The German elections have serious implications for the climate, housing and healthcare. There are major differences between the parties though the campaign materials aren’t always clear about what these are. ‘Berlin: ready for more,’ says a poster for the CDU’s mayoral candidate, Kai Wegner. (More what?) ‘There has never been more to do … let’s grab the future,’ the FDP urges. ‘Olaf Scholz, chancellor for Germany,’ the SPD flatly declares.
The full devastation wreaked by Germany’s cataclysmic floods has emerged slowly. As the waters subside, survivors have cautiously waded back through the mud and rubble to salvage what is left of their communities. Last week an unusual zone of low pressure trapped between two areas of high pressure meant that two months’ rain fell in 48 hours. The Ahr, Erft, Swist, Trierbach and Volme, usually less than a metre deep as they wind through small towns and villages on their way to the Rhine, were transformed into fierce and destructive torrents.
At 10 p.m. on Wednesday, 19 February, 43-year-old Tobias Rathjen opened fire in a shisha bar in the western German town of Hanau, 15 miles from Frankfurt. Having killed four people he moved on to another shisha bar, sprayed bullets into the crowd and killed five more people. He returned home in his black BMW, shot his mother and then turned the gun, a pistol he had acquired legally and used regularly at a local shooting club, on himself.
When I began working at the Freie Universität Berlin last September, I put up on the door of my office a photo of Bernhard Trautmann, captioned with Lev Yashin’s remark: ‘There have only been two world-class goalkeepers. One was Lev Yashin, the other was the German boy who played in Manchester, Trautmann.’
On the second Sunday in January every year there is a march to the Friedrichsfelde Cemetery in Berlin to commemorate Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg.
On Sunday, 27 May, supporters of the far-right Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) gathered in the centre of Berlin. Founded in 2013, the AfD has quickly amassed sizeable support. Were an election held today, the party would probably get 14 per cent of the vote. The parallels between the AfD and Ukip – or, rather, Ukip before its sudden, post-Brexit decline – are striking. Like Ukip, the AfD has its roots in nationalist, anti-EU sentiment. It opposes the perceived dominance of Brussels and the bailout of the banks. Like Ukip, it combines social conservatism with more or less explicit xenophobia and racism. Like Ukip, it contains openly fascist elements. And, like Ukip, it draws energy from the sense of abandonment, resentment and despair bred by neoliberalism and austerity.
The Swiss artist Massimo Furlan performed his Re-Enactment of the 1974 East Germany-West Germany Match in Munich’s Olympiastadion on 30 April. There were only two players on the pitch: Furlan took the role of the West German keeper, Sepp Maier; Jürgen Sparwasser, who scored the winning goal for East Germany, was played by the actor Franz Beil. Everyone else – the other players, the referee, the linesmen – along with the ball, would be imagined. The original match commentary of both state radio broadcasters was streamed on FM frequencies inside the Olympiastadion. Small radios were distributed to the crowd, which was also reduced: in the 70,000-seat stadium, we occupied only the midfield loge, once reserved for dignitaries.
‘Colonialism as a form of violent foreign rule was legitimised by a racist ideology of European superiority,’ says the board that greets you at the Deutsches Historisches Museum in Berlin. In a slightly too small room, hundreds of objects are laid out in clusters along a line representing the Greenwich Meridian, a ‘symbol of Eurocentrism’ and the anchor for a system that European powers used to navigate, conquer and impose borders on large parts of the world. The objects – carved elephant tusks, commercial images for coffee brands, whips – tell the story of the German Empire.
The first I heard was a text message from a friend in London, around 9 p.m. When I opened my laptop it was already filled with images of the Gedächtniskirche in the centre of former West Berlin, its broken spire left there after the war as a memorial. But now, in front of it, a lorry had been driven into one of Berlin’s busiest Christmas markets: the wooden huts festooned with fairy lights were surrounded by the blue and red lights of the ambulances, fire engines and police cars. Blood stained the pavement and windswept reporters repeated the little information they had. Nine dead, many injured, the lorry’s passenger killed at the scene. The driver in custody. Was it worse that we weren’t even surprised?
I started teaching a German language course in a small town near Frankfurt in February, taking over a class of 12 adult students who had been meeting for three hours a day, four times a week, for two years. First they had to learn the Latin alphabet, and many struggled with writing from left to right. Now most of them can understand a letter from the local authority. Four came to Germany from Afghanistan, three from Ethiopia, two from Bulgaria, one from Bangladesh, one from Tibet and one from Yemen. Their average age was about fifty. Some of them have lived here for more than thirty years, but weren’t allocated to a language course until 2014. German governments used to assume that ‘guest workers’ and refugees would eventually go ‘home’, and integration was a low priority.
