'Er ist Wieder Da' by Timur Vermes appears in English

Jamie Bulloch's translation of Er ist Wieder Da into English under the title Look Who's Back gets an uneasy review in the New York Times:

The novel’s conceit is easily summarized, less easily parsed. In 2011, Hitler awakes (apparently not from uneasy dreams, as Gregor Samsa does) in a field in Berlin. “I remember waking up,” he says. “I was lying on an area of undeveloped land, surrounded by terraces of houses.” He has no memory of his suicide. He has no idea how he’s gotten here. Soon enough he is taken with watching “modern-day television,” but when he finds only cooking shows, he is angered that “Providence had presented the German Volk with this wonderful, magnificent ­opportunity for propaganda, and it was being squandered on the production of leek rings.”

For the next 250 pages, Vermes walks us through months during which Hitler, resurrected by unexplained means, ­overcomes every presented obstacle. A newspaper vendor discovers him in ­uniform and assumes he must be an impersonator playing for dark comedy — the word Galgenhumor belongs, after all, to the Germans — and gives him a bed. Producers from an “Ali G”-style comedy show (hosted by the unimaginatively named “Ali Gagmez”) offer him a spot on the program. His first appearance quickly accrues hundreds of thousands of YouTube views. Soon Hitler gets his own show, website, production studio, even a back-alley beating by right-wingers who assume he’s making fun of himself. Eventually he also has a deal to write about his life. “I’m calling to ask whether you’d like to write a book?” the editor says. “I already have,” Hitler replies. “Two, in fact.”

Let me just admit it: the main reason I posted this is so I could include the illustration by Doug Chayka:


Who's Afraid of Big European Cocks? America, That's Who.


[Hans von Thann (g) ringin' the bell of the Zytgloggenturm in Bern, Switzerland, if ya know what I mean]

I don't mean to give offense, so let me be clear: the word cocks doesn't mean what you're thinking. I only meant to refer to penises. When the BBC wanted to strap big English cocks into big English codpieces on the front of actors playing 16th-century Englishmen, the pussies at American Public Broadcasting Service said: 'not in my America': 

The codpieces in the adaptation of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall are “definitely too small”, according to a Cambridge academic who has been researching the 16th-century accessory through the literature and paintings of its time.

Victoria Miller, who is due to give a paper on codpieces at a Cambridge University conference on 30 April, concurred with actor Mark Rylance, who plays Thomas Cromwell in the adaptation and who said late last year: “I think the codpieces are just too small. I think that was a directive from our American producers, PBS. They wanted smaller codpieces.”

...“They’re way too small to be accurate – they should be at least double the size. You can kind of see them there, but they aren’t really stuffed, and are easily missed – they’ve really toned them down for a mainstream audience. The codpiece was meant to draw the eye to the general region.”

[h/t JR] Said it before, say it again: national stereotypes don't materialize out of thin air. Here's a photo from the Biblical Creation Museum in Kentucky, where the biggest challenge was, as Faggoty-Ass Faggot put it, how to hide Adam's cock:


Saturday Night Live once aired a skit (can't find the video, or even an image, alas) featuring John Belushi sitting at a bar. The guy next to him goes to the bathroom and comes back out with a noticeably grosser crotch bulging from his tight late-70's jeans, and a girl immediately latches on to him. Belushi tries the same thing with a few handfuls of toilet paper, to no effect. Then Belushi returns to the bathroom and stuffs entire rolls of toilet paper down the front of his pants until there's a bulge the size of a small automobile. He then waddles gingerly back into the bar and is immediately surrounding by fawning honeys.

According to the linked piece on Hans von Thann, Swiss codpieces were usually stuffed for protection of the genitals and contained enough room to store things like coins and keys, since the pocket wasn't invented until 1754. The German Word of the Week, by the way, is the antiquated German term for codpiece, Schamkapsel, or 'shame-capsule'. This joins shamelips, shamehair, shameregion, etc.

German Pharmacist-Interrogators Despise Your Diseased Feet

Firoozeh Dumas moved from America to Germany and experienced the opinionated world of German customer service at the pharmacy or, as she calls it, the shame shack:

Let’s say you have a borderline embarrassing medical condition. Here’s how it goes down in America: You go to Target, walk past the dollar bins (keep walking, your local landfill thanks you), stroll to the pharmacy located near the free restrooms, pick up your over-the-counter medication, amble toward the registers while deciding which one of the many available cashiers will have the pleasure of ringing up your purchase, and finally pick up a pack of gum or the latest Disney princess Band-Aids. A minute later, the cashier asks, “Did you find everything you needed today?”

