An Englishwoman in 1980s Dresden

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Die Hacke'sche Höfe in Berlin, 1979.

Through her excellent Twitter feed (source of the above photo), which posts a picture from the former East Germany every day, I came across this 2014 interview with Paula Kirby, an Englishwoman who taught English in Dresden in the mid-1980s. (Yes, she had a Stasi file and has seen it, although the results were unspectacular.) I find her observations colorful and free of the tiresome polarization that this issue often provokes. They generally mesh with accounts I've heard from East Germans. A few excerpts:

[T]he GDR was full of surprises. Shall I start with the good ones? Dresden was beautiful: literally breathtakingly beautiful, or at least, the city centre was. The half-finished suburbs full of hideous tower-blocks were as ugly in Dresden as they were elsewhere in the GDR, but much of the historic old town had been lovingly rebuilt after the war, and even the modern areas, such as the Prager Strasse pedestrian zone, where my flat was, were amazingly light and spacious, with dancing fountains and flower-beds bursting with colour, and people sitting outside at the street cafés, lapping up the sunshine while drinking coffee and eating cake. This was not what I had been expecting of a city behind the Iron Curtain!

Then there was Dresden’s astonishing cultural provision – It wasn’t just that there was an abundance of cultural offerings, but that the appreciation of culture clearly had mass appeal. The famous Old and New Masters art galleries were always busy, and I don’t think I ever went to a classical concert in the enormous Kulturpalast (‘Palace of Culture’) that wasn’t absolutely packed. And not just with the kind of people you might have expected to see in the West, where such things tend to be perceived as middle-class pursuits. In the GDR there was nothing elitist about going to a classical concert or opera: it was simply something enjoyable and stimulating that was accessible to all. Tickets for the newly re-opened Semper Opera House were only on sale once a week, from Monday lunchtimes, and people would start queuing before dawn, even in the depths of winter, in order to be sure of getting them.  Cultural events were heavily subsidised so, even though the opera tickets were still fairly pricey in relation to average wages, they bore no resemblance to the obscene prices charged in the West; and other cultural events were truly affordable for all. This was something I loved, and I still think that life in the GDR was enormously enriched by it.

On a personal level, most people were friendly, curious, warm, helpful and eager to show off their home town and region. I did genuinely get the impression that most people I met broadly approved of what the GDR was trying to do, even if they were critical of some – or even most – aspects of the reality. The lack of freedom to travel was, of course, a very sore point: even Party stalwarts would privately admit to feeling resentful about this. Officialdom could be tricky, especially because the GDR was always seeking ways of getting hold of hard currency, and so there were certain things (notably hotels and international train travel) for which Westerners were required to pay in Deutschmarks. One glimpse of my British passport, and the demands for western currency would begin! All very well, but I was being paid in GDR Marks and, having only just graduated, had no western currency to spare. The university gave me an official document confirming that I was “building socialism in the GDR” and that the requirement to pay in hard currency therefore did not apply, but it didn’t always do the trick, and then the long circuit from one bureaucrat to another to another would begin all over again until I found someone who was willing to cut through the muddle for me.

There were some bad surprises too – the political propaganda I had been expecting, of course: just not that it would be quite so relentless. It was in the textbooks I was expected to teach from, it was on TV, it was in the newspapers, it was on banners draped above shops and offices, it saturated the endless staff meetings, it was even lit up in red neon letters on a block of flats near my home (“Socialism will triumph!”). The same goes for the bureaucracy: it wasn’t unexpected, but the extent of it and the frustration that went with it (and the number of times you would wait for hours to see an official, only to be curtly turned away because you didn’t have a particular form with you, or you did have the form but you hadn’t already waited two hours somewhere else to have it stamped by another official first …), these were things to which I eventually became accustomed but never reconciled.

