"Lost in Deutschland" vorher

Dieses Blog begann auf Deutsch - im Archiv befinden sich eine ganze Reihe von Texten über das Engländersein in Deutschland - von 2008 bis 2011 sortiert. 2008-2009 wurden zudem Video-Berichterstattungen auf Deutsch zum Thema hier veröffentlicht.

Thursday, 3 November 2011

Thomas Coryat(e) gets lost in Deutschland

The slopes of Heidelberg on the Neckar, whose oenological qualities one Thomas Coryat(e) became familiar with in the early 17th century

This extract is another in my increasing arsenal of “ye olde” extracts, written before English had anything approaching standardised spelling – and before Germany was anything approaching a standardised state. We join Thomas Coryat(e) – like Shakespeare, his name is recorded in several different fashions – in the early seventeenth century as he tramps through Europe, in much the same time and vein as Fynes Moryson.

Perusing Coryat’s work (and, given the baroquely long and meandering (non-)structure typical of its time, it really must be ‘perused’ rather than read) , modern readers might well feel an odd mixture of foreignness and familiarity. Undeniably foreign to most of us, consigned to a moribund tradition of general education based on Latin, are Coryat(e)’s verse insertions variously eulogising, criticising and humorising the countries he travels through and his experiences there; or the manner in which he gains access to Royal Houses through letters of recommendation. His constant discussions of what foreign currencies and measures might be in English, his love of Southern France and Venice, and his gusto for sampling the local brew, however, can probably be called timeless.

Where, how & why did he write about Germany?

At the beginning of the seventeenth century, the Oxford-educated gentleman Coryat (born 1577) was a member of the court of the Prince of Wales and had itchy feet: so in 1608, he set off to travel through France, Italy and Germany. Roughly this route would later be the basis of the “Grand Tour” undertaken by upper class British men in the 18th century.

Returning in 1611, Coryat(e) published a record of his experiences under the title Coryat’s Crudities hastily gobbled up in Five Months Travels in France, Italy, &c, with the title Crudities probably at least partially intended as a self-deprecatory reference to his reputation at Pirnce Henry’s court as a buffoonish comedy figure. It could also be a reference to the undoubtedly crude nature of some his observations: it is easy to forget that, before the exaggerated sensibilities of the eighteenth and stringent moralism of the nineteenth, British mores were somewhat rough and ready: he begins the recounting of his august voyages with a really rather graphic description of his sea-sickness in the English Channel: “I was imbarked at Dover… and arrived in Calais about five of the clocke in the afternoon, after I had varnished the exterior parts of the ship with the excrementall ebullitions of my tumultuous stomach, as desiring to satiate the gormandizing paunches of the hungry Haddocks.”

In this extract, we go back a step and catch Coryat(e) in the royal palace of Heidelberg, engaged in an activity which, just like seventeenth century maritime travel, may later incline him to “excrementall ebullitions”: drinking from what was, quite possibly, the largest wine-vat in the world at the time.

The Extract

The roome where it standeth is wonderfull vast (as I said before) and capacious, even almost as bigge as the fairest hall I have seene in England, and it containeth no other thing but the same vessel. It was begunne in the yeare 1589 and ended 1591. One Michael Warner of the city of Landavia being the principall maker of the worke. It containeth a hundred and two and thirty fuders, three omes, and the as many firtles. These are peculiar names for certain German measures. Which I will reduce to our English computation, every fuder countervaileth our tunne, that is, four hogheads, and is worth in Heidelberg fifteen pound sterling. So then those hundred two and thirty fuders are worth nineteen hundred and fourscore poundes of our English money, The ome is a measure whereof sixe do make a fuder, the three being worth seven pounds ten shillings. The firtle is a measure that countervaileth sixe of our pottles: every pottle in Heidelberg is worth twelve pence sterling. So the three firtles containing eighteen pottles, are worth eighteen shillings. The totall summe that the wine is worth which this vessel containeth, doth amount to nineteen hundred fourscore and eight poundes and eight odde shillings. This strange newes perhaps will seeme utterly incredible to thee at first: but I would have thee believe it. For nothing is more true. (…)
When the Cellerer draweth wine out of the vessel, he ascendeh two severall degrees of wooden staires made in the forme of a ladder which containe seven and twenty steps of rungs as we call them in Somersetshire, made in the forme of a spout, wherewith he draweth up the wine, and so poureth it after a pretty manner into the glasse or &c. out of the same instrument. I myself had experience of this matter. For a Gentleman of the Court accompanied me to the toppe together with one of the Cellerers, and exhilarated me with two sound draughts of Rhenish Wine. For that is the wine that it containeth. But I advise thee gentle reader whatsoever thou art that intendest to travel into Germany, and perhaps to see Heidelberg, and also this vessel before thou commest out of the City: I advise thee (I say) if thou doth happen to ascend to the toppe thereof to the end to tast of the wine; that in any case thou dost drinke moderately, and not so much as the sociable Germans will persuade thee unto. For if thou shouldest chance to over-swill thyselfe with wine, peradventure such a giddinesse wil benumme they braine, that thou wilt scare finde the direct way downe from the steepe ladder without a very dangerous precipitation.

