Friday, February 25, 2011

19. February

This past weekend, Dresden was again thrown into turmoil. Whereas last weekend a large peaceful demonstration and a small, unwelcomed Funeral march by far-right extremists merely caused some traffic delays, on the first Saturday after the anniversary of the bombing of Dresden, the center of the city came to a standstill.

While I was correct in my previous post that the NSDAP (Nazi Party) is illegal in Germany, there has been since the 1960s a National Demokratische Partei (NDP), which is widely seen as a Neo-Nazi political group, since its party materials use anti-Semitic and xenophobic language, claim Germany is larger than its current political borders, etc. It is also well-known that the NPD has a three-pronged approach to increasing its influence in the public sphere: winning over the governments, the streets, and Köpfe (“heads,” or minds). Center and left Germans have complained that the group often hides its identity when sharing information about such seemingly neutral topics as employment, and that this has allowed its representatives to win elected office on several levels of government, including the Saxon State parliament since several years ago. Critics blame this government influence for the fact that far-right groups are allowed to demonstrate in Dresden.

For a while it was in fact an open question whether the Saturday-after-February-13th rallies would happen at all, considering the large number of police required to keep some semblence of peace (nevermind the question of politics). Three groups applied for permits for different parts of the city, presumably in order to increase their presence. Dresden countered with a single large permit, the Neo-Nazis sued the city for hindering their constitutional right to assemble, and they won—including one procession permit. Meanwhile, various center and left groups were organizing with the express intent to stop the march. However, the state declared that any such attempts were illegal, confiscated advertising materials, and tried to shut down a least one website. This opened a, well, fire-storm of protest: is it permissible to suppress one group’s right to express itself, if the statement it wants to make is to prevent another group from exercising its freedom to make anti-democratic statements?

While I readily participated in the Menschenkette last Sunday, I hesitated to dedicate myself to civil disobedience in a foreign country. Plus, it was my off week for laundry, so as soon as I got the grocery shopping done, I was looking forward to a productive Saturday in the library before coming home to watch a movie with my roommate and some of her friends. Well, I should have known better. I had come home Friday night to see this sign hanging on the building across the Platz from us, and Saturday morning already there were signs of organizing. There was a heavy police presence when I walked to the grocery store, and by the time I got back, I had to ask permission to cross the police barricade before walking through a small but growing crowd of counter-protestors. The street where the trams run was blocked off in both directions, but I still made one futile attempt to get to the library. The public transit person at the main tram stop for my part of the city told me that not only were there no buses or trams running through there, but the university quarter was expected to be a major demonstration site.

Instead, my roommate and I stayed home, she painting furniture and I editing a manuscript. We listened to a local leftist radio station, which periodically interrupted its alternative music program with near-real-time reporting of the situation from participants calling in on their cell phones or using Twitter. From what I understood, the police had set up water canons, counter-protestors were occupying various intersections, and many of the expected, black-clothed demonstrators spent most of the day on their buses, not wanting to be inspected by the police. Nevertheless, there was violence, mostly by far-left extremists using the apparent provocations of the police—there to protect both sets of demonstrators from each other—to “stick it to the man.” I don’t if this was before or after the police stormed the offices of a left liberal group accused of organizing violence; the people who were arrested there got out of jail Monday morning. It strikes me that in the United States, the far-left is so small in numbers that it is not feared, but here it is a force to be reckoned with. More than 80 police were wounded. At the end of the day, there was no march in Dresden, and an attempted impromptu rally by Neo-Nazis who took the train from Dresden to Leipzig was prevented.

Obviously, I am glad I stayed home on Saturday. Sunday I head a German-Jewish community leader from München talk about life as a Jew in Germany as part of the well-respected Dresden Speaker Series. She briefly mentioned her doubts about not immigrating immediately after World War II—she survived forced labor—but went on to talk much more about the kind of politics that makes her feel like Germany really is home: namely, an open democracy in which violence of any kind of abhorred. Only since the reunification has she really been convinced that staying was the right choice. Today, German Jewry is the fastest growing diaspora population; they are finally training their own rabbis again; and still many synagoges and community centers have to make do with itinerant rabbis. She absolutely believes in the right of the state of Israel to exist, but as a German she exercises a certain amount of scrutiny, too. And she reminded the audience that if there is a “war” with Islam, it is really a war between pre- and post-modern Islam. Just as she, as an individual Jew, should not be held responsible for the actions of the Israeli state, so should peaceful Muslims not be held responsible for the violence of mis-guided Islamacist extremists. Unfortunately, since the reunification, far-right extremists in Germany have increasingly put aside their xenophobia just enough to team up with the anti-semitism of local Islamacists of Arabic origin. So the acceptance of Jews in Germany is still not assured, although now as before the Holocaust, their numbers have never amounted to more than 1% of the population.

