72 posts categorized "Germany"

Playing with Feuer

Silvester 179a
Living in Munich, we enjoy high levels of peace, safety and public order. Which is why it's so surprising to witness the Silvester, or New Year's Eve, in action.

There's an awful lot of recklessness with fireworks, and many drunken revellers toss firecrackers around simply to cause mischief.
A fave trick, it seems, is to toss a string of crackers at someone's feet and tell them to dance.

On Monday night, I witnessed someone throw a string of crackers under the wheel of my neighbour's Porsche; luckily, it only smoked up the upholstery. (Was this a political statement, like the rash of car burnings in northern cities?)  The ever watchful Papa Scott assures us that the injury toll in his northern city of Hamburg has declined in recent years, but I suspect this may be more luck than management.

Our place is near the Friedensengel in Munich, where police close off the street to give tipsy pyromaniacs a free rein. Even today, we can smell the cordite in the air. I posted the photo above on New Year's day in 2008, and it gives a hint of how we face down the dangers of a festive occasion.  The überlin blog gives you a filmic taste of what it's like to be in the middle of a German public Silvester celebration.

Drunken assholes love to toss firecrackers into post-boxes. It's such a common problem, apparently, that the post office has worked out a procedure. The deliverable mail is dried out after the fire brigade's dousing, placed in a plastic sleeve, and delivered with a very, very obsequious letter of apology, asking the recipient still to trust Deutsche Post nonetheless.   It also asks one not to blame the sender for the condition of the article.  This kind New Year card arrived from Berlin damp and smoky, but legible.  


Let me use that card as a segue.  Master Right and I belatedly wish you all a happy, bountiful, and above all, safe 2013.

Better in Boarisch

Boarisch cash machine

Christmas season is almost upon us.  In Munich, that means Oktoberfest season is finally off our backs.

Oktoberfest brings the same cheese-level as Christmas, but with a different subject matter.  Bavarian cheer becomes almost as unavoidable as Christmas cheer.   Everybody dons lederhosen, sings corny songs, eats wild game until he grows antlers, and drinks super-proof beer brewed to make you extra gemütlich.

The local dialect gets laid on thick, too—it calls itself Boarisch, though standard German would call it Bayerisch.  You hear Yaw instead of JaNayn instead of neinHod instead of hat.  And a simple d' instead of the more precise der, die or das.  I still have trouble with the last of those, even after all these years, so the season is a godsend. 

Stadtsparkasse (city savings banks) around Bavaria allowed you to conduct your ATM transaction in Boarisch, as you can see from the screen above.  I tried it, and liked it.  Boarisch grammar is much more devil-may-care than standard German, which sounds a bit prissy by comparison.

The producers of the summer-comedy Ted even released a special version of the movie to coincide with Oktoberfest.  (For those of you who don't know, it's a movie about a boy's teddy bear which gains the gift of speech. As his owner grows, the two pick up some bad-boy habits, until true love puts a stop to it.)  The movie would be released with the bear speaking Bavarian, instead of Hochdeutsch.  Here's a scene of the stars bloking out on the couch; I cannot understand a word of what the bear is saying, but I guess that's the point. 

In German culture, Boarisch is a byword for unintelligible.  When translators faced the testy problem of dubbing the jive scene in the Zucker Brothers movie Airplane!, they chose to make the two jive-speakers speak Boarisch, with German subtitles.

(The jive scene wasn't the only challenge the translators faced—as I've written before.) 

One can also find a version of Ted in Berlin yoof slang—or as they say, the bear Berliniert.  (Those who would like to compare the two, can do so here). 

I would call the Berlin version krasser (groovier), but that wouldn't be very toll (groovy) of me.



Is Hitler Funny?

An arcade game at the Munich City Museum

An arcade game on display at the Munich City Museum

Hippies would set my father off.  He couldn't fault their principles—hippies had impeccable morals, you may recall.  So he went ballistic on their hair.   Filthy.  Bedraggled. Disgusting.  No wonder they can't get a damn job.
Once, as he sat at the kitchen table reading the paper, he stumbled onto an interview.  Perhaps a student protester, or a sitter-in of some kind.  Don't fault long hair, argued the spokeshippie, because Jesus had long hair, too.
To my father, this proved they were not just miscreants, but morons.  Even the biggest dunce knows that barbers didn't exist in those days, he would shout. This snippet stood as a centrepiece in his tirade repertoire for years. 
One day, when I was a senior (matriculant) in high school, I ventured a comment on what I'd been reading in class.  The Roman historian Plutarch wrote that people knew Cicero was in a bad way, because he walked through the forum unshaven, and hadn't been to the barber.  So they must have known how to cut hair in Jesus' time.
It seems my father had discovered another moron, in the form of his own flesh and blood.  Christ didn't live in Rome, he sneered. 
I pointed out calmly that Palestine was a Roman colony.  Christ could have found a barber if he wanted.  But most religious statues show Christ with long hair—statues endorsed by the church, on display in a consecrated space.  Maybe the Son of God thought long hair wasn't such a big deal.
He stayed silent for a moment, thinking about what he'd just heard.
Besides, I added, how many ancient statues have you seen with long hair?

The stream of abuse nearly drowned me.  Ungrateful, insolent, evil, immoral, that was me.  How dare you.  One more remark like that and you'll be thrown out on the street.  See how you like that, smartass.
I just stood there and took it.  Someone had bolted my feet to the floor.  I wanted to vomit.
When I could get a word in, I bleated hastily that I didn't mean anything by my remarks.  This had no effect whatsoever.  For ten minutes, the mudslide of bile never let up.   Only when my father was spent, physically, could I get away. 
Fascism, Dad-style

I recalled my father during that famous scene from Der Untergang (Downfall).

