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Do We Still Need Arte? Or License Fees?

Holger Kreitling in Die Welt has an amusing article (g) on Arte, the joint French-German public television channel. Arte is conceived as highbrow television, broadcasting classical concerts, operas, political debates, and documentaries on everything from Claude Sautet to Heidegger to the Thirty Years' war to Bolivian street artists to (as Kreitling puts it) obscure Slovenian bread-making techniques. It is financed by compulsory TV fees (administered by a company called the GEZ in German), yet never attracts more than a tiny fraction of highbrow viewers. As Kreitling notes, a member of the German or French urban haute bourgeoisie is required to announce his social position by declaring either that he has no television, or if he does, that all he watches is Arte. But even for all its failings and occasional pretentiousness, Kreitling still likes it.

And so do I. The only problem is the political programming, which is tiresomely left-wing. There's nothing more superfluous than holding a "theme evening" on Trump's first 100 days on Arte. Every person watching Arte already despises Trump, so all of the Trump-critical documentaries and interviews will have no effect. That's true of all the debate and political programming as well. I am not happy to pay mandatory licensing fees to sponsor the same old debates by the same aging hippies about "the future of ecological Europe" or what have you ("Red Danny" seems to be on every second time I switch to Arte), but I think there's a good case to be made for challenging music and arts programming. I don't have kids but I'm happy to pay taxes for schools because that's part of a healthy and thriving society. People who find classical music and museums boring should still pay taxes to keep them going for the same reason.

But the money should come from general taxes, not the outdated TV licensing fees that so many countries, including Germany, still use as a funding model. There is already a growing revolt against these fees (currently € 17.50 a month), which even includes prison martyrs (g) -- people who refuse to pay the fees on principle and who are eventually sent to jail to serve time as a result. Technically, you don't have to pay the fee if you don't own a TV or radio or any comparable device, but the regulations on this point are baffling to most mortals.

There is endless online debate (g) about how far the government can go to determine whether you are receiving any form of broadcast programming which would trigger the fees. If Agents of GEZ™ knock at your door, which they are wont to do, do you have to let them in? The GEZ itself is a massive and expensive government bureaucracy as are all the myriad public television stations which it finances. This is the point where GEZ-defenders will step in and say "but it's not technically a government agency!" They're right, the GEZ is more of a Quango, but nobody really cares about this distinction. The bottom line is if they determine you have to pay the fees, and they don't, they will sic a team of lawyers on you, and you might well end up in prison.

All this money and bureaucracy might be OK if you got a BBC from it, but Germans definitely don't. The quality of the public television programming in Germany is the target of near-universal scorn. Everyone hates something about public TV: The urban haute bourgeoisie hates the folk-music and Schlager festivals and the exploitative shows made to compete with private-TV soap operas and scandal-fests. Conservatives hate what they see as the stifling one-sided political correctness of news coverage and talk shows. Everyone (including me) considers the vast bulk of German TV drama or comedy shows unwatchable.

It should come as no surprise 70% of Germans oppose the TV license fees (g). Seventy percent. That's a pretty high number in a democracy. Granted, when entrenched bureaucratic and governmental interests favor a policy -- and they most certain favor a continuation of fee-based public TV -- that policy can go on forever in Germany. Just think of the Euro, which was introduced over the opposition of 3/4 of the German population. Currently only the right-wing AfD party has staked out a clear position (g) in favor of abolishing the TV fee. Once again, the German "opinion cartel" funnels voters to the right wing: If you are one of the 70 percent of Germans who opposes the TV fee, the AfD is the only party which openly shares your view.

Fee TV is a zombie policy. You can either wait until it falls apart, or you can drive a stake through it now. Knowing Germany, they'll probably opt for the former. It'll be a pretty ugly process.


In Which I Admire Millions of Tiny German Lawsuits And Annihilate Several Canards About the Law

The U.S. is famous in Germany for its 'runaway' juries which hand down zillion-dollar lawsuits against poor defenseless companies. Yet, as I told my dumbfounded students, Germany is a far more litigious society than the USA. In fact, according to a book-length 1998 study, Germany is the most lawsuit-happy country on earth:

Country Cases per 1,000 Population

• Germany 123.2
• Sweden 111.2
• Israel 96.8
• Austria 95.9
• U.S.A. 74.5
• UK/England & Wales 64.4
• Denmark 62.5
• Hungary 52.4
• Portugal 40.7
• France 40.3

My German students were dumbfounded by this fact. Most of them got their image of the world from the mainstream press. And, as usual, German journalists tended to obsess over the real or imagined failings of other countries, while remaining ignorant of what was going on in their backyard.

