Between 1973 and 1989 the East German police, known as the Stasi, seized more than 200,000 objects in hundreds of raids, according to experts and official archives. As part of a broader government program to secure Western currency through the sale of the art, the police went after collectors like Mr. Meissner, who, when he objected, was sent, at 79, to a psychiatric hospital and portrayed as an enemy of the state.
But now, Mr. Meissner’s story has resurfaced, as his son tries to reclaim what he says was one of the most valuable items seized from his father more than three decades ago: a 1705 still life of four chestnuts by the Dutch artist Adriaen Coorte. In court filings in Munich, the New York family that now has the painting says that it was bought 25 years ago, legally, in good faith and with no understanding that it had been seized by the Stasi.
Until recently, few Germans realized that the covert program, with its echoes of Holocaust-era looting, had ever taken place in the German Democratic Republic, said Gilbert Lupfer, the lead researcher for Dresden’s state art collection.
“It was very, very, well, elaborate, and also very secret,” he said. “That’s the reason why it was not known in the G.D.R.”
The purpose of the program, according to historians, was purely financial. East Germany’s economy at the time was faltering, and its own currency, the mark, was too weak to be of much use in foreign trade. Selling art abroad through brokers in Western Europe guaranteed a steady stream of cash.
To depict the seizures as legal, the Stasi declared that the targeted collectors were “art dealers” who owed as much as 90 percent back taxes on the value of their so-called stock. Since no East German could pay the outsize tax bills, archival records show, the Stasi would take 90 percent of the best objects instead.
My own contribution to this genre happened in 2004-ish, when I went to a camera store and told the guy behind the counter that I needed 'eine Speichelkarte'.*
* As the video shows, explaining the mistake is more droll than funny, but here goes: I wanted a memory card (Speicherkarte) but instead asked repeatedly for a 'saliva card' (Speichelkarte). The guy behind the counter, richly amused, asked me how many megabytes of saliva I needed to store.
Andrew Gimson, a former Berlin correspondent for the Daily Telegraph, has written a solid little article on the 'Conservative Home' website about the main misconceptions his countrymen have about Germany (h/t MTW):
1. Angela Merkel
The British have no idea what makes the Chancellor tick. The Germans too have no idea what makes her tick. Merkel is inscrutable even to her own Christian Democratic Union: a party accustomed to being led by Catholic men from the Rhineland. For the last 14 years it has been led by an unknown woman who spent the first 36 years of her life in East Germany, where her father was a Protestant clergyman….
2. The German language
Few of us understand it. To think one can understand a country without knowing its language is a presumption.
3. German manners
But even if one knows the language, one may find oneself unable to comprehend the manners. Take the elementary and unavoidable question of when to use a first or Christian name and call someone “Du” – the familiar form of the word “You”. One of my most treasured souvenirs of my time in Germany is “A short Guide on The Correct German Form” compiled by Lieutenant-Colonel Jan-Dirk von Merveldt, of the Royal Green Jackets, for the use of British officers stationed in Germany. Merveldt’s family emerged in Westphalia in 1159, both his parents were German and he spent the first 14 years of his life in Germany. He confirms that in many circumstances we are liable to get things wrong: “This British habit of liberal use of first names is regarded by many Germans as irritating, excruciating, unwelcome, over familiar and an invasion of privacy – although no German will actually ever admit it to you.” …
4. The drinking customs
This is a deep subject on which I am not qualified to give guidance: an example of something most of us don’t even know we don’t know about.
5. The slowness
Germans tend to have a different and less impatient sense of time. Doing something properly, with craftsmanlike deliberation, is more important than doing it fast. This has a bearing on politics: changes tend to be debated for 20 or 30 years before actually occurring. To reform the EU in two years might be quite difficult. It is true that the fall of the Berlin Wall occurred in a rush, and forced the Germans to display their gift for improvisation. But the popular demand to reform the EU is not quite so strong.
