German and Austrian Pioneers in LGBT Rights


Although we tend to think of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) rights movement as a modern, fairly recent phenomenon, the advocacy of homosexual rights goes back to the nineteenth century in Austria and Germany. Two pioneers in the field were the Austro-Hungarian Karl-Maria Kertbeny (who coined the word “homosexual”) and the German Magnus Hirschfeld (who invented the term “transvestite”). We’ll learn more about them and others below, but first let’s compare several European countries in the area of LGBT rights.

Hirschfeld

Pioneering German sexologist Magnus Hirschfeld (1868–1935) in 1929. PHOTO: Wikimedia Commons

The treatment of homosexuals in Europe, socially and legally, varies greatly by country. Only nine of Europe’s nations have legalized same-sex marriage. The Netherlands was the first European country to do so (in 2001). Northern European nations tend to be more progressive in LGBT rights than southern and eastern European lands. Here are some examples:

Germany
Being gay or lesbian is largely accepted in Germany, with most of the population feeling that sexual orientation is a non-issue. Berlin had an openly gay mayor (Klaus Wowereit) for many years. Legally, however, Germany has not been a leader in gay rights. But on June 30, 2017 that changed when the German Bundestag (parliament) voted in favor of same-sex marriage (“Ehe für alle”). Ironically, the CDU/CSU party of Angela Merkel, which had long blocked a vote on the issue, was encouraged by the chancellor to proceed with a vote. Although Merkel herself voted no, the marriage-equality law passed with 393 yes votes versus 226 no votes, meaning that 75 CDU/CSU members voted in favor of the new law.

Klaus Wowereit

Klaus Wowereit served as Berlin’s mayor (SPD) from 2001 until 2014. He “came out” prior to the 2001 mayoral elections. He is known for his now famous phrase: “Ich bin schwul, und das ist auch gut so.” (“I’m gay, and that’s a good thing.”)
PHOTO: Wikimedia Commons

A special type of civil union existed for gay and lesbian couples for many years, but it was not really equal to marriage in several respects, including taxes. In May 2013 a high court decision on so-called “tax-splitting” (Steuersplitting) required the German government to allow homosexual couples to combine their incomes for tax purposes, just as heterosexual couples could do. This reduced the difference between a gay civil union (eine eingetragene Lebenspartnerschaften, “a registered life partnership”) and a “normal” heterosexual marriage, but it was still a “separate but equal” status. (Tax-splitting was already legal in 13 of Germany’s 16 states before the court’s ruling.) Many Germans had already called for doing away with this legal distinction before the recent marriage-equality vote. Continue reading

Red Bull and the Richest Man in Austria


According to the Forbes annual tally, there were seven billionaires in Austria in 2016. (Only one of them female.) Dietrich “Didi” Mateschitz (b. 1944) is at the top of that list – the wealthiest person in Austria.

So how did Herr Mateschitz amass his estimated $15.4 billion fortune (as of April 2017)? Perhaps you’ve heard of the energy drink known as Red Bull? Red Bull’s world headquarters are located in the tiny town of Fuschl am See (population 1,500) near Salzburg, Austria. All those drink cans are filled at plants in Austria and Switzerland. Mr. Mateschitz is the co-founder of Red Bull, which sold its first drink can in Austria in 1987. Today Red Bull sells its drinks in about 165 countries, pretty much all over the world.

If you don’t happen to live in Austria, you have probably never heard of the Austrian billionaire Dietrich Mateschitz. Continue reading

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!

Salzburg

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

Celebrities Who’ve Called Berlin Home

David Bowie

David Bowie – Chicago. Photographer: Adam Bielawski

For the past few days the world has been in mourning. David Bowie has died. And like the rest of the world, Berlin is laying claim to its adopted son.

Bowie lived in Berlin in the 1970s, departing LA and Switzerland for something altogether more hedonistic. He was flatmates with Iggy Pop (oh, to be a fly on that WG wall) in swinging Schöneberg at Hauptstraße 155. There are stories of the two of them shutting down this club, throwing down beers at that Kneipe (bar) and recording at a legendary studio. But in ever-changing Berlin most of these locations have been transformed into hotels, sex clubs and – perhaps most bizarrely – a dentist office.

Bowie is not the first eccentric rock star to feel a sense a heimat with Berlin. The city has long emitted a pull for creative types, both home-grown and foreign. Here is a non-exhaustive list of foreign celebrities who’ve called Berlin home.

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12 Cities, 12 Fates: Germany Looks Back on the Eve of the 70th Anniversary of World War Two

Cologne WWII

Source: Cologne Museum

Horror on an unprecedented scale engulfed Europe in the 1940s, but it was only after the smoke had cleared that the true scope of the brutality came into focus. Millions across the continent were dead, tens of millions displaced, and whole nations found themselves on the brink of annihilation. In the decades since the end of the war, much attention has been justifiably been paid to the victims of the Nazi ambitions that ravaged Europe, but oftentimes the German civilian suffering has been ignored or forgotten.

A new documentary from Vox seeks to address this oversight on the eve of the 70 anniversary of V-E Day. 1945 – 12 Städte, 12 Schicksale features the experiences of 12 different cities in the immediate aftermath of the war through the lens of archival footage and interviews with survivors and historians. In order to learn more the experiences of the German civilians featured in the series, I sat down with Sabine Wilmes, an editor at Vox, who was in charge of the development of the documentary.

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Expat book review: Hausfrau, by Jill Alexander Essbaum

Let me start by saying that Hausfrau was not a light, happy read. It is also not an easy one to review. I heard about it this week when I was perusing Facebook (I think it was mentioned in the New York Times feed) and I immediately went out and bought it. It isn’t often that you hear about a book that seems to so parallel your life and those of your friends. The first line, however, didn’t especially draw me in,”Anna was a good wife, mostly.” Since I hadn’t read any reviews thoroughly before I started the book, I had no real expectations. Even though it didn’t hook me in immediately, I did end up reading the whole  book in one day. One way or another, this book stays with you.

Set in Zürich, the novel follows the perilous, destructive path of an American woman named Anna, who is married to a Swiss banker. The couple has three children and seem to be living the idyllic life in a small village outside of the city. She doesn’t speak Schweizerdeutsch and barely speaks German as the novel opens. Her husband seems to ignore her almost entirely, and she also really doesn’t have a huge attachment to her children either. She often leaves them with her mother-in-law, Ursula, who lives in the same village and regards Anna with not a lot of affection. I must say, I can understand Ursula’s position, although she did seem the typical German (Swiss) mother in law that we all know and love. She loved her grandkids and helped as much as she could, but she often got annoyed with Anna’s lack of interest and surely felt used (and lied to) as Anna throws herself down the path of self-destruction. Continue reading

For All Expat Job Seekers: an Interview with Chris Pyak of Immigrant Spirit

Have you newly arrived in Germany with years of substantial professional experience hoping to continue doing what you are good at to find that it’s not so easy to do? Do you feel like there is more than one Mount Everest standing in your way to convert your professional training to a recognized credential here? Perhaps right after learning the German language, finding a job in Germany is one of the top challenges of expat life here.

I took a moment to interview Chris Pyak, Managing Director of Immigrant Spirit, a recruitment firm based in Düsseldorf which specializes in placing job candidates with an international background with employers in Germany. Chris offers his tips on what every job candidate, especially those with a non-German background can do to get hired.

Chris Pyak, MD of Immigrant Spirit  Photo credit:

Chris Pyak, MD of Immigrant Spirit
Photo credit: Moritz Trebien/Copyright: Immigrant Spirit GmbH

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