But aside from the good clean fun of this tu quoque response, it's interesting to think about why Germany is so litigious. I think there are 4 main reasons:

  • Legal insurance (Rechtschutzversicherung). Millions of Germans have legal insurance policies that pay for lawyers both to file claims and defend against them. This insurance is affordable because litigation costs in Germany are low. Legal insurance is actually an excellent idea, every country in the world could benefit from widespread legal insurance. What it means in Germany, though, is that if you have a policy, you don't have to think twice about filing a lawsuit. Granted, the lawyer is not supposed to file if you don't have a claim, but many do anyway. Legal insurance also provides a lifeline for many small-time lawyers -- they can patch together a decent livelihood by having a constant docket of 40-50 small time cases going on at any time. None of these cases will generate a huge verdict, but a steady stream of small payments is enough.
  • Lawsuits are a fact of life. Nobody really takes them seriously. If your landlord hikes your rent, you use your legal-insurance lawyer to fight it. The landlord uses their legal-insurance lawyer to defend. After all, if you don't sue, you'll certainly have to pay the extra 10% in rent. If you do sue, you might end up with a discount. The landlord would probably do the same thing in your position, and knows this.
  • Close neighbors make bad blood. Germany is a small country packed with people. Everything you do in public is going to have some effect on your neighbors. If a potted plant falls off your city balcony, it's going to hit someone or something below. If your cat likes to relieve themselves on your neighbor's lawn, they're going to notice. And might just take lethal action. Your barbecue smoke is going to trigger someone's asthma 5 houses down. The list goes on and on. Every German state has a long, complex "neighbor law" (here's the one (g) for my state), and many lawyers do nothing else. And once again, these petty squabbles are going to end up in court because it's so easy to go to court because of legal insurance. 

And finally, no lawsuit is too tiny. As Wagner once said, a German is someone who will always do something for its own sake. Which means Germans will file a suit over anything. Why, here's a story (g) from the excellent criminal-defense blog lawblog. Two retirees went fishing for deposit bottles in Munich, a favorite pastime of poor Germans, or just ones who need some way to fill their days in the fresh air.*

They approached a large man-sized glass-recycling container, whipped out their grabbers, and started fishing around inside the container. Recycling containers are supposed to be reserved for bottles which don't have a deposit on them, like wine bottles. But many people don't care or don't know how to tell a deposit from a non-deposit bottle, and just toss everything in.

Sure enough, our two hunters found 15 deposit bottles with a total value of € 1.44. Two other Germans, who were certainly feeling very German that day, called the police and reported the bottle-fishers for theft. Wait, what? Two people minding their own business, helping recycle glass, augmenting their puny incomes, harming nobody, and their fellow Germans report them to the cops? Welcome to Deutschland, my friends.

Now German prosecutors are obliged to investigate every credible accusation of crime that comes to their attention, the famous "Principle of Legality"**. This they did. The first thing they had to determine was what the value of the theft was. Technically, this was a theft -- once you throw a glass bottle into a recycling bin, it becomes the property of the recycling company. So you might think that the amount of the theft was the deposit value of the bottles. But no! It turns out that the recycling company does not separate out deposit bottles from other ones. Scandalous, I know. So all the bottles just get melted down. The prosecutor asked the recycling firm how much value the bottles would have as recycling material, and the firm said: basically, it's too small to even put a number on.

At this time, the prosecutor chose to halt the proceedings (einstellen) based on the idea that there was no public interest in prosecuting the offenders. The writer at lawblog thinks this was the wrong reason to stop the prosecution -- he thinks a better theory is to deny the people had any attempt to commit theft, because they had no intent to take possession of the bottles -- their ultimate goal was simply to transfer them to a different owner. 