I’ll close with an encouraging ad that has been playing on the street cars for the last week or so: a skinhead joins a group of people seeking shelter from a downpour under an overhang. He pushes the young black man next to him out into the rain to make more room. As the young man resigns himself to getting soaked, he looks up, only to see the umbrella a little old lady is holding over his head. Then all the other people from the overhang come out and put their umbrellas over and around him, too. They make sure he gets on the bus first, but the doors close just as the skinhead tries to get on too. This PSA is probably more wish than reality, but at least it’s an open step in the right direction.

[Editor's note: how did I get the name of this post wrong?? The events described happened in February, not September!]

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

The Way Things Were

When historians want to discuss the issue of what it is possible to learn about the past through research, they will often use Leopold von Ranke's (1795-1886) (in)famous phrase "wie es eigentlich gewesen"--the way things really were. I say the phrase is "infamous" because it is actually grammatically incorrect; it should read "wie es eigentlich gewesen ist." Nobody is sure why it was published like that. Anyway, I thought of it while composing this entry on "the way things were" in East Germany during the Deutsche Demokratische Republic (DDR). I do not directly study this period in Germany history, but I try to learn a little bit here and there: 1) so I know how events in the period I research ended up playing out, and 2) so I can teach it. I've kept my eyes open, and here are two of reminders of the "old" Germany I've come across.

Last week I visited a small photography exhibit by Helmut Schulze to promote a new edition of his book with Gregor Kunz, Bilder von Dresden (Pictures of Dresden). Most of the photos are from the 5 years right after die Wende (the "turn"--ie. the 1989 revolution), and they show mixtures of the old and the new, decay and revitalization. You can see an example of this at the link above, which shows a line of old cars and an old yellow street car--and on the poles on the sidewalk are  posters for a political party that was illegal during the DDR.

Schulze's photographs captured a world that largely no longer exists, with a few exceptions. One of  those is a quirky feature of old-Eastern German streets, the  Ampelmenschen ("traffic light men") with their little hats. There was a public outcry when public officials planned to remove the little figures after 1989, so they've stayed, and you can still whether you are in old-East or -West Berlin by the lights at the crosswalks, and of course they're all over here in Saxony. There's one in the foreground in the photo on the left. I was surprised, however, to discover that at my local tram stop, Bahnhof-Mitte, there are Ampelmädchen ("traffic light girls") with two braided pigtails! They are the idea of Petra Bossinger, who lives outside Cologne. Unsurprisingly, the Ampelmenschen have been commercialized: you can buy their likenesses on postcards, t-shirts, magnets (I have two), tote bags, etc. It's only a matter of time before the Ämpelmädchen become commodified kitsch as well.

Speaking of the ultimate stereotypical East-German material culture meets stereotyped West-German consumer culture, around the block from me you can rent a refurbished Trabant ("Trabi") to take a tour of the city in. Never mind that East Germans used  to wait years for one of these "cardboard boxes on wheels," you now have the opportunity to take a Trabi-Safari! (The pink one is advertising the Kirchentag (Church Day), an "Evangelical" (read: Protestant) faith conference that will be taking place here in June. I hear 100,000 
people from around the world are expected!)

p.s.--I thought I might add a short cultural note. Perhaps you are aware of Germans' stereotypical preference for order? This extends to traffic-pedestrian interactions--namely, that everyone should obey all the traffic laws all the time. Americans are exhorted not to jaywalk: "think of the children!" (who would otherwise learn dangerous habits). For instance, my roommate's father, down from Berlin for his granddaughter's sixth birthday party back in early December, reproached us for crossing the street from the tram stop to the sidewalk despite the red Ampelmensch--even though it was only one lane and there were no on-coming cars. "Do Dresdners always cross against the light?" he asked, "Or only on weekends?" More recently, I overheard a young boy of maybe 5 explaining the crosswalk rules to his father: "You must not go on red, but on green you must go, you must!" he exclaimed. So very "German." That's the way things were--and sometimes still are.

Monday, February 14, 2011

13. February

What is the first thing you think of when you hear “Dresden”?

Probably not August the Strong, or steamboats on the Elbe River, or art in the Zwinger. Perhaps the Semperoper? (Gram!) Or maybe the Frauenkirche (Church of Our Lady), the enormous (Protestant) church that the East German government left in ruins while rebuilding the rest of the city? Just a few years ago the church’s reconstruction was completed and it was opened to the public; you can see its dome in the photo above. For decades it symbolized the destructiveness of the Second World War, destruction unleashed by the Nazis and brought to this capital city near the border with the Czechoslovakia and Poland by Allied bombers following the orders of military and political commanders heedless of the historical treasures and the thousands of westward-fleeing refugees alike. Probably when you hear “Dresden,” you think of Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.’s, semi-autobiograhical Slaughterhouse-Five and the fire-bombing that took place the night of 13-14 February, 1945.

