Six Years for Multiple Cop-Stabbings

A self-described German Salafist stabbed three police officers during a demonstration, injuring two severely. In Court he shows not a trace of remorse, saying he was justified in his actions because the German state allowed right-wing demonstrators to show caricatures of Mohammed.

And now he's just been sentenced to a not-so-whopping six years (g) in prison, which means he may well get out in 3 or 4. You won't often hear this from me, but this sentence strikes me as ludicrously light. A potentially deadly knife attack against three uniformed police officers must be, in anyone's book, an extremely serious crime. Further, according to news reports, the defendant was sober and sane, acted out of ideological conviction, showed no remorse and indicated he would be a future danger, since he considered himself only accountable to Allah for his actions.

I don't know if the tabloids are complaining about this, but if they aren't, they should be.

Circumcision: A Thought Experiment

There have been lots of interesting comments on my circumcision piece here and at the various other places it's been posted, and I'm working on a longer reply.

But for now, I'd like to throw out what you might call a Gedankenexperiment, although I'm no Einstein.

It's as follows:

  1. Many German commentators on the circumcision decision call male circumcision 'mutilation' or 'assault' or 'a barbaric custom that permanently deforms'. I hardly have to provide links, do I?
  2. Yet, the parents of the Muslim boy in question voluntarily had their own son mutilated and deformed.
  3. Any parent who insists on having their own child be deformed and mutilated by means of a criminal assault is incapable of acting in their own child's best interests and should have their parental rights terminated -- right? Imagine a parent who, for instance, encouraged their young child to participate in knife fights, or who threw their child down a hill to 'toughen them up'. At the very least, there should be a thorough investigation into their fitness to raise all of their children.
  4. Yet there has been no attempt to track down the parents of this 4-year-old Muslim boy and investigate their fitness as parents. Nor has there been a nationwide policy of questioning the parental fitness of Muslim and Jewish parents who have their male children circumcised.

The Gedankenexperiment is simple: why is this so?

Answer in comments, if you're inclined. My proposed answers are below the fold:

Continue reading "Circumcision: A Thought Experiment" »

My Take on the Cologne Circumcision Case

Here is my take on the famous German circumcision judgment. Thanks to the friendly folks at for cross-posting this.


The Cologne Landgericht decision proclaiming religious circumcision to be a form of illegal assault will apparently soon be superseded by legislation permitting the practice under certain conditions. Nevertheless, the mere fact that the decision came about – coupled with its endorsement by many members of the German criminal-law community and the fact that approximately half of Germans want to see religious circumcision punished by law – points at a continuing controversy. Circumcision also presents an interesting cross-cultural case study, since it is not expressly regulated in either the United States or (yet) in Germany. An enlightening 2002 analysis by Geoffrey P. Miller shows that all U.S. published U.S. court cases about male circumcision involve botched operations or problems with obtaining parents’ consent. It appears that no U.S. court has yet addressed a situation in which a doctor has been criminally prosecuted for competently performing a circumcision with the consent of the child’s guardians.

Even were such a case to emerge, it’s difficult to imagine a similar outcome. Following the First Amendment’s explicit ban on ‘established’ churches, the Supreme Court has limited government interference in private religious rituals. A line of Supreme Court cases has called for the government to display a ‘wholesome neutrality’ toward all religions, and to avoid unnecessary ‘entanglement’ of church and state. Accordingly, the Supreme Court has forbade American government entities from pronouncing on internal church administration, drawing government administrative boundaries to accommodate religious sects, or banning controversial religious practices under the pretext of public safety. This basic suspicion of intermingling secular administration and religion is widespread among legal officials. The average District Attorney, presented with a case in which a third party complained about a properly-performed circumcision, would almost certainly use her discretion not to prosecute.