51CWF3Z4R9L._SL500_AA240_Downfall takes us into the Führerbunker, in the last days of the War.  An aide has just told Hitler that General Steiner couldn't carry out an attack, as ordered.  He simply had too few men.

Hitler loses it.  The army disobeyed an order.  The Prussian generals betrayed him.  All they learned at the military academy was how to use a knife and fork.  He should have shot them all, like Stalin did.  The soldiers were weaklings. Cowards.

One of Hitler's deputies stands his ground, meekly.  He rebuts the accusation as ungeheuerlich; "monstrous" or "outrageous".  Kafka uses the same word to shock us in the first sentence of Metamorphosis; he applies it to the giant vermin once called Grigor Samsa.

Does Hitler hear this?  Not at all.  The tirade goes on unabated, with no-one listening.  The Führer is the Führer's only audience. 


Nowadays, this behaviour has a clinical name: Narcissistic Rage.  It's often triggered by an insult, or a simple statement of uncomfortable facts.  In therapy, one treats the narcissist by revisiting the abuse which made him mentally ill.  But what's the right response for a casual victim, caught in the crossfire between a madman and his ego?

Mocking the Monster

Unless your tormentor holds a gun to your head, the wrong response is to stand there and take it.  You cede power to him.

The right reponse, I feel, is to smile.

An old adage tells us to laugh in the bully's face.  It takes his power away.    When the pompous ass gets a pie in the gob, his anger makes him look weaker, not stronger. I should have told my father dude, even fucking Fred Flinstone gets a haircut.

People with skills and lack of anything better to do, often spoof this scene in Downfall by way of subtitles.  Probably, that's how you first came across it.   Parodies became so numerous, that Constantin Film asked YouTube to take them down—illegally, as it happens.

The pizza guy is late, and Hitler goes berserk.  The cast of Friends won't come to his birthday party, and Hitler goes berserk.  He is banned from X-Box Live, and Hitler goes berserk. Gran Turismo 5 changes its release date, and Hitler goes berserk—"as usual", the underscreed reminds us.  It took exactly 36 hours for Hitler to go berserk about Tom Cruise's divorce.

And you know what?  A lot of them are quite funny. 

Oliver Hirschbiegel, the director of Downfall, agrees.  Friends in the online world send him these parodies, at which he laughs heartily.   "The point of the film was to kick these terrible people off the throne that made them demons," he says. 

Do the parodies actually amplify the message of the original work?  When it comes to giving demons the shove, a belly laugh packs plenty of kick.  Think about political cartoons.  Think about animated cartoons, for that matter.  

DduckmeinkampfIn World War Two, animation powerhouses like Disney and Warner Brothers produced propaganda films.  In fact, Disney's State Department contract is credited with keeping the company afloat after Fantasia tanked at the box office in 1940.

In Der Fuehrer's Face,  Donald Duck dreams he is a Nazi and finds life rather unpleasant.  The theme song, recorded by the über-silly Spike Jones, became a hit in 1942, and the film itself won an Oscar in 1943.  (You can watch it here. And read a discussion here.)

But Disney's biggest war film is grim, overbearing and utterly unfunny.  Education for Death cracks a few limp jokes, but spends most of its ten excruciating minutes aping Leni Riefenstahl with ink-and-paint.  (Take a look at it here.)  Shadows, silhouettes and low, wide angles abound—a bit like a modern-day political attack ad.  Oscar bait, it ain't.

Slide1Education for Death evokes a visceral response.  The audience feels confusion, fear, and need to escape.  If that was the goal, it worked.  Fight or flee?  It was flee for me.

The enfants terrible of Warner Brothers took a different tack.  They made the enemy stupid, rather than evil.  Much easier to understand, and ultimately, to act upon.

Take the 1944 cartoon Russian Rhapsody.  (You can watch it here.)

Soon after the film starts, we catch Hitler in a fit of narcissistic rage, of the kind which defines him in our cultural memory.   He spits a torrent of nonsense at an unseen audience; the writers and animators used many of their own names to construct a German-sounding rant, since many had fled Germany a decade before.  After half a minute of hysterical shouting, the cartoon lands a devastating punch.  A hand holds a camera card before us.  It reads: Silly, isn't he?

Slide1Let's assume that these cartoons were an early example of the Family Guy school of animation.  That is, a cartoon aimed at adults, but which uses the conventions of the medium to reduce adult concerns to child-like simplicity.  Cartoons are crude by nature; they can turn superego concepts into big, loud, colourful creatures of the id.  

In World War II, Disney and Warners scratched two different spots on the American emotional underbelly.  Which approach proved more effective? 

Disney scares me.  This is useful in wartime, of course.   But the Warner approach succeeds on a different level.   

Warners mocked the enemy.  If someone had pointed out, in 1923, that Hitler was clearly and self-evidently a Froot Loop, maybe nobody would need to fight him in 1939.  

Columbia Studios actually did point out that Hitler was a Froot Loop, some time before the US entered the war and propaganda became official.  They harnessed another id-liberating force: The Three Stooges.  In You Natzy Spy, Moe Howard became the first American comedian to play Hitler on film, predating Charlie Chaplin by nine months.  Both Curly and Moe considered it their finest film.  For my taste, any Three Stooges short that didn't sock Hitler with a cream pie on the schnozzola, missed the opportunity of the century.

Ve Have Vays

The Nazis knew the subversive power of mockery only too well.  That's why they tried to stamp it out. 