Be that as it may, the main thing to notice here is that several different government employees spent hours of their time and used considerable resources to investigate an accusation of a crime which, at the very most, involved the lordly sum of € 1.44. It's probably only a slight exaggeration to say that the German state spent 1000 times more money investigating the theft than it was actually worth in the first place.

Now, am I going to snigger about this? Of course I am, and so are you. But at the same time, I'm not going to go too far. The most important thing to keep in mind about high numbers of lawsuits is that they are an important sign of social health. In the vast majority of societies, lawsuits are prohibitively expensive and courts are woefully underfunded and corrupt, so nobody trusts them. Germans and Americans trust courts to usually resolve legal disputes in a fair and equitable manner, otherwise they wouldn't seek them out so often. They're right to do so; both the USA and Germany have exceptionally fair and efficient legal systems, despite their imperfections. A fair, professional, and generally non-corrupt legal system is one of humanity's most important achievements, full stop. Most countries don't yet have one. If you happen to live in a country which does, take a moment and thank your lucky stars. 

Continue reading "In Which I Admire Millions of Tiny German Lawsuits And Annihilate Several Canards About the Law" »


Quote of the Day: Robert Walser on his "Docile Little Dog"

"At times, Walser's stylistic prowess tempts him to believe that style is all. But never for long, since, in spite of his precarious life on the margins, he was also a writer with strong convictions about how people should behave, what a civilized society would look like etc. Yet he never lapses into sentimentality. What saves him from that fate is the pervasive self-irony that kept following him, as he once put it, 'like a docile little dog.'"

Walser Translator Mark Harman


The Millionaire Migrants

The New York Times reports on an Afghan family of six which chartered a luxury yacht to illegally enter Europe:

It was a far cry from the rotting fishing boats and overstuffed dinghies that carry so many thousands of migrants precariously to Italian shores.

The family of six had paid about $96,000 to travel from Afghanistan to Turkey. The last leg of their journey, a cramped week’s sail through the Aegean and Mediterranean seas aboard a cerulean 15-meter yacht, the Polina, piloted by three Ukrainian skippers, cost $7,000 a head. It dropped them in Sicily in relative style.

The Afghan parents were both magistrates, and wore leather jackets. They and their four children — ages 8 through 15 — were among 60 migrants who made the crossing.

So, all told, this family of government officials paid $138,000 to get from Afghanistan to Europe. Afghanistan is a very poor country; being able to get your hands on $138,000 certainly makes you the European equivalent of a multi-millionaire (The U.S. government typically pays between $1000 and $10,000 in "condolence payments" when it kills a civilian).

I'm of two minds about this. One the one hand, these people are probably educated and worldly by Afghan standards. It doesn't appear you have to be a lawyer to be a magistrate in Afghanistan, but I'm sure you have to have educational credentials far in excess of what the vast majority of Afghans possess (Afghan has one of the lowest literacy rates in the world, 38.2%). So these folks are much more likely to integrate into German society than the hundreds of thousands of uneducated young male drifters who arrived in 2015-16.

However, they may have some problems adjusting to German official culture. I rather doubt that Afghan magistrates are able to put their hands on $138,000 without getting their beaks wet at least a couple times a day. In 2008 (pdf, p. 31), "the average salary of a judge, of whom 20% had at the most a secondary school education, was about €60 a month!" Afghan citizens recently "rated the judiciary as the most corrupt institution in the country." More cheery findings: "In 2012, half of Afghan citizens paid a bribe while requesting a public service. The total cost of bribes paid to public officials amounted to US$ 3.9 billion."

The other problem, of course, is that these folks almost certainly have no legal right to be in Europe. Even if they did face some sort of threat in Afghanistan, $138,000 would be enough to build a fortress and hire a team of bodyguards for the next 482 years, and to bribe your way out of any legal trouble. Assuming the legal trouble wasn't the result of you getting caught up in an anti-corruption crackdown, that is. Sadly, the UN Refugee Convention specifically denies refugee status to criminals (Article 1F(b)).

So when these folks arrive in Germany or Sweden -- you don't really think they're going to stay in Italy, do you? -- I would unceremoniously kick them out. Don't worry, though, with their level of corr, er, enterprise, I'm sure they'll be able to scrape together another $138,000 and try again within a few years.