The second (somewhat related) strand of jurisprudence emphasizes family autonomy. In a landmark 1972 case, Wisconsin v. Yoder, the Court upheld the right of Old Order Amish families to withdraw their children from formal education at the age of 16, observing that though there is no explicit guarantee of family autonomy in the Constitution, ‘the values of parental direction of the religious upbringing and education of their children in their early and formative years have a high place in our society.’ The state, for example, may not ban parents from sending their children to private religious schools or even educating them at home, as long as curricular standards are met. The fundamental Constitutional principle of American family law, repeated in case after case, is to presume that “natural bonds of affection lead parents to act in the best interests of their children”. When parental autonomy is bound up with religious practice, the rationale for judicial circumspection becomes even clearer.

And indeed, the decision of the Cologne court demonstrates the problems that occur when courts intrude in this area. Considering its worldwide resonance, the decision itself is astoundingly brief, just a few paragraphs long. At one point, the court accuses the doctor (and, by implication, the boy’s parents) of infringing the boy’s right to choose his own religious affiliation. Yet the mere fact that a child is circumcised doesn’t irrevocably commit him to Islam, as the 55% of American males who are circumcised can attest. Second, the court can hardly have thought through its proposed right for children to freely choose their religion. Both of Germany’s established religions provide for elaborate public rituals in which children are brought into their parents’ or community’s faith long before they are of age to make binding legal commitments under German law. Granted, these induction ceremonies don’t involve circumcision, but the court did not bother to limit its principle only to these cases. Like many legal commentators, the court also confidently proclaimed circumcision to be against the child’s best interests without ever suggesting why the child’s parents, who obviously had different views, should be ignored.

These problems help explain the different reactions to the decision among German and foreign observers. Christian Germans (whether devout or nominal) are rarely circumcised. This is in stark contrast to the United States, where routine circumcision was adopted during the late 19th century on hygiene grounds (including the prevention of masturbation) which would now be considered dubious. Yet the practice remains well-accepted: The American Pediatric Association recently concluded that “scientific evidence demonstrates potential medical benefits of newborn male circumcision” and explicitly noted that it is “legitimate for parents to take into account cultural, religious, and ethnic traditions, in addition to the medical factors, when making this decision.” By contrast, circumcision in Germany has only been customary among two religious minorities, one of which was decimated during the Third Reich, and the other which only arrived in significant numbers in the last 40 years. The generally positive reaction to the decision among Germany’s socially conservative legal culture shows a lasting undercurrent of suspicion against customs and beliefs that have “non-European” roots – and of the parents who wish to pass them on to their children.

Two Models of Freedom and Responsibility

Yet there is another factor driving the circumcision controversy: a stronger emphasis on social cohesion. Again, the comparison with the United States is instructive. America is, in many respects, an an outlier in terms of governmentally-enforced social cohesion. There is no national identity card in the United States, and some 10 per cent of the population has no picture identification of any kind. American rules regarding home schooling and religious education are among the most liberal in the world. Unlike every other government in the world, the American state is constitutionally debarred from banning hate speech and propaganda in the name of social harmony. Aside from wartime, compulsory military or civil service has never existed in the United States. And, of course, the American social safety net is designed only to provide transitional, time-limited aid. The possibility that the devout might create self-perpetuating ‘parallel societies’, a perennial source of anguish in the European media, is largely absent from American public discourse. This is not because such parallel societies do not exist in the USA – quite the contrary is true – but because their existence is not seen as problematic as long as they do not encourage crime or exploitation. (Of course, these libertarian hallmarks coexist with a massive security sector and the highest imprisonment rates in the world – but exploring this paradox is beyond the scope of this post.)

Although the German political order also guarantees its citizens wide-ranging civil freedoms, the approach is subtly different. In an interesting article on the ‘German Idea of Freedom‘ Edward J. Eberle argues that Germany’s conception of individual liberty — while robust and deeply-rooted — differs significantly from that found in the United States. In contrast to the freewheeling American conception of individual rights (accompanied by an equally unfettered free market), the German conception of liberty ‘take[s] place within a moral structure erected on ethical concepts that include human dignity and its multiple radiations, people acting within the bounds of a social community with its ensuing reciprocal obligations, and a Sozialstaat.’ Further, the discussion of rights in Germany is coupled with ‘duties rooted deeply in the culture and community’.

