There's Vegans, and Then There's German Vegans


American public radio highlights a recent report by German nutritionists warning about the potential risks of a vegan diet: 

Berlin resident Moza Kabbar ... says there's a huge boom in enthusiasm for veganism in the city.

But not everyone in Germany is on board. In a new paper, the German Nutrition Society says a vegan diet can't provide everything your body needs.

"With a pure plant-based diet, it is difficult or impossible to attain an adequate supply of some nutrients," states the German Nutrition Society's new position on the vegan diet. "The most critical nutrient is B-12," which is found in eggs and meat. The group says if you follow a vegan diet, you should take supplements to protect against deficiencies.

According to the German nutritionists, other "potentially critical nutrients" that may be a challenge to get in a vegan diet include omega-3s — found in fatty fish — as well as minerals such as calcium, iron, iodine, zinc and selenium. So the group recommends that vegans get advice from a nutrition counselor and be "regularly checked by a physician." In addition, the society recommends against a vegan diet for pregnant women, women who are breast-feeding, children and adolescents.

Advocates for veganism say the new position from German nutritionists goes too far.

"With a little planning and knowledge, rest assured, you can get everything you need from a vegan diet for great health ... at any age," Jimmy Pierson, a spokesperson for the Vegan Society, based in England, told us by phone....

But to make sure you're covering all your bases, "I would recommend [taking] a standard multivitamin," [U.S. dietitian Lisa] Cimperman says. It's a good insurance policy for vegans.

As for putting kids on vegan diets, the American Academy of Pediatrics says children can be well-nourished on all kinds of vegetarian diets, "but nutritional balance is very difficult to achieve if dairy products and eggs are completely eliminated," the position states. The academy recommends that if your child is following a vegetarian diet, "you need to guard against nutritional deficiencies."

Allow me to engage in some armchair sociologizin' here. Notice that this American news source quotes a Brit and an American, who both say perfectly sensible things about veganism. The target audience for the German nutrition report is not people like this. The target is German hard-core ideological vegans. These exist in the UK and US also, but I'd wager there are more of them here in Germany.

Why? Because Germany is the land of philosophical Idealism, deontological moral absolutes, and sayings such as "To be German means to do a thing for its own sake" (g, Wagner) and "A German is someone who cannot tell a lie without believing it himself." (Adorno). And, since the late 1960s, a public discourse which is drenched in moral judgment.

Many German vegans are vegans not just because it's healthy, or because they don't want to see animals exploited. They think in rigid ideological categories. They are fundamentally convinced, like fundamentalists, that mankind was fundamentally never meat to consume animal protein, and that doing so is fundamentally immoral. Not only that, taking supplements would be an admission that a vegan diet is not fundamentally sufficient, weakening its claim to be the only fundamentally morally acceptable way to feed oneself.

You encounter the word fundamentally a lot in German. Also the word konsequent, which describes someone whose actions align scrupulously with their stated principles. I have met many German vegans. The majority are sensible and take supplements. But there's a pretty large minority who absolutely refuse to do so, seeing it as an unacceptable ethical compromise. The notion that they would change their habits when they have children is also seen unacceptable ethical compromise. After all, what is more important than passing on your own fundamentally morally superior values of absolute nonviolence and sustainability to your children, so they will continue the lonely, voice-in-the-wilderness crusade for a better world? Assuming, of course, that the neural tube defects leave them able to communicate.

These are the people the German nutritionists are trying to reach. Of course, hard-core ideological German vegans will ignore the message, because that's the kind of people they are.

As Wickham Steed put it: "The Germans dive deeper -- but they come up muddier."

Anglosplaining and the Amusingness Gap

The Economist looks at why the most high-middlebrow shows and books about Germany are written by Brits:

This popularity of Anglo-Saxon storytellers “really is astonishing”, says Hermann Parzinger. He is a German archaeologist (best known for his work on the Scythians) and president of the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation, which owns museums, libraries and archives in Berlin. He is working with MacGregor in dreaming up how to curate the Humboldt Forum’s exhibits.