Danish Social Democrats Abandon Mass Immigration as a Matter of Survival

Over at Social Europe, the Danish political scientist Peter Nedegard notes that the Danish Social Democratic Party finally admitted its core supporters (1) don't like liberal immigration policies; and (2) cannot be lectured, browbeaten, or bribed into liking them.

So the party did something shocking, irresponsible, and populist:

The Danish Social Democratic Party (SD) has recently changed course on immigration policy in a more restrictive direction. This change of policy is marked and should attract international interest. There are also certain indications that a similar change is in the pipeline in the other Nordic Social Democratic parties.

This policy change already seems to have borne fruit for the SD. While support for other European Social Democratic parties is generally in free fall, the Danish party is gaining in favour. The odds point to a Social Democratic take-over by the next general election (replacing the present center-right government) with the party chair, Mette Frederiksen, as prime minister.

Several factors lie behind the Social Democratic policy change on immigration.

First, welfare state ideology. SD believes itself to be the prime sponsor of the Danish welfare state. As various scholars have pointed out, there is a fundamental contradiction between a very liberal immigration policy and the survival of the welfare state. A welfare state simply cannot afford anything other than a restrictive immigration policy if welfare arrangements are to remain at a reasonable level. This has now been fully agreed upon by the Danish Social Democratic leadership.

The contradictions between a liberal immigration policy and the continued existence of the welfare state has most recently been emphasized in an analysis from the Danish Ministry of Finance, which shows that immigration from third world countries costs the Danish exchequer more than DKK 30 billion (€4bn) a year. This, of course, means a loss of public money which cannot at the same time be spent on the welfare state’s core activities....

Another factor behind the policy change is due to the party’s history. A leading SD member of the Danish Parliament, Mattias Tesfaye, (trained as a mason and with a Danish mother and an Ethiopian father) has recently published the book Welcome, Mustafa where he reconstructs the history of Social Democratic immigration policy. In this reconstruction, genuine Social Democrat grass-roots favor a tight and restrictive immigration policy, which, according to Tesfaye, regrettably was departed from in the period from the early 1980s until today. According to this reconstruction, a very liberal immigration policy and true social democracy relate to each other like fire and water.

Unfortunately, according to Tesfaye, the Social Democratic Party missed this fundamental truth for several decades when it was seduced by academic proselytes....

The third factor behind the policy change is due to the simple desire for survival. The Social Democratic leadership has observed how traditional working class voters have gradually left social democratic parties for more anti-immigration parties in Denmark as well as in other European countries. In Denmark, the Danish People’s Party (DF) has indeed taken a large part of the working-class vote, which would otherwise have been a safe bet for SD. At the same time, several Social Democratic leaders have mocked DF, which, among other things, has been called ‘not house-trained’. In many workers’ ears, however, it has been an insult directed against them.

Electoral research in Denmark has shown that many recent general elections have been decided on the basis of which parties voters expect to deliver the highest standards of non-liberal immigration policy.

European center-left parties have been massacred in election after election, and one of the reasons is that working-class and lower-middle-class voters don't trust them on immigration. Those voters are right.

In many of those parties, the idea (sometimes expressed openly, usually not) was to create a "new bloc" of social democratic voters by importing more immigrants, and publicly embracing immigrants and immigration.

It didn't work as well as they'd hoped, since it turns out that once they settle in, these immigrants: (1) have conservative social values; and (2) are no more eager than native Danes or Frenchmen to face fresh competition from new waves of unskilled immigrants willing to work for peanuts. Oddly enough, immigrants seem to have agency and a desire to protect their own bottom-line interests. Who could have known?

Meanwhile, the former social democratic base of low-skilled workers began to wonder whether the politicians who claimed to represent them cared any more about people actually living right now in France, England, or the Netherlands than they did about people who wanted to live there in the future. Not a good thing for voters to be wondering about.

Of course, a mere change in rhetoric won't be enough. Voters don't trust social democrats to do what they say, and that attitude is quite justified. It's probably too late.

We'll just have to see if this crazy experiment in giving your voters what they want, not what they hate succeeds.