This conception of ‘freedom’ conditioned by social integration (which, of course, prevails in many Continental European cultures) enables the state to make claims on its citizens that would be controversial in Anglo-Saxon countries. German court decisions, for example, permit government officials to reject parents’ chosen names for their children on a number of grounds, including that the name might subject the child to ridicule or does not clearly indicate the child’s gender. Until recently, military service was compulsory in Germany, although many young men opted out under liberal conscientious-objector laws. Germany also has a registration law, which requires Germans to timely inform their government of any change in address. Germany has comprehensive federal laws regulating everything from the permissible size of huts on garden allotments to the content of vacation contracts, and a sizable contingent of ‘order police’ (the Ordnungsamt) to enforce them. The German legal order does not provide for untrammeled free speech – pro-Nazi rhetoric is illegal, and media which publish insulting or privacy-intruding material may be confiscated and their owners fined.

The flip side of this intrusion is an impressive network of social rights and benefits. Despite recent reforms, German social welfare benefits are still much more generous than their American counterparts — but recipients may also required to submit to intrusive surveillance. Germany has universal health insurance provided by subsidized insurance companies which are run on the principle of ‘solidarity’. Germans receive large welfare subsidies for having children, and enjoy some of the most generous family leave policies in the world. Virtually all higher education is provided free of charge (or for nominal tuition) by government-funded universities. All workers are guaranteed several weeks of paid vacation per year. Even welfare recipients can petition for extra money to pay for a child’s wedding or a vacation.

To put it simply, the German social bargain permits the state to intrude more deeply into citizens’ affairs in certain areas, in return for providing them with an array of services designed to foster personal development and socialize common life-risks. Germans face more subtle pressure to conform to majority social norms, but in return enjoy benefits conferred by that majority itself. This ideology of ‘duties rooted deeply in the culture and community’ may have influenced the German court’s reasoning: Instead of simply endorsing parental autonomy tout court, the judges asked whether the parents’ choice would bind their child closer to the majority ‘culture and community’ of Germany. Because it would not, it was that much easier to second-guess. Yet the reaction to the court’s decision seems to mark a subtle shift in consensus-minded Germany toward accommodating beliefs and rituals which will always remain outside the mainstream.

Revelation In a Stovepipe Hat
I'm of two minds about the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter-Day Saints, otherwise known as Mormonism, which is the religion of Mitt Romney.

On the one hand, I genially dismiss all religious dogmas which take the form of truth claims. Despite the manful efforts of gifted theologians and apologists throughout the centuries, faith (at least the portion represented by falsifiable statements about alleged real-world events) and reason continue to be mutually exclusive. I don't think any intelligent person genuinely believes in transubstantiation, for instance. In fact, I don't even think any intelligent person could even conceive of what it would be like to believe in transubstantiation.

The same goes for the various virgin births and miracles and the truth claims contained in the Jataka tales, Muhammed's night journey, Methuselah's age, etc. The more intelligent sort of religious person quietly acknowledges that these fables usefully inspire the simple-minded, but regards them as slightly embarrassing. They are like the 'miraculous' madonna figures in various cathedrals which are draped with lovingly hand-sewn (often kitschy) robes and jewelry. We discreetly walk past these, even though they are surrounded by throngs of believers, to admire some elegantly carved Gothic altar.

