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January 2006
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Blog Housekeeping

Two short notes:

1.  I am grateful as always for all the interesting comments, and special thanks to all for your patience with the comment-approval process. It's annoying, but it has allowed me to remove plenty of spam already, so I think I'm going to stick with it.

2.  Since this blog is read by about an equal number of English and German native speakers, and since I cite both English and German websites, I need a link policy.  Whenever there is a link in one of the posts, the default rule is that the link is in English. If it's in German, I will put a little (G) after the link, so those poor souls who can't (yet) read German will be warned.

Continue reading "Blog Housekeeping" »

Why Germany has a Low Birth Rate

Germany's birth rate is too low to sustain its current population levels, and this is going to cause increasing problems for it. The new Minister for Families, Ursula von der Leyen, a woman who has seven children herself, thinks the answer is to shower yet more money (German) on Germans who have children, this time in the form of more tax breaks and "parent-money," which adds to the "child-money" Germans already get. Her proposals, as well as her person, are controversial, for reasons I won't get into.

The Allensbach institute, on of the principal public-opinion research institutes in Germany, recently asked Germans of child-bearing age why they aren't having children.  Here are some of the reasons (German):

  1. A child would be too much of a financial burden (47%)
  2. I'm still too young for that (47%)
  3. My career plans would be hard to fulfill with a child (37%)
  4. I haven't yet found the right partner (28%)
  5. I want to have the maximum amount of freedom, not to have to limit myself (27%)
  6. I have many interests that would be hard to reconcile with having a child (27%)
  7. Children are hard to raise; I am not sure I have the strength and nerves for that (27%)
  8. I want to be as independent as possible (26%)
  9. I would then have less time for friends (19%)
  10. I don't know if my relationship will stay together (17%)
  11. I or my partner would be at a career disadvantage if we had a child (16%)

Continue reading "Why Germany has a Low Birth Rate" »

Anyone but Wolfgang

Classical curmudgeon Normal Lebrecht is on a mission, which can be summarized in two words: Fuck Mozart.

As anyone whose breath still steams up mirrors knows, Europe's cultural bureaucrats are staging a merciless "shock and awe" campaign to celebrate the 250th anniversary of Wolfgang Amadeus' birth.

Lebrecht is not one to take shelter in bunkers; he's declared war. As a defense against the endless performances of sickeningly familiar Mozart works, and the stale, formulaic speeches, Lebrecht is proposing counter-candidates for adulation, among them Robert Schumann, who died in an insane asylum near Bonn 150 years ago this year.  Schumann, suffering from bipolar disorder and end-stage syphilis, had earlier attempted suicide by jumping off a bridge into the Rhine in Düsseldorf, his last posting.

Of course, Lebrecht notes, Schumann's a harder sell than Mozart, despite the achingly beautiful song-cycles and the symphonies:

Let's not be naïve about this. Jowly Robert Schumann with his hangdog eyes is never going to sell as many marzipan boxes as the Wolf Gang, nor does any of his music fall as easily on the ear as the Amadeus soundtrack or the special-offer i-Tunes site. Where Mozart mints money, Schumann hints at suicide.


There is an undercurrent of darkness to everything he wrote, even (perhaps especially) to the Dichterliebe with its 'wonderfully beautiful month of May' when all the buds are bursting and the heart is full of love. In the seventh of 16 verses, 'Ich grolle nicht', the poet declaims that he won't complain when his heart is broken; in the concluding verse he flings the coffin of his love deep into the river Rhine. Like all true romantics, Heine and Schumann could not tell love from death and both are foretold in the sunniest times of their lives.


I can understand why artists and orchestras who depend on public favour shrink from playing Schumann in the 150th year of his death and will doubtless do so again in 2010, the bicentenary of his birth. I can sympathise with the strategists, the image makers, the ticket counters. But it seems a terrible waste, a missed opportunity to explore the depths of human experience, another triumph for the tinsel of easy tunes over the riches of human civilisation.

I hereby join Lebrecht in his noble crusade. I'll be designing armbands and banners for everyone, which will be available at reasonable prices for all German Joys members.

Solidarity in the U.S.

I wish I had written this essay, from In these Times, in which Christopher Hayes reflects on the sad fate of the concept of solidarity in the United States. Europeans seem to know instinctively that certain social problems can only be solved when we all work together. Indeed, I even pay an "extra solidarity payment" (Solidaritaetszuschlag) on my tax forms, which goes for some sort of government program or other.

What's important is not the specific government program, but the message it sends: "Lucky you, you're healthy and are earning money. Right now you help out others who are less fortunate. We'll make sure the effect is enhanced through a coordinated program that multiplies the power of each individual's contribution through coordination and consistency. Later, if you need it, we'll take care of you..."

But in the U.S., the word took a different line of development:

In the mid-19th century, solidarité crossed both the English Channel and the Atlantic. Sven-Eric Liedman, a professor of intellectual history at Sweden's Göteborg University, writes that Americans were skeptical of the French import: In 1844, one American complained of "the uncouth French word, solidarité now coming in such use." While the word never quite gained the same cachet it had (and continues to have) in Europe, the American left quickly adopted it. Solidarity was the name of an early anarchist journal. Eugene Debs said solidarity was "a fact, cold and impassive as the granite foundations of a skyscraper." ...  In the 1880s and 1890s, as members of the Knights of Labor struck across the country for an eight-hour day its motto was: "An injury to one is the concern of all."

Years later, the United Auto Workers, born of a series of dramatic sit-down strikes in the 1930s, named its headquarters Solidarity House, its publication Solidarity; at its 1970 convention Walter Reuther told the delegates: "We have taken on the most powerful corporations in the world and despite their power and their great wealth, we have always prevailed, because ... there is no power in the world that can stop the forward march of free men and women when they are joined in the solidarity of human brotherhood."