I moved to Germany two years ago, and my German friends tell me that they dislike this fake American friendliness. But it’s not fake! If you ever respond to the cashier with, “I did not find the all-in-one solar-paneled suntan spray with built-in fan that doubles as a beer mug,” said cashier will call over a colleague whose sole purpose will then be to find this object in the vast caverns of Target. Granted, maybe both of these employees hate their jobs, but you will never know that by their pleasant behavior. That’s America.

[Now to Berlin] I ... approached the pharmacist. “I am looking for medicine for foot fungus, fusspilz,” I added, in a low voice.

“This is for YOU?” she asked loudly, pointing to me. Her English was fine. Volume control, not so much.

... As soon as I confessed, a second pharmacist popped up, like a jack-in-the-box, from behind the counter. She said something to the first pharmacist, who said something back. It all sounded very judgmental. “What did they say?” I asked my daughter, who is not only my restroom decoy but also my translator.

“You have foot fungus?” the second pharmacist asked. Why was she getting involved? I did not need, or want, two pharmacists.

“Yes,” I said, again.

She then reached for a small box behind the counter.

The first pharmacist said, “You use TWO times,” holding up two fingers. “Every day.”

“Wear socks, then wash socks,” the second one added.

“Wash socks in HOT water,” the first one said.

“But not with other clothes,” No.2 added.

“Separately,” No.1 said.

“More laundry! Lucky me!” I said, trying to be funny, which never works in Germany.

“This is because you have foot fungus,” No.1 reminded me.

“Yes, I do,” I confessed again.

I paid for the ointment, while my daughter selected a lollipop.

As we left the shame shack, I felt a pang of nostalgia for the Target employees whose names I may not remember, but whose earnestness I do. I miss you.

I had minor surgery a couple years ago. Before leaving, a seemingly normal German doctor in his late 50s came by to advise me about wound care at home. I asked him when I could next take a shower. He said: 'Wait 2 days. And don't use soap of any kind.'

'Why not?' I asked.

'Why, do you normally use soap when you shower'?

'Uh, of course.'

'Well, I don't. You shouldn't either. Nobody should. By all means shower, but avoid soap. All that stuff does is clog your pores and stick germs to your body, and it's terrible for the environment. The only reason people use it is the big companies have convinced them by marketing that they need to smell like flowers. Your body is covered in natural oils that have protected it for hundreds of thousands of years when soap never existed. Soap destroys that natural protection layer. Don't use it, ever.'

'But what do you use to avoid stinking like a French whore?'

'Nothing. Just a nice shower of plain water every couple of days.'

He was standing about a meter away from me and never came close enough for me to test his theory.

I still use soap when I shower. 

Coming to Terms with Günter Grass

Marian Wirth allowed me to post his pithy assessment of Grass, hoisted from a comment feed on another website:

Grass was pretty much the last surviving founding father of German post-war literature. He became instantly famous with his debut novel and used the financial independence and the fame to promote authors younger and/or less successful than him, to improve Germany's position in the world and to boost interest in German as a language all over the world.

It still confuses me to hear foreign authors praise Grass - celebrities like Salman Rushdie, who spent the day Grass died defending him on Twitter, as well as national celebrities in, say, Brazil or Nigeria, who tell you how much they adore Grass ever since they read the TIN DRUM as a teenager and I'm always like "WHAT?!" when I hear that because everything about Grass and his most notorious book is so German that I have still trouble believing it even got translated into English.

Bottom line: He was THE most important figure for German literature and one of the leading brand ambassadors for German culture. Even people who disagreed on everything with Grass can't deny that and it drives them crazy, I can tell you.

Grass was a man of many talents. Unfortunately, he got famous for writing novels, his least developed talent.

He was a world class boozer, smoker and dancer.
He was an outstanding sculptor.
He was a phenomenal graphic artist.
He was an efficient SPD canvasser.
He was one of the three leading anti-Semites in Germany, and a decent poet, resulting in the ugliest piece of anti-Semitism published in Germany after the second world war.

His novels are more or less unreadable, since he subscribed to the leading principles of German post-war literature such as the following: avoid direct speech at all cost. Direct speech and dialogue are evil, leave them to the Americans and their movie-script like writing. It's your job to make the readers suffer. Insurmountable blocks of text are your thing. Long winding, meandering sentences filled with German guilt and with guilt to be a human being enjoying life are your profession.

I have read several of his novels, though failed twice to read the TIN DRUM (I'll give it a third try soon). "Too Far Afield" took me over a year to get through. My favorite Grass novel is The Meeting at Telgte.