Rudolph Herzog, son of the famous Werner, was cleaning out a great-aunt's apartment after she moved.  He made a rather curious discovery; several pages of jokes from the early forties, making fun of the government.  He set out to discover if these japes betrayed a sly resistance by rank-and-file Germans, or simply allowed a nation under pressure to blow off steam.

It led him to make a documentary film and write a book about humour under the Nazis.  The book is pubished in English as Dead Funny, and in the original German as Heil Hitler, das Schwein ist Tot!, or Heil Hitler, the Pig is Dead!  The accompanying documentary film bears the unfortunate title Ve Have Vays of Making You Laugh.

The Pig is Dead refers to the punchline of the all-time most famous anti-Hitler joke.  I shall not tell it here. It is no more than mildly funny, and further, it's one of those jokes that regularly get applied to almost any political leader.   

Among its 256 pages, Herzog's book contains about 100 jokes.  Most of them are simple ad hominem insults—few deal with the substance of Nazi ideology.  The Guardian review describes those jokes as "feeble".   And even for these, the tellers faced death.

The Nazis ruthlessly persecuted anyone who took to humour for a sense of perspective.  They wiped out a vibrant political cabaret scene, focussed on Berlin.  At its peak, the notorious People's Court  executed 2000 people a year for "defeatist humour".  Those who escaped the death penalty, might be harassed or imprisoned.  When the Nazis murdered comedian Robert Dorsay, they went so far as to announce it on billboards.  Be warned: that's what comes of a wisecracker. 

From a dozen years of history, in a nation which documented itself meticulously, we find a total of eight dozen political jokes.  And lame ones at that—of all the jokes Herzog documents, the most biting and inventive come from inmates of the concentration camps, often about themselves

It's a ghastly thought, but inescapable.  Jews, gypsies, jazz musicians, homosexuals, students and intellectuals—groups the Nazis most hated—held shrewd, distinctive senses of humour.   In his extraordinary paper on humour in the Holocaust, John Morreall reminds us of the Talmud.  According to the ancient Rabbis, those who make others laugh earn a place in Heaven. 

Under National Socialism, it might earn a Jew his place rather quickly.  Welsh journalist Gareth Jones wrote from Berlin in 1933:

Even Jewish jokes are regarded by many Nazis as part of the subtle scheme of world domination by the Jews. Hitler suggests that the Jews try to depict themselves in comic newspapers as a harmless, humorous people in order to mislead public opinion into thinking that they are no danger.

Any sensible person should have found this laughable.   Jones goes on to describe an encounter he had with the German Students Union.  Jews were constant liars, they maintained.  Since the language of the Jew is Hebrew, you see, anything he speaks in German must perforce be a lie.

How can one respond?   One could engage reason against this claim—does the same logic apply to translations of the Bible into German, for example?  But frankly, arguing with a madman agrees to the madman's terms.  A better response is are you fucking crazy

Crazy, they were. They were so fucking crazy, they couldn't see jokes cracked under their very noses. 

Morreall tells the tale of Freud's flight from occupied Austria.  The Reich agreed to let him emigrate, as long as he signed a letter stating he hadn't been mistreated.  Here's what he wrote:

To Whom It May Concern:
I can heartily recommend the Gestapo to anyone.
Sigmund Freud

In a common cabaret schtick, artists would wear gags in their mouths, and sit silent onstage for several minutes.  When they left, the MC would announce that concludes the political part of our programme.   The sketch passed muster, it seems.

The Fish Laughs from the Head

Nazi discomfort with humour went all the way to the top, to the Führer himself.  In 1943, the US Office of Strategic Services (predecessor to the CIA) circulated a psychoanalytic profile of Hitler.  They, too, thought he was fucking crazy. 

Like so much early work in the field, it falls victim to psychobabble and speculation.

The authors spout conventional wisdom of the time, like homosexuality being a perversion and women being weak or submissive.  With Freud still avant-garde, they looked for daddy issues under every rock.  And the OSS let a few howlers slip through; Hitler's godfather, they maintain, was Jewish, which must have made for a perplexing baptism. 

Nonetheless, the report shows a good deal of corroborated evidence that Hitler despised even affectionate jests made at his expense—thousands were condemned after naming their dogs or horses "Adolph", for example.  

Hypocritical, since Hitler was a gifted mimic, who lampooned friends and associates mercilessly.   The report notes that he is "afraid of logic".  Since humour delights in following logic to extremes, it's no wonder he hated a joke.

The Nazis fractured a nation's funny bone, and for a dozen or more years, it joked with a limp.    How could they wipe out an entire culture's sense of humour, and get everyone to think it's a good idea?  How could they make humour a sign of decadence?   How could they make it politically incorrect to laugh?  How could they get away with it?

At this point, it would be easy to wheel out the old trope about humourless Germans.  Not only does it derail the discussion, but it simply isn't true.  There may be much to say about cultural differences among nations, and the distinctive ways they laugh about the world, but this tired stereotype shouldn't be included in it.  

Rather, let's get back to where we started.  Why did narcissistic rage earn respect it didn't deserve, when a laugh could deflate it? 

Righteous Anger. 

Many have written how they felt mesmerised—indeed hypnotised—by Hitler's public appearances.   He aimed to enchant as well as persuade; the music, the pomp, the surroundings, and even the (literal) armies of attractive men and women.  Hitler's speeches beguiled them so thoroughly that few found the power to resist.

His oratorical technique hardly broke new ground, though.  A memorable setting, repetition, pauses, sensing the emotional temperature of an audience, building to a climax—they are the foundations on which the great speeches of history get built. 

Read the words Shakespeare puts into Marc Antony's mouth at Caesar's funeral.  Notice how he starts casually and low key (Friends...lend me your ears...).   Look at how often he repeats words for rhetorical effect, like honourable and ambitious.  He saves the clincher for the end, where he subtly slams Caesar's opponents as "brutish beasts" who have "lost their reason".