This is all by way of saying that I'm not singling Mormonism out. But boy howdy, Mormonism is strange. In America, it's considered poor form to mock someone's religious beliefs, no matter how odd they are. But the rules are different in Europe, so here goes. Mormonism's very origins are entertaining, as Laurie Winer's fine potted history of the religion (and its changing beliefs) shows:

In 1823, [founder of the church Joseph] Smith later reported, he was first visited by the angel Moroni, who revealed to him the existence of ancient golden plates, buried two miles from the Smith home, on which the true story of the gospel was written. Years later Smith, having “purified” himself, took possession of the plates. He kept them covered and advised friends and family that looking at them would mean instant death. Peering into a stovepipe hat and using a seer stone, Smith dictated what would become the Book of Mormon to different scribes. The plates told the story of mankind in a language called “reformed Egyptian.” Among the surprises: in 600 B.C., after being warned by God to flee Jerusalem, a Hebrew prophet named Lehi and his family built a ship and sailed to America.

Take that, Columbus! And here is the conception of the afterlife:

There are three heavens and one hell. The three heavens are ranked from most holy to least by their “degrees of glory." The celestial kingdom is the most desirable, and serves as the destination for all those who accept Jesus, are baptized within the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (whether before or after death), and remain faithful throughout their lives. People who die before the age of 8, when Mormons are baptized, also go to the celestial kingdom. The next most desirable heaven is called the terrestrial kingdom, which holds all those who don’t fully accept Jesus on Earth, but who are basically good people and accept him after death. The telestial kingdom is for those who never truly accept Jesus, and includes murderers, as well as “liars, and sorcerers, and adulterers, and whoremongers, and whosoever loves and makes a lie.” These unbelievers must first suffer for their sins, but eventually end up in a blissful place “surpassing the great understanding of men.”

Now, this isn't going to be one of those ZOMG-this-crazy-religion-makes-Romney-dangerous posts. Like most Americans, Mitt Romney is expert at keeping his religious beliefs and his wordly interests separate when they conflict. Romney's behavior shows a mixture of cunning greed (as his world-class tax fiddling shows), religious charity, and political prudence and moderation. He's already told us he won't let his religion influence his Presidential policies, and I believe him.

But really, the more you read about Mormonism, the more delightfully kooky it becomes. And the special bonus is that the world -- definitely including Europe -- is crawling with well-groomed young men who want induct you into their preposterous religion! Mitt Romney spent a couple years in France doing just that, surely to the bemusement of the French. They're easily recognizable by their white shirts, name tags, dark pants, and backpacks:

Mormon Missionaries in Mongolia
I see them at least once a week in Düsseldorf -- often the same guys. Now next time you meet one, you can ask them what that stovepipe hat was for...

Cold Winters, Smart People

When people ask me (sometimes suspiciously, often incredulously) why I enjoy living in Germany, I tell them one of the reasons is that people here are just a little bit smarter than most other places I've lived.

This, as you might imagine, does little to allay the suspicion.Yet that's what I see every day: the bell curve just seems to be a bit farther to the right here in Northern Europe. There are many clues: the level of debate in televisions and radio talk shows is noticeably more sophisticated than in the U.S., where the average member of Congress now speaks with the vocabulary and grammatical sophistication of a 15-year-old, which is understandable, since they're trying to communicate with average Americans, whose English abilities are even worse than this. Northern European societies have also engaged in forms of sophisticated collective action -- mainly the creation of welfare states -- requiring judicious balancing of interests, sacrifice of present gain for future security, and a great deal of long-term thinking. Germans also behave quite sensibly -- they have all sorts of insurance, and live within their means. The more primitive kinds of religion (involving heavy superstition, unquestioning deference to authority, yet very little commitment to actual changes in daily conduct) are either unknown here or dying out. In the U.S., by contrast:

But, you ask, are these just idle musings, or are they backed by Science? Before you can ask whether certain areas of the world are cognitively blessed, you have to factor out a million potentially confounding factors, including level of development, composition of the population, etc. So this recent study (pdf) looked at haplogroups, genetic categories differentiating human populations which go back thousands of years and are considered particularly reliable indicators. The authors reviewed various theories of cognitive ability, including the so-called 'cold winters' theory, which posits that population groups which moved early into areas of the earth with long, cold winters developed higher cognitive abilities owing to the need to think ahead and plan for the future. There are other theories, but the authors sum them up as follows:

All these theories could be summarized under the general assumption that environmental challenges, both natural and social, which could be mastered by intelligence, will increase genotypic intelligence in the long run because phenotypically more intelligent members of the population historically had more surviving offspring. The requirements for this are that intelligence is at least modestly heritable, that there has been sufficient time in terms of generations for the frequencies of intelligence genes to have changed, and that increases in intelligence are non-prohibitive in terms of limitations imposed by brain metabolism, infant cranial size, and susceptibility to physical and mental diseases.

