Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.
At the end of this week I will be leaving Berlin and going to Vienna, which I am excited about primarily because according to the “German 108: Berlin und Wien” seminar I took last semester, the Germans are depressed (because they feel guilty for the sins of their fathers, and maybe mothers too, depends on how you look at it) but the Austrians are pathological (because they are totally in denial about everything that has happened in the last hundred years).
Otherwise I am pretty depressed about it. A friend from Swarthmore visited last weekend and made the observation that all of Berlin feels like the basement of Olde Club, except with better beer, oder?
At that particular moment we were in a department store turned anarchist squatting space turned art gallery/dance club, and I nodded in agreement and pretended to smoke a cigarette.
But honestly? Berlin may be a dirty city full of broken beer bottles and aspiring hipsters, but it is way cooler than Olde Club. Last night I went to a bar called “Dr. Pong,” which is basically a concrete box with exposed wires, a broken heating system, a few crates of pilsner, and a ping pong table.
A bunch of drunk people run in a circle around this table hitting the ball back and forth, and if you miss when it’s your turn you’re out, like a sort of musical chairs ping pong. Once you get down to two people they play a game against each other.
When you get out, you sit on the sidelines and drink some more and maybe smoke a cigarette. Despite the fact that their characteristically non-euphemistic cigarette advertising always says “Rauchen kann tÃ¶dlich sein“, the Germans have no shame about smoking, none whatsoever, indeed they’re embarrassed not to smoke, and despite the recent Rauchverbot, which means they legally can’t smoke inside anymore, they don’t care at all, and I’ve never seen a bartender scold anyone. I think this is because hating yourself is not only accepted in Germany, but expected.
Another thing that’s different about parties in Berlin is “black music.” Every record store has this category, and I don’t understand it. It’s not just “music that has black roots,” because they never put German rap in it, but it’s not just “music by black people,” because they always put Justin Timberlake in it, and it’s not “music by black people plus Justin Timberlake,” because black people who play jazz or techno or who aren’t from America are rarely in it.
I have concluded that the Germans have a complicated system of “Black Points,” where you get +10 for being black, +5 for being what Americans would call “Hip-Hop” or “R’n’B,” +3 for having collaborated with Timbaland and -8 for being sort of nerdy or non-danceable or German.
I wish they would just drop the category altogether, not so much because I find it borderline racist as because I like seeing ads for gay bars that announce “Thursday nights! Hip-Hop for Homos and their Homies!” and I think this would be more common if we taught more Germans what hip-hop was.
While we’re elaborating on previous themes from this column, I should mention that not everybody here agrees with me about capitalism. Like this guy. [Capitalism standardizes, destroys, kills!]
But my favorite thing about Berlin is its convoluted history. One thing that never fails to shock me for a moment is when Germans start talking about “9/11.” This date has an entirely different meaning to the rest of the world than it does to Americans, because it is an entirely different day of the year!
I suppose even if it were the same day of the year it might have a different meaning and I would have to accept that, but in Germany, at any rate, September 11th is “11/9” and “9/11” is November 9th, which just happens to be the German Schicksaltag, or “Day of Fate.” Why is that?
Well, in 1848, a liberal member of parliament was executed, marking the “beginning of the end” for the 1848 Revolution, in 1918 Emperor Wilhelm II was dethroned and Germany became the Weimar Republic, in 1923 the Nazi Party came to national attention through the Beer Hall Putsch, in 1938 over 1400 Jews were killed during the Kristallnacht, and in 1989 the Berlin Wall fell.
This bizarre mash-up of events brings me to a larger point about national histories, which is that they are different from each other. While I guess I’ve always been aware of “American exceptionalism,” the first time it really hit me that not every country gets to see itself as a winner was at a national history museum in Copenhagen.
The final panel said something like “We hope you have enjoyed the story of how Denmark went from being a great naval power of the North Sea to a small nation raising its voice in concert with other nations.”
And then I realized what had been off about the museum–we had started with Viking treasure hordes and climbed up the stairs only to get to UN delegate nametags. I thought, “It seems that Danish people have a different sense of national identity than I do–theirs is based on being losers, and mine is based on being a winner!”
(I can be pretty jingoistic when I want to be, oder? Although, sidenote, in chilling with a lot of international students these last few months, I’ve learned that national-stereotype-based humor is a great bonding tool. Once you’ve established that you are all people of generally global goodwill, which isn’t hard, given that you’ve all travelled to Germany to learn about their culture, you can start making fun of the Norwegians who can’t ice skate and the Brazilians who can’t get any girls, and then you can all laugh.)
German national identity isn’t really about being a loser or a winner–it’s about being a perpetrator and then a victim, but still unavoidably and always a perpetrator, and how terrible that is. Also an illustrious intellectual history.
(And Austrian national identity is about pretending to be a victim while actually being chock-full of perpetrators. A TÃ¤ter in Opfer‘s clothing, so to speak. More on this in a few weeks.)
