All 5 entries tagged Germany
November 24, 2010
Since last week there is in Germany one of those unspecified terrorist alerts that Michael Moore ridiculed in his "Fahrenheit 9/11". Possible targets are airports, stations and Christmas markets in the big cities. Reichstag’s dome by Normal Foster has been closed to tourists, and there are scary pictures in the press of armed police with their German Shepherd dogs in front of the Brandenburger Tor. And we are continuously reminded that the 9/11 terrorists came from Hamburg and there is a good share of Taliban fighters with German passports.
On the other side, I have been through the airport at the week-end, and yesterday I was at a very big event with the economic and political elite, including Angela Merkel. In both cases extra security measures were clearly visible, but rather low-key and unobstrutive – any British airport without alert is more fussy than the German ones during the alert. Which begs the question: if these alerts are for political consumption, why does not Merkel use it to the full? Is somebody else behind it? Who, the media who don’t have anything else to show to sell? Or worse of all, if it is not for political consumption, should we then start worrying for real?
Not that the Germans seem to worry much. But with a self-deprecating attitude that seems to characterize all European nations, they blame themselves not to worrying enough, rather than congratulating themselves for non panicking. In the news they even report that in Britain they know much better how to behave in case of terrorist alert because the government informs everybody and people have been trained for any event. I can’t remember anything of this kind: it must be that the neighbor’s terrorist alert is always greener.
More seriously are taken the financial alerts: the Euro is not as loved and looked after as the DM but it is still something very important. Yet the reactions to the Irish crisis are very different from those to the Greek crisis at the beginning of the year (on which I recommend this working paper by Dorothee Bohle). When it was Greece needing bailing-out, all the German media were scandalized by the breaching of the Growth and Stability Pact and by the immorality of saving the undeserving, undisciplined Greeks. Now, while in the English speaking media (Guardian, Financial Times) there are articles criticizing German strictness and self-righteousness, actually, the Germans this time are being very quiet and condescending, back to the old motto "a good German is a good European". Merkel has expressed a little obligatory concern with fiscal discipline (well, she can't say the Irish are free to use the 85bn Euro as they like, can she? there is not enough Guinness on the island) but basically nobody objects to saving Ireland, and there is very little fuss about it.
Why the different treatment of the Irish and the Greeks? Certainly, you can lose virginity only once, and once the Growth and Stability Pact’s article on national debts being non-transferable has been violated once, the following violations make little news. Also, there are objective differences between the nature of the debt of Ireland and that of Greece: while Greece has been in chronic debt since independence, Ireland was running, until the crisis, a clean budget. Germans still remember, with a little shame, how just a few years ago Ireland had a budget surplus while Germany itself (tu quoque!) was breaching the deficit limit – and how the Council criticized Ireland for planning tax cuts, while it closed an eye or two on Germany. Beside these objective differences, there may well be a little bias: it is undoubtedly easier, in Germany, to despise the Southern Europeans (I know something about it), than it is despising the Irish.
But more important than the national bias may be the economic bias. That is, falling into debt because of unbalanced, “over-generous” social welfare and subsidies to a frail economy, as in Greece, is morally unacceptable. But falling into debt in order to save disastrously-behaving banks, in which incidentally the Germans have invested so much, is morally OK.
November 14, 2010
There is a little of Schadenfreude, in Berlin, in the fact that in Austria the discussion has fallen to even lower levels than in Germany. The quite depressing, intellectually sloppy German debate on the alleged "parallel society" of “integration-objecting” Turkish immigrants was triggered in August by the over-million-selling book “Deutschland schafft sich ab” by Thilo Sarrazin, then Socialdemocratic member of the Bundesbank’s board. It rarely happens for a near 500-page long quasi-scientific book on the labour market to sell so much and to have so much ‘impact’ (lots of REF points for him – which also proves that instant impact and good research are unlikely to go together). Commenting on it was one of my priority tasks when arrived to Germany but I still have not read the whole book: I can’t bring myself to buy it and there is a queue of dozens reservations on the library copies. Fortunately, Berlin’s bookshops are very relaxed, comfortable spaces so I could easily read a few core chapters while immersed in an armchair for an hour or so, before putting the book back on the shelve and cleaning my hands. So I probably know the book better than most people who comment on it, but still I prefer to wait before a real review, and I limit myself to point at the striking similarities between Sarrazin’s charts on comparative fertility and the Nazi ones.