So the authors selected out a series of haplogroups that would be predicted to be associated with higher cognitive ability and tried to determine a correlation between countries in which those haplogroups were well-represented and intelligence. Here's the result:

Haplogroups and Intelligence

So, societies in which more people came from Haplogroup A tended to be smarter. Germany is located somewhere in that cloud in the top center. It's not all genes, of course, the authors note that national IQ is heavily confounded with a country's level of development, meaning that a country's HDI ranking is still the best predictor of cognitive ability. Adequate nutrition, a functioning educational system, and a reasonably stable political order are hugely important. (We'll leave the obvious chicken-and-egg question to one side). But haplogroups, the authors conclude, 'also appear to be significant predictors of cognitive ability.' So, it turns out that cold winters may help explain why Northern European societies are so doggone stable and enlightened.

Homeopathy and the Transatlantic Culture Wars

Dr. Edzard Ernst, who says he was once sympathetic to homeopathy, describes his growing disillusionment:

Two main axioms constitute the core principles of homeopathy. The "like cures like" principle holds that, if a substance causes a symptom (e.g. onion makes my nose run), then that substance can cure a disease that is characterised by a runny nose (e.g. hayfever or a common cold). The second principle assumes that the serial dilution process used for homeopathic remedies renders them not less but more potent (hence homeopaths call this process "potentiation").

Both of these axioms fly in the face of science. If they were true, much of what we learned in physics and chemistry would be wrong. If anyone shows the concepts of homeopathy to be correct, he or she becomes a serious contender for one or two Nobel prizes. Homeopaths often say that we simply have not yet discovered how homeopathy works. The truth is that we know there is no conceivable scientific explanation that could possibly explain it.

Yet as a clinician almost 30 years ago, I was impressed with the results achieved by homeopathy. Many of my patients seemed to improve dramatically after receiving homeopathic treatment. How was this possible?

In order to understand this apparent contradiction, we have to take a step back and consider the complexities of the therapeutic response. Whenever a patient or a group of patients receive a medical treatment and subsequently experience improvements, we automatically assume that the improvement was caused by the intervention. This logical fallacy can be very misleading and has hindered progress in medicine for hundreds of years. Of course, it could be the treatment – but there are many other possibilities as well.

For instance, the condition could have improved on its own. Or the encounter between the therapist and the patient could have been therapeutic without any meaningful contribution from the treatment itself. Or the patient could have had high expectations in the treatment that prompted a powerful placebo response. Or the patient self-administered some other treatments concomitantly that caused the improvements. In other words, it is not the effect of the remedy per se, but the non-specific effect of the context in which it is given that benefits the patient.


About 200 clinical studies of homeopathic remedies are available to date. With that sort of number, one cannot be surprised that the results are not entirely uniform. It would be easy to cherry pick and select those findings that one happens to like (and some homeopaths do exactly that). Yet, if we want to know the truth, we need to consider the totality of this evidence and weigh it according to its scientific rigour. This approach is called a systematic review. Over a dozen systematic reviews of homeopathy have been published. Almost uniformly, they come to the conclusion that homeopathic remedies are not different from placebo.

So what's wrong with giving patients placebos?

  • Placebo effects are notoriously unreliable; the patient who benefits today might not do so tomorrow. Placebo effects also tend to be small and short-lived.
  • Knowingly giving a placebo to patients would be unethical in most instances. Either clinicians tell the truth (i.e. "this is a placebo"), in which case the effect is likely to disappear, or they do not, in which case they are liars.
  • Giving a placebo to a patient with a serious condition that would be otherwise treatable does seriously endanger the health of that patient.