Politically, he was wrong on everything after 1990. Not only was he wrong on everything, his criticism was always over the top, mean, vile and presented in an apodictic fashion that made it impossible to argue against it. This rant is presented in a similar way to make it more obvious what drove me away from Grass.

So much for an executive summary of what needs to be said about Grass. Vale, rest in peace etc. should still apply, of course.

The Economist on German-Americans


The Economist gives us German-Americans some respect:

German-Americans are America’s largest single ethnic group (if you divide Hispanics into Mexican-Americans, Cuban-Americans, etc). In 2013, according to the Census bureau, 46m Americans claimed German ancestry: more than the number who traced their roots to Ireland (33m) or England (25m). In whole swathes of the northern United States, German-Americans outnumber any other group (see map). Some 41% of the people in Wisconsin are of Teutonic stock.

Yet despite their numbers, they are barely visible. Everyone knows that Michael Dukakis is Greek-American, the Kennedy clan hail from Ireland and Mario Cuomo was an Italian-American. Fewer notice that John Boehner, the Speaker of the House of Representatives, and Rand Paul, a senator from Kentucky with presidential ambitions, are of German origin.


German immigrants have flavoured American culture like cinnamon in an Apfelkuchen. They imported Christmas trees and Easter bunnies and gave America a taste for pretzels, hot dogs, bratwursts and sauerkraut. They built big Lutheran churches wherever they went. Germans in Wisconsin launched America’s first kindergarten and set up Turnvereine, or gymnastics clubs, in Milwaukee, Cincinnati and other cities.

After a failed revolution in Germany in 1848, disillusioned revolutionaries decamped to America and spread progressive ideas. “Germanism, socialism and beer makes Milwaukee different,” says John Gurda, a historian. Milwaukee is the only big American city that had Socialist mayors for several decades, of whom two, Emil Seidel and Frank Zeidler, were of German stock. As in so many other countries where Germans have settled, they have dominated the brewing trade. Beer barons such as Jacob Best, Joseph Schlitz, Frederick Pabst and Frederick Miller made Milwaukee the kind of city that more or less had to call its baseball team the Brewers.

Today German-Americans are quietly successful. Their median household income, at $61,500, is 18% above the national norm. They are more likely to have college degrees than other Americans, and less likely to be unemployed. A whopping 97% of them speak only English at home.

They have assimilated and prospered without any political help specially tailored for their ethnic group. “The Greeks and the Irish have a far stronger support network and lobby groups than we do,” says Peter Wittig, Germany’s ambassador in America. There was no German-American congressional caucus until 2010, though there were caucuses for potatoes, bicycles and Albanian affairs. The German caucus has quickly grown to about 100 members, who lobby for trade and investment as well as the preservation of their common cultural heritage.

Stuffing Pregnant Women with Marmot Meat


A while ago I visited Zürich and bought this book, Vom Essen und Trinken im alten Zürich ('On Eating and Drinking in Old Zürich'). I saw it at a flea market and just liked the quality -- thick, glossy paper, lots of interesting and well-integrated illustrations, solid and durable binding. A fine example of the bookmaker's art. (You know, real bookmakers).

I've been dipping into it a bit lately, and it turns out to be full of Fun Facts.© As was pretty normal for medieval Europe, people needed protein and ate anything that moved, from eels to finches to sparrows to hawks to frogs to hedgehogs. Smaller birds would just be roasted on a spit and eaten whole, their tiny bones providing the sought-after crunch factor. To conceal the fact that some of these meats are pretty revolting, they would be slathered in fat and whatever spices came to hand. Things got a lot easier after 1500, when trade brought eastern spices, sugar, coffee, tea, and other delicacies first to the rich, then to everyone except the poorest people.

We also learn that medieval and early-modern Germans avoided eating malodorous cheese, giving it the nickname Schreck-den-Gast (scare the guest). During times of scarcity, the Zürich authorities would create exhaustive, precise rationing lists, most of which survive (Remember, they're Swiss). According to one such list, pregnant women were to receive extra rations, including extra portions of marmot (groundhog) meat. 

That'll teach those strumpets!

Bleg: German News Coverage of Failures of German Justice

I am working on an op-ed piece and perhaps an article about journalistic coverage of the German criminal justice system which I hope to publish on paper, in German, in some German newspaper.

The subject is going to be what I perceive to be the imbalance in German-language coverage of the American criminal justice system versus the German criminal justice system. That is, German-language newspapers are full of coverage (of widely varying quality, much of it error-filled) about Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, American death row inmate X or Z, but rarely cover problems in the German criminal justice system. Before asserting this, I want to try to make sure it's true!

