Peter Handke has questionable political judgment, which is something he shares with most artists and writers. This post isn’t meant to defend his stance on the Balkan wars of the 1990s, although, as a German reader, I can state that it is much more nuanced than is being reported in the English-language press.
But one of the most-repeated and most-tweeted charges in the indictment against Handke is false. The charge is that, when confronted about Serb atrocities in Bosnia, Handke said: “You can shove your corpses up your ass.” Even the New York Times published this false quotation.
German-language outlets have established this quote is fake. As far as I know, no English-language source has yet done so. So let me be the first.
Here is what Handke actually said, live and in-person:
This was a recording of a talk Handke gave at the Akademietheater in Vienna in 1996. A member of the audience asks Handke why he never visited Bosnia, only Serbia. Handke says everyone else was already visiting Bosnia, and he wanted to be on the “wrong” side. This comment is obviously meant ironically, and the audience laughs.
The questioner then asks whether “journalists who were trapped in Sarajevo” might have been more “affected” (betroffen) by the war than Handke.
Handke then interrupts and says “‘Betroffenheit’ — das kann ich schon überhaupt nicht hören…” — “I can’t stand this word ‘Betroffenheit’. Go home with your ‘Betroffenheit’, stick it up your ass.”
To understand what Handke was saying, we need to unpack this word Betroffenheit. The verb betroffen means to be affected by something. Betroffen has a standard, neutral meaning in the sense of being literally affected: i.e., this law does not apply to you, you are not betroffen by it; they changed the test, but I graduated before that, so I was not betroffen by the change.
But betroffen also has an emotional meaning: something has affected your emotions, has touched you, has caused you anguish, etc. Usually it’s used in response to negative events: I was betroffen to hear of your mother’s death; he was betroffen by images of starving children on the television.
Betroffenheit is simply the noun version of the adjective betroffen — it means the state of being emotionally affected by something. Whenever a disaster or terrorist attack hits Germany, politicians always tweet about their Betroffenheit: they want to say they are deeply affected by whatever happened.
It’s kind of like the secular German equivalent of an American politicians saying their “thoughts and prayers” are with the victims after a mass shooting. And this analogy is spot-on. Just as “thoughts and prayers” is a cliché in English, Betroffenheit is a cliché in German. It’s mocked as an platitude which politicians trot out just so they won’t be called insensitive, and which doesn’t require them to take a stand. In German-speaking media, people of all political stripes mock politicians for calling attention to their Betroffenheit all the time.
This is the point Handke is making. As someone who lives by language, he finds the words “betroffen” and “Betroffenheit” offensively unoriginal. And on another level, he is calling expressions of sympathy and concern by Western journalists and commentators are hypocritical, because these commentators focus exclusively on the suffering of Bosniaks and Muslims, while downplaying or ignoring the suffering of Serbs.
So he’s not saying “shove the corpses up your ass”. He is saying “shove your Betroffenheit [one-sided and hypocritical expressions of dismay] up your ass”.
Again, I am not here to defend all of Handke’s views. But this is a major error which, to my knowledge, has yet to be corrected and acknowledged in the English-speaking press.
I’m reading James Stevens Curl’s Making Dystopia, an erudite broadside against the International Style and Brutalism in 20th-century architecture. One of the many refreshing things the book does is provide a non-hagiographical account of the Bauhaus. When I was growing up, it seemed that Bauhaus was universally revered as the most important design movement of Modernism, if not in all of human history. A famous band named themselves after it! Young female Bauhaus students looked so ahead of their time!
Bauhaus’ progenitors were described in hushed, reverential tones, and their many glaring faults ignored. (Nobody mentioned, for instance, that Ludwig Miës van der Rohe was born plain old Ludwig Mies, and added the diacritics and extra words out of pure affectation.)
Curl is having none of that. He acknowledges Bauhaus’ many achievements, but also holds it responsible for many of the most regrettable aspects of 20th century architecture: sandwich-like buildings with horizontal windows, flat roofs, a puritanical ban on ornamentation, soulless prefabricated cubic “machines for living”, etc.
