Goethe and Schiller in San Francisco

German culture at the “Goldenen Thor”

NOTE: This updated version posted on 28 August 2017 (the day when Goethe was born in 1749) was first published on 20 January 2010.

During a recent visit to San Francisco I got a surprising reminder of how truly widespread and important German culture once was in the United States – before two world wars drastically changed the role it played in America.

My wife and I were standing in a very long line of people, slowly making our way towards the entrance to the California Academy of Sciences building in Golden Gate Park. (And we all already had tickets!) As the line flowed at its glacial pace, I noticed a statue of two figures standing on a stone pedestal. I remarked to my wife that it looked like a German or European statue. As we got closer, the bronze figures seemed even more familiar.

Once we were standing right in front of the statue, I was amazed to read the inscription on the reddish stone base: “Goethe. Schiller.” As I gazed up at the large bronze figures of Germany’s two greatest poets and philosophers, I realized why they looked so familiar. This statue seemed to be the same one my wife and I had seen a few years earlier in Weimar, Germany. How the heck did it get here? What was the story behind this larger-than-life symbol of German culture standing in Golden Gate Park in San Francisco? Did any of these people in line, besides my wife and me, even know who Johann Wolfgang Goethe and Friedrich Schiller were?

I took out my iPhone and snapped a picture of the statue (see photo below), thinking I would try to solve this mystery later.

Goethe Schiller statue

The Goethe-Schiller memorial statue in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park (Dec. 2009). PHOTO: Hyde Flippo

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Austria and Germany: Worlds Apart

Billy Wilder (1906-2002), the noted Austrian-American film director (Double Indemnity, Stalag 17, Some Like It Hot), as famous as he was, used to complain about how he was frequently misidentified as German. Americans often get Austria and Germany mixed up. Sometimes they even confuse Austria with Australia! Thus the joke T-shirts and signs found in Austria with a “no kangaroos” logo. Silly Americans!


The Hohensalzburg castle seen from the padlock bridge in Salzburg, Austria.
PHOTO: Hyde Flippo

Never really that good at geography, Americans, even if they can find Austria on a map, also tend to be ignorant of the many great and subtle differences between the small Alpine republic (population 8.4 million), known as Österreich, and its much larger neighboring republic to the north, known as Deutschland (population 80 million). Austria is only about the size of the US state of South Carolina. Germany is slightly smaller than Montana. In some ways, the two countries can be compared to the United States and Canada, or the US and Great Britain (with the sizes reversed): They both speak the same language, but with significant differences, and they share a common history that has made them friends, yet has also left them worlds apart.

More at The German Way
Austria (culture/history)
Austria for Tourists (travel info/sights)

Even English-speakers with a modicum of German can hear the difference between the lilting, almost musical tones of Austrian German versus the less lilting, more crisp sound of standard German (Hochdeutsch). Bavarian, on the other hand, is very similar to Austrian. (Bavaria being a state in Germany, yet not quite part of Germany. Rather like Texas in a way.) The difference between Austrian German and standard German is similar to the difference between the drawling language heard in the US South versus the more standard English of the US Midwest or West. Continue reading

A Prussian in Hawaii: Heinrich Berger and the Royal Hawaiian Band

The story of Heinrich (later Henry or Henri) Berger has fascinated me ever since I first learned about the Prussian military musician. Berger traveled all the way from Berlin to Honolulu in 1872 – no simple journey in that day and age. Prussian Emperor (Kaiser) Wilhelm I had sent Berger to Hawaii at the request of King Kamehameha V on what was originally supposed to be a four-year assignment to lead and improve King Kamehameha’s Royal Hawaiian Band. Except for two visits to his homeland and several band tours on the mainland, Berger would remain in Hawaii until he died in 1929. He would head the king’s brass band from 1872 until 1915.