German academics, Parzinger says, write books to impress the five most important experts in their field. Popularity is suspect in German academia. The German word unseriös, etymologically the same as “unserious”, in fact means “lacking credibility”. But Anglo-Saxons, Parzinger thinks, “have it in their blood to make these things suspenseful and interesting even for lay people”. In particular, they know how to integrate into their storytelling “both the high and the low, without anything being banal”. Thus MacGregor effortlessly mixes Luther and Goethe with sausages and garden gnomes into one analysis that makes Germans feel they’ve understood something about themselves.

The Anglos also come across as likeable rather than belehrend, says Parzinger. That German word means “lecturing”, and is often used by Germans of Germans. The greatest fear of intellectuals in Germany and other continental countries is to appear shallow. The greatest fear of Britons is to seem pompous, says MacGregor. So they enliven their knowledge with good delivery and showmanship....

But even among outsiders the Anglos have the edge in Germany over, say, French, Polish, Dutch or Danish intellectuals. These neighbours were often part of German history – as enemies, victims or collaborators. German audiences expect them to reflect that perspective. A French historian talking about the 1940s, say, should probably also expound on Vichy and French collaboration.

The Brits, however, were always “geographically more outside”, says Parzinger, which makes them appear credible. Since the 1960s, for example, it has been all but taboo for German writers to argue anything other than that Germany bears sole responsibility for starting the first world war. Clark gleefully ignored that taboo in “The Sleepwalkers” – and outsold all the Germans, even in Germany. Clark can say the question of guilt is complicated, says Parzinger, but hearing it “from a German would have been more difficult”.

This goes back to a fundamental cultural difference which virtually every Anglo-Saxon picks up on quickly in Germany: Most Germans just aren't funny in ways Anglo-Saxons recognize, and a substantial minority aren't funny at all. Free-floating, value-neutral absurdity; obscene wordplay; sarcasm and irony; casual teasing insults among friends -- these styles of communication are much rarer in Germany than in the Anglo-Saxon world. Unless you know someone fairly well, the safest mode of communication is straightforward communication about mundane details of everyday life or anodyne remarks about current affairs which do not reveal a controversial personal opinion.

This is not to say there ain't no funny Germans, etc. etc. As with everything in life, this is a matter of probability distributions and bell curves, not of absolutes. Behold this scientific-looking graph:

DddThe more to the left you are on this graph, the more sincere and loyal. You become more entertaining as you move to the right. Germany is the bell curve with the peak of 52. England with the peak of 76. The separation is too wide, but it still makes the point. There's plenty of overlap (i.e. decent and funny people) in both directions, but the average Brit you meet is likely to be more entertaining than the average German.

The canon of values the average German has been raised with tend toward sincerity, honesty, credibility, punctuality, and loyalty. You can be a worthy, admirable person on this scale while being crushingly boring. In fact, being crushingly boring can actually be a helpful strategy, since humor, used inappropriately or at the wrong time, can undermine your reputation. Leave humor to the professionals. Or if you are called upon to be funny yourself, have a few memorized jokes or sayings on tap, just in case. Even if they're crushingly unfunny, people will laugh. Out of politeness.

Maybe I can't make you laugh, says the German, but I will take time out of my busy schedule to visit you in the hospital, and bring a thoughtful gift. Which is more important?

Growing up in the Anglo-Saxon world, there's a premium on being entertaining. Your cultural heroes are likely to be comedians rather than violinists or human-rights activists. You're likely to spend hours each day consuming humor. Dull people are ostracized. Unlike in Germany, where you might bring them along even though you know they'll just sit there silently, in England and the USA you will simply avoid them and mock them.

In this atmosphere, even renowned historians often learn to be decent storytellers and amusing chaps, because everyone is expected to be a decent storyteller and an amusing chap. In Germany, you can live a life that you and others would consider rich and full without ever (1) intentionally provoking (2) sincere laughter in another human being.