Watch I Have a Dream, to see the same devices in action—which shows one can use rhetorical technique for good, as well as ill.  


What made Hitler different, and uniquely persuasive to his fellow Germans of the time?  Looking at his speeches today, the element that makes them distinctive is the sheer volume of  Narcissistic Rage.  He starts slow, sometimes almost benign, but whips himself into a torrent of anger.  Even the most fiery orators seldom reach the fury of Hitler in full flight.   Where else can we find the seductive certainty of Narcissistic Rage at work?

Look to the pulpit.  I recall the same tone of indignant anger at the conservative Catholic church of my childhood.  The priests spat contempt; for sin, for sinners, for the congregation itself (especially when the parish was short of cash).  And for the most part, the laity not only sucked it up, but did as told.

The most spellbinding holy rage, of course, comes from fundies.  They resist mockery because they are virtual parodies of themselves.  The late American comedian Sam Kinison, who specialised in the comedy of anger, actually started out as a fundamentalist preacher.  

Yet congregants take them seriously.   Believers are schooled to believe such anger is righteous and good.   No wonder.  For many years, such speech was legally protected from even the gentlest ribbing.  Remember blasphemy laws?   They prove stubborn to undo, even in the most liberal of jurisdictions.  While enforcement has relaxed, the social norms they fostered have not.   For many ardent believers, a mere chuckle at the word of god is tantamount to the most appalling violence.

And in Bavaria, where we endure a Catholic Church of the most bitter and toxic sort, should we be surprised that other bitter and toxic ideologies once earned a place at the table?

Anger Unlaughed At

In modern Germany, have we developed a healthier perspective on anger?    The ever-present threat of a public scolding by strangers, Wutbürger outrage, or even ex-President Wulff's voicemail messages, give me pause. 

One thing is for sure.  We have not re-learned how to make fun of fascists yet.

One of the reasons we don't make fun of fascists very well, is because you can't talk about them openly.  The government proscribes the manner in which Nazism may be depicted.  No Nazi symbols in public—though theatre, film, television and books may use such symbols as long as they do not advocate in favour.   When it comes to National Socialism, the German authorities really do have no sense of humour.

Still, as the events of the 1930s and 40s fade from living memory, German satirists have begun to experiment.  The results, so far, are grim. 

Take the 2007 film Mein Führer—Die wirklich wahrste Wahrheit über Adolf Hitler, or Mein Führer—The Really True, Totally Trudeldee-do Truest Truth About Adolph Hitler. (That's my own translation, which evokes the full cringe of Fremdschämen one feels when one hears the original).   It is considered a blot on he career of anyone associated with it.  Plug the Amazon reviews into Google Translate to get a sense of how badly audiences received the piece. 

Most object to the film on the same grounds as Downfall.  Talking about Hitler as a clown or weakling humanises him, and earns our sympathy.  This strikes me as a poor understanding of the mechanics of ridicule.

So the duty to humiliate last image from http://featherfiles.aviary.com/2012-08-22/f77694d11/3ae3168fc0d441a9b97995ceec46245a_hires.pngcentury's greatest tyrant falls to media from abroad.  And they earn mixed reviews here in Germany. 

Chaplin's The Great Dictator was released in the West in 1958, and in the East in 1980.  It gets a warm reception, perhaps warmer than in English-speaking countries. 

That's understandable, since the film is politically correct in a mainstream European way, and it ends with the hero making an angry public speech, in the finest German oratorical tradition. 

Even so, many approach it with caution.  Online comments in the German-speaking world always begin with the disclaimer we really shouldn't laugh at Hitler, but...  One Amazon reviewer suggests, kindly, that viewers need to be prepared to make an "emotional and intellectual investment" in a film such as this—presumably, without encouragement, they might be reluctant to do so. 

The German-language production of Mel Brooks' The Producers, if you'll pardon the expression, bombed.  (For the plot of The Producers, click its Wikipedia page here

The press and theatre cognoscenti gave it a thumbs up,—could they do anything else, lest they be painted as humourless German stereotypes?  The Berlin production won an honorary Ernst Lubitsch Prize, usually awarded for a comic performance in German language film.  A spokesperson for the Admiralspalast Theatre spoke of the honour: "The story of two Jewish crooks fits to Berlin like no other, reflecting the great tradition of Jewish humour."  (My emphasis) 

I see.  It's Jewish humour, not humour per se

After an inital flourish of enthusiasm in both Vienna and Berlin, audiences stayed away.  Promoters blamed poor marketing 

Let's conduct a brief thought experiment.  Imagine Atlanta in the late 1920s.  A theatrical impressario wants to mount the latest Broadway success, a story of two scamming theatrical producers who need to find a guaranteed flop.  The protagonists stumble upon a play called Springtime for Ol' Massa, with a centrepiece that features a chorus of Antebellum gentry singing about all the human beings they might chain up and whip. Its plot turns on how the play-within-a-play is mistaken for satire, and becomes a surprise hit. 

Our impressario might blame his failure on poor marketing, too. 

At ten Euros, a German-dubbed version of the original Producers commands
almost twice the price of a DVD of Mein Führer—the Truest Truth
Season One of Hogan's Heroes costs over thirty Euros, by the way.

On the other hand, we can point to a real-life Nazi-themed surprise hit: Ein Käfig voller Helden, better known as Hogan's Heroes.   The show, dubbed into German, enjoys a solid cult following, and is a staple of DVD racks across Germany.  Now there's something to make a cultural anthropologist's head explode. 