And he points out that many people associated with Bauhaus were, not to put too fine a point on it, kooks. Case in point, Johannes Itten (from pp. 94-95):
He was a devotee of Mazdaznan, one of a great many mystical or quasi-religious cults that flourished in Germany at the time. It was related to the ancient Persian religion of Zoroastrianism, and therefore tentatively associated with Nietzsche’s Zarathustra (though any connection with the philosopher’s ideas was hopelessly corrupted). It held that the world was a warzone between good and evil, and that what is perceived as reality is really only a veil that hides a higher existence that can only be achieved by rigorous physical and mental exercises, a vegetarian diet (featuring huge doses of garlic), fasting, and regular enemas. Mazdaznan macrobiotic dishes became de rigueur in the Bauhaus canteen, and some students adopted Itten’s garb (a loose robe) and shaved their heads.
Some, of course, regarded him as a saintly figure, but many, probably more accurately, saw him as a charlatan. Itten would accept students on his ‘intuitive judgement’ without even looking at work or asking questions. One of the many problems that emerged from this régime in malnourished, bankrupted, demoralized, defeated Germany, was that dishes like the garlic paste insisted upon by Itten caused students to look rather ill, with grey-green skin: furthermore, apart from the enemas, peculiar rituals such as ‘purification of the body’ involved pricking the skin and anointing it with oils, so that the pin-pricked areas began to suppurate: resultant infections caused illnesses.
Made, an artificial construction, country is naturally poor,
Organically arising, fabric of history, naturally rich,
Everything in people and from people, therefore: Orientation toward the State as a unifying force,
Everything from outside: Nature and God,
God, love of homeland as a unifying force
[…] The Individual:
Up-to-date worldview (cosmopolitan around 1800, liberal around 1848, now Bismarckian, with almost no memory of bygone phases).
Traditional mentality, almost unchanging through centuries.
Lack of historical sense.
Possesses historical instinct.
Strength of abstraction.
Minimal talent for abstraction.
Incomparable in orderly execution.
Quicker on the uptake.
Acts according to regulations.
Acts according to ideas of decency.
Strength of dialectics.
More skilled in expression.
More consistent and responsible (Konsequenz)
More ability to come to grips with his given situation.
Transforms everything into function.
Turns everything towards the social.
Stands up for and justifies self.
Prefers to remain ignorant.
Self-righteous, arrogant, schoolmarmish.
Bashful, vain, witty.
Forces things to crisis.
Gets out of the way of crises.
Fights for rights.
Inability to imagine what others are thinking.
Ability to think self into others going all the way to loss of own character.
Character is product of will.
Every individual possesses one part of authority.
Every individual possesses one entire humanity.
Love of pleasure.
Predominance of business.
Predominance of the private sphere.
Irony going all the way to self-dissolution.
First printing: Vossische Zeitung 25 December 1917. In: Hugo von Hofmannsthal: Gesammelte Werke in zehn Einzelbänden. Reden und Aufsätze II (1914–1924). Hg. von Bernd Schoeller in Beratung mit Rudolf Hirsch. Frankfurt a. M.: Fischer Taschenbuch Verlag 1979, S. 459–461.
Düsseldorf is a an art town, and has a long history at the forefront of artistic innovation, from the Düsseldorf School of painting in the 1830s and 1840s to the Expressionist circle around the portly patroness ‘Mother Ey‘ to the ZERO movement and, of course, Josef Beuys, who for years was a professor of ‘monumental sculpture’ at the Düsseldorf Art Academy.
So you would expect Düsseldorf to be stuffed to bursting with museums and art galleries, and it is. You might also expect plenty of art in public spaces, and you’ll find that, too. You wander through the city and see a saint in a corner niche, a giant blue lock hanging from the side of a 19th-century pile, a massive, hideous bronze with scenes from city’s history, a field filled with clocks, or an equestrian statue. And you may ask yourself: Who created these things? Not all of them are identified by plaques or signs — and that’s especially true of the older artworks found in churches or in modest middle-class neighborhoods.
But now there’s a book that explains everything, and I mean everything, about every piece of public art in Düsseldorf. I’m referring to this gigantic 3-volume compendium: Ars Publica Düsseldorf (g), which I recently bought:
Local graphic designer Wolfgang Funken devoted 5 years to the research for this massive project, visiting dozens of artists in their ateliers, combing through dusty archives, tracking down historic photographs, and following works of art as they were moved from place to place accommodate a changing cityscape. It’s truly a labor of love, and a beautiful thing, laid out with elegance and precision and richly illustrated.