While nearly all East Germans I got to know socially and professionally were warm and welcoming, an encounter with people in their official capacities was often stressful. Most shop assistants, waiters, post office clerks, ticket desk staff and even doctors’ receptionists often seemed to go out of their way to convey their low opinion of you and their resentment at having to engage with you. “Customer service” seemed an unknown concept, and to go shopping or to the local post office was to face an almost certain lecture on the many ways you had failed to live up to expectations. You would be scolded for not having wrapped your parcel properly, for not standing at the right place in the queue, for not stepping up to the counter quickly enough when it was your turn, for not having your ID ready to show, for not having the right change, for giving them too much small change, for speaking too quietly and, of course, for speaking too loudly. Such encounters were a constant test, it seemed: one we were all doomed to fail. In fact, of all the challenges of everyday life in the GDR, this was the one that ground me down the most.

How do you think  your status as a foreigner (and particularly, your identity as a Westerner ‘behind the iron curtain’!) impacted upon your experiences in East Germany?

On a personal level, most people were friendly, curious, warm, helpful and eager to show off their home town and region. I did genuinely get the impression that most people I met broadly approved of what the GDR was trying to do, even if they were critical of some – or even most – aspects of the reality. The lack of freedom to travel was, of course, a very sore point: even Party stalwarts would privately admit to feeling resentful about this. Officialdom could be tricky, especially because the GDR was always seeking ways of getting hold of hard currency, and so there were certain things (notably hotels and international train travel) for which Westerners were required to pay in Deutschmarks. One glimpse of my British passport, and the demands for western currency would begin! All very well, but I was being paid in GDR Marks and, having only just graduated, had no western currency to spare. The university gave me an official document confirming that I was “building socialism in the GDR” and that the requirement to pay in hard currency therefore did not apply, but it didn’t always do the trick, and then the long circuit from one bureaucrat to another to another would begin all over again until I found someone who was willing to cut through the muddle for me.

...I think it’s unfortunate that today, so many people seem to want to deal exclusively in black and white. While there were aspects of the GDR that were, in my view, inexcusable, and I would never wish to downplay the persecution of those who dared to express thoughts and pursue goals that did not conform to the state ideology, it was not (for most people) the relentlessly grim and terrifying place of Cold War propaganda; and while there was also a great deal that I remember with fondness, nor was it the paradise on Earth that many of the Ostalgiker would have us believe. The reality was far more varied, far more complex and, above all, far more interesting. That’s what I try to convey through my tweets.

The most conspicuous kind of Ostalgie is the pure, un-nuanced version, which simply holds that everything damals (“back then”) was better. There are countless such groups on Facebook, where, if you were to believe everything you read, you would be convinced that everything damals tasted better, no one went without anything, the queues and the patchy supply situation only made shopping more interesting, the Trabant was the best car in the world, industrial pollution didn’t harm anyone, people rarely fell ill, national service in the army was the best laugh ever, and people who fell foul of the Stasi must have done something to deserve it. I have even seen a number of comments suggesting that we shouldn’t make such a fuss about people shot at the Wall, because they knew what the risks were and had only themselves to blame. Everything was for the best, in the best of all possible GDRs.

Personally, while sharing the nostalgia for some aspects of the GDR (if offered a trip in a time machine, I would set the dial firmly for Dresden 1985 and zoom back there like a shot; not because it was so wonderful, but because it was so interesting), I have little patience with those who are determined to whitewash history so completely.

However, there is also a more nuanced form of Ostalgie which I think is more defensible and represents a much more serious challenge to the reunified Germany. One of the enduring resentments felt by many in the East is that, whereas what they wanted was a genuine unification ­– a new Germany comprising the best aspects of both republics ­– what actually happened felt more like a takeover, or even a conquest. There was an assumption on the part of West Germany that everyone in the East accepted that the West was superior in all respects; and I think that assumption was largely false. There were many things about the GDR that much of the population genuinely valued: low rents, full employment, state childcare, good schools. It wasn’t that most GDR citizens despised socialism and longed to be plunged into full-on capitalism: what many of them wanted was not primarily a higher standard of living but more personal freedom. And while reunification has given them that, it has also brought with it a whole raft of problems that were unknown in the GDR, where virtually no one needed to worry about not being able to afford the basic necessities, and where there wasn’t the endless pressure to consume, consume, consume. It shouldn’t come as a surprise, therefore, that some people in the East feel alienated in the new Germany, or that Ostalgie groups regularly talk about having had their Heimat(‘Homeland’) taken away from them.