(Recently, my language skills have progressed from atrocious to merely awful.  I've set myself the task of watching Hogan's Heroes and The Great Dictator in German.  The Vienna cast album of The Producers sits in the car CD player.   Lemme get back to you after I've digested them all.)

Practical Mockery

Not long after I arrived in Munich, I stumbled onto a demonstration at the Isartor.  A neo-Nazi group had organised a march, and it earned a huge police presence.  Officers lined the streets, formed human barriers around public buildings, and filmed the event so troublemakers could be recognised later. 

Caught in the crowd, I had missed an important fact.  When I got home and read the press reports, I learned that the police spent most of their energy on the angry counter-protestors.   The evening paper told us how the police kept Nazi opponents kettled-in, as we say in German.   The placard in the photo reads Fascism is not an opinion, but a crime.


Tempers flared.  The neo-Nazis, relatively few in number, actually had the upper hand from a political and PR point of view.  Police needed to keep cool heads, since the encounter easily might have turned into a conflagration. 

Did anger work?  What might have worked better? 

To answer that question, please click on this link.  It shows a parade float from Karneval 2007 in Düsseldorf, via the Petaflop Design Group's coverage.  The float consists of a giant papier-mache figure of Hitler in uniform (minus the swastikas, of course, since that would be illegal to show in public).  A large turd hangs out of his ass.  The turd is labelled "NPD" for the National Democratic Party of Germany, widely regarded as a neo-Nazi group

Why didn't the protestors just borrow the parade float, park it along the route, and repair to the pub?  Much better plan.

Of course, it was important to view the neo-Nazis as a serious threat.  Their ideas and twisted morals pose such a danger to humanity, we must stop them at every turn, and by every means.  Thoughtful men and women must be roused to action.

But it doesn't hurt to make fun of their goddamn stupid shoes, either.

The Brown Danger.  So Dangerous are Bavaria's Neo-Nazis

Responsible Comedy.

Laughter has magic to it. Those who employ humour to mock an undeserving subject, generally come undone.  Those who make a sense of humour their constant companion, hold up a shield against hypocrisy and inhumanity.  Morreall reminds us that laughter is our most powerful weapon against indoctrination.

But should we, like Lear, make the jester our conscience?   Are comedians becoming our moral voice?  Arguably, Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert act as the moral voice of America, since America's traditional moral voices spout the devil's words. 

That brings with it a responsibility.  Bill Maher is one of the new breed of moralist comedians; he cautions the angry comics of this world to remember their power.  The have a choice to use that power for active good, not just to skewer an easy target.  

Prince Harry goes regimentalNot every joke about Hitler serves a noble purpose. And just calling your opponent a Nazi hardly amounts to a winning argument

As Charlie Chaplin began to shoot The Great Dictator, he reflected on the project.  Both he and Hitler were born in April of 1889, were of the same height, and even had the same moustache.   Chaplin observed that the Führer "is the madman and I'm the comedian...but it could have just as easily be reversed."

Laughter helps us remember who's who.

Must his madness drive us?

I don't think about my late father very much.  When I do, my jaw clenches, and my blood pressure rises.  He failed the benefit of the doubt I gave him so often, and so consistently, that I mentally look the other way when he pops into my head.   If anger seeks to breed, then mission accomplished.

He was very much the family rogue.  His several siblings, along with their spouses and children, tiptoe around my father's memory.   Just like I do. 

At a recent family gathering, we chatted about how my aunts and uncles enjoyed such close and devoted relationships.  Marriages of forty and fifty years are the norm; divorce in our family is practically unheard of.

Except for my father, of course.  When he died, he was engaged to his third fiance.

The exception had to be acknowledged—especially since his son was part of the conversation—but the family did its best to politely sidestep the topic.  I felt I should say something.

"Well, you know Mike. He was a randy old billy goat."

A cousin spurted her drink out of her nose.  Another replied, quietly, "Yup."   Everybody laughed. 

I felt better.  We all felt better.  We could move on, to talk about important things; which granchild was graduating from where, what the latest baby had been named, who was on vacation, what flavour doughnut one should choose at the coffee shop, and the price of gas these days.

We could move on.

So, my German friends and neighbours, feel better.  Laugh at Hitler heartily.  When you hesitate to do so, you cede him (and his contemporary followers) more power than they deserve. 

Is Hitler funny?  The answer is yes. Moreover, he's laughable.  And long may he stay that way.

Images in this post come from diverse sources.  I believe that the reproduction of all images and content conforms with US and EU rules on fair use in quotation and criticism.  If you use these images, similar conditions apply.

Bets of British

Screen shot 2012-07-12 at 21.43.41
The Monty Python crew were men of many talents, and one of them was selling out.   They ain't ashamed to cash in on their celebrity—indeed, they revel in it.  And none so well as that chuckledaddy darling of adland, John Cleese.  

In his endorsements, Cleese stops short of complete shamelessness, but it's often a close call.  I remember a series of ads he did for Planters Nuts in Australia.  (Check them out.)   The script joked about the client wanting to dissociate himself from the commercial; unfortunately, that's exactly what happened.  The spots ran, I believe, once.  

One day, while watching Austrian television—we watch a lot of that in Bavaria during the Strausssommernachtstraum season—I got an eerie sense of deja vu.   Cleese was hawking William Hill, Britain's behrümteste bookie.  

In it, a gorilla tires of lugging around a laptop just so he can log onto williamhill-punkt-com, and steals Cleese's Blackberry.   Another tells us that Austria has besseres Wetter (better weather),  but in Britain one can besser wetten (bet better)

Like I said, these gags stop just a bee's dick short of shameless.  But during the recent European Football Championship, the Hill turned from William to Benny.   Cleese says there are plenty of amusing things about the Euro Cup, but you shouldn't gamble with jokes.  A fat guy in his underwear appears, proving the point.

