Germany Considered

The anniversary of the D-Day landings as a pretext to take up the Danish newspaper Politiken’s cultural survey of Germany? Especially given that D-Day has never been that big a deal to the German people – just another bloody WWII defeat? Oh, why not – this was after all the first year that the German Bundeskanzler agreed to be present at the commemorative ceremonies, and that supposedly reflects new attitudes among the German people that the D-Day landings actually represented the beginning of the long process of their liberation. So an examination of the German mentality through the ages is warranted. Besides, I’ve been itching to cover the German cultural portrait for some time now. Ultimately, you can just forget about the EU’s other pissant small-fry – Luxembourg, say (Charly Gaul, indeed!), or even Denmark: Germany is the true European colossus, for which there should be a cornucopia of cultural artifacts to choose among (persons; music/song; poems; events!) that should even exceed France’s. One can only hope that the German writer chosen is up to the job.

One potential problem, though, is that Germany currently has a cultural divide which almost rivals the Belgian one between Fleming and Walloon that we discussed so extensively in reviewing that country’s Politiken cultural coverage. Here, it’s the rift between Wessie and Ossie, i.e. between those of West Germany who have lived in a free democracy ever since 1949 and those who lived under the Communist dictatorship that was the DDR. The envelope, please . . .

Chosen By Politiken to represent Germany is the 63-year-old Monika Maron, who is very, very “Ossie.” While she was born in Nazi Germany (of course: in the year 1941), she grew up in East Germany, where both her father and mother had high positions in the Socialistische Einheitspartei Deutschland or SED, the monopolist Communist political party. Ms. Maron even worked for time in her youth at a factory milling machine, but then went to university to study theater and art history. Then she became a novelist, but whose novels generally had to be smuggled out to West Germany for publication there – until 1989, of course. Interestingly, Politiken reports that the collapse of the DDR revealed Maron to have collaborated with the East German secret police, the Stasi, for a while, before refusing further cooperation and being labeled an enemy by the East German authorities. And indeed, much of her literary work is said to depict those in the governing bureaucracy of the former DDR; after all, as subjects she only had to look to her parents.

The choice of such a dyed-in-the-wool “Ossie” is bound to twist this cultural survey of Germany somewhat – away from the direction in which it would have been twisted had an author from West Germany been chosen for the job, of course. Anyway, it’s all one country now. Let’s proceed.

  • Painting: Max Liebermann, “The Garden-Bench” (1916). Liebermann was a painter from a Jewish family living in Berlin (right next to the Brandenburg Gate), born in 1847. He was a multiple pioneer on the German art scene, founding both German Impressionism and the Sezession movement, which later brought forth Gustav Klimt in Vienna. This is a painting of his garden in Berlin’s Wannsee district, a subject he painted over 200 times after 1910. “But maybe the painter was more German than the picture,” Maron qualifies, “and maybe he was more Berliner than German.”
  • Photograph: The Brandenburg Gate with Quadriga. Does the photograph look mostly out-of-focus? That’s not the fault of anything I did in reproducing it here; it is mostly out-of-focus, except of course for the quadriga – the chariot – depicted over towards the right. The Brandenburg Gate, and its crowning chariot, is the point here (the photograph is credited to “Jonas Maron” – clearly a relative), so this is not so much about “Photograph” as perhaps “Monument.” The Brandenburg Gate’s history may be pretty familiar: built between 1788 and 1791, modeled on the western entry to the Acropolis, part of the Wall when that existed, and as such a popular spot to direct various sounds across the Wall and into East Berlin, such as Ronald Reagan’s speech during his presidential visit, and various rock concerts, including by U2. Maron is careful to point out that “this is a city gate, not a victory gate. (Really? Then why the victory-chariot decoration?) It is now a symbol of German unity.
  • Person: Hannah Arendt. We’re back now to actually following the category labels; for “Person” we do get a person. This famous German philosopher and writer (among her works: Eichmann in Jerusalem), was a student of Heidegger, Husserl, and Jaspers – and, as she was Jewish, was also in exile away from Germany from 1933. She is chosen to represent Germany, according to Maron, due to “her passion for independent thought, her intellectual courage, and her aptitude in unifying the different sciences and expression affection.”
  • Object: The Recorder. That’s right, that (relatively) simple musical instrument, the Blockflöte. Not really the object I think of as typically “German” (how about a Krupp cannon?), but nonetheless Maron is glad to put it up “against the acoustic flows from the tape-recorder and the walkman,” “against keyboards and electric guitars.”
  • Text: Immanuel Kant’s “Categorical Imperative,” from Critique of Pure Reason. That is namely: “Act only according to that maxim by which you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law.” In other words, act only in such a way that you would be glad to have everybody allowed to act. Even while submitting this as her choice, Maron takes issue with it: Kant’s Categorical Imperative is stated as a duty, an obligation, and “when the moral is formulated as a statement of obligation, there’s the great danger that statements of obligation themselves come to be regarded as morals.”
  • Song: The Linden Tree, by Wilhelm Müller, music by Franz Schubert. Müller was a German poet of the early 19th century, who died at only 33 years of age; Schubert, you probably know (and whose picture is given here, not Müller’s), was in fact an Austrian (Viennese) composer of the early 19th century, who also died quite young. And this song is typically German because it is taught to Germans in school when they are very young, and so follows them all their lives. Maron is also not willing to concede Schubert to the Austrians; they will have to at least share him with the Germans, who know that he really composed about them.
  • Poem: “Moonlit Night,” by Joseph Freiherr von Eichendorff. Eichendorff was one of Germany’s foremost Romantic poets, again back in the early 19th century (he lived to be 69, however). Maron never fails to find this poem “unbelievably beautiful” each time she reads it, but she also admits she’s at a loss to explain why Eichendorff is especially German – it’s just one of those things. (Well, silly, he writes poetry in German at least!) If you know the language, do check out the poem, in its original form – only twelve lines.
  • Food-dish: Königsberg meatballs. Ugh, they don’t look so very appetizing. (I’m not going to reproduce the picture; you can click through to see for yourself.) But it looks like the point here is not so much the meatballs, but rather Königsberg, once one of the main cities of East Prussia, but which has existed since the end of the Second World War II as “Kaliningrad” and part of Russia. In the DDR you couldn’t call these meatballs for what they are, since it was forbidden to pronounce the name “Königsberg,” so people called them “caper-balls” (kapersboller, in the Danish here). I guess it’s OK now to call them “Königsberg meatballs” again, although Königsberg itself is not about to become German again anytime soon.
  • Place: The Rhine between Bingen and Boppard. Here Maron admirably reaches outside of her own East German experience – the Rhine is very West German indeed – and comes up with quite an excellent choice. But it comes out of a personal experience of hers, namely her first view of that mighty river when traveling through West Germany in 1983. She was so impressed, she writes here, that she realized such a sight was what had been lacking before in order “to understand, for the first time, Germany as a landscape and not as some huge historical misfortune.”
  • Event: The Thirty Years’ War. For Germany, there are so many possible events to choose among to find the one that was prototypically German – so many wars alone! But I think that the Thirty Years’ War is a good choice. As Maron explains, this German historical trauma, in which the country was plundered for thirty years and lost thirty to fifty percent of its population, produced in Germans that overbearing drive for security that, as she writes, “produced later fateful developments” – presumably later attempts to ensure that security by taking the offensive outside the country.

Overall: Maybe a bit too concentrated on East German things, especially on the Brandenburg Gate, but still an interesting and generally valid set of choices.

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