Patriarchy, Social Trust, and Smiling

The Atlantic summarizes a recent study:

Why do some societies not encourage casual smiling? I got my answer, or at least part of one, when I stumbled across a new paper by Kuba Krys [Kuba Krys? Didn't he lay down a smokin' freestyle on that Kendrick Lamar album? - ed.], a psychologist at the Polish Academy of Sciences [Oh, that Kuba Krys - ed.]. In some countries, smiling might not be a sign of warmth or even respect. It’s evidence that you’re a fool—a tricky fool.

Krys focused on a cultural phenomenon called “uncertainty avoidance.” Cultures that are low on this scale tend to have social systems—courts, health-care systems, safety nets, and so forth—that are unstable. Therefore, people there view the future as unpredictable and uncontrollable.

Smiling is a sign of certainty and confidence, so when people in those countries smile, they might seem odd. Why would you smile when fate is an invisible wolf waiting to shred you? You might, in those “low-UA” countries, even be considered stupid for smiling.

Krys also hypothesized that smiling in corrupt countries would be, um, frowned upon. When everyone’s trying to pull one over on each other, you don’t know if someone’s smiling with good intentions, or because they’re trying to trick you....

He found that in countries like Germany, Switzerland, China, and Malaysia, smiling faces were rated as significantly more intelligent than non-smiling people. But in Japan, India, Iran, South Korea, and—you guessed it—Russia, the smiling faces were considered significantly less intelligent. Even after controlling for other factors, like the economy, there was a strong correlation between how unpredictable a society was and the likelihood they would consider smiling unintelligent.

In countries such as India, Argentina, and the Maldives, meanwhile, smiling was associated with dishonesty—something Krys found to be correlated to their corruption rankings.

I've lived here in Tschermany long enough to witness a change or two. One is the increase in smiles on websites. Just anecdotally, I think the percentage of people smiling in websites about firms and universities has risen steadily. At one point, smiling too much in German would get you the reputation of being 'unseriös', but that seems to be fading these days. Also, cosmetic dentistry is becoming mainstream and affordable here. With the standard delay -- about 20 years after this happened in the USA.

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.

Zedler's Recipe for Spiced Beer Against Melancholy


A couple of German libraries, assisted by the German Research Council, have scanned all 63,000 pages (g) of 'Johann Heinrich Zedler's Great Complete Universal Encyclopedia of All the Sciences and Arts', published in 1732. It's even searchable. And it's fantastic.

I searched for melancolia in various spellings and came across this recipe for 'Spiced Beer Against Melancholey'. The antiquated spelling and Fraktur script make it a bit hard to read, but the recipe seems to have at least 15 or so ingredients, including young beer, 'hermo-dates(?)', carrot seeds, radishes, white wine, coriander seeds, juniper berries, St. John's Wort tips, and much more:

Krauter beer melancholey

There's got to be some philologist out there who can interpret the weights, measures, and cooking instructions. We can only hope all the spices are still available.

Let's all get together and whip up a giant cauldron of this stuff and get rid of our Melancholey once and for all! Who's with me?

Depressed Dawg in da Haus

Hip-hop was created in the USA, but since then it's spread everywhere, like a gigantic sentient fungus with moist, throbbing, pinkish pedipalps. The biggest mainstream hip-hop band in Germany is the Fantastischen Vier (Fantastic 4). The Fantastic 4 are amusingly earnest. One of their MCs, Smudo, for example, is a socially-conscious vegetarian.

The most 'gangsta' rapper in Germany is, naturally, not white. His name is Anis Mohamed Youssef Ferchichi, otherwise known as Bushido. Bushido's rhymes cover reassuringly familiar territory: fucking bitches, buying expensive shit, getting beatings from drunken parents and rival gangs, drug excesses, beating up faggots (Schwuchtel), etc., etc. The cherry on top is Bushido's alleged links to organized crime, rumors of which which he carefully cultivates. Runner-up position goes to Sido, a white German named Paul Würdig, whose stage name stands for the German abbreviation for 'Super-Intelligent Drug Victim'. His solo breakthrough came in 2002 with the sentimental lullaby Arschficksong, or 'Ass-fuck Song'. The cherry on top for Sido is that his civilian name, Würdig, means 'Dignified'. 