(This extract can be found on pages 345-346 and 350-355 of the edition offered by Google Books. For ease of reading, I have updated printed character conventions (e.g. f -> s and u -> v), but have otherwise left spelling unchanged)

My two pfennigs

I think there’s something charming about this extract. Much like many a modern visitor to Germany, Coryat(e) is astounded by the technical skill of his hosts – and literally overwhelmed by their alcohol-related hospitality. Meanwhile the authentic – ahem – vintage English, replete with the multiple spellings of identical words common at the time, adds real texture and depth. All I can say is: uncork and enjoy!

Tuesday, 18 October 2011

Anna Winger gets lost in Deutschland

So far, in my search for English-language writing about Germany, I’ve ended up with a couple of big names (David Hume, D. H. Lawrence), one modern commercial author (Ben Donald) and a couple of authors from the past forgotten by all but the most specialised of scholars (Fynes Moryson, Martha Dodd). I definitely expected the latter: what with Germany having for large portions of recent British and American history been either enemy territory or wholly uninteresting to both intellectuals and the general public, I had assumed that English-language writing about the country would have been something of a niche topic.

For this reason, I was surprised by the big names who had been there and written about it (in contexts other than the Second World War, of course). This limitation of Germany to niche literature seems to persist to the present day, too, with the best-known travel literature tending to be about France (think A Year in Provence) and the most popular novel settings abroad seeming to be Russia (James Bond), Italy (all that Dan Brown) or, in translation, Scandinavia.

This state of affairs makes it slightly more difficult to unearth modern writing in English about or set in Germany – but that really doesn’t mean there isn’t any, and that some of it isn’t very good indeed. If anything, the current resurgence of interest in Germany (especially Britain seems to have remembered recently that the Germans are numerous, near and of not inconsiderable economic importance) is sure to lead to an increased publishing profile.

Feeding into this is the lively, fast-growing literary expat community in Berlin, that Mecca for modern European artists lured by cheap rent and bars you’re still allowed to smoke in. Not that Anna Winger, who is the topic of this post, seems part of the roll-your-own, out-all-night-and-only-spent-five-Euros-crowd that defines the artistic end of Berlin life.

Where, how & why did she write about Germany?

No, Winger must be part of another set entirely. The Columbia-University-educated writer is a family woman and has been published in the New York Times Magazine. Yet she has made the most of what Berlin has to offer both in terms of history and of exciting alternative lifestyles by creating Berlin Stories, a radio series for NPR Worldwide. In these broadcasts, Winger caters both to fellow English speakers in Berlin after highbrow, own-language content related to their place of residence, and to listeners at home in America hungry for fascinating stories from old Europe.

This is what her debut novel does, too. In This Must Be The Place (2008), Winger creates a fictional framework that allows her to examine both Germany today and its relationship to America – and especially to American popular culture – as well as the weight of the past and ways in which it is being shouldered by people on both sides of the Atlantic.

In the book, Hope has moved to Berlin from New York at the behest of her Jewish husband, Dave, who has taken a German-based job in Poland. Their relationship, already strained by the loss of their first child before birth, deteriorates further as Dave spends time away working, leaving Hope with little else to do but get to know the man in the flat above them, Walter Baum. Walter, who works as a voiceover artist, has his own special connection to America, and as the two get closer and closer, a classic case of cross-purposes develops: the American Hope starts to adapt to Berlin and the German Walter gets more and more concrete about his plans to move to California – for the second time.