The anniversary of the destruction of the “Florence of the Elbe” is a major event every year, even 66 years later managing to overshadow the commercial hype of the saint’s feast celebrated the next day. This is because what happened that Shrove Tuesday night is a matter not just of historical debate but of active, contested, collective memory. For decades the Communists maintained that the air raid by more than 1000 planes of the Royal and United States Air Forces killed 100,000 people, mostly innocent refugees, a number inflated by Cold War politics. Most historians today postulate at least 25,000, although due to the confused movements of masses of people in what turned out to be the last months of the war, it will never be possible to deduce the actual number of lives snuffed out. 4,500+ tons of explosives and incendiary devices destroyed 13 square miles of a city that most were sure would never be bombed—a city that was reduced to ashes by the dawning of Ash Wednesday, 1945. It is precisely the suffering of Dresdners on 13 February that has made it a rallying cry for Neo-Nazis, who for some years now have staged a rally in the city on the anniversary.

One of the longest words new students of German learn is Vergangenheitsbewältigung. It translates as “the process of coming to terms with the past,” and it means the memory work Germans (first East and West, and since 1989 togther) have done to try to fathom how it is that their parents or their grandparents could have lived through the Third Reich, possibly done nothing to hinder the Holocaust, maybe even participated. It is also the process whereby Germans who have no personal connection with that time and its crimes—such as the children and grandchildren of the Gastarbeiter (guest workers) who came after the war and revived the economy—attempt to assimilate this knowledge into their understanding of what it means to be German.

For many years after the war, Germans nursed a particularly bitter form of victimhood, one that remembered the Allied bombings, the shame of a second war defeat inside of two decades, the frustration of the occupation and division of their country, large parts of which were now Poland. The Germans were sorry for what had happened to the Jews, because of what had happened to the Germans in response. Whatever their ambivalence about the Jews, most Germans have and had rejected fascism. In fact, it was the public disavowal of Nazism that allowed post-war West Germany to put itself back together as a (more or less) functioning country, in that many many former Party-members and –sympathizers were allowed to maintain their public lives and offices. The National Sozialistische Demokratische Arbeiter Partei (NSDAP, or National Socialist Democratic Workers’ Party) and its paraphanelia like flags with the swastika are illegal in Germany. It is illegal to print Mein Kampf (although not to own a copy, as all the libraries do).


But what to do about the Neo-Nazis who still exist? The young skinheads who spout hate against “non-Aryans,” and who have committed violence against foreigners? I discovered this fall that they often signal their presence with the old imperial flag of the Second Empire (Kaiserriech) or the Confederate flag (hanging in a window in the building across the street from my old apartment—bigots of the world, unite?). Other cities in Germany have refused to let them meet publicly. But for several years they have (legally) held a march in Dresden on 13 February. Not wanting to encourage this sort of thing, many left-leaning Dresdners began turning out to counter-protest, last year even putting up such a physical (and nearly violent) resistance to the fascist funeral parade that it was canceled. This year there was much discussion in public, in the mayor’s office, and in the Saxon courts about whether the Neo-Nazis should be allowed to meet, whether there should be a counter-protest, and what contact if any should be allowed between the two.

Such discussions in the United States would undoubtedly revolve around the First Amendment: the KKK fascists have the right to what is often referred to as "hate speech" (as long as it doesn’t lead to violence) and should be allowed to freely assemble. But likewise, defenders of democracy have the right to disagree and to disapprove. It was finally decided that the right extremists could meet later behind the Neustadt Bahnhof and the peaceful counter-demonstrators earlier in the Altstadt across the river. After a speech in memory of the bombing victims and in favor of peace and democracy, the assembled crowd fanned out to form a Menschenkette (a human chain) from the Rathouse across the Altmarkt (where many of the bodies were piled up and burned because they couldn’t be buried quickly enough), past the synagogue, and over the Carola and Albert Bridges to the very edge of the Neustadt, symbolically protecting the Altstadt from both bombs and Neo-Nazis. Nie wieder Krieg. "Never again war."

I stood on the steps from the Albertbrücke to the Elbe path on the Neustadt side. When the bells of the churches in the Altstadt began to toll at 2pm, I held hands with Susan and Julie. Many of us were wearing white silk or real roses on our labels. There were so many people (17,000 according to the radio the next morning—we stood 3- and 4- deep before we joined hands), that the line zig-zagged back and forth. Some participants who had come with friends or familiy chatted for the 5 or 10 minutes that we kept watch, which I found rather crass. When the bells finally stopped, I introduced myself to my partners and thanked them. And then we dispersed.