How Fake is American Niceness? How Is American Niceness Fake?

Two chatty German Youtube girls who live in Texas discussing whether American niceness is fake.

Ask any European who's been to America (except New York, and sometimes even then) what their impressions are, and "niceness" will be one of the first things they mention. Strangers smile, ask how you're doing, sometimes call you "honey". Most Europeans instinctively find this insincere, and ascribe it to superficiality and/or with corporate pressure to present a chipper, eternally happy exterior. Others see it as hypocritical. An American English professor makes the argument in the Washington Post:

In fact, Trump epitomizes the conventional version of American niceness, which assumes that Americans are fundamentally decent and benevolent people with the best of intentions, whose acts of aggression are reluctant and defensive necessities designed to protect us. (Or, as the office of first lady Melania Trump put it in response to the president’s latest Twitter tirade: “When her husband gets attacked, he will punch back 10 times harder.”)

In a sense, this is quintessential American niceness: a tendency to insist on one’s own affability and friendliness while dismissing all unwarranted or unnecessary acts of cruelty as necessary evils. This is the kind of amiability that obscures the shadowy side of American life. On the other hand, Americans have also historically attempted to transform our niceness into a national attitude rooted in justice and mutual respect by acknowledging American cruelty and using it as an impetus to live up to an ideal of moral integrity based on the courage to tell the truth.

In the 1830s, Alexis de Tocqueville was among the first to comment on American amiability, comparing it with the “unsociable mood of the English.” In the 1840s, Charles Dickens, who couldn’t imagine an Englishman being happy living in the United States, nonetheless described Americans as “friendly, earnest, hospitable, kind.” By the end of the 19th century, the link between Americans and niceness had become accepted tradition, with Rudyard Kipling noting in 1891: “It is perfectly impossible to go to war with these people, whatever they may do. They are much too nice.”

Americans themselves regarded their famed niceness as the cornerstone of a democratic personality. The actress and writer Kate Field remarked in 1873: “To try to please everybody, is democratic; to be indifferent to everybody is aristocratic: consequently, Americans, men and women, are the best bred people in the world.” As a refreshing alternative to European stuffiness, American niceness conveys democratic informality while sustaining the myth of American exceptionalism: Americans are not just nice but the nicest people on earth. As Walt Whitman once put it, Americans are “the peaceablest and most good-natured race in the world.”

Since the 19th century, Americans’ belief in our own niceness has never wavered. Yet even then, American niceness obscured a tendency to refuse accountability for aggression and offense — and even unspeakable cruelty.

Europeans have two different "niceness" problems with the US.

The first is that the niceness is fake.

I don't think this problem is very important. American niceness is just being pleasant, friendly, and obliging to random people you meet. This is one of those common things, an accurate stereotype. Especially in really nice places, like the South, people are indeed damned friendly and helpful. 

This sort of ordinary, everyday niceness is, in my view, an unambiguously good thing. It just makes life easier for all concerned. Who cares if it's superficial? I take a consequentialist view of this kind of niceness: if it works, it's good.  A world in which everyone constantly expressed their deepest, most honest reactions would quickly drown in blood. Niceness is great social lubricant, every society should aspire to as much of it as possible.

That being said, the American advantage here isn't that great. When it comes to niceness, there is probably a bigger niceness gap between urban and rural people in any one country than there is between people in general in different countries. Berlin, New York, Paris, London -- you're not going to be showered in gooey, spontaneous affection in any of these places. But in rural Germany and France -- and even in fairly large cities  -- people are quite friendly, as long as you at least try to speak their language and observe common behavioral norms.

The other kind of niceness problem is not that the niceness itself is fake, but that it is somehow hypocritical or inconsistent. This is a somewhat more sophisticated niceness critique, and the one that's being made in this op-ed. This one goes: "Oh sure, Americans are nice and friendly to other Americans or to 'acceptable' kinds of strangers such as tourists, but this is just an attempt to paper over inequality, racism, and militarism. Who cares how nice Americans are in America while their government is dropping more explosives on Cambodia than all the Allies used during all of World War II? Who cares whether that guy in the truck gave you a ride to the next gas station when he supports capital punishment and has Trump stickers all over his bumpers?"