By contrast, I have read the whole interview in die Presse given on the 9th November by the Turkish ambassador in Vienna, Kadri Ecved Tezcan, which caused so much furore and offense in Austria. Of course, he has not been “diplomatic” and therefore he has probably stepped outside of his role (although it may have all been calculated as a warning to Austria to stop sabotaging EU-Turkey talks). But apart that I remember the German ambassador to the UK, on a visit to Warwick, being also quite undiplomatic about the Turks, this blog does not have to be diplomatic so I will take Tezcan’s words at face value.
His sentence “except holidays, Austrians have no interest in foreign cultures” was indeed an undue generalisation. But it was largely justified by the preceding and following points, for instance that no Austrians, except politicians looking for votes, bother popping in at the large Turkish Kermes fest in Vienna. Beside the generalisation, the sentence actually sounds to me as too kind towards the Austrians: I would have said that even during their holidays abroad, Austrians [replace with the name of your western nation of choice, especially if England] have no interest in foreign cultures. Let’s be more frank than the ambassador: the crowds of half-naked, pork-eating, money-flashing drunk burping western tourists in Muslim countries are worse than the worst Muslim immigrants to Europe (I have seen some in Morocco, Egypt, Malaysia, and run away as far as possible from them).
For the rest, the ambassador only said things that are either well-known to migration specialists, or just good sense. That placing migration policies under the Home Office (Innenministerium), rather than for instance Social affairs, calls for police solutions instead of social policies. That the Austrian home secretary, Maria Fekter, just like Angela Markel are not giving good examples of tolerance when arguing against multiculturalism (all the more that they stop short of proposing any alternative model). That failed education and social integration stems from the ghettoes produced by housing policies and by Austrian parents’ unwillingness to mix their children with Turks (many Turkish children in Austria are segregated in schools where they make 60-70% of the class). That the presence of Turkish teachers could help Turkish children gain self-esteem and reading and writing skills. That pre-school education for migrants’ children should be enhanced. That if nude bathing is allowed, then headscarves could be allowed too. That forced headscarf-wearing, and forced marriage, should be prosecuted as crimes regardless of religion. That the Austrian social-democrats are so scared of the populist Right to say a word about the treatment of immigrants. That if the Viennese don’t want foreigners (26% of them just voted for the extreme-right FPÖ), also the international organisations that crowd (and enrich) the city (UN, OSCE, OPEC…) should leave. And that it is a pity this happens in a country heir of the most multicultural of modern European states, the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
All this can be summarised with a point: integration is a social and political process, much more than a minority’s choice. Much is said in both Germany and Austria about an alleged 10-15% of Muslim Integrationsverweigenerer, or ‘integration objectors’. This much-repeated number comes from some surveys saying that this is the share of Muslim migrants who are very religious and/or have no regular contacts with Germans or Austrians. Now, this has nothing to do with refusing integration, nor even with integration itself. It is a basic sociological finding, since the times of the Chicago School, that involvement in a minority association or cultural life, is associated with higher, not lower integration with the rest of society – because those associations provide social capital, information, trust and self-esteem that are needed to integrate. As to the last question, in order to have contacts with German/Austrian neighbours, first you need to have German/Austrian neighbours, and second you need them not to refuse you. Ambassador Tezcan, in his first year in Austria, has only been invited once into an Austrian home, out of Vienna. Similarly, the most frequently repeated example of integration refusal in Germany is not attendance of the "integration courses", compulsory for non-working immigrants. But actually, there is a long waiting list for these course as it is the supply, not the demand, to be insufficient: who is denying the integration whom, then?
Of course, integration refusal is a serious problem. But not with regard to Muslim minorities. Even if that 10-15% were a serious number, 10-15% of 5% of the population makes some 0.5-0.7%: is this the invading army, the submerging flood we should be panicking about? A little de-segregating housing and education policies would be enough to dissolve it. The real, dangerous integration deniers are the native upper classes: who lock themselves in gated communities, socialise in their own clubs, send their children to private schools (or elite state schools), threaten to leave the country if taxes are raised, and undermine the democratic texture of society. That's a parallel society. I am all in favour of ‘forced integration’ policies, as long as we start from them.