So the international media was all over the story when Germans started displaying their national flag during the 2006 Football World Championships, which were hosted here. Finally, finally it was OK to be a German, and to want Germans to win! You could sing songs about it! (As long as they weren’t “Deutschland Ã¼ber alles“, that was.)
One of the songs was by this band called Sportfreunde Stiller, and you can watch it here, and the chorus goes like this:
1 und 2 und 3 und 54, 74, 90, 2006
ja so stimmen wir alle ein.
Mit dem Herz in der Hand und der Leidenschaft im Bein
werden wir Weltmeister sein
The Germans have been Weltmeister three times before, and this chorus says that we all agree, with hearts in our hands and passion in our legs, this time we will be Weltmeister! They weren’t (although they did come in third), so now people sing it with 2010 instead of 2006.
(I like to imagine Swatties coalescing around our soccer team in the same way. Maybe once we have that mascot, huh?)
But as I was saying before that musical interlude, just because Germans dusted off their flags for a summer doesn’t mean that they’re all better.
One thing I really wish they would get around to fixing is finding a new word for “Leader.” Because it used to be FÃ¼hrer, right, but you don’t want to call people that anymore, but whenever we ask our professors what we should say instead they just sort of shrug and say “Warum nicht ‘Guide’? Warum nicht vermeiden es? ” and you say in return,
“Aber Deutschland hat viele, viele Leaders! Warum kannst du nicht ein neues Wort erfinden? Was ist dein Problem?“
To which they shrug and say “Warum, warum ist die Banana krumm?” which means “Why, why, is the banana curved?” and which doesn’t answer anything. You’ll remember that they still haven’t invented a word to distinguish between “friend who is a girl” and “girl who I sleep with”? These are the people we’re dealing with here–it’s no wonder they like philosophy so much.
Which brings me to the story I have wanted to tell this whole time, about my visit to the former Stasi Prison in East Berlin. It took me a little over an hour to get there from the middle of the city, so I was surprised to find at least 50 other people waiting for the 2 PM tour. I didn’t understand everything because the tour was in German, but even with what I did see and understand, I don’t think I’ve ever been to a more interesting and affecting historical monument.
Our guide was a former prisoner who was arrested in early 1989 for writing (in an underground newspaper? I’m not sure) that even if Germany had to be divided into two states, it would always be a united nation and people. He had come back, he said, in what would become a refrain throughout the tour, to tell people about the terrible things that could happen in the nation of “Dichter und Denker,” translated as “poets and philosophers.”
The guide told us about the physical and psychological torture prisoners suffered under during different phases of the prison’s life span. One thing they kept throughout was sleep deprivation–prisoners were required to sleep in a straight line with their hands resting on their thighs, and if the guard came by and saw that you had moved from the prescribed position, he would shout at you until you woke up. This made it impossible to ever get any deep sleep.
We saw the pitch-black rubber isolation cells, the torture rooms from the early days of the prison, before they switched to primarily psychological torture, and the interrogation offices. In the interrogation rooms, our guide would rapidly turn on a member of the group (I kept my cover–thankfullly he never picked me) and start asking them questions, finding out what they would do if he told them their mother had committed suicide out of despair, all of us realizing, ultimately, that the Stasi knew how to back you into any corner they wanted.
He liked to talk about language here–how in the land of “Dichter und Denker” there were also people who perverted language, who called the Berlin Wall an “antifaschistischer Schutzwall” when, so our guide said, it was the East that was carrying on the fascist tradition.
And he had a right hand that couldn’t stop shaking, and you would just look at it and think “months without seeing another human being… maybe he was tortured… you know he didn’t sleep… I think I’m going to cry now.”
It’s not hard to get me to cry, really. I cried during Das Leben der Anderen, the German movie that won the best picture Oscar last year? And it’s funny, you know, because people like this guy are disappointed in the films about East Germany that came out before that one, the “Sonnenallee” and the “Goodbye Lenin!” and all the other comedies which they think trivialize the true repression of the time. And this guy liked this film (he told us at the end), but he’s still a bit pissed off about it, because there’s no recorded case of a Stasi officer ever doing anything like that, he says, and it’s nice that they’re trying to humanize it, but not before they show it for what it really was first.
His references kept overlapping in this sort of historical collage–a little bit of Bismarck and some Weimar Republic, plenty of “Dichter und Denker“, and then die Nazizeit and die DDR, these last two in so many ways the same.
But it’s been nearly twenty years since the DDR, and something like 50% of Germans still say we shouldn’t be talking about the bad things people in the DDR did because it will hurt reunification–and there hasn’t been any de-Stasification comprable to the de-Nazification after World War Two. And everyone likes to laugh about it, which is great, but we all know that sometimes laughing is used to stave off crying, and how long can you procrastinate on crying?
(In my experience: until about six hours before your paper is due, when everything in your personal life will inevitably and suddenly fall apart.)
So that’s why we’re here now, in Berlin, still figuring all of this out.
It’s a construction site of history. With pretty good ping-pong. I’ll be back.