The 'New Statesman' on the German Opinion Corridor

The Swedish term for the Overton Window is the "opinion corridor" (åsiktskorridor). Germany has one too, well-described by this piece in the New Statesman from a year ago:

What is interesting about the AfD is what it tells us about the changes afoot in Germany. Its rise is a product of the constrained and elitist nature of German politics, in which – after the experience of Nazism – many subjects are declared to be outside the realm of political competition. All the mainstream parties are in favour of EU membership, the euro and the Atlantic alliance, and against war, inflation and nationalism.

What this leaves is a restricted political sphere where politicians have often been able to act against public opinion without fear of challenge – as in the decision to replace the popular Deutschmark with the strikingly unpopular euro in 1999. But those who dare to cross the threshold of political correctness tap in to a vast reservoir of pent-up popular frustration. And because the establishment cartel turns them into outcasts rather than arguing with their views, this reservoir continues to grow. A CSU minister recently told me that the German debate on refugees reminded him of the old East Germany, where there was a fundamental disconnection between what people thought and what they thought was acceptable to say in public. According to a recent poll, nearly half of all Germans are afraid to voice their opinion about the refugee crisis.

Leonard is not a right-winger, and the New Statesman is not a right-wing publication. But even Leonard finds German taboos childish and counter-productive. For an informed German-language critique, see this fine piece by Heribert Seifert in the NZZ.

I am tempted to say Leonard's comments show the typical divide between German and Anglo-American ideas about speech, but that's not quite right. America and England also have their taboos, they're just difference from the ones in Germany, or for that matter France.

The main difference, I think, is the structure of the press landscape. The line between topics that are considered proper for "tabloids" and the "respectable" broadsheet newspapers is enforced much more firmly in Germany. The same goes for tone. Every self-respecting English Bobo (f) obediently professes to despise -- despise!! -- the Daily Mail, whose lively, detail-rich, copiously-illustrated reporting should be a model for journalists everywhere. Yet you will often see the same topics covered by both the Daily Mail and the Guardian -- often in the form of the Guardian noticing and attacking something the Daily Mail wrote.

German respectable broadsheets, by contrast, simply pretend that German tabloids (and their readers) don't exist. They never mention them except to use their names as an insult, and scrupulously avoid topics (such as celebrity gossip, onerous EU regulations, or crimes by foreigners) which are associated with the tabloids. When they do address "tabloidy" topics they consciously choose a vague, euphemism-clogged manner of reporting which seems intended to put the reader to sleep.

Then, often as not, they quote some professor, all of whom understand the Bobo party line, and many of whom helped create it. The professor will then duly recite more euphemisms about "context", a "nuanced perspective" and "not jumping to conclusions". Often, what the prof says contains minor or even major distortions and distractions, but the reporter (even assuming he knows) doesn't care, since the point of the interview is not to spark a debate but rather to instruct right-thinking people which opinion they are expected to hold.

I call it Respectable Waffle, and Leonard's phrase "constrained and elitist" is a pretty good way of characterizing it.

This is why, in my experience, it is incredibly easy to flummox German Bobos who get their news only from the Respectable papers -- they are simply unaware of anything which isn't considered worth knowing by Die Zeit or the FAZ. They have never been exposed to thoughtful, informed challenges to the party line which Leonard describes, and therefore have no way to defend their views.


German Word of the Week: Fremdaussprechen

Behold the German (or "German") menu for McDonald's:

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Holy superfluous nipple, you might be thinking: it's almost all in English! This must make ordering a breeze even if you don't know German.

Not so fast. If you just waltz up to the counter and announce you want a "McWrap Chicken Caesar" the way you'd ordinarily pronounce it in English, there's about a 50/50 chance the clerk will look at you with befuddlement. And nobody likes to be befuddled. Or just plain fuddled, for that matter. Wait, where the hell did that word come from?

Where was I? Oh, right. If you want to be understood the first time, you're well-advised to butcher the pronunciation of "McWrap Chicken Caesar" so it sounds the way Germans would pronounce it. Germans consider it hip as hell to read English and write English, but not many can actually pronounce it.

Take the Big Mac. The "a" sound in Mac does not exist in German. German vowels tend sound more pinched and nasal and front-of-mouth than English vowels. Also, the standalone letter "c" is rarely used in modern German, having been replaced with the much more straightforward "k". The word for Caesar in German is Kaiser. Explains a lot, doesn't it?