Back in the bad old days or cresting European anti-Americanism, from 2003-2006 or so, I was drawn into many tedious conversations about the supposed failings of the United States. For those times when I was unable to avoid these futile 'debates', I created a private catalog of comparable failings of German society. I still have that list somewhere, perhaps I should post it for old times' sake.

This almost always wrong-footed my conversation partner, proving the old adage that the best defense is a good offense. If I were feeling particularly didactic, I would try to conclude dialectically by observing that my goal wasn't something fatuous like proving one society generally 'better' than another, but to point out that an exclusive focus on the negative aspects of a foreign culture leads to unnecessary misunderstanding and resentments, blah blah blah.

One of the Europeans' favorite debating points was the hostility to science of 'the Americans': '40% of them don't believe in evolution, and lots of them also don't believe in global warming! What sort of religious craziness is driving this rejection of science?' My first return volley was, of course, homeopathy, a billion-dollar industry in Germany based on the crackpot theories of a nineteenth-century quack. Two-thirds (g) of Germans believe in it. As often as not, my conversation partner was a believer in homeopathy, and suddenly found himself in the unenviable position of critiquing American for its lack of faith in 'science' while simultaneously defending a theory of illness that's less scientific than the theory of humors.

I have to admit, it was sort of fun...

Where German-Jewish Surnames Came From

One thing I've noticed about Germans is that they are often surprised when I assume that an American named Goldberg, Rosenthal, Friedman or Rosenbaum is Jewish. I don't know any precise statistics, but I'd be willing to bet that 95% of Americans named Goldberg are probably Jewish.* Yet many Germans, even fairly worldly ones, don't associate these names with Judaism.

I've had to explain the 'Jewish names phenomenon' over and over to Germans. My explanation, which I've given a couple dozen times, was based on a hazy recollection of something I once read in one of those things that consists of a bunch of pieces of paper glued together inside a cardboard cover. I decided recently to try to see whether I was right, and came across this informative website:

Before the 1800s most German Jews who lived in cities had already either a fixed surname, or a double name (examples for such double names: Amsel Abraham, Löw Baruch, Ascher Simon). On the country side, Jews were often recorded in German documents solely by their given name (examples: Abraham, David, Jakob, Seligmann). In older documents one may find references to “Jacob Jude”, “Isaac Jude”, “Abraham Jude”, Jude simply meaning “Jacob Jew”, “Isaac Jew”, “Abraham Jew”.

During the Emancipation, some government officials misunderstood the legislation, and demanded that even previously appropriate surnames should be changed. A number of such examples can be found in the Duchy of Baden: In the District Administration of Lörrach (Rötteln), even the “acceptable” surnames Bloch and Braunschweig were changed. There had been 14 families with the Bloch surname, and 7 by the surname of Braunschweig. None of them kept their old surname. The Braunschweigs changed their names to: Beck, Braun, Dornacher, Graf, and Keller. The Blochs adopted the following family names: Dietersheimer, Dornacher, Dreher, Geißmann/Geißmar, Kaufmann, Kirchheimer, Mock, and Weil.

A number of the official name change lists still exist in Germany, as well as other documents that can help clarify what a family’s surname was before the official name change, and reveal if they actually changed their surname or were able to hold on to the family’s original name. Birth registrations in Naugard, Prussia, for example, list a Nathan Friedländer with the added remark: “by the name Silberstein”. Some records show him as Nathan Friedländer Silberstein, while he only appears as Silberstein after 1821. Between 1800 and the 1820s many “double names” can be found in documents – usually they reveal the family's surname before the name change, however in a few cases the families had adopted a new surname they didn’t care for after a while, so they changed again...

Please note: Jewish families were required change their names everywhere in Germany. Subsequently many families who were not related at all chose the exact same surnames: if your family came from the same town as another family with the exact surname as yours, it does therefore not necessarily mean that you are related to that family! ...