Media coverage of the recent violence in Cologne is perpetuating sexism and racism in the name of feminism. On 9 January, the German magazine Focus carried a photograph on its cover of a naked white woman with black handprints all over her body. Süddeutsche Zeitung used a drawing of a black hand reaching up between a white woman’s legs. (SZ’s editors have since apologised; Focus’s have not.) A Charlie Hebdo cartoon shows monkey-like men chasing a woman and asks: ‘Who would little Aylan have become if he’d grown up? A bottom-groper in Germany.’ The British media too have carried stories on the problem of ‘migrant gang sex attacks’ and ‘sexual jihad’, accepting the far right’s use of the spectre of sexual violence to advance its anti-immigrant agenda.
This week the queen showed up in Berlin to meet Angela Merkel. Her trip has taken in excursions to Frankfurt and Bergen-Belsen, to which the British seem to feel a proprietary bond through its having been liberated by UK and Commonwealth forces. She looked bemused when her hosts presented her with a painting, based on a photo from 1935, of her sitting on a sub-Franz Marc blue pony in front of her father, George VI. Did the queen recognise him? ‘No.’ Links between Germany and the house of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha remain robust, despite a couple of regrettable misunderstandings during the last century. But for the vagaries of 18th-century Anglican politics, the queen might have spent a blameless life pickling cabbage in Dortmund. At Berlin’s Technical University this week, she was greeted by a robot imitating the royal wave. It underlines the fact that the queen could have her job done for her by an android.
‘Gothic’ or ‘Black Letter’ script was used by monastic scribes in many parts of Europe from the 12th century. Early printer-typefounders, including Gutenberg and Caxton, imitated handwritten Black Letter in the first moveable type. In Italy, Gothic typefaces were soon challenged by Roman or 'Antiqua' letters (which owed their forms to classical Latin inscriptions) and Italics; and in much of Northern Europe, too, Black Letter forms were largely obsolete by the mid-17th century. In Britain, the ‘Old English’ variant survived in the ceremonial ‘Whereases’ of indentures and statutory preambles. It lingers on in ‘Ye Olde Tea Shoppe’ signs, Heavy Metal rock graphics, neo-Nazi tattoos and the mastheads of the dailies Telegraph and Mail.
The trio known as the National Socialist Underground (NSU) are thought to be responsible for ten murders, two bomb attacks and a number of bank raids. The Thuringia legislature has just published the findings of a committee that examined the reasons for the many failures in the official search for the NSU, from the time they went underground in 1998 until their last bank raid in Eisenach in November 2011.
This week the European Union, with Angela Merkel at its head, fired off a communiqué over the signatures of José Manuel Barroso and Herman Van Rompuy slapping sanctions on Russia after last month's downing of Malaysian Airlines flight MH17 over eastern Ukraine. In the self-important way of these texts, it bemoans Vladimir Putin's failure to accord the EU the respect that it sees as commensurate with its sense of its own importance. Apropos the dusty greeting that the Russians have given its previous communiqués, the Union tut-tuts that our call has been, in practice, left unheeded. Arms and fighters continue flowing into Ukraine from the Russian Federation. Strong Russian State sponsored nationalist propaganda continues supporting the illegal actions of armed separatists. In a parallel world, recognisably similar to but at some distance from our own, EU gnomes behind their plate-glass kraal in Brussels solemnly debate sanctioning Israel for wrecking hospitals and the wholesale murder of civilians, such as blowing children playing beach football in Gaza to pieces.
The most penetrating exhibit at the Stasi Museum in Leipzig isn't in a glass case. Housed in the 'Runde Ecke' ('round corner'), the nickname for the old Stasi HQ, the museum has sought to preserve the smell of the GDR. It's an antiseptic aroma, with a bleached ageing sweetness to it, as if you found a tube of Germolene from 1912. I don't know how you hang onto a smell, but they've kept the beige patterned lino, the metallic filing cabinets, the creamy grubby walls, so perhaps that's part of it. I wonder what they do if they sense the pong is fading.
You can hardly turn a corner in Passau without stepping into a church. The town has dozens of them, large and small, old and new, some of them empty, most of them full. This is, after all, deepest Bavaria, the heartland of German Catholicism. The last pope was born a few miles up river in the village of Marktl am Inn.
According to government sources, there are about 50,000 refugees in Germany. Most of them are from Iran, Afghanistan, Iraq and lately from Syria. The German authorities keep them in closed camps, usually a long way from neighbouring towns, and require them to stay put until their cases are heard. Refugees who arrive by plane are kept for months in special quarters at Frankfurt Airport, well out of sight of the other passengers. Until recently, they were given a subsistence allowance of €224 a month, with many local councils issuing food stamps instead of cash. A few weeks ago, the High Court recognised that €224 was not enough for a person to live on and the payment has been raised to €336 a month: €30 less than someone on Hartz IV, the modern German version of the dole. In recent weeks there has been an influx of refugees from Romania, most of them Sinti or Roma. The German policy has been to send them back as quickly as possible: the usual wait for the bureaucratic wheels to turn has miraculously been shortened, officially because they come from a European Union member country.