Why is this most British of British comedians famous in the German-speaking world?  Many forget that Cleese is part of it.  He speaks excellent (if accented) German, and was responsible for bringing the Pythons to Bavaria in 1972 for a series of TV specials.  YouTube contains most of the sketches from Monty Pythons Fliegender Zirkus, and I urge you to watch.  Personally, I think it some of their finest work.  Like the English version, it cracks the veneer of uptight order to release anarchy, but with a professional polish they never quite achieved at the BBC.

Visitors note: service in Bavarian restaurants has not improved in the last four decades.

Wealthy, but Why?

Diamond dominoes, in a jeweller's window on the Maximiilanstraße.
They won't leave you much change out of €20,000

Europe, bless us, is in technical recession, and it looks to get worse.  But—touch HolzGermany seems to be doing OK under the circumstances .  (Probably because Germany pretty much engineered those circumstances in the first place.)

When Germany does OK, Munich does very well indeed.  On a GDP-per-head basis, Munich ranks up there with bank-boated towns like Frankfurt. 

The average Münchener contributes 60% more to the Volkswirtschaft than his Hamburg or Berlin counterpart.  If the stats counted toney exurbs like Starnberg, the difference would prove greater, for sure.

Though Munich houses a modest million or so inhabitants, it is a city of corporate titans.  Alliance, Siemens, BMW, M*A*N, Airbus and scores of others are based here, with many more in nearby smaller Bavarian cities.  A brace of multinationals make Munich their regional HQs—McDonald's prominent among them.  Tech start-ups and media companies, as well as both Apple and Microsoft, operate out of the city.  A mammoth airport, a lively academic community, a refined arts scene, and an enviable sub-alpine lifestyle attract them.

But there's one curious fact.

Looking at the figures in the Wikipedia link above, why do Milan and Vienna do so well?  Not only does the average Milanese account for almost twice as much wealth than a Münchener does, he generates more than a Londoner, New Yorker or Tokyoite. And a Viennese does surprisingly well, too.

What gives?  I have my theories, but none explain why a Viennese should pump seventy-one thousand bucks in to the Austrian economy every year, when a New Yorker pushes only sixty-six through America.   Has it something to do with creative-class entrepeneurs?—A San Franciscan outperforms his counterparts in London and New York, but curiously, not Washington DC.  None of them match Milan, though, whose citizens are responsible for a whopping $88,000 of wealth each, last year.  That's a lot of shoes and handbags. Armchair economists, go wild in the comments.

Munich may not be qute as rich as some of its bigger counterparts, but it hasn't yet needed to pawn the silverware.  You might find those dominoes on eBay, soon, though.

Ordnung ist das Halbe Leben 3

Please insert trays CROSSWISE

Please don't use.  It's still being tested!  Thanks!

It is sad that in a global company we must deal with such matters, but it seems that there are always people who do not know how WC-cleaning functions. Here is a bit of help. 
Figure 1. Totally Wrong. Figure 2. Wrong. Figure 3. Almost Right. Figure 4. Right.

Hands Spread Disease-Causing-Germs.  Correct Washing Protects. Hold hands under running water.  Pulverise soap* (*or similar hand cleaning substance) for 20 to 30 seconds. Also between the fingers. Then thoroughly rinse.  Dry Carefully.  Brought to you by the Us Against Viruses campaign, the Robert Koch Institute, and the Federal Center for Health Instruction. 

Please ALWAYS take a ticket or use your permanent-parker card!!  Vehicles with compressed natural gas propulsion should not be left in this garage.

Rule: The Complexity of Instructions must be in Inverse Proportion to the Simplicity of the Object to be Operated. (see also shopping trolley instructions here)

Respect!  No Place for Racism

Keys to the City

My mental picture of a street musician was formed in Australia, where every smelly hippie thought he was the next folk-rock sensation. We used to walk past and them and shake our heads, vowing that Bob Dylan has a lot to answer for. 

Street musicians in Europe are, like, real musicians.  With musical day-jobs and buyable CDs and stuff. 

Folky balladists get no audience.  You either do real folk, which in Bavaria means a brass band, or you prove your chops with the classical repertoire.

Munich musicians favour keyboards, in one form or another.  This presents some physical challenges.

These guys don't set up a second-hand Korg on the sidewalk and croon that James Taylor ditty about pina coladas, no sir-ee.  At least one insists on a grand piano—a Steinway, no less.  As Tom Lehrer said, just think of it as an 88-string guitar.

Not sure if this instrument belongs to the city, the musician who plays it, or the nearby Galleria Kaufhof.  You'll find it on Kaufingerstraße just west of the Marienplatz, wheeled out in front of delighted passers-by when rain doesn't threaten.

Many, though, simply strap their keyboards over the shoulder and give it a good squeeze.  In other words, they play the accordion.

I always believed that the definition of good taste is someone who can play the accordion, but doesn't.   When Greg forced Joan to play accordion on Mad Men, it humiliated her.

Of the many aesthetic insults from my grim Pittsburgh childhood, accordions inflicted the worst.  I dreaded early June, when my parents would pack a picnic and cart us off to the annual Polka Day  at Idlewild amusement park in the Laurel Highlands.  Loud fat drunk people dancing and singing: the only noise shrill enough to rise over the chaos was the accordion.   Mother and Dad loved Frankie Yankovic and his Polka Jets—little did they know that a few years later, distant relative Wierd Al Yankovic would mock accordion music so mercilessly that it almost diappeared from American popular culture.  Lawrence Welk, it wasn't.