While in the United States, the word has been ghettoized in the labor movement, solidarity in Europe remains part of mainstream political vocabulary. The labor rights guaranteed in the European Union charter are collectively referred to as "rights to solidarity."

Of course, any word that packs a moral punch will soon find itself appropriated by political hucksters. To wit: For last year's State of the Union, Rep. Bobby Jindal (R-La.) organized fellow Republicans in a display of "solidarity" with the Iraqis who had just voted in their first election in decades. "Congress Dons Purple Clothes, Ink, for Solidarity with Iraqis," read the AP headline. In addition to their ink-stained fingers, the article noted, "Several women, including newly appointed Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, traded their red suits for violet."

From workers' struggle to Condoleezza Rice's evening wear--what a long, strange trip it's been.

German Word of the Week: Lebenskünstler

I've gotten a few emails recently about the distressing lack of "German Words of the Week."  Yes, it's true, I have been neglecting this section of German Joys.  I admit it.  But the neglect ends now.

Oscar Wilde once purportedly said "I put my talent into my work, but my genius into my life."  A suitable introduction to this week's entry, Lebenskünstler.  Literally translated, it means "life-artist."  Non-literally translated, it means, of course, much more. 

A recent documentary broadcast on German television showed recent immigrants to the United States living in the Roosevelt area of Queens. We met an undocumented immigrant from Ecuador who lived in a small part of house and worked in a beauty salon (overseen by another recent immigrant, from Vietnam).  We met a "coyote," who coordinated the smuggling of illegal immigrants to the U.S. 

We then met a Colombian (if memory serves) who had 8 children.  Since he broke his foot when he fell from a building at a construction site, he can no longer work in construction. Instead, he makes his living writing letters for other immigrants who cannot read or write.  They are almost invariably flowery love-letters to wives, girlfriends, or mothers.  (Fans of South American movies will be reminded of the main character in the Brazilian movie Central Station). He wheels himself around the neighborhood to various places where the undocumented gather.  He is always ready with a tale, ever-cheerful despite his precarious financial situation. 

He is a Lebenskünstler.  Someone who pieces together his living from various activities that, collectively, bring in just enough money to live.  No office, no suit, no boss, no rules. German has a word for such people, and English doesn't.  There's even a higher form of Lebenskünstler, and that is the Überlebenskünstler, or "survival artist."   Here we encounter a word that shows that English is, indeed, a Germanic language.   The word Überleben, literally translated, means "overlive," or survive.  It was used this way in John Donne's Seventh Meditation: "my disease cannot survive me, I may overlive it."  Here it is used in German to refer to Africans who are not merely life-artists, but survival-artists.

So, GWOW fans, here is your fix.  I will return to the theme several times this week, to make sure the German Word of the Week remains a Word of the Week, and not a Word of the Month, or worse yet, Year...

Kafka's Epigrammatic Mutilation Memos

Franz Kafka began his career in the Prague head office of the Worker's Accident Insurance Bureau of the Kingdom of Bohemia on 30 July 1908.  During the next decades, Kafka published various rather idiosyncratic "literary" works that have gained some attention in specialist circles. His contribution to the development of the Bohemian insurance industry has, however, been neglected.

Until now.  S. Fischer publishers, as part of their Critical Edition of Kafka, has issued a a carefully-edited 1,024-page volume entitled Official Writings. The volume will be of interest primarily to the millions worldwide who, like me, have found themselves captivated by the story of Central European insurance during this time of upheaval and innovation. According to a recent review (German) in Die Zeit by Andreas Maier, however, there are also gems for the ordinary reader (my translation):

"Only a specialist would want to read this massive body of text in its entirety, but it is full of finds, for instance the sub-chapter in the "1909 Yearly Report" with the title Accident- Prevention Measures with Regard to Wood-Planing Machines. In this section one learns, for example (in gloriously lucid Kafka-sentences) what the difference is between round shafts and square shafts from a safety perspective: "Such and accident, however (with the latter type of shaft) does not occur without cutting off several joints of the finger -- indeed, whole fingers themselves." Accompanying this description is a table depicting various types of mutilating injuries associated with these accidents.

Buy the entire 1,024 pages (for a mere 178 Euro) here. Should an English or American publisher be interested in an English translation of this book, I would be happy to consider all reasonable offers.

Actually, on second thought, perhaps I'll pass.

Trackback Spam and Comment Approval

I just got a blizzard of trackback spam.  While it's fascinating to see the various forms of polymorphous perversity that humans are capable of, I don't really think we need endless links to porn websites on German Joys.  To stop this, I've turn on the option that requires me to approve all comments and trackbacks.  Therefore, please don't be disappointed if your comments don't show up immediately. 

This is a bit annoying, becasue my only problem is with trackbacks, not comments -- but Typepad only allows you an all-or-nothing option.  You either have to approve all new comments and trackbacks, or not.  So now you'll have to wait until I approve the comments.  Don't blame me, blame Typepad!

What Blogs Can Become

Yesterday I linked to Stephan Niggemeiers good piece on the fairly primitive state of "institutional" weblogging in Germany.  What I thought I'd do is explain where, in my humble opinion, Germany needs to go in its use of blogs. 

When Germans define blogs to other Germans who don't yet know what they are, they tend to described them as "Internet Tagebücher" -- Internet diaries.  Every once in a while you sit down and spout off your opinion about something, or described something that happened to you that day.  There's nothing wrong with this, in fact there are some splendid German blogs out there along these lines, like the incredibly lively, which is based in my current place of residence.

But the U.S. has taken the next step: some blogs have actually become important.  They're no longer  just someone spouting off their opinion, they're sources of analysis and investigation.  They come in a few types:

Continue reading "What Blogs Can Become" »