And then there are rappers who rap about how much they despise society and how depressed and helpless they are. Normally we associate rappers with unrealistically high self-esteem, but Germany wouldn't be Germany if it didn't produce rappers who drop knowledge like this (g):

Ein Opfer der Gesellschaft, ein Opfer deiner Eltern. Die andern werden größer und stärker, du wirst nur älter.

A victim of society, victim of your parents. The others get bigger and stronger, you just get older.

The composer of these lines was Jakob Wich, alias NMSZ ('Nemesis'), a rapper with the Düsseldorf outfit Antilopengang, most of whose members were formerly associated with a scene called the Anti-Everything Crusade, or Anti-Alles Aktion (g). I don't know how this rhyme continues, but I'm not all that eager to find out. I'm still American enough to have a deeply-ingrained aversion to, well, whining about how fucked-up everything is. Whining, however accurate, doesn't add to humankind's reserves of wisdom, inspiration, creativity, resolve, compassion, or beauty.

Given the proudly untreated depression and learned helplessness which emanates from just those two lines, it should come as no surprise that, tragically, NMSZ killed himself earlier this year. Here's another one of his songs, for the curious: 

German Bitchy Resting Face: The Suspicious Grimace

Above is a mildly amusing video seeking to 'raise consciousness' about people who have naturally bitchy expressions. This is a universal problem. For one thing, the British newspaper the Daily Mail quickly embraced the phenomenon, and who can argue with the World's Tabloid?

For more proof, look at this photograph, taken at a German automatic restaurant in 1965, taken from a historical article in Der Spiegel about automat restaurants:


The woman on the right has the archetypal German facial expression, which I call the 'suspicious grimace', or SG (misstrauische Grimasse in German). It's a look that says 'What the hell is he doing here? Why is he looking at me? Is he going to come up to me and fondle me or hit me or ask me for money? I wish he'd go away.' This is the default facial expression of all Germans over 30, especially middle-aged and older females. I see it at least 15-20 times on my 10-minute bike ride to work.

I could go out right now with a hidden camera to any German city and, within an hour, bring you at least 50 photographs of random strangers -- mostly older women -- with exactly this expression. In fact, I've often thought of doing just that, but you can get in trouble in Germany for using someone's image without their permission, so I haven't actually done this. Note that as with BRF, the SG is not necessarily a sign of bad temper. If you strike up a conversation with one of these people and defuse the initial assumption that all strangers are potential perverts or criminals, even the grumpiest-looking frump often proves to be quite pleasant.

What explains this national trait?  Is it genetic? Is it because most Germans are more fearful and insecure (pdf) than many other nationalities? Is it a lingering national memory of totalitarian government? Is is a curdled form of the remote, serious facial expression considered to convey personal dignity and reserve? Your guess may well be as good as mine -- we'll see in comments.

If you want to see what Swedes do when they notice strangers paying attention to them, follow the jump.

Continue reading "German Bitchy Resting Face: The Suspicious Grimace" »

Rules for Cemeteries

No trip to Kassel would be complete without a visit to the Museum für Sepulkralkultur (g), a museum devoted to death and burial. There are coffins from around the globe (including simple boxes for Orthodox Jews and gaily-decorated Ghanaian models), hell money and hell cigarettes, Totentanz sculptures, hearses, monuments, embalming kits, memorial portraits, 'death crowns' for children and young unmarried people, monuments, death masks, and art inspired by death, funerals, rebirth, and reincarnation. Outside, there are innovative grave markers designed by contemporary artists. Of course, there are also programs for kids.

There are also the obligatory information-drenched placards describing the origin and nature of European funeral practices. From these you learn that the practice of burying people in individual, marked graves only became uniform in Europe in the last 200 years -- before that, most poorer citizens were dumped in mass graves. You also learn that modern German cemeteries are facing a space crisis -- they're not running out of it, they often have too much of it, since almost 50% of Germans now choose to be cremated, and those numbers keep growing.