Funken provides much more than dates, though: he delves into the unique history of each work: who commissioned it, how much it cost, which techniques were used, what its symbolism signifies, how it was received by the public, whether it was denounced or destroyed during the Nazi era, what controversies it evoked, what rumors and myths and superstitions have grown up around it. There’s something surprising and fascinating on every page.
To his credit, Funken goes far beyond the big prestige projects well-known to every city dweller, to explore the humble, the local, the often-overlooked. Curious who created that strangely expressive wooden pieta in your local church? Funken found out. How about the tiny sculpture of the little girl with the goose in a workers’ housing settlement from the early 20th century? That has its own entry. Why does there seem to be a big piece missing from the “Fairy Tale Well?” Funken tracked down the whole story. To call this a labor of love is an understatement.
The book appears to have had a limited print run, and is now hard to find (I picked up a copy at the local city archive). However, Funken has created a website (g) devoted to the project. There are categories for new pieces which were created after the book’s publication in 2013, for “works which have disappeared”, for “unsolved puzzles”, cemeteries, memorial plaques, religious works, and background stories and reminiscences from some of the many artists he personally visited during the course of the book. There’s even a section devoted to “magical places and trees”.
It’s all in German, of course. If I had unlimited time, I would translate it all into English as a labor of love about a labor of love, but I have to earn a living. Nevertheless, I will pick some of the most interesting stories from the book and website and blog about them here in the coming months.
A book I just finished reading played a part in unraveling a minor mystery concerning a right-wing German politician.
The right-wing politician is Björn Höcke, Thuringian state chair of the Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) party.
The book is The German Genius, a 2010 English-language book by the British journalist Peter Watson.
First I’ll talk about the political mystery, then the book.
I. The Political Mystery
The mystery is whether Höcke, under the name “Landolf Ladig”, wrote articles (g) for an extreme-right publication of the German NDP party.
Let’s keep both parties straight. The AfD (g) Party, founded in 2013, is a right-wing, anti-immigrant nationalist-conservative political party. Although controversial, it currently polls at 10-15% of the vote and is represented in the German federal parliament, the Bundestag.
The NPD (National Democratic Party) (g) is a far-right political party which is considered the just barely legitimate political face of extreme right-wing German nationalism. There is considerable overlap between neo-Nazis and fanatical nationalists and the NPD. German law allows the Federal Constitutional Court to ban political parties which oppose the ‘liberal democratic order’, and several attempts have been made to ban the NPD party, but they failed on technical grounds. The NPD polls at 1-3% nationwide, and is not represented in the federal parliament, although it did get into some state parliaments in East Germany.
So in American terms, the AfD would be Donald Trump — controversial, often rude and crude, but with genuine support in the population, and generally smart enough to avoid openly embracing white nationalism. The NPD would be Richard B. Spencer — white nationalist and proud of it.
Trump is controversial, Spencer is radioactive.
The AfD is controversial. The NPD is radioactive.
Now back to Höcke. Höcke, a high-school history teacher (g) (which means he’s a civil servant) and “German Patriot”, is easily the most controversial member of the AfD. Appearing on a major German political talk show, he unfurled a German flag and set it on the armrest of his chair:
Höcke is part of the AfD’s ‘right-wing’ fringe, and there have been moves to try to kick him out of the party (g) to give it a more mainstream image. They were unsuccessful.
The question in this post, however, is whether Höcke is “Landolf Ladig”. The texts Landolf Ladig wrote for the radioactive NPD party are filled with extreme-right rhetoric. This doesn’t mean they’re openly neo-Nazi; even the NPD avoids that sort of rhetoric, which would earn it an immediate ban and criminal charges. But they’re full of völkisch-nationalistic code phrases popular among the German far-right. They’re even more controversial than what Höcke normally says, and some of the arguments in those articles may even be unlawful in Germany.
So, to sum up, what Landolf Ladig wrote is well outside the pale even for right-wing Germans. Therefore, if Höcke is Ladig, this would be a major blow to his political career. In 2015, a German sociologist Andreas Kemper, began publishing pieces in which he noted the similarities between Höcke’s writing and that of Landolf Ladig. Here’s a representative video:
Unfortunately it’s only in German, but it makes a strong case that Höcke wrote the Ladig pieces. Kemper’s work, among other things, eventually led the AfD to commission a legal expert opinion on whether Höcke was Ladig, which, according to news reports (g), concluded that it was likely he was, indeed, Ladig (g).