While some of the newly chosen surnames are the same as the surnames of their Christian neighbors, others reflect the sensitivities of Romanticism, leading many to think of such names as “typical Jewish names”. Plant names such as Mandelbaum, Rosenbusch, Rosenbaum, Rosenstihl, Rosenstock, Rosenberg, Weinstock, or professional names such as Goldschmidt, Krämer, Mahler, Eisenhändler, may come to mind.

There were however numerous German Christian families, especially so in East and West Prussia, who had carried the surnames of Rosenberg, Rosenbaum, Rosenkranz, Goldschmidt, Goldberg, etc. already for many centuries. It is therefore extremely important to research one’s family history carefully, and once again, not to jump to any conclusions simply based on a surname.

In other words: a “Jewish sounding German surname” does not necessarily mean that ones ancestors were Jewish if one’s parents and grandparents were Christians! The same applies to German surnames mentioned in Jewish surname databases. When entering those same names into a regular database, one will very likely come across the same names among Christian families.

To prove this point, here is another example of Jewish name changes in the early 1800s from the District Administration of Durlach, in the Duchy of Baden: 17 Jewish families lived in the village of Weingarten (plus 6 individuals who were not married). Before the name change there were 3 families with the surname Esaias, obviously relatives or brothers, however each of them changed to a different surname! Among the 17 families the following names were chosen: Bachmann, Bär, Baum, Blum, Fuchs, Hirsch, Holz, Klein, Krieger, Löwenstein (previously Löw), Meerapfel, Rose, Rothschild, Schmidt, Schwarz, Sommer, Stahl, Stein, Stengel, Weidenreich, Winter. While Löwenstein, Meerapfel, Rose, Rothschild, indeed sound like “typical Jewish surnames”, all of the other surnames are in most cases not “Jewish names”, with a large number of German families who already had carried those surnames for centuries.

Continue reading "Where German-Jewish Surnames Came From" »

Lichtenberg Aphorisms in English

From a website called Mangan's (Adventures in Reaction), I stumbled on a nice collection of Lichtenberg's aphorisms translated into English. A selection:

  • "I ceased in the year 1764 to believe that one can convince one's opponents with arguments printed in books. It is not to do that, therefore, that I have taken up my pen, but merely so as to annoy them, and to bestow strength and courage on those on our own side, and to make it known to the others that they have not convinced us."
  • "Nothing can contribute more to peace of soul than the lack of any opinion whatever."
  • "He traveled through Northeim to Einbeck and from there through Mlle P. to Hanover."
  • "With my pen in hand I have successfully stormed bulwarks from which others armed with sword and excommunication have been repulsed."
  • "Proposal: in a cold winter why not burn books?"
  • "Truth will find a publisher at any time, complaisance usually only for a year. That is why when you write you should always do so with courage and candor."
  • "I forget most of what I read, just as I do most of what I have eaten, but I know that both contribute no less to the conservation of my mind and my body on that account."
  • "It is almost impossible to bear the torch of truth through a crowd without singeing somebody's beard."
  • "Not only did he not believe in ghosts, he wasn't even afraid of them.""We have the often thoughtless respect accorded ancient laws, ancient usages, and ancient religion to thank for all the evil in the world."
  • "The world offers us correction more often than consolation."
  • "Since this life is no more than an evanescent point of time, I find it incomprehensible that the state of unending bliss and glory does not begin at once."
  • "There are people with so little courage to assert anything that they dare not say there is a cold wind blowing, however much they may feel it, unless they have first heard that other people have said it."

Catacomb Saints

About a month ago, I took a short bike tour in the Allgäu, starting in Ulm and going down to Rot and der Rot, where I gave a speech. Taking the bike on an IC train turned out to be pretty straightforward, as long as you reserve everything first. The landscape down there, at the border between Baden-Württemberg and Bavaria, is idyllic: rolling hills, verdant meadows, cool deciduous forests, and fat, lazy cows and sheep everywhere. Perfect for biking: The hills are just high enough to add some variety to your ride, without being too intimidating.