Nazis? No thanks!
Police had come in from around the country to ensure there would be no violence this year, which there wasn’t. I don’t know what happened with the Neo-Nazi march. I didn’t see it, and so to me it is as if didn’t happen. It’s one of those uncertain situations where you don’t want to give the group and its message any attention, but to act as if they didn’t exist at all would be irresponsible—criminal, even. Unfortunately, there is an even larger Neo-Nazi rally planned for next weekend that will be hard to ignore. What attention Dresdners have given them is universally unwelcoming, as this small collection of signs from around the city suggests:

Our Dresden: No place for Nazis!

Sunday night, at 9:51pm, the church bells went off again, just as they did that night, 66 years ago, to warn the city of the approaching enemy airplanes. The Nazi commissioner of the city, Gauleiter Martin Mutschmann, had insisted the city was prepared enough for an air raid that wasn't going to happen anyway, so there weren’t enough shelters—even without the influx of refugees. But he had underground concrete bunkers built at both his office and his residence. He survived—only to be captured by the Soviets after the war, tried in Moscow, and hung on 14. February 1947. In his enormous tome, Dresden: Tuesday 13 February 1945 (2004), noted Nazi historian Frederick Taylor argues that Dresden was as legitimate a target as any other in Germany, being not only a beautiful cultural capital but also an active contributor to the Nazi war effort. Whether the inevitable civilian casualties were justifiable in a time of "total war" he leaves up to the reader.

"Dresden" is many things to me: a center for my research, the place where I learned to live and speak comfortably in German/y, home for 7 months. And one of the many places in the world marked by both violence and dialog. Thankfully the good people far outnumbered the bad this weekend, by at least 20:1.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

All aboard!

One of you asked me to take pictures of the trains in Germany, but I've done one better and compiled a small sample of the trains and trams, and also the wonderful travel-themed murals at my closest transit/train stop, Dresden Bahnhof Mitte (literally, Dresden's Middle Train Station).

On the right is an ICE--Inter-City Express--the fastest and nicest of the Deutsche Bahn trains. Sleek and rounded, they are of course also the most expensive. On the left is some sort of newer S-Bahn, I think. The old S-Bahns are big, red, and angular, with two levels of seating. We took such a one when we camped in the sandstone formations for Christmas.

This blue one is an IC--Inter-City--still nice and fast, but not quite as costly as the ICE. That's just the engine you see there; the passenger cars are usually white like the ICE, but more angular.

This is either a Regional Bahn (RB) or Regional Express (RE), although there is nothing "express" about these trains. They are old, can be uncomfortable, and stop at every town of any size--but they are quite cheap.

Can you tell what kind of train this is?

Finally, here are some of the wonderful transportation-themed murals painted on the walls of the raised tracks of the Bahnhof-Mitte.

The murals depict regions or towns of Saxony, various kinds of trains and trams, and even space travel is represented!

p.s.--That's a car train passing on the other side of the platform!

Friday, February 4, 2011

The Raclettes

Last Friday, an American friend in town invited me to a Girls’ Night In at her apartment. The main event would be melted cheese, or rather, raclette. Raclette is a fatty Swiss cheese that melts easily, tastes good on pretty much everything, and has evolved from a goatherd’s tasty dinner-to-go to a group meal centered around a two-level grill for leisurely eating with more individuality than with cheese fondue. It’s fun for dinner parties or family gatherings like Second Christmas (December 26).

Here’s how it works: the top surface of the grill is for cooking a variety of meats, like ground beef patties and Greek-spiced chicken. The underside of the grill is very hot and conducive to melting. Either you can load up what looks like a sand shovel with veggies, meat, potatoes, etc. + a slice of cheese and lay this under the heat to melt; or you can melt the cheese by itself and then scrape it (with a handily provided scraper, of course) over your collection of veggies, meat, potatoes, etc. Whole recipe books exist which detail what to serve for various themes, but our table was laden with a variety of yummy things to eat: tomatoes, corn, onion, pickles olives, red pepper, mushrooms, tuna fish, tsiziki, potatoes, rice, noodles, flat bread, 3 or 4 kinds of cheese, and ham and pineapple for a Hawai’ian-themed dessert. It looked delicious and tasted even better. The downside to raclette is that because most of what you eat is prepared in little batches, it is difficult to gauge how much you have eaten. So afterwards we played Wii to burn off some of the calories!
This was my first creation: tuna fish, onion, red pepper, and raclette cheese.