The extract below is taken from near the end of the book: Hope is becoming increasingly curious about the history of Berlin, and that of her apartment. Meanwhile Orson, a colleague of Walter’s, is looking for a location for his film project – a project in which he would like Walter to take the leading role.

The Extract
“It’s hard to imagine anything bad ever happening here.”
“Because bad things don’t happen to rich people?”

“Maybe. Maybe because I can’t imagine that anyone even lived here before me. I know this is an old apartment, but the walls are so white and perfect. It seems completely new.”

“Americans are the greatest customers in the world. You’re so easily sold.”
He had been facing her, standing in the middle of the room, and now he walked to the nearest wall by the window and ran his hand over it as if feeling for the latch of a secret door.
“What are you doing?” She took a step toward him. His finger moved vertically and then across the wall from side to side, as if drawing boxes on the plaster.
“I’m just trying to prove a point. Come here.” His finger was pink and slim, the nail bitten ragged. At the point in the wall where it rested was a nearly invisible seam, where one sheet of paper appeared to have been glued against another. The seam ran from the ceiling to the floor.
“White Raufasertapete,” said Orson. “It means rough, textured wallpaper. It’s a special German invention. Looks like plaster at a distance. It’s a faster and much cheaper way to cover things up.”
“Is it all over my apartment?”

“Of course. It’s all over the walls of every apartment in Berlin. When one tenant leaves, the owner just wallpapers over his mistakes and starts again with the next one. Check this out.” With what was left of the nail on his finger, he picked at the seam until he was able to lift the edge, then quickly pulled away a chunk of it about the size of a quarter to reveal a glimpse of bright orange wallpaper underneath it.
“What is that?”

“The good taste of the people who lived here before you did, obviously.”
“They left up the old wallpaper?”

“God knows how many layers there are underneath. That’s my point.”

“That’s disgusting.”
Up close, it smelled of old smoke, she thought. She could practically hear it exhaling through the hole in the white top layer. Long, sour breaths held in for years. Then she realized it was Orson she smelled. His arm was almost touching hers, as if they were trapped together in a telephone booth at a bar. Did they still have telephone booths in bars, or anywhere else anymore? She stepped back trying to remember the last time she had actually been in a proper bar in any city.
“Don’t worry, the crew can fix the hole when we’re finished,” said Orson.
“Along with anything else we move around. We’ll leave the place looking exactly as we found it.”
When he turned to make a telephone call, Hope stared at the orange spot. From a few feet away it was hard to tell if it lay on top of the white wallpaper, like a stain, or was actually a hole, sucking the brightness of the room in toward it. But when she touched it, she could feel its depth against her fingers, and was struck by the sense of reaching through a portal, as if, when her finger pushed into the orange wallpaper, it might pull her hand with it, her arm, the rest of her. She looked up at the white wall, stretching to the ceiling, that only moments earlier had seemed flat and lifeless, but now rippled with the possibility of layers beneath it.

My two pfennigs
One of the things that makes Winger’s book so accomplished is her knack of bringing in details about German life in such a way that they not only serve to provide an authentically foreign background, but actually have symbolic value or a role in the plot. Throughout the text, Walter pieces together a map of Berlin and, when he has finished, decides to stay there: this allows Winger to comment in passing on the distinctive pink-yellow colouring used on German pocket maps. Another example is that Hope gets caught on the U-Bahn without a ticket, having blithely assumed that it must be for free because there are no barriers to entry like, say, in New York or London. This in turn causes her to spend more time in her flat and leads to her increasing interest in it and Berlin’s history. Rather than simply listing local detail, Winger weaves it in.

In this passage, it is Rauhfasertapete that gets this treatment. This favourite bugbear of German bobos renovating their chic vintage townhouse flats not only adds (quite literally) local texture to the story, but gives Hope a theatrical, almost filmic way to explore Berlin’s history as she peels away layer after layer on it. At points like this, nonetheless, British readers realise that Winger is definitely writing for an American audience above all: as if “about the size of a quarter” weren’t a big enough clue, Hope’s naïve surprise at the fact that wallpaper is not always stripped from the walls before a flat is put back on the market will make British readers chuckle at her as much as Orson does.