While there, I stocked up on a few back issues of Friedhof und Denkmal: Zeitschrift für Sepulkralkultur (Cemetery and Monument: Journal of Sepulchral Culture). In the 2-2011 issue of this handsome magazine, there is a discussion of the model rules for grave design in Catholic cemeteries that were recently promulgated by the Archbishopric of Cologne:

Basically, the new regulations contain only required dimensions for the grave, as well as bans on some materials that are inappropriate for cemeteries. Completely covered graves are forbidden: the grave-plate can only cover up to one-third of the grave.... [Individual church cemeteries can still] add regulations that servce to express shared religious beliefs. An example is a ban on polished stone, since this prevents natural change in the stone, which itself is an expression of the transitoriness of human life in this world. A ban on snow-white marble and showy (überschwänglich) golden inscriptions serve to prevent excessive ostentation in the religious sense.

The back of the book contains reviews of recent burial-related books, including a 400-page work by Regina Deckers on 'The Testa Velata in Baroque Sculpture' (g) an entire monograph (written at the University of Düsseldorf!) on the motif of figures with veiled heads or faces in funerary sculpture.

Now for some of the odd and delightful things in the museum, hover for info.

Skeleton Sculpture MfSK Kassel
Totentanz Figure Knight MfSK Kassel
Death and the Chinaman MfSK Kassel

Skulls Inscribed with Owners' Names from S. Germany MfSK Kassel
Nietszche Memorial Model MfSK Kassel
General View of 19th Century Embalmer's Kit

Eye-caps from 19th Century Embalmers' Kit MfSK Kassel
Kubach & Kropp 'Stein fuer das Licht' MfSK Kassel
Spinster's Burial Crown MfSK Kassel
Martin Luther Death Mask MfSK Kassel
Beethoven Death Mask MfSK Kassel

Treated Like Cattle in the Gemäldegalerie

No visit to Berlin is complete without a trip to the Gemäldegalerie, one of my favorite museums. On previous visits, I'd never stayed until closing time. This time, I saw what they do there at closing time, and it wasn't pretty. Hence the letter:

Dear Berlin Museums Visitors’ Service,

Recently, I visited the Gemäldegalerie (Painting Gallery) in Berlin. The museum advertised that it was open until 18:00, and I decided to stay until that time to enjoy the collection.

I have always enjoyed my previous visits to this elegant museum, but this time was different. 15 – perhaps even 20 -- minutes before 18:00, my ears were suddenly assaulted by an audio message from blown speakers in the museum’s ceiling. Amid crackles of distortion, the announcement played the melody of Beethoven’s ‘Ode to Joy’ and announced to visitors that the gallery would be closing shortly. The first announcement, in German, was then followed by an equally distorted and almost unrecognizable message in English, then, if I recall correctly, in French.

But that was not all. At the same time, the museum’s docents positioned themselves in all the doorways to the individual rooms, as if they were nightclub bouncers. To actually get into a room at 17:50 and see a painting, you had to convince a docent to let you in. Many of the docents were unfriendly and suspicious, treating visitors who wanted to enjoy a painting at 17:54 as if they were potential criminals. Finally, all the museum’s visitors were herded out of the museum at exactly 18:00, after being pressured to leave.

As I could tell by the visitors’ comments, this unprofessional treatment left a terrible impression that the museum’s visitors will take back to their home countries. When guests pay to enjoy a museum which closes at 18:00, then they should be able to actually enjoy the museum until 18:00.

To improve the visitors’ experience, I suggest that the Gemäldegalerie (1) repair the speakers in the museum ceiling; (2) broadcast only one closing message (everyone will know what it means, even if they don’t understand the language) and do so at, say, 17:57; and (3) give guests 10-15 minutes after the official closing time to leave the museum.

As paying guests in one of the world’s finest collections of Old Masters, they deserve no less.


Andrew Hammel