This is a more serious objection, but it's not really logically consistent. The bombing of Cambodia had nothing to do with being friendly and helpful to strangers. The bombing of Cambodia would not have been more or less acceptable if Americans had been ruder at home. What these Europeans are complaining about is not American "niceness", but American moral posturing as the "shining city on the hill" which is a beacon unto the nations and the most morally upright of countries, etc. And to that extent, they're on solid ground. Too many Americans swallow this sort of guff about their country.

The association comes from the fact that the people most likely to uncritically swallow (only positive) American exceptionalism also tend to be really nice. But they're not nice because they believe in an air-brushed version of American history. You can like them for being nice while rejecting their blinkered opinions.


German Word of the Week: Hä?

Ahh, German women. What can you say about them? On average, they tend to be clean, orderly, practical, tallish, amply-chested, of normal weight, with shoulder-length straight hair, and less heavily-tattooed than their sisters to the North, at least for now. They also really like to attach tiny stuffed animals to the zippers on their backpacks.

There, was that inoffensive enough? 

But enough of flimsy stereotypes and ignorant generalizations. One thing that German women, and only German women do, is say "hä?". The sound of this is about halfway between the English "heh" and "Hey!". It's an exclamation, said as a reaction to something the woman finds distasteful or implausible. It's universally accompanied by an unflattering grimace. Its meaning is basically: WTF?

But good writer not tell, he show.

So here's a hä? caught in the wild. This is 2 seconds from a recent commentary by German TV host Anja Reschke:

We'll ignore the substance, as we so often do on this blog. What's important is that Reschke has just summarized an argument she disagrees with, and inserted her very own hä? to show her disgust. Let's have a closer look at that expression:
Hae

The hä? is the German answer to American vocal fry -- a speech pattern that is almost exclusively female. I've only ever seen men do it when imitating women.

The hä? seems to be unique to Germany. In fact, it's one of the first thing people notice about German women, once they get to know them well enough to see them drop a hä? Once, at a party, I had the chance to watch a French man react to his first hä?, which was delivered with gusto by a sozzled German co-ed.

He instinctively backed up and dragged me with him, saying: "Oh my God, she's about to throw up!"


One Chart to Rule them All

Many thanks to Marek M., who pointed me to this chart based on a report provided by the German government to the Bundestag on 15 December 2016 (pdf, numbers from p. 245).

This is it -- the one chart everyone needs to see before forming an opinion about immigration to Germany. The One Chart to Rule them All.

The brown line is the number of deportations from Germany in a year. The blue line is the number of illegal entries.

Illegal entries and deportations

Just let that sink in for a minute. 

Now, a few brief comments.

First, the notion that the 2015 influx is just a blip which will work itself out in the long run is false. In the mid-1990s, German policymakers suddenly decided that they would no longer try to actually deport all the people who entered Germany illegally. Starting in 2009, they essentially gave up on the idea of deporting any more than a tiny fraction of illegal immigrants. Even before the migrant influx of 2015, Germany as a whole was only managing to deport about 10% of all the people in Germany who had already been denied asylum

Second, this breakdown in law and order is a result of many thousands of individual choices by actors in every single branch of the German government.

State governments. Organizing and enforcing deportations is the responsibility of individual German states, so the overall total abdication of deportations is a reflection of policy changes in all 16 German states. Some are much more dedicated to enforcing the law than others, but overall, the trend is downward.

Immigration bureaucrats. The individual decision-makers at immigration agencies can invoke dozens of exceptions to permit people who have already been denied asylum to stay in Germany. They can recognize a special exception for family members, or because of medical problems, or find that conditions in the immigrant's homeland are too unstable, or simply decide not to 'enforce' an existing immigration order.

By far the most common technique they apply is Duldung (toleration), in which someone who has no legal right to be in Germany is allowed to continue staying here as a matter of toleration -- basically, the administrator uses his or her discretion to decide that if an illegal immigrant isn't causing a significant problem or has some argument why he should be allowed to stay, he will be permitted to stay in Germany for a temporary period, which can be renewed indefinitely.