Having said that, Berlin real estate does have a long, rich and often frightening history – far more so than urban British property does in any case. Yet the point stands that, in many ways, this book is more about general European-American than specific German-American differences. With her female protagonist who, despite having lived in New York, the narrator assures as has “kept her Midwestern sensibilities”, Anna Winger has created a not unintelligent but certainly rather average American woman who can be trusted to fall into all the traps that Winger herself was probably quick-witted enough to evade during her first years in Berlin. I think this is quite deliberate on the part of the author: by creating a character who has only been to Europe once before as a teenager, Winger gives her American readers someone like themselves with whom they can sympathise.

British readers will certainly get exasperated with Hope at some points – that’s if they’re not already put off early by her name, which they might read to be a rather heavy-handed personification of the theme of the book – but they will probably grow to like the voiceover artist Walter. Although Britain does not dub American shows of course, the continuous cultural disconnect Walter lives in, stuck between the Hollywood vision of the sunny USA onscreen and the gruff, gray reality of northern Europe off it will be familiar to many. Winger also has an excellent eye for Americana, for what many in Europe – and, I imagine, lots of sophisticated East Coasters – think of when asked to describe the America they’ve seen in the movies.

The book as a whole is very cinematic, both in plot and form. Whilst the male protagonist Walter’s work with Orson dubbing films into German makes up a large portion of the story as it is, Winger matches this focus on film in the way in which the book is written. In this extract, the way Hope touches the wall, feeling the pull of the past, seems like something pulled out of a film: the vortex-like quality of orange spot, the ‘rippling’ wall conjure up a range of celluloid allusions. I’d suggest that this is more than a subconscious cross-fertilisation between the author’s topic and her use of language: so much else about the book seems well-planned that I’m assuming that this clever little device is there to remind us of the importance of cinema in the modern world when it comes to depicting other cultures and bygone eras.

Also, I wouldn’t rule out that Winger was gunning for a film version and leaving a few not-to-hard-to-miss cues for the screenwriters. Good luck to her, though: if they managed to make a film of this, I’d watch it – although the continuous references to Tom Cruise, the actor Walter dubs in the book, would probably be more (legally) complicated to film than this scene, in which the main character would place her hand through a pulsating vortex wall into the various stages of Berlin’s tortured past.

Thanks to Flickr's Snurb for the photo.

Monday, 3 October 2011

Ben Donald gets lost in Deutschland

The Oktoberfest: a source of German clichés and yet a great way to enjoy the country, as Ben Donald discovers

After launching my series on writing about Germany at the worthy end of the literary canon, I thought it might be interesting to look at something newer and more light-hearted. ‘Newer’ and ‘lighthearted’ are of course two words that, until recently, one wouldn’t have necessarily associated with literature in English about Germany, getting bogged down as it understandably does in the horrors of the Nazi years and the grimness of post-war central Europe.

Yes, pleasant, peppy little travel accounts were long the preserve of expats writing from France – see Peter Mayle and the twenty-year publishing trend he set off, culminating in A Year in the Merde and Petite Anglaise. Germany was essentially reserved for counter-factual or spy fiction à la Robert Harris and John le Carré respectively.

This state of affairs reflected tourist preferences, of course, so it’s easy to see why the British and American publishing industries have tended to commission and then push writing about France. Nevertheless, it did pose a series of tantalising, interlocking questions: has the English-speaking relationship to Germany been so soured by the events of the twentieth century that it somehow seems inappropriate to set jokey, enjoyable romps in it? Or is Germany per se a not particularly attractive destination for the more comic of writerly types? Is it perhaps too familiar, too typically Anglo-Saxon in terms of aesthetics and mindset to offer the same imaginative space for exciting travel fiction as its Gallic neighbour? Or is simple post-war prejudice and an ensuing lack of interest to blame for the paucity of Teutonically-themed travel literature?

For the longest time, it seemed hard to rule out the latter. Now, however, attitudes towards Germany are changing, helped considerably by the 2006 World Cup, and it seems to be no coincidence that the years since 2007 have seen an increasing amount of general interest travel literature about Germany on the market – especially in the UK, which has defined its post-war mass-media relationship with Germany in terms of soccer and so was probably more liable to change attitudes post 2006 than the United States.