The only Austrian party to express appreciation of Tezcan’s words are the Greens. They got 13% in last month’s Viennese elections and they now joined the city government in coalition with the socialdemocrats (the Green deputy mayor Maria Vassilakou is of Greek descent). In Berlin, the Greens are leading in the opinion polls and their leader Renate Künast may become mayor in 2011. Some fresh air?
October 25, 2010
Berlin , an ever-evolving history exhibition in itself, is hosting two historically significant history exhibitions: “Zwangsarbeit” (Forced labour) in the Jewish Musuem, and “Hitler und die Deutschen – Volksgemeinschaft und Verbrechen” (vaguely translatable as Hitler & the Germans – national community and crime – but the English never had a Volksgemeinschaft, thanksfully) in the German Historical Musuem. Significant, if not for other reasons, because they are the first exhibitions on forced labour and on Hitler in Germany ever – however strange this may sound at first.
The Jewish Musuem is a difficult place to host an exhibition in. Built in 1998 in Kreuzberg by Daniel Libeskind, it is such an astonishing building – with its broken geometry and its “voids” - that it attracted more visitors in the first three years, when it was empty, than since 2001, when the Museum was inaugurated – and still many say the museum was better when there was no museum. Temporary exhibitions, however, are in the old building so at least they don’t have the empty corridors as hard (impossible) act to follow. “Forced labour” in Nazi Germany has been, until now, overshadowed by the bigger and unique crime of the Shoah. In the after-war processes, it was not treated as a crime against humanity in itself – only individual (and hard to proof) cases of inhumane treatment were persecuted. It had, however, a huge importance: it involved millions of victims and was an inherent part of the Nazi economic and military machine. It is therefore significant that this exhibition comes from the Jewish Museum, certainly the last institution wanting to downplay the Shoah. Not only: this exhibition is not Jewish specific, and it pays equal space, from the beginning, to non-Jewish victims, from German opponents, to Gypsies, to Poles, and eventually the inhabitants of all occupied countries and 600,000 Italian soldiers after Italy's surrender (by the way, my grandfather escaped forced labour by pretending to be German – this family story explains why I started to learn languages very early).
The exhibition contains telling documents and images of conditions in labour camps. For instance, official inspection reports checking prisoners’ conditions and concluding “the food is insufficient to survive – no action required”. I found most telling the letters from forced labourers in agriculture, mostly Poles. Forced labourers constituted half the wartime agricultural workforce of the Third Reich (in other words, half of Germans’ food came from slaves' work), but within Germany they were mostly kept separated: one per farm. They therefore suffered from extreme isolation and although some were treated humanly, the letters show how inhumane the farmer could be. And if each German farmer had a forced labourer, how does the story that the German population didn’t know hold?
What however lacks in the exhibition – and again I speak from a professionally distorted point of view – is the context and nature of forced labour. Unpaid labour was essential for the German economy (already since 1933) – but how essential? Occasional employers are named or portrayed, but which large companies used forced labour most? And, crucially, how? Which forms of constraint could guarantee a decent productivity? What were the relations, if any, between forced and "normal" labourers? And which survival (literally) strategies could workers use? Sorry if these questions sound cynical, but I don’t think we can grasp the phenomenon without answering them. In the exhibition there is a striking lack of data, figures, company names, and work schedules. It is still worth seeing, but is not enough. All the more that – something which is never mentioned – slavery has not disappeared and there are millions of forced labourers around the world.
The German History Museum is in amazing building too. The Zeughaus is the best baroque building in Berlin, on Unter den Linden, besides the Dom. And it has not been elegantly enlarged by I. M. Pei, in Louvre’s style (Kohl ‘s timid answer to Mitterrand). But in this case, the crowd comes for the exhibition: for Hitler? No Nazi in the long, at least half-foreign queue, of course, but it is still quite shocking. In post-war Germany – where a Nazi salute still lands you in jail, unlike in Italy – nobody had dared devoting an exhibition to Hitler before. This first attempt has very clearly avoided any celebratory style. There are no “relics” (which are anyway kept safe in Moscow) apart from a couple of autographic sketches and notes, and no monumental portrayal. Moreover, all propaganda material is directly counterbalanced by critical comment and images on the criminal dimension behind it – footage from the 1937 Hitler–Mussolini summit being followed by Chaplin's caricature of the same meeting, for instance). And the exhibition is not on Hitler. It is on Hitler and the Germans. Germans, the curators say, have tended in both East and West to unload all guilt on Hitler and not thought enough about what relations they had had with him. Movies such as "The Downfall" have gone in the same direction of isolating the individual from the context.