Höcke has always denied being “Landolf Ladig”, and in 2015, he threatened to sue anyone who said he was. This has led a German left-wing group to troll him by devoting an entire website (g) to claiming that Höcke is Ladig. You can even buy mugs and T-shirts with Höcke’s picture identified as “Landolf Ladig” on them. So far, Höcke has declined to sue.
And now, finally, we get to the book! One of the pieces of evidence mentioned by Andreas Kemper in a recent interview and article (g) was that Landolf Ladig told his NPD readers to read Watson’s book The German Genius, which bears the German title of Der deutsche Genius. But Ladig got the name wrong, calling the book Genius der Deutschen. And guess what? Höcke made the exact same mistake! It’s only one element of the Höcke=Ladig case, but it’s an interesting one. Allow me to say, just for the record, that I am not interested in being sued, and don’t really care, so I hereby expressly declare that I have no opinion on whether Höcke is Ladig.
II. The Book
So what about the book? In a word, it’s a nearly 1000-page long compendium of German achievement, summarized thus in a positive Guardian review:
Peter Watson’s colossal encyclopaedia, The German Genius, might have been written for me, but not only for me. A journalist of heroic industry, Watson is frustrated by the British ignorance of Germany, or rather by an expertise devoted exclusively to Adolf Hitler and the Holocaust. Watson wonders not just why the nation of thinkers and poets came to grief between 1933 and 1945 but also how it put itself together again and, in 1989, recreated most of the Wilhelmine state without plunging Europe into war or even breaking sweat.
Watson has not simply written a survey of the German intellect from Goethe to Botho Strauss – nothing so dilettantist. In the course of nearly 1,000 pages, he covers German idealism, porcelain, the symphony, Johann Joachim Winckelmann, telegraphy, homeopathy, strategy, Sanskrit, colour theory, the Nazarenes, universities, Hegel, jurisprudence, the conservation of energy, the Biedermeyer, entropy, fractals, dyestuffs, the PhD, heroin, automobiles, the unconscious, the cannon, the Altar of Pergamon, sociology, militarism, the waltz, anti-semitism, continental drift, quantum theory and serial music.
Watson’s approach is mainly biographical — the book is essentially a series of potted biographies of German achievers, complete with birth-and-death dates. However, Watson’s summaries of their achievement are accurate and interesting, and he revives many forgotten figures and controversies. Watson probes every single nook and cranny of modern German culture and achievement.
The argument of the book is basically that although German thinkers and doers have shaped huge portions of our modern intellectual and political landscape, the English-speaking world underestimates this achievement because of its excessive focus on the ‘Prussian militarism’ and of course the Nazi era. Germany was a world leader in universal public education, modern research universities, and modern healthcare, chemistry, and physics.
And before the mid-20th century, the English-speaking world recognized this. Watson points out (twice), for instance, that the New York Times dedicated its entire front page to the death of Alexander von Humboldt in 1859. There are thousands of American cities, towns, and institutions whose names reflect the heritage of German settlers (including Humboldt County, California, now famous for something very different). German intellectual rigor and distinction was once proverbial in the English-speaking world, and German language ability and a tour in a German university was a mark of distinction for young British and American intellectuals. Watson’s book is intended to remind us why this was the case, and that the specifically German aspects of German-speaking culture still has much to offer the world.
I enjoyed the book immensely and learned an enormous amount from it, so it’s a solid recommendation from me, Landolf Ladig, and Björn Höcke. Although I should point out, in capital bold letters, that Peter Watson is in no way an apologist for völkisch German nationalism. He devotes exhaustive attention to the horrors of the Third Reich, and points out how aspects of the “German Genius” (excellence in chemistry, philosophical and social radicalism, völkisch nationalism, German historiography) either helped lay the foundations for Nazism or furnished it with tools. Watson admires modern Germany’s culture of remembrance, and doubtless has zero sympathy with the AfD, NPD, or any of those fellows. This is not a book intended to warm the hearts of German nationalists (although, as we have seen, it does that), but rather to encourage respect for and interest in one of the world’s great, and distinctive, cultural traditions.
The book I spent over two years translating, ‘Comparative Law’, by the German expert Prof. Dr. Uwe Kischel, has just been published by Oxford University Press, and I recently received my translator’s copies:
They look handsome indeed. The book is 928 pages long and not cheap, but worth every penny — a monument of scholarship, filled with fascinating insights. No lawyer’s bookshelf is complete without it. Claim it as a business expense!