There are now two boards of inquiry looking into how three neo-Nazis could have travelled around Germany and killed ten people before the security services (16 branches in total, not counting special police units whose job is to keep an eye on right-wing groups) tracked them down last November. Two of the suspects died as the police were closing in on them in Eisenach; the third, Beate Zschäpe, is in jail awaiting trial.
As Philip Oltermann writes in the latest LRB, it's sixty years since Bild was first published. To mark the anniversary on Sunday, the Springer Company delivered 41 million copies of the tabloid’s 'jubilee issue' to every household in Germany. A celebration of six decades of fearless journalism, or a desperate bid to boost circulation? Twenty years ago, Bild sold about five million copies daily; it's now down to about half that.
Germany, it seems, has neither the will to fix the euro nor the courage to pull the plug on it. Angela Merkel opposes the kind of real reform that might end the crisis for good, but when faced with a choice between the possible break-up of the eurozone and yet another bailout, she has (so far) proved willing to make concessions. The pattern looks set to be repeated with Spain over the weekend. Most economists agree that Germany has done well out of the euro, its strong economic performance over the last decade owing a lot to artificially low production costs at home and artificially high demand on the eurozone’s periphery. But in his new book, Germany Doesn’t Need the Euro, Thilo Sarrazin, a former member of the executive board of the Bundesbank, dismisses this argument out of hand, claiming instead that Germany has gained nothing from the euro because it hasn’t been growing any faster than northern European countries that stayed out of the single currency.
The first European Pirate Party emerged in Sweden in 2006, when a group calling itself the Piratpartiet was formed to campaign for the right to download everything. The German Pirates were first elected to the Berlin Landtag last September. Saarland and Schleswig-Holstein followed, and now they have been elected to the assembly in North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany’s most populous state. The Pirates have won support at the expense of all the other parties, and there is talk of their joining a coalition government after the federal election in September 2013.
On 4 November 2011, the police finally tracked down two men who were wanted for questioning in connection with at least 14 bank raids in towns across East Germany. Uwe Böhnhardt and Uwe Mundlos were found dead in a camping bus in Eisenach, along with a pistol that had been used to kill at least nine men between 1999 and 2007. Eight of the victims were of Turkish origin, the ninth was born in Greece. The authorities had not previously considered that the murders might be racially motivated: racist attacks are often explained away by the police as 'drunken brawls over private issues'. Official data put the number of racially motivated murders in Germany since 1990 at 48, but activist groups and journalists say the figure is closer to 140.
The E. coli outbreak in Germany is enormous. In case numbers (so far) it falls short of the 1996 outbreak in Sakai City in Japan, but the number of those in Germany going on to develop haemolytic uraemic syndrome (HUS), the main complication, which affects blood cells and kidney function, is far greater than in any previous outbreak – 520 on 2 June – and the proportion of those infected that have gone on to develop HUS is also much greater. Germany usually sees about 65 HUS cases every year. In Sakai City only 106 out of 2764 microbiologically confirmed cases developed HUS. The number of deaths in Germany already exceeds the 17 in central Scotland in 1996.
Those who should hear, they hear no more,Destroyed is the army that went to war,With thirteen thousand their trek began,Only one came back from Afghanistan. These lines weren’t written by Andrew Motion or Carol Ann Duffy but by the 19th-century German novelist and poet Theodor Fontane. Between 1855 and 1859 he was the Prussian ministry’s foreign correspondent in London: he found himself increasingly frustrated by the local fondness for drinking and dancing (‘Music, as many have pointed out, is England’s Achilles heel’) and the class system (‘England and Germany relate to one another like form and content’).
Among the many very interesting Russian documents published in today's Times is a conversation between Thatcher and Gorbachev on 23 September 1989, when Thatcher declared she and George Bush were against the reunification of Germany.
Circumstantial evidence suggests the traditional left is alive and well in Berlin. My neighbourhood is full of posters printed with Marx's picture and slogans such as 'Marx is Back' and 'Permanent Crisis: we're not paying!' Thanks to the recession, Kreuzberg's May Day demonstrations were livelier than they've been for some time: more flaming mattresses, more paint-bombed buildings, more arrests. And at the Freie Universitaet the only party with any discernible campaign presence in the run up to the European elections was the uncompromisingly anti-capitalist Die Linke, a part-successor to East Germany's old SED.