So a German would pronounced Mac much more like "meck" (which a German, in turn, would spell Mäc). And a hapless Teuton with a high-school education would look at the meaningless letter-salad "Caesar", which breaks about 8 rules of German orthography, and pronounce it "TSAY-zarr"). "Big Tasty Bacon" becomes "Beg Testy Beckon".

Germans are aware of how ridiculous it is to use English words you can't pronounce. There's even a series of books (g) mocking the Deutsche Bahn (a favorite German pastime) based on the English phrase German train conductors always say at the end of announcements: "Thank you for traveling with Deutsche Bahn". The books are called "Senk ju vor träwelling", which mangles German spelling to re-create, for Germans, the butchery of words in English. Put that in your pipe and smoke it.

So whenever I go to a store or a fast food place or cafe here in Germany and encounter English words, I gotta say 'em all wrong. Of course I could insist on the proper English pronunciation, and attach a short homily on how you shouldn't butcher words in languages you don't understand, but I prefer to be served spitless beer and dine unslapped.

I do as the Romans do, and pronounce my own beloved mother tongue as if my mouth were full or marbles. It always leaves me feeling soiled, as if I were begging for change in a red-light district by by reciting the Second Inaugural Address while wearing a crotchless Abe Lincoln costume.

Oddly enough, German doesn't actually seem to have a word for the phenomenon of having to pronounce your own language incorrectly to be understood in a foreign country. So I'm going to make one: Fremdaussprechen. Fremd for foreign or alien, and aussprechen for pronounce.


Anna Sauerbrey, Like Germany, Misses the Point

Infografik-vom-kopftuch-bis

[source. A handy German field guide to Muslim head coverings. I see the four on the left every time I leave the house, although the niqab remains pretty rare; I see it 2-3 times a week, not every day. The irony is that almost nobody wears a burka in Germany, but the debate about this issue is called the "burka-debate".]

Which brings us to one of Germany's periodic, tedious Leitkultur debates. I'll let Anna Sauerbrey, the New York Times' Germany-whisperer, define the term:

Consider the topic of the moment among Germany’s political class — whether the country has a “Leitkultur,” or guiding national culture, or whether it is a truly multicultural nation.... The term surfaced in 2000, when the Christian Democratic politician Friedrich Merz wrote an article in Die Welt asking whether it is enough for immigrants to obey German law or whether there are other manners, habits, traditions and conventions that everybody should respect as well.

Sauerbrey herself counsels: "Germans will have to accept habits and thoughts that are unfamiliar or even disturbing. Not because we accept them, but because we probably won’t change them."

The first response which pops to mind (aside from how you can "accept" something you don't "accept") is: Why? Did they vote for this? I don't meet very many Germans who are eager to be confronted with "unfamiliar" or "disturbing" things. Indeed, I don't meet many people in general who are this way.

The deeper problem is that this debate dances around the only relevant issue. If German acted like the majority of developed countries and only imported immigrants with a proven track record of adapting successfully to other cultures, there would be no Leitkultur debate.

If you want foreigners to integrate easily into your society, pick foreigners who will integrate easily into your society.

This is not mystery. Düsseldorf plays host to the largest Japanese expat community in Europe. These folks of course preserve their own habits and culture, much to the delight of their German hosts. But because they tend to be well-educated and come from a culture which has broadly similar values to German culture, they cause no problems. The whole Leitkultur debate is not about what immigrants do in their own homes and businesses, but about aspects of their behavior in public and in interactions with institutions.

Japanese immigrants cause no friction at all. In particular:

  • Japanese immigrants don't engage in honor killings.
  • Japanese immigrants do not get radicalized by online propaganda and commit terror attacks on German soil.
  • Japanese immigrants don't form clan-based criminal syndicates which engage in violent street battles in the poor areas of German cities.
  • Japanese immigrants are happy to shake hands with members of the opposite sex.
  • Japanese immigrants do not believe religious laws should take precedence over civil laws.
  • Japanese immigrants don't insist their female children be exempted from swimming lessons or school trips.
  • Japanese immigrants don't commit crimes at a rate hugely disproportionate to their share of the population.