I first wrote about Berger here in our blog in 2010, following a visit to Honolulu that year. During a return trip in June 2012, I learned more about Berger and his band. He arrived in Honolulu Harbor on June 2, 1872, following an arduous journey involving ships and trains. And it is his journey – and his life – that I want to discuss here. Continue reading

Leipzig for Beginners

The St. Thomas Boys Choir of Leipzig is celebrating its 800th anniversary this year. It made me realize that I know little to nothing about Leipzig itself. And with a newly elected German President also from the former East, it seemed like an appropriate time to look eastward and learn more about the eastern German city of Leipzig. Continue reading

German Authors in English

The Hangman's DaughterI’m normally not an avid reader of fiction. I generally prefer biographies and history, but every now and then I enjoy a good novel, especially mysteries and crime thrillers. Currently I’m part way through a novel that has been dubbed a “historical thriller.” The Hangman’s Daughter is a translation of Die Henkerstochter, a German novel written by Munich-born author Oliver Pötzsch. Three books in the Henkerstochter series are now available in German, but only the first one has been published in English, translated by Lee Chadeayne. It is a story of murder and witchcraft hysteria set in 17th century Bavaria.

Life in the small town of Schongau, even in the best of times, is rather unpleasant in 1659, about a decade after the Thirty Years’ War. But a series of murders of local orphans sets off a chain of events that makes life even grimmer for the townspeople of Schongau. People begin jumping to conclusions about a local midwife, and the town fathers’ sense of justice leaves a lot to be desired. Ironically, it is the town’s executioner (Henker), Jakob Kuisl, who leads the effort to actually solve the crimes and discover the truth. But the local leaders want him to use the usual method of torture to force a confession from the midwife, whom they now believe to be a witch. Continue reading

Max Raabe in Reno

Max Raabe in Reno

An illuminated sign inside the Grand Sierra Resort and Casino in Reno announces coming attractions, including Max Raabe.

Although his first big hit song in Germany, “Kein Schwein ruft mich an,” was in 1992, I didn’t become fully aware of Max Raabe and his Palast Orchester until I was living in Berlin in 2007-2008. After hearing him on the radio, I bought one of his CDs and enjoyed listening to tunes from the 1920s and ’30s – and Raabe’s wry, light-hearted approach to a repertoire of songs rarely heard over the last 80 years or so. He regularly performs live in Berlin and other German cities, although I missed his June 2008 open-air Waldbühne concert in Berlin.

I knew that Raabe and his orchestra had also performed outside of Germany in places like New York and Tokyo, but the last thing I ever expected was to see him on stage in my hometown of Reno, Nevada. Las Vegas or San Francisco maybe, but Reno?

So a few weeks ago, while watching a PBS TV broadcast of a 2009 concert by Max Raabe and his Palast Orchester at Berlin’s Admiralspalast theater, I was a bit stunned to hear that Raabe was going to perform in Reno on April 10, 2011. I immediately went online to buy tickets for my wife and me. Continue reading

Information Pioneers: Hedy Lamarr and Konrad Zuse

You’ve probably heard of the 1930s and ’40s screen star Hedy Lamarr, but you may not know about her fascinating contribution to science. If you’ve never heard of Konrad Zuse, that’s understandable, but it’s way past time you learned about him!

Google paid tribute to Zuse with this odd logo on June 22, 2010, the 100th anniversary of the German inventors birthday.

Google paid tribute to Zuse with this odd logo on June 22, 2010, the 100th anniversary of the German inventor’s birth.

The German engineer Konrad Zuse was born in Germany in 1910. Hedy Lamarr was born Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler in Vienna, Austria in 1913. They were European contemporaries, but their lives took very different paths. Zuse lived all of his very productive life in Germany. Lamarr left Austria in 1937 to become a Hollywood movie star at MGM. Continue reading

Marlene Dietrich stars in Berlin

Walk of Fame

Hollywood’s Walk of Fame. PHOTO: Hyde Flippo

Things can move slowly in Germany and Berlin. Especially things having to do with “the war” and the Nazi past.

The German-born film actress Marlene Dietrich falls into this category. Some Germans (the dumb ones) still view Dietrich as a traitor to Germany. They fail to grasp the big difference between being anti-Hitler and being anti-German. Dietrich, working in Hollywood in the 1930s and ’40s, refused to support the Nazis. She became an American citizen and entertained US troops. Her return to West Germany in 1960 drew a mixed reception. She was cheered and jeered. Later she said famously: “The Germans and I no longer speak the same language.” But after she died in self-imposed exile in Paris in 1992, Dietrich was buried in Berlin, at her request. In 1993 Berlin purchased her vast memorabilia collection for the film museum there for $5 million. Continue reading