This is the proclaimed reason for this exhibition: Hitler’s problem is still open, and each generation has to find its own answers. This is an understatement: of course the Hitler problem is not closed. A book is coming out ("Das Amt und die Vergangenheit”, by E. Conze, N. Frei, P. Hayes, M. Zimmermann), as a result of a historians’ commission called by then Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer, on the role of the German Foreign Office in the Thirld Reich. And it found that, against the received myth of their non-co-operation and even conspiracy, German diplomats actively participated in Nazi crimes. Believed innocent, they mostly remained in their posts after the war, but it now emerges that, when in the Fifties they all looked good Europeans, they were also secretly assisting Nazi criminals in foreign hiding. So sure, the story is not over and there are new questions to be asked all the time.
But does this exhibition ask the questions? The understandable concern with “the context” made the curators fall into the opposite mistake than those of the one on forced labour. The context is overwhelming, and the visit turns into an intensive crush course on the history of the Third Reich. Some details do indeed shed some light on the relation between Hitler and its Volk. Some Nazi posters and the huge variety of little souvenirs are impressive (and one poster was a reminder that the issue is not closed: a racist graph showing what will happen to Germany if “low-quality” people make have more children than “high-quality” people; it looks, apart from the racist pictures, as taken directly from the bestselling book by Sarrazin that is dividing Germany right now, and on which I will comment in another blog). Some information is interesting, for instance employers’ reports, on one side grateful to the regime for keeping wages so low, but on the other side moaning about all symbolic practices they had to introduce to pretend they were comrades with the workers. I found most interesting the number of letters and cards sent to Hitler on his 43rd birthday, by adoring men, women and children, with poems, prayers and drawings. I would have made an exhibition just out of that material – although obviously counterbalanced by epistolary materials from Hitler’s victims. Instead, the curators overburdened the ten rooms with all sort of historical material about all that happened in Hitler’s political life. People’s perception of Hitler, and Hitler’s manipulation of it, which should have been the focus, is therefore lost under a mountain of contextual and unoriginal information, which might have been better visually separated. If you want to know about resistance, for instance, you need to wait for a multimedia computer at the end. Tourists seemed to enjoy the exhibit, but I doubt the new German generations will find their answers, or even their questions, in it.
More answers are provided by the film retrospective associated to the exhibition. Besides a few fiction movies, the highlights were Leni Riesenthal’s films (Der Sieg des Glaubens; Tag der Freiheit: Unsere Wehrmacht; Triumph des Willens). This again is significant because these films, which were seen (willingly or not) by one third of the Reich's population, can only be shown in today’s Germany within a cultural event and with an expert’s introduction and guidance, so they are hardly known directly, a strange fate for what are considered by some as the most important works in cinema’s history. When queuing with H for the screening of Der Sieg des Glaubens we even felt a moment of uneasiness, as if doing something not so licit. The historian Jeanpaul Goergen did his best to make sure the spirit of the German constitution was respected with his very erudite but also quite boring 45min introduction, that would have screened away any non culturally-motivated spectator – but there was no need for it (an interesting bit of information, though, was that it is the Riesenthal’s fake re-enactment propaganda images, not the historic ones, which are still unawarily used in history books, and even on the website of the German parliament, to illustrate the 30th of January 1933). It’s especially the second of the Nüremberg movies that portrays a symbolic “marriage” between a marching Volk and a Führer arriving from the sky, who find each other in a symphony of images and unite at night. The effect of such images in the 1930s is hard to underestimate, although it can't have been the only factor.
The significance of these two controversial exhibition is apparent in the contrast with a third, uncontroversial one. One floor above the crowded Hitler’s exhibition there is another one, included in the same ticket. It is devoted to Reunification. It was near-empty, and so was the cinema during its own film retrospective (at one screening we were three in total: they kept the museum open for us). As I had written in my previous blog, that topic has become so boring in just 20 years. Other topics have not, after 70 years.
