On the campaign trail

In case you missed it, there was a general election last week in Germany. Receiving most of the international media coverage was, understandably, the fact that the AfD (Alternativ für Deutschland) won just under 13% of the popular vote, making them the third strongest party in the Bundestag and the first far right party in the German parliament since 1945. That, and the global sigh of relief that Angela Merkel, the kind and sensible “Mutti” figure at the head of German politics, nevertheless has won a fourth term in office, remaining a bulwark against the impetuous world leaders who appear to surround her. This is not the forum to give you detailed political analysis of how any of this came to pass; plenty has been written elsewhere.

But what I can say superficially about the election, as an expat, is a word on election posters – by far the most visually striking element of these last few weeks. These posters, promoting both parties and individual candidates, are said to have more impact on popular political opinion than TV ads. When you walk around and see the energy invested in putting them up on literally every lamppost, in defacing them, and in taking them down at the end of the election (a work in slow progress), this seems plausible. There is a practical reason for this: in stark contrast to US elections, there is a strict limit on campaign airtime and campaign spending for all politicians and political parties, which restricts their options. Despite online methods of mobilising voters, the political poster remains a strong and much-used tool. Continue reading

Schäl Sick: Life on the Wrong Side of the Rhine

kalk postHere in Cologne, people tend to scrunch up their faces a bit when I tell them I live on the “other” side of the Rhine. And not in Deutz, close to the river and the city, but Kalk, deep into the hinterlands of the Falsche Seite. Kalk is a neighborhood with a reputation for criminality and limited opportunities, some of which is deserved. But when you look deeper, it’s not hard to see why more and more people are abandoning the Old City, Belgian Quarter, and Ehrenfeld for the bright shores of the right bank.

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No time for nostalgia: The Berlin Wall’s 50th birthday

Fifty years ago today (August 13) the Berlin Wall rose its ugly head (in 1961). While the collapse of the Wall may be fresher in our minds, the construction of the Berlin Wall was one of the world’s most glaring crimes against humanity – even though many people still fail to realize that.

Berlin’s mayor, Klaus Wowereit, had to remind people of that today. He chastised those Germans and others who somehow have some nostalgic view of the Wall (Berlin mayor criticizes nostalgia for Berlin Wall). There is nothing nostalgic about a concrete barrier set up to divide families and imprison a country’s entire population – and that led to many deaths. Continue reading

The Wall turns 48 – What was the Berlin Wall really like?

Yesterday marked the 48th anniversary of the construction of the Berlin Wall. (I actually wanted to post this on the 13th, but…) During the night of 12-13 August 1961, East German soldiers and other workers began stringing a barbed wire barrier along the intra-German border (innerdeutsche Grenze) in Berlin. As time went by, the barbed wire fences were replaced by concrete: the Berlin Wall (die Berliner Mauer). It was East Germany’s desperate attempt to stop a serious brain drain and what was known as “voting with your feet” (i.e., escaping to the West). Berlin was the most serious “leak” — one that had to be plugged if the East German dictatorship was to survive.

Berlin Checkpoint Charlie 1969

The Berlin Wall: Checkpoint Charlie in 1969. PHOTO © Hyde Flippo

I first experienced die Mauer personally in 1969, when it was still a crude, slapped-together, eight-year-old youngster, not the smoother, slicker version after 1975. By chance, I also experienced the last days of the notorious barrier in the summer of 1989, only a few months before the Berlin Wall fell. Both times I was traveling with American high school students, so I was also seeing the Wall through their eyes. Continue reading

Germany and Hollywood

Valkyrie movie posterBesides the glaringly obvious World War II thriller Valkyrie, opening Christmas Day in the United States, there are several other current or upcoming German-Hollywood connections. The more dazzling Tom Cruise blockbuster about the attempted assassination of Hitler by German Colonel Claus Schenk Graf von Stauffenberg was directed by Bryan Singer (Apt Pupil, X-Men) and filmed largely in Germany for an estimated $80 million. But the much quieter film, The Reader, which opened recently in US movie theaters, was not only filmed in Germany, it is based on a German novel, Der Vorleser (The Reader), by Bernhard Schlink — a book made famous in the US by Oprah Winfrey. Directed by Stephan Daldry (The Hours), the film features Kate Winslet and Ralph Fiennes, and a German actor by the name of David Kross, who plays the young character of Michael involved with Hanna (Winslet). It’s a Holocaust film with an interesting twist, looking at morality and guilt in a very personal way.

When I was living in Berlin last year, I kept reading and hearing about Cruise’s problems with German authorities about filming locations (and a film lab disaster in Germany that led to the re-shooting of some key scenes). Later Continue reading

Save our Deutsch! Can the German language be saved by a sentence in the Grundgesetz?

If you’re an American expat living in Germany, you’ve heard this debate before — in the U.S.

It’s such a simple little sentence that some people want to insert into the German constitution: “Die Sprache der Bundesrepublik ist Deutsch.” (“The language of the Federal Republic [of Germany] is German.”) Who would have thought that five German words could provoke such a debate? This quote from Berlin’s Tagesspiegel sums it up pretty well: “Die Idee der CDU, die deutsche Sprache im Grundgesetz zu verankern, hat eine heftige Diskussion ausgelöst: Läutet der Beschluss einen ‘Anti-Einwanderer-Wahlkampf’ ein oder die Rettung der deutschen Leitkultur?” (“The CDU’s idea to anchor the German language in the German constitution has set off a vigorous discussion: Does the resolution herald an ‘anti-immigrant campaign’ or the rescue of the German core culture?”)

When the German language gets mixed into German politics, the results are rarely good. Continue reading