My attitude to accordion began to soften in Melbourne, where a young virtuosa broke through the din of busking Garfunkels.   Every Satuday, smiling at the indifferent shoppers on Bourke Street, we would find Bernadette Conlon.   Severely visually impaired, she surpised squeezebox-bigots like me with a distinctive repertoire—the baroque.  Unchain the accordion from folk, polkas and oompah bands, and it suits serious music very well indeed.

Don't put an accordion in an orchestra—nor, god forbid, make an orchestra of them.   What do you do with the instrument?  In Munich, our street accordionists work the classical organ repertoire.    Makes sense.  It's all air through reeds, innit?

Most of our artists prefer the Hohner brand.  This Swabian firm is the world's largest manufacturer of accordions, as well as the world's largest maker of harmonicas.  One can snigger at the phrase mouth organ, but technically, it fits—like I said,wind through reeds.

The undisputed king of Munich squeezeboxers is Ivan Hajek.  He eschews the classical repertoire for his own compositions, the most energetic of which he composed as a workout accompaniment for his friend Rob Kamen, nine-time world kickboxing champion.  English speaking tourists often respond to this piece with a holy-fuck-I-didn't-know-an-accordion-could-do-that!   I have tried to listen  from beginning to end, as I pass Hajek on the street.  I can't.  About half-way through, I get so worked up that I start punching passers-by, or in a pinch, strangle their dogs. 

For my money, though, one must take care when applying the accordion to popular music styles.  Europeans have the knack for jazz accordion, and I prefer them—though I must confess that Art Van Damme sneaks into rotation on the car stereo. 

What music suits the instrument best?  Every day, many years worth of seasons are pressed out of the pianoaccordion on city streets, and it always pleases the crowd.  My personal fave is Astor Piazzolla's Libertango, another popular Munich choice.   Here, Ukrainian import Zdravko serenades the Hofgarten.  

Zdravko uses the so-called chromatic accordion, or button accordion to the likes of you and me. It strikes me that the chromatic accordion is a little more authentic for the piece.   Piazzolla himself played a bandoneon, an elaborate buttoned concertina from his native Argentina.  Most local musos make do with a piano accordion, and it's not quite the same to my ear—though Roman Setchko (often found in arcades off Theatinerstraße) makes an excellent fist of it.

If you pass any of these guys on the street, be sure to toss them a Euro or two.  Or better yet, a Ukrainian Hryvnia, since that's where many hail from.


More grand pianos on the street—but curiously, only a box for a drum kit.  The Odeonsplatz is like being at home in your parlour.


An Exotic Cuisine


The Edeka supermarket chain proudly proclaims Wir Lieben Lebensmittel! (We Love Groceries!)   From time to time, to show their love for groceries, they scour the world for  exotic foods.  Thus, customers at the Edeka in Munich's multicultural West End enjoyed American Food Week. 

American Food Week ended some months ago, but the display remains. I suspect they still  haven't sold all the American food they had in stock.  Luckily, the art of the American chef is multi-faceted—he creates food that is not only delicious and nutritious, but durable.  It will last forever, with a minimum of maintenance.  In this, American food resembles German cars.

Among these groceries, on the top shelf to the right, we find Arm and Hammer Baking Soda. 

For locals reading this, note that Americans open the box and leave it in their refrigerators, which is surprisingly effective in removing smells.  Europeans tend not to have this problem, since we shop daily for fresh food and don't leave perishables very long.   Backpulver comes in little plastic containers that suggest it's used pretty much for baking.  This large box was a godsend, I thought, and bought one to deploy against a ripe, stinky French cheese we had stored.  The cheese won.

Ah, those French people think they know from cheese.  Pah!  American cheese not only doesn't smell, but it comes in much more convenient forms.


A couple of shelves devoted themselves to sweet sauces.  As the All-Natural Bosco Chocolate Syrup proclaims, American food is Oh So Thick, Oh So Rich!  


Another memo to you French people: put some sugar in your mustard.   There's a bottle labelled French's on the shelf—that means it's for you to study.  You're welcome. 

Speaking of American food named after European countries: One would have thought there would be no need to import Swiss Miss drinking chocolate, when Switzerland is right next door.  But it has a special taste to it, to do with the accompanying marshmallows. Marshmallows qualify as an exotic food here in Germany.


Amid the root beer, Bisquick, Mac 'n' Cheese, Jiffy-Pop, peanut-butter cups and Paul Newman's Own Salad Dressing, we find All-Vegetable Crisco.  Great for those health conscious vegetarians we have here in Europe.  Messages like this Crisco label taught generations of Americans that vegetables could be viscous, and thus Ronald Reagan's statement that ketchup is a vegetable makes much more sense.

Cue for gay men to make jokes

Of course, American style food is available elsewhere in the supermarkt.  The Golden Toast brand of bread makes items that are distinctly not German.   In fact, the English word toast gives it away—toasting bread is a habit of Anglophone cultures.  Have you tried pumpernickel toast?  I rest my case.

Golden Toast's hamburger buns—which, of course, have nothing to do with people from Hamburg—tell us what the customers expect form American food.  The Mega-Burger on the left is extragrossen (extra large) and the standard American burger bun is an extra soft recipie.

The buns sell a little better than the spray cheese, I notice.

Denglish: Check Your Male


This billboard, with its tantalising wisp of chest hair on a svelte torso, didn't raise too many issues of language.  At least not at first.

It's an ad for World Compact, a tabloid version of the prestigous German national daily The World.  Few know this, but the paper was founded in Hamburg by the British occupying forces, who modelled it on The Times.  Early this year, the new Welt Kompakt was hyped as a hipper, snappier version of Die Welt, with the blunt slogan Short. Different. Printed.