October 05, 2010
Anybody I have asked in Berlin with regard to last Sunday’s celebration of 20 years since reunification, which is also the National Day, has given me a bored look. This is not a particularly felt day: after all, reunification was the last, and mere due completion, of a series of more memorable dates, of which the Germany has just commemorated the 20 years: more significant were the fall of the Berlin Wall (9 November) and the currency reunification (the Deutsche Mark at 1-1, 1st July). So there’s fatigue, and a justified feeling that on reunification ‘everything has been said, although maybe not yet by everybody’. At the Coca-Cola sponsored Bürgerfest at Branderburger Tor, on Saturday night, there was a large crowd (but then again, with cheap beer and sausages and free music also the DDR could gather large crowds), but the mood was as relaxed as it could be.
So if there’s nothing left to say on reunification, let’s say something on the state of Germany right now. If on one side unemployment is still twice as high in the East than in the West, including within Berlin (where precise statistics are unavailable, because two of the 12 districts, Mitte and Kreuzberg-Friedrichshein, combine ex-East with ex-West areas), social problems are now very rarely presented as an East-West issue – no more, say, than they are as a North-South one in Italy, or even in the UK or Spain. For a number of reasons. First and most importantly, social inequality is deepening within the East and within the West, between new rich and new poor. Second, the token Angela Merkel successfully hides the fact that the political and economic elites are still very predominantly western. Third, the East has lost its own political voice, the PDS – its successor die Linke has quite successfully become an all-Germany party. Fourth, the large investment in reconstruction means that, on the surface, the East now looks overall much neater and freshly painted than much of the West. Finally, the current crisis has hit the West more than the East (even if overall it hasn’t hit Germany much: I often hear questions “is the crisis true or just a story?”). And then there’s obviously generational change. The old generation starts leaving the scene and East Berlin has just celebrated the funeral of one of its few democratic heroes, the artist Bärbel Bohley, while the new generation of course has other things on their minds.
So, Ostalgie is now largely left to tourist shops, and if anything, I can hear of Westalgie, especially from the West Berliners missing the alternative, and slightly unreal pre-89 status. Eastern Germans have less and less in common with each other. Karl Ulrich Meyer and Heike Solga have completed a large life course studies on them, and concluded that those more likely to have the voice to protest (people over 50 in 1989; former SED members; the young) are those who actually lost out the least from reunification, thanks to generous early retirement, cultural/social capital, or mobility. The losers were mostly women – but the assertive ones, able to protest, largely voted with their feet and went West. Thereby, they too are burying the East-West divide.
July 05, 2010
I am still in Coventry but livestreaming and mediatisation mean I have followed the Polish presidential elections - and the German ones - more or less as if I had been there. I had followed some past Polish elections much more closely, and indeed I had reported the last presidential ones (in 2005) for il Manifesto (this was for instance my article on Lech Kaczynski's victory: kaczor.pdf).
The Polish election night started with the exit polls and if one had looked at the images without sound, would have came to the wrong conclusions. On one side, the liberal Bronislaw Komorowski looked as colourless as ever, the little crowds looked bitter, and when two heroes of the Polish transformation joined on stage (Tadeusz Mazowiecki, first democratic prime minister in eastern europe, who by the way I have the honour to have taught how to eat langoustines in a restaurant of Transtevere in 2003, and Wladislaw Bartoszewski, first non-communist foreign affair minister), they all looked tearful. On the other side, Jaroslaw Kaczynski looked bright and determined, surrounded by an enthusiastic crowd making victory signs. But the winner was the former. Why such inverted emotions? Because Kaczynski, even losing, had received twice as many votes as the opinion polls had predicted a few weeks ago, or had predicted for his twin brother when he was the candidate. Komorowski, by contrast, had hoped to obtain a landslide in the first round two weeks ago, but eventually needed a second round and prevailed by just 6 percentage point. At midnight, just for the sake of adding some artificial drama, the official results from half of the polling stations even put Kaczynski ahead, but only because the first stations to declare are the small ones from the countryside, where Kaczynski is much more popular than in the cities.