6. The geography
This may seem too obvious to be worth mentioning, but it is a subject which the British often ignore or underplay. Germany has more neighbours than any other country in Europe: nine with whom it shares a land border, and about the same again once one includes those which can easily be reached by sea….
7. The history
This again may seem too obvious to be worth mentioning. But it is unfortunately the case that very few people in Britain know much about German history before 1914, or after 1945. We even tend to overlook the large role played by Britain in the creation after the Second World War of free institutions in West Germany, a subject on which Thomas Kielinger touched in a recent piece for the Daily Telegraph. Concentrating on the First World War, and then on the monstrous events of 1933-45, and knowing nothing about what came before or after, is not a good way to set about understanding Germany. Neil MacGregor, Director of the British Museum, has now produced, in Germany: Memories of a Nation, a series of 30 radio programmes which offer a brilliant account of some of what any educated Briton would hope to know about Germany. I have missed most of them when broadcast live, but find that even for someone as technologically backward as myself, it is possible to arrange to listen to one or more of these 14-minute programmes while doing the washing up….
8. The politics
The West German tradition of consensus politics is different to the Westminster tradition of adversarial politics, and is therefore difficult to explain to or bring alive for British readers. Here again is an aspect of Germany we do not really understand. And the German political class discusses these matters in a way which to the British ear can seem at once deeply bogus and deeply boring…
9. The similarities
And yet there are close similarities between Britain and Germany. We share an admiration for the Royal Family, and a fondness for beer and dogs, among many other things. And in both countries, one finds a conviction that it would be more sensible to run our own affairs, than to have them run for us from a city in Belgium….
'Deeply bogus and deeply boring' is tough but fair. After landing here, I quickly realized that all speeches with the word 'Europe' in the title given by German politicians, lawyers or other boffins are terrifyingly similar, as if they were all written by the same 1997-era algorithm. The speaker immediately switches into Euroblather mode, reeling off a bunch of inoffensive on-the-one-hand-on-the-other-hand abstractions nobody could possibly disagree with: 'We must ensure that prosperity is shared in a fair and equitable manner without stifling enterprise.' / 'Europe must balance its commitment to the integrity of its borders with a concern for human rights.' / 'Europe must rise to the challenges of the 21st century by drawing on its rich heritage.', etc. The speaker often seems even more bored than his audience. Martin Sonneborn pretty much summed it up with his campaign slogan for the European Parliament: 'Yes to Europe! No to Europe!'
I wouldn't mind adding a few more emendations and corrections of my own as time permits, but alas it doesn't (busy semester). But go nuts in comments, if you like!
Probably the finest Canadian song praising the Communist Party of Albania you will hear today (h/t RM):
I wonder if there are any English-language songs praising East Germany?
If you're interested in the internecine squabbles of Canadian Marxist splinter parties in the 1960s — and who isn't? — you can find plenty of documentation here. One of the absolute must-read highlights, On the Question of Liu Shao-Chi:
While we might be disposed to be somewhat critical of [Sidney Rittenberg]'s speech for being poorly constructed, not too carefully prepared and containing some careless formulatons, we are in agreement with its basic content in criticizing and repudiating the bourgeois-reactionary line of Liu Shao-chi and upholding the proletarian-revolutionary line of Mao Tse-tung. However, the Belgian trio of Jacques Grippa, Rene Raindorf and Stephen Strulens who are of the opposite opinion, in reply to Rittenburg’s 40 to 50 minute speech inscribed a, reply that would fill a good-sized book.
The extreme length of this literary attack is largely caused by the authors’ ranging far beyond the limits of the Rittenburg speech which did not provide them with sufficient scope for the objective they had in mind. In order to correct this situaton Rittenburg is charged with not saying certain things, and the things which were not said provide the main basis for the attack.
Over the weekend I set out for the Neander Valley, where the first Neanderthal skeleton was found. It's also an ultra-pleasant hiking destination, complete with babbling brooks, succulent green meadows, winding forest pathways, mildly dramatic shale rock formations, and quaint villages where people set out bookcases full of old horse magazines by the side of the road. The leaves were, to use Oscar Wilde's phrase, 'ruined gold'.