The headline reads: We chat on the phone with Mama and check emails at the same time. Are we ripe for a new newspaper? 

I pondered this piece as I waited for a train, and it began to fascinate,  on a number of levels.

It's Short.

First, look at all that hybrid-English!   In spite of all the Englishy words, the ad contains one of the few sentences which is longer in its English form, than in the original German.

As a language, German pursues precision.  Its grammar riddles normal conversation with redundancies and extra info—must I really specify the gender of my math teacher?   German doesn't just borrow a short Latinate word to describe an abstract concept, it must explain the idea in detail—no science, for example, but rather wissenschaft, which clarifies that science is a knowledge accomplishment.   This example turns a seven-letter word in English into a twelve character word in German, a typical margin.  Words and sentences seem to last an eternity.

Copywriters must put the maximum meaning into the shortest possible space.  The Texter(in) who wrote the billboard shows a mastery of the craft.

It's Gay.

Second, do my homosexual readers (you know who you are) detect some code?

I mean, who else but a gay guy would clutch his mother's photo to his nice-but-not-too-worked-out pectoral while (at least) half-naked?  

These clues had me looking at the model's fingers, for that foolproof sign of homosexuality—a ring finger shorter than the index finger.   Bingo!   He's family.

Let's leave aside the clear message that he's having naked phone-sex with Jocasta, and look at the word used to describe it.

He telefoniert with Mama.  He doesn't rufen her an, or as we would say in English, call her up.  (in German, he technically calls her on.)   Telefonieren refers to a discussion, an exchange that lasts a while.  In English, we're far less precise.  We neeed to use the phrase to be on the phone with someone. Or to add a clarification, like I phoned her for a long chat

The word telefonieren may sound familiar to an English ear, but it's a little more precise than we expect.

It's inboxed.

You native English speakers: what do you reckon about the word Mails?

Before the turn of the century, the word mails sounded dumb.   Grammatically, mail was a mass noun, as opposed to a count noun.   Such a noun never appears in the plural, like  traffic, Jello or pseudoephedrine.  The well-known 1998 movie is called You've Got Mail, not You've Got Mails

If you wanted to talk about pieces of mail, you might use a word like letters or postcards.  But how do you refer to a single unit of email?   No such descripive term exists, so English speakers have turned email into a count noun; e.g  I need to answer a couple of emails before I leave the office.

Germans cleverly side-stepped this minor confusion when they wrestled with what to call these new electronic messages.   No need for e-posten or e-briefe when you can just shorten the English word email to Mail and apply it—to mailen something always means to send it electronically.    The noun form started life in German as a count-noun.

The German language could have cooked the word from scratch, but it was easier to buy one ready-made. 

It's Checked.

The grammatical distinction between a mass-noun and a count-noun proved so riveting that I nearly missed the choicest morsel of English in the whole headline.  The verb checken

The Honourable Husband believes that no language borrows a foreign word just to sound cool.  The language has to need it.  Especially in this case, since checken is an odd word that flaunts its English origin through spelling.   The guy on the billboard really should tschecken his mail.

So, why does German need the word check?   I answer with another question: Have you ever been checked in Germany?

Germans don't check things.  We examine things, certify things, analyse things, understand things, ensure things, rate things, measure things, record things, judge and evaluate things. The closest literal translation for check, in German, is überprüfen; literally, to over-prove.  It can be excruciating. 

Nothing over-proves this better than reality cop shows.  

Such shows reflect their cultures in distinctive ways.  Sam Richards wrote in The Guardian that American shows like COPS and Rookies "glorify police work as a flashy, heroic fight against the forces of evil".  Their British equivalents, such as Cops with Cameras or Street Wars "present a grim, ceaseless and unwinnable struggle against petty crime motivated by booze, drugs, poverty and boredom."  In Germany, the forces of evil....create disorder!


 Mein Revier—My Beat—promises that Ordnungshüter räumen auf!   Guardians of Order Straighten Up! 

Viewers quiver with excitement as two officers help a young Kölner find his car when he's forgotten where he parked it.  Two others take care of an angry drunk until his wife can come and get him.  Viewers find polite parking inspectors worthy of note.  Next week promises that an attractive Russian woman will be caught with too many duty-free cigarettes.


Achtung Kontrolle! (no translation necessary) focuses on first-world problems, too.  

This link shows a teenager left alone while her parents are away; her parties have caught the attention of the apartment-building super and he phones the police to check that everything's in order.  The young woman outsmarts the cops with her superior cunning; she doesn't answer the door.   

In Die Chaos RastätteThe Chaos Rest Area—we follow an Autobahn catering inspector as he ruthlessly puts a motorway caf through its paces.  Top notch toilets, but poor time-and-motion management. In order to get a Bockwurst and a latte—your standard trucker coffee break—one needs to visit every corner of the shop.  It gets  worse if the trucker decides he wants a packet of tissues.  Unacceptable!

Achtung Kontrolle! recently did a feature about when to switch on, and switch off, your rear fog light.   I was on the edge of my seat.

Lucky these guys don't have any neo-Nazi thugs left to catch.

Borrowing from necessity.

Back to the point.  The point is that German didn't have a world to describe the casual, take-it-or-leave-it attitude with which a modern cyber-citizen must view his bulging e-mailbox.  So it looked to the messiest, most haphazard tongue it could find—our very own English. And they found what they sought—the word check.

So, it was with smug pride in my native language that I glanced away from the billboard.  My train had left.  Damn.  Must overproof the schedule, next time.