The list goes on. You could substitute "educated, worldly Muslim" for the word "Japanese" in each of those bullet points.

Germany is having a debate about how much (formal or informal) pressure they need to apply to "get" immigrants to fit in is because those immigrants aren't doing it themselves. And that's because Germany has imported too many of the wrong kind of people: uneducated young males from conservative, traditional Muslim societies (or the conservative, traditional parts of Muslim societies). These people have few or none of the preconditions necessary to thrive within a very different, much more modern culture than their own. Yet they also don't want to go back to their home countries, where standards of living are much, much, much worse than Germany in every way. Who can blame them?

Choose your immigrants more wisely, and the Leitkultur debate vanishes. Yet Germany keeps on making the same mistake, over and over -- importing people who cannot adapt to German society, and then being surprised when they do not adapt. As Albert Einstein Narcotics Anonymous once said, "Insanity is repeating the same mistakes and expecting different results."


An English Idyll in the Rheinland

This blog is getting too political lately. Now for something completely different.

I visited Heltorf Castle Park (g) yesterday, an English-style landscape park from the early 19th century located on the very northern outskirts of Düsseldorf. It's part of the private holdings of the Spee noble family (g) which has resided near Düsseldorf for centuries and has left its mark on the city and the surroundings in innumerable ways. 

The park was originally part of the private grounds of the nearby Castle Heltorf, an early 19th-century pile. A certain Abbé Biarelle conceived of the idea of creating an English-style park in 1796, and the renowned landscape architect Maximilan Weyhe (g) began the work in 1803. The park is 54 hectares, and open to the public only on weekends during spring and summer. I'd always meant to visit. I rarely met people who had, but the ones who did returned singing its praises. 

It's quite far outside the city center, a 20-minute streetcar ride away, but very much worth it. The place is magical, on a par with the finest English parks. The landscape is lush, slightly hilly, and dominated by a spectacular centuries-old trees from all over the world -- conifers, firs, maples, magnificent copper beeches (called "blood" beeches in German!) and the largest tulip tree in Europe, which must be at least 45 meters tall. A brook winds through the park, and forms several ponds in which fat carp meander and tadpoles squirm. There are innumerable rhododendrons throwing off blossoms in all colors.

And the best thing is visitors have it all to themselves, since the park isn't very well-known, is somewhat out of the way, and is only open for a small part of the year. I saw only 6 other people in the few hours I spent there. The park is located well outside the city, charges €3 entrance, and has no "attractions" or ice cream vendors or playgrounds or bandstands or trashcans or bathrooms or any other distractions. The only sounds are birdsong and occasionally a faraway hum of traffic. (This is the most densely-populated part of Europe, after all.)

If you need any more stimulation than nature, discreetly molded by men of impeccable refinement, you're in the wrong place. And probably quite unclubbable.

I saw not a single speck of litter anywhere. The park doesn't even have any seating (although there are a few simple log benches) or signs, except two discreet wooden arrows pointing you in the general direction of the exit. You can get a photocopied map of the park about the size of a postcard at the entrance, but it looks to be about 30 years old. Not that anything's changed much in that time, of course.

You're meant to meander around, pleasantly lost, until you encounter a moat or ha-ha. The modern Spee family runs a forestry business in the area, and a small corner of the park is apparently used for this purpose, since I saw a small, discreet sign asking visitors to keep out. But that just adds to the charm. Something's got to pay for the massive effort of work it takes to keep the park looking so unpretentious.

I even ran into the owner, Wilhelm Count of Spee (pronounced 'shpay'). He lives in fairly modest water castle on the edge of the property, and was out taking pictures on this fine spring day. Like every member of the German nobility I've ever met, he was quite friendly and laid-back, but also impeccably groomed and dressed. He looks a bit like Ulrich Mühe. He obviously loves this jewel of a park, and seems to know something about every tree in it. He says he's working on a detailed book on the park's history, which I'm looking forward to.

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DSC_0174
DSC_0174
DSC_0199
DSC_0199
DSC_0199
DSC_0199
DSC_0199
DSC_0199
DSC_0199
DSC_0199
DSC_0199
DSC_0218
DSC_0218
DSC_0218
DSC_0218
DSC_0218