The Polish campaign was quite surreal as it was a snap election following the Smolensk catastrophe in April, when Lech Kaczynski, his wife, the President of the Central Bank, the highest military chiefs and a dozen prominent politicians of all political parties (including the Left's presidential candidate) died in the same place where 20,000 Polish officers were murdered by Stalin in 1940. Nobody loves martirology as much as the Poles, and all sides were therefore extremely careful to show dignified behaviour - which was a decent thing, but came at the cost of frank debates. In line with global trends, the main events were the two TV debates: in my livestreaming-informed opinion, the first was a narrow Kaczynski's victory and the second a clear Kaczynski's victory: Komorowski was just too technical. A curious paradox: in the April prime ministerial debates in the UK, Clegg and Brown had attacked Cameron for being allied, in the European Parliament, with the homophobic party of Jaroslaw Kaczynski. In the Polish debate, guess what Komorowski attacked Kaczynski for? Yes, for being allied with David Cameron, the nasty selfish Englishman who wants to cut European subsidies for the poor Polish peasants and for building Polish roads. Given how they mutually damage each other, the European Conservative and Reformists group of MEP should be renamed Embarrassing Company of Rejects (it also includes Czech climate-change deniers and some Latvians who can't help celebrating their SS division). This also demonstrates that national politics continue to idealise and demonise politcs from other countries, better if from far away (e.g. a mythical Obama and a horror Italy), in a game of distorting mirrors that says a lot about today's democracy - I will get back to this point often as my transnational travel makes me spot more of such mutual distortions.
Although I had written extensively about Kaczynskis' faults, I must say that even before the Smolensk catastrophe I had an instinctive stronger sympathy for them (for Lech rather than Jaroslaw though) than for the annoyingly arrogant and aristocratic Komorowski. This is also because in my field - labour -, the Kaczynskis are more leftwing than the liberals, and not suprisingly were supported by the union Solidarity, while the liberals are proposing a drastic attack on union rights (and Polish unions are already so weak that none can blame them for damaging the employers). This time, Kaczynski went as far as to try to attract leftwing votes, stressing his social side and even expressing appreciation for the former communist leader Gierek (who is still remember positively by many in his home region Silesia). So on election night I had the best impression from two uncommon women. First, Kinga Dunin, feminist writer, who cleverly said that a Kaczynski's victory would have been the best thing to get Poland rid of both the conservative liberals, and Kaczynski himself (given his incapacity to rule, once president he would become as unpopular as he was when shortly prime minister in 2006-07). Second, Joanna Kuzik-Rostkowska, journalist and former Labour and Social Affairs minister, chief of Kaczynski's electoral committee. A really brilliant woman, with independent ideas (for instance, she supports the right to IVF, which Kaczynski wants to ban), she is one big reason of the surprisingly good result of Kaczynski among the youngest voters (although his main electorate remains the grey one).
One footnote: the candidate of the Left obtained 13% in the first round, well above expectations. He is even very happy about it, which says it all. In a few months, the Left has been beaten in Hungary, Czech Republic, Slovakia and Poland (+UK). In the EU, it remains in power only in Greece, Portugal and Spain (+ the odd Slovenia), probably just because the Right prefers not to have to rule those countries. Yet they are still happy....
If Komorowski is colourless and boring, the Germans have done even better in their own snap election (but an indirect one) last wednesday, electing the stiffy christian democrat Christian Wulff, whose only merit is being disliked by Angela Merkel, who thus found the way to remove him from party diatribes (imagine if Blair had been allowed to make Brown king). But like in Poland, it was the process, not the winner, to be interesting. Wednesday was a long day that needed three votes, while Wulff should in theory have won easily in the first round. When finally elected, Wulff (and Merkel) looked funereal. Much speculation went on during the day about the behaviour of die Linke: if in the first round it had voted for the candidate of the socialdemocrats/greens (the popular former eastern dissident Gauck), this would have won, and bye bye Wulff and Merkel. This is absurd speculation, because had die Linke voted for Gauck, surely fewer conservative delegates would have voted for him. But there was a better reason for die Linke to vote Gauck: removing the image that they are still tied to their communist past and therefore cannot forgive dissidents such as Gauck. Constrained by internal divisions as their are, they missed this opportunity. Paradoxically, when post-communism seems to have become quite irrelevant in Poland, it is still a huge burden for German politics.
[PS: I already hate the fact that Warwick's blog facility does not include Polish fonts - or at least I can't find them]