The entire area is filled with baroque monasteries and churches. I usually find baroque churches a bit tedious: after a while, the hovering angels and ornate columns and rays of light remind me of a Mexican cab-driver's dashboard. So I was a bit surprised to find myself really liking the South German baroque on display. In the really fine churches, such as the spectacular Ottobeuren monastery church, the pleasure comes from the consummate skill on display. The sculptural groups -- in particular, the Baptism of Jesus located above the pulpit -- are minor masterpieces, as are the ceiling frescoes by Januarius Zick. Riotous blasts of juicy Counter-Reformation drama.

Ottobeuren Baptism of Christ Above Pulpit (Joseph Christian 1763)

Ottobeuren Main Altar
But there's also a charming, folk-art aspect to many of the churches. St. Verena, the monastery church at St. Norbert in Rot and der Rot, is a soothing blend of neoclassical columns and baroque ornamentation. It has paired groups of side-altars topped by ingenuous sculpture groups created by F.X .Feichtmayr II in the 1780s:

St. Verena Sculpture Group Moses and Copper Snake (F.X. Feichtmayr II 1779-86)

St. Verena Sculpture Group Crucifixion (Feichtmayr 1779-86)
But perhaps the most intriguing aspect of these churches is the phenomenon of the so-called Catacomb Saints (Katakombenheiligen). Beginning in the 16th century, the catacombs under Rome were re-discovered. Someone had the ingenious idea of locating skeletons buried on or near Christian symbols (cross, monograms, lambs, martyrs' palms) and declaring them to be early Christian martyrs. The skeletons could then be sold to interested buyers, of whom there were many in Germany.

After arriving from Rome, the skeletons would then be draped in the most precious finery the local community could afford, and displayed in ornate glass-enclosed altars. Sometimes the skeletons are propped on pillows, holding martyrs' palms, sometimes they are standing up. The bones are usually held together in fine white gauze. To make them more life-like, the faithful might place wigs on them, or even entire reconstructed model faces. Nevertheless, their clothes are always made with cunningly-placed openings showing a shinbone here or a ribcage there, to make sure the faithful know they are seeing an entire skeleton. A few pictures:

St. Verena Reliquary Altar St. Domitia (Feichtmayr 1779-86)

St. Verena Detail of Head of St. Benedictus

Ottobeuren Reliquary Shrine St. Bonifacius

Ottobeuren Reliquary Shrine St. Bonifacius Detail of Head-1

It goes without saying that the attribution of entire life histories to these anonymous remains was almost always spurious. The practice was finally ended in 1860. Tour guides and brochures often gloss over them or ignore them entirely, as if they were faintly embarrassed by the whole charade.

I found them fascinating. The German artist HAP Grieshaber, known for his monumental woodcuts, was born in Rot an der Rot. As a child, he was also drawn to the catacomb saints, as his wife recalls:

He rode to Rot an der Rot. After a half-century he saw the place of his birth again.... There, Helmut Andreas Paul (HAP) had been born to Protestant parents. His first steps led to the monastery church, which was his playroom. Immediately, he found his childhood, and himself, again. Some visitors might have thought him very pious as they saw him on his knees in front of the side altars, to see everything from the perspective of a four-year-old, before his nose these glass cases* with their martyrs' relics, these macabre delights, whose ivory-shimmering bones are draped so richly in pearls, embroidery, sequins, and glimmering semi-precious stones. A skull blooms like a bouquet of roses, some were covered with plaster and painted to a doll-like sheen. Some hands held swords, and some had embroidered shoes over their delicate ankles. Grieshaber recognized everything once again. He remembered how he had felt as a child, and saw everything he had previously kept covered and hidden in his conscious life. And over him arched the round, figure-strewn heaven of the Baroque.

(source: Kirchenführer Pfarrkirche St. Verena, p. 27).

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