So what I am looking for is articles in the German-language press by Germans which deal with potential justice problems in courts in German-speaking countries including:

(1) wrongful convictions;

(2) racial, ethnic, or religious disparities in conviction rates or sentencing;

(3) allegations of racial or ethnic or religious bias among German prosecutors and professional or lay judges;

(4) interviews with prisoners currently serving prison sentences in Germany who claim that they are completely innocent of the crimes of which they were convicted; and/or

(5) detailed examinations of systemic problems in German criminal justice or prisons, things such as underfunding, outdated regulations, disproportionate penalties, or the use of unreliable evidence.

I'm interested, in particular, in well-researched studies or in-depth reportings, not just stories like 'this lefty activist claims he was convicted only because the judge was a right-winger and we lefty activist journalists of course totally believe him and feel no need to research the allegations any further!!' There's a lot of that about in Germany, and it's generally justly ignored.

Also I'm not super-interested in stories about the RAF, which I consider to be an irrelevant side issue. I'm interested in well-considered stories about why random anonymous criminal Achmet got 4 years in prison for the exact same crime that random anonymous criminal Detlef got 2 years for.

Thanks in advance for any links in comments.

Sacralizing Victims and Demonizing Opponents

Social psychologist Jonathan Haidt on the left's tendency to sacralize victim groups, and the use of demonization and motive-questioning as a rhetorical strategy. Once you get the concept, you see it all over the place. In fact, much public debate consists of people trying to fit their experience into the paradigm of victimization, so they can then claim the benefits of sacralization for themselves. Thus many leftists decline to point to the glaring faults in Greek society for fear of being drummed out of the anti-neoliberal tribe, and German policymakers claim to be really on the side of poor, long-suffering German taxpayers (not influential German banks), whose generosity nobody seems willing to recognize.

Or take the debate about Thilo Sarrazin's book Germany Abolishes Itself. Most of the book consists of nothing more than a sobering, detailed presentation of the facts: almost every measure -- educational achievement, income, crime, etc. -- shows immigrant minorities in Germany to be faring, on average, drastically worse than ethnic Germans (g). The disparities are eye-poppingly huge. But even mentioning these disparities (much less accompanying them with ignorant insults as Sarrazin did) is delicate, because Germans of Turkish origin really are a disadvantaged minority subject to discrimination, and thus are subject to being sacralized by the left. So many on the left confidently denounced the book without having read it, in fact often praising themselves for refusing to read it on principle. Similarly, when a tabloid points out the clear overrepresentation of minorities among sentenced criminals (especially in violent crime by young people), the reaction is to denounce the 'populism' of the 'rabble-rousing' paper, without even addressing whether the reported statistics are, in fact, accurate or whether the alleged crime actually took place. And Sarrazin, for that matter, styles himself as a victim of majority political correctness as well, for being vilified for bringing up these things in the first place.*

The instinct to sacralize victims groups is understandable, perhaps laudable under certain circumstances. But it also leads people to ghettoize themselves into filter bubbles. I can't remember how many times Germans have reacted with shock when I told them, for instance, that I read Sarrazin's book or enjoy reading Bild once in a while or visit the more intelligent right-wing websites (not just the ranting opinion-spouting ones). They seem to confuse exposing yourself to information as endorsing all the viewpoints it's wrapped in. The mere act of reading a verboten website seems to many of them an act of inexplicable, even suspicious betrayal. It's a sort of tribal groupthink that I find just a tad, well, unsatisfying.

Continue reading "Sacralizing Victims and Demonizing Opponents" »

German Parents Dismayed at American Media Campaign Against Their Son

Paul Nungesser, the German exchange student at the center of a major campus-rape scandal in the United States (the woman who accused him of rape was invited by a US Senator to Obama's State of the Union address!) has decided to come out and publicly fight for his reputation, and his parents -- from Germany -- are supporting him:

“What really struck us as outrageously unfair,” says Nungesser’s father, Andreas Probosch, a schoolteacher who speaks near-perfect English, “was the university’s non-reaction to Emma Sulkowicz's public campaign. After investigating the allegations against Paul for seven months they found them not credible, but when Ms. Sulkowicz went to the press and claimed Columbia had swept everything under the rug, why didn’t they stand by his side and say, ‘We do have a process and we followed that process and we stand by the acquittal’? Instead they declined to comment and just threw him under the bus.”