During the hike I made a wrong turn or two and ended up in Mettman, famed as one of the epicenters of German Spießbürgerlichkeit (g) (petit-bourgeois stodginess). Everything there was quiet, respectable, recently-cleaned, and terrifyingly rectilinear.
Perhaps you readers can help me clear up a few mysteries in the pictures below. First, those metal studs pounded into the (mold-yellowed) wooden electricity pole? Who puts them there and what do they mean? Second, the old stone markers by the side of the road in Bracken, Germany. What was their original purpose. Any clues would be appreciated.
Thomas Rogers, a writer living in Berlin, takes to the pages of the New Republic to describe the oddity of 'Wetten, Dass…?' and the crappiness of German TV in general:
…[T]he mediocrity of [German] TV—and “Wetten Dass..?” in particular—is currently a particular source of national insecurity. Whereas other European countries, like Denmark and France, have impressed international audiences with high-quality shows like “Borgen” and “The Returned,” TV in Germany remains dominated by talk shows, schlocky crime procedurals, mediocre miniseries, and, well, “Wetten Dass..?”—or as a New York Times headline from last year described it, “Stupid German Tricks.”
…Not only does the 33-year-old “Wetten Dass..?” seem to confirm a lot of the world’s less generous stereotypes of Germans—e.g. humorless, weird, with terrible taste in formalwear—its concept is also awkwardly difficult to explain….
For Hollywood stars used to appearing on “Kimmel” or “Conan,” [Markus] Lanz’s interview techniques—which often involve commenting on female stars’ appearance—can seem jarringly unpleasant and often sexist. When a baffled-looking Cameron Diaz appeared on the show this spring, Lanz asked her to stand up from the couch so two young boys could get a kiss from “one of the most beautiful women in the world.” She instead gave them high fives and awkwardly and silently sat back down.
On a cultural level, the show has also become a symbol of Germany’s continuing struggles to create good television. As television has emerged internationally as the new medium for sophisticated storytelling, public criticisms of the show, and German TV in general, have sharpened. In 2012,Spiegel published an interview with a top German media critic under the headline “Why are German TV shows so lousy?” Unlike the U.S., television in Germany is highly subsidized by the public.
Even if you ignore stunty shows like “Wetten Dass..?,” German narrative offerings have lacked the nuance and verve of high-end British, American, or Scandinavian productions. “Tatort,” the country’s most popular program, is an uneven cop show that often feels several decades out of date, and most other fictional TV shows perpetually reshuffle a few familiar elements (blonde doctor, romantic woes, rural hospital, Bavaria). As Lothar Mikos, the media critic, told Spiegel, the problem isn’t monetary, it’s the opposite: German broadcasters’ enormous bureaucracy and generous funding have largely insulated them from the need to innovate. And since younger people tend to watch American or British shows online anyways, there’s little to dissuade networks from creating more low-quality schlock for aging viewers.
Rogers has subscribed to the donut-hole theory: Germany does highbrow really well and lowbrow OK (but who cares), but the vast middlebrow area is a wasteland.
Doing a bit of research I came across the online version (g) of the Bambergische Peinliche Halsgerichtsordnung, one of the first European criminal codes. It was written by a German knight, one Johann the Strong, Baron of Schwarzenberg and Hohenlandsberg. Johann was 'Hofmeister' (a senior court official) to the Bishop of Bamberg.
From a legal perspective the Bamberg code is forward-looking in many ways, but in other ways it's, er, medieval. And what's even more awesome is that the medieval stuff is illustrated. Directly below we see court officials preparing for interrogation under torture, the so-called peinliche Befragung(g). It's even accompanied by a short poem (anyone want to try a translation in comments?). Below that we see a man about to be beheaded with a sword in the foreground, with a poor bastard broken on the wheel in the background.