows are suspiciously ecumenical; you could find them in any place of worship, even (gasp) a mosque. Visitors have already dubbed them the "confetti windows." They also bring to mind a digital photograph blown up until none of the multicolored pixels forms a recognizable image.

I’m of two minds about the new windows. On the one hand, Meisner (gasp) sort of has a point, doesn’t he? I’m not asking for bleeding-heart madonnas here, but something so aggressively abstract does have a bit of the airport ecumenical chapel about it. (For a different approach to church decoration look here). One the one hand, when the light shines through them strongly, the effect is real purty. Thousands of individual rays of multicolored light make the air visible.