Bureaucrats all over the world, like most people, have a noticeable preference for deciding cases in such a way as to create as little work for themselves as possible.

If Bogdan presents you with an obviously fake-looking medical certificate from a notoriously corrupt doctor, you have one of two choices. Either you continue Bogdan's 'tolerated' status, in which case he goes home happy. Or you start a tedious, time-consuming investigation into the genuineness of the certificate. Followed by the tedious, time-consuming, emotionally draining, stressful process of actually getting Bogdan deported. Bogdan has many chances to appeal a deportation order, so the process will take years. During which both Bogdan and his children will set down ever-deeper roots, making uprooting them that much more difficult.

Example: The attempt of police to pick up a rejected Afghan asylum-seeker to deport from a trade school in Nuremburg recently resulted in an all-out riot in which hundreds of the student's classmates blocked a street and threw bottles and even a bicycle(!) at the police, resulting in nine injured police officers:

 

Who wants all that aggravation?

Notice that this bureaucratic inertia results in perverse outcomes: a well-integrated illegal immigrant who admits he could be deported but argues that he should be allowed to stay simply because he's making a contribution will be at high risk of being deported. An illegal immigrant who lies to authorities and manipulates the system (like the Afghan (g) whose deportation caused the riot) will have a greater chance of being allowed to stay, since disproving his bogus arguments and denying his appeals will take so much effort. The squeaky wheel gets the grease.

The courts. The German government sometimes passes laws designed to modestly adjust immigration laws to make them somewhat more restrictive. But none of these will have much effect if courts are generous in recognizing exceptions. German courts are notoriously all over the map when it comes to handling immigration appeals; some are soft touches, while others are rigorous. But the highest German courts often hand down decisions based on the German constitution or human-rights treaties which blow massive holes in the legal framework designed to enforce deportations.

One example is the 2013 decision by the German Federal Constitutional Court (g) on paternity questions in immigration cases. German law rather unwisely provides that a father's decision to officially acknowledge paternity of a child cannot be questioned. This law immediately set up a loophole in immigration law: pregnant women could fly to Germany and request asylum. They would immediately be granted temporary asylum based on a provision of German asylum law which extends automatic recognition to all pregnant mothers.

While being cared for in Germany (at German taxpayers' expense), the human trafficker running the operation pays € 5,000 (the going rate, according to reports) to a German male, who then files an official recognition of paternity. Since the child is now the child of a German father, the child automatically becomes a German citizen when born. And the mother automatically gets a residency permit, since it would be inhumane to break up the family. The father could theoretically be required to pay child support, but the ones who participate in the racket are all on welfare anyway, so they are exempt from child-support obligations. Immigration authorities went to court to argue that they should be able to conduct official paternity tests to disprove the claim of fatherhood, but the Federal Constitutional Court rejected their appeal in 2013. Allowing the authorities to contest the fatherhood claim, the Court reasoned, would create an unacceptable risk that the child might end up stateless.

The result? There are now 700 suspected cases (g) of this form of immigration fraud in Berlin alone. According to the investigative report, many of the mothers ended up becoming prostitutes, working for the human traffickers who imported them and financed the fake fatherhood certificates. The report linked to just above profiles a particularly ironic case: the German 'fake father' who claimed he had a child with an illegal Vietnamese immigrant was actually a far-right extremist an prominent member of the extreme-right NPD party. Apparently the prospect of a quick € 5,000 was more important to this neo-Nazi welfare case than protecting the racial purity of the German Volk. Are you as shocked as I am?

The system is completely broken. Only the foolishly honest or stupid actually get deported, the cunning and the criminal get to stay. Further, everyone across the world understands this: if you somehow manage to set foot in Germany and have some reasonable understanding of German law, there is about a 90% chance you will be able to remain in Germany for the rest of your life, regardless of all the carefully-wrought provisions of German law.

UPDATE: I updated this post on 7 June to reflect that the chart itself is not actually contained in the report, and that the numbers on which the chart is based appear on p. 245 of the linked document.


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" »


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

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[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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