Both Probosch and Nungesser express bafflement at the practice of letting colleges handle allegations of violent rape. But if such a process must exist, says Probosch, “doesn’t [it] only make sense if people accept its outcome?” In this case, he says, “Paul went through this whole process with endless hours of hearings and interviews and cooperated in every way possible. And yet if you Google him, in half of the articles you´ll find, he is still labeled a serial rapist.”

For Nungesser’s mother, Karin, the situation is laden with additional irony as a self-described committed feminist. Paul Nungesser’s comment to The New York Times, “My mother raised me to be a feminist,” caused predictable controversy; but his mother, at least, agrees. She points out that she and her husband took an equal role in parenting and that gender issues, which were part of her journalistic work, were often discussed in their home when her son was growing up: “I think we did not just tell him that men and women are created equal, but we lived it.”

Karin Nungesser fully understands the desire to support someone who comes forward with an accusation of rape: “This is a good cause—but even in a good cause, you have to try to check the facts.” What she views as the failure to check the facts in this case appalls her not only as a feminist but as a journalist. “We can’t understand to this day why the major media never asked Paul about his side,” she says. “Going back to our own history, the media in western Germany were built upon the model of The New York Times. It was the idea of good journalism, of good fact-checking, of not doing propaganda.”

You know, I can't give legal advice and this is not legal advice, but even under American libel law, which is much less restrictive than its German counterpart, you are not allowed to go around referring to an identifiable person as a 'rapist' unless they are, you know, a rapist. No legal system worthy of the name permits citizens to falsely accuse each other of serious violent crimes. This is defamation. Nungesser was cleared of all charges by the university and Sulkowicz declined to press criminal charges against him because it was 'too draining'. So at least since December, when his name became public, she should think very very carefully about continuing to refer to him in public as a 'rapist', assuming she is still doing so. And Nungesser and his parents should consult a lawyer.

Two Truths About Greece

Boarded Doors Psirri

I've been to Greece several times and have Greek friends, so the recent election has sparked my interest. It seems to that the polarized debate over the Syriza victory is a classic case of motivated reasoning and opinion overkill on both sides. I want to make two brief, seeminly-but-not-genuinely contrary observations which you don't often see made in the same spot by the same person.

First, Greece is a corrupt, inefficient second-world country. This is something Greeks complain to one another about endlessly, but are hesitant to fully admit to outsiders on grounds of national pride. But it's the truth. Access to many jobs, including government jobs, is regulated by informal patronage networks, which often keep the best candidates sidelined. The Greek public education system varies hugely in quality and large portions of it are horribly dysfunctional, which means every parent who can afford to sends their children to private school. There is an ingrained culture of rule-breaking, tax evasion and black-market work that is only now slowly beginning to change. (Many Greeks will tell you this is a product of centuries of Ottoman rule). Kickbacks and bribes are still part of life, although apparently receding slightly. Much of the Greek economy is made up of labor-intensive, low value-added, non-export-generating jobs that generate little economic vibrancy. Greece has its own kind of license raj, in which sloth-like bureaucrats enforce pointless or antiquated regulations. Greece still doesn't have a modern, functional, reliable system of land title registration. There's only a weak culture of civic engagement and participation. For most Greeks, it makes more sense to simply adapt to the current horribly dysfunctional system, since challenging it as an individual is pointless and potentially even dangerous. This may well be changing, but the main reaction to Greek social dysfunction I witnessed during many visits in the mid-2000s was basically a sort of jovial what-are-ya-gonna-do despair.

In other words, when scolds say Greece needs massive reform, they are right. Most Greeks would enthusiastically agree with that sentiment when expressed by a fellow Greek.

Second, the troika's policies caused needless suffering among ordinary Greeks. The approach of the troika, which basically forced Greece into a round of significant austerity just as its economy was collapsing, was deliberately chosen from among a broader palette of options. Greece could have exited the Euro, of course, although that might have been even worse. Or Germany could have followed expansionary policies to increase inflation in Northern Europe while providing generous support to Greece. Germany, and Northern Europe more broadly, chose not to do so for a number of reasons, including the difficulty of selling such a policy to voters and the not-unjustified concern that it would ease the pressure for Greek reforms. But the fact remains that the EU and international institutions could have chosen policies to address the Euro crisis that would have had much less disastrous effects on southern European countries, but chose not to do so. Northern European countries consciously chose to put their own economic interests ahead of European solidarity.

The reason German politicians have looked so cynical during this crisis is that they want the world to interpret their calculated pursuit of their own economic interests as the principled, neutral enactment of strict but commonsensical policies with which every decent person must agree. In other words, like most of us, they want not only to pursue their own self-interest, but also be praised and admired for doing so. They often become angry when this doesn't happen, but they shouldn't be surprised.