In the vanguard of these new writers were Roger Boyes and Ben Donald, both of whom seem to have been aiming to replicate popular successes about France on the subject of Germany. Yet whilst Boye’s 2008 book openly parodies the title of Stephen Clarke’s A Year in the Merde, and follows its structure and style, too, Donald takes quite a different path to try and make a commercially successful book out of his experiences in Germany.

Where, how & why did he write about Germany?

Donald published Springtime for Germany: Or how I learned to love Lederhosen in 2007. In the book, the BBC journalist compiled his travel experiences of various parts of the Federal Republic into a semi-fictional series of visits linked together into a narrative by a rather peculiar plot device.

The idea is that the narrator (who we assume is Donald himself) is despairing of the usual round of travel locations for educated, well-to-do professionals and is in search of something new and exciting. At an airport, he meets the supposedly Californian ‘travel therapist’ Manny who all but frogmarches the apparently reluctant Donald onto a plane bound for Germany and then coaches him through a course of visits to the North, to Berlin, Heidelberg and Munich. At the end, Donald’s narrator is both convinced of Germany as a travel destination and cured of his luxury malaise. And, as it turns out, there is more to this Manny fellow than meets the eye.
In the extract below, we join Donald’s as yet under-informed narrator in conversation with Manny about British views of Germany as a travel destination.

The Extract
“You want me to romanticise Germany?” I said, sitting up and barely restraining a snigger. “Romantic weekend in Frankfurt, anyone?”
“Typical!” Manny cried defensively. “This is just part of the hypocrisy and prejudice with which you are spending the post-war package-tour age viewing Germany. Germany is simply off the map you tourists seek to conquer like it was some kind of world war.”
Steady on, Manny, I thought. Did you have to bring up the war? I was doing so well.
“Germany is a country that has had to bear the weight of over half a century of post-war British prejudice as outdated as a John Mills Christmas movie.”
There was something about Manny that didn’t quite add up. He was no “normal” consultant or shrink. There seemed to be some private agenda, some personal crusade. And then there were those funny mood swings between passion and clinical coldness.
“If you want to learn how to goosestep, come to Britain!” he continued, apparently incensed.
The theme from Mel Brooke’s The Producers popped into my head: “Springtime for Hitler and Germany/Goosestep’s the new step today…”
“You just can’t seem to move on and can’t resist an opportunity to scaremonger. With you clever reviews off German-built Minis with sat-nav that leads straight to Poland…”
I could do better than that. How about Bette Midler’s line, “I’m married to a German. Every night I dress up as Poland and he invades me!”
Even in these castrated, politically correct times I felt bound to defend a proud British tradition of nation-bashing and playful xenophobia.
“They are only harmless jokes,” I pleaded.
“But it amounts to a racist slur! It is not tolerated to joke about Jews, Muslims or disabled people. But the Germans are clearly an Untermensch. And on the rare occasion someone does take offence at a Hitler joke it is on behalf of the Jewish people! No, for you Brits Boche-bashing is a Pavlovian reflex.”
This wasn’t just a clinical diagnosis now. He sounded like a German foreign minister. Was Manny making a bid from his basement bunker to be the next German ambassador? Forget Weltschmerz. Manny seemed to want to cure me of some British psychosis about Germany.
“You Brits have so much baggage with Germany, it amounts to a special relationship! If you must have your stereotypes, then you should see them as indicators of a long, rich and healthy culture. Far better to be a nation with stereotypes than none at all.”
It was true. What did the world know of Paraguay or Taiwan? But Manny now wanted me not just to go on holiday to Germany but to romanticise it, to render Germany impressive and unfamiliar; when it was precisely a very accepted kind of familiarity and ordinariness about Germany, like the newfound unsexiness of its nudist beaches, that had probably bred such indifference among travellers.
“The point is,” insisted Manny, “that however unique you are considering each of your previous travel experiences, they can all be reduced to a system of desires and prejudices. It is not Germany that is the problem. It is you and your system. This is why the magic and romance have disappeared. You need to desystematise yourself.”
How German! How Vorsprung durch Technik.

My two pfennigs

For those of you who aren’t on the trolley yet, Manny is of course no truly Californian shrink, but one born in Germany with a “private agenda” of making his country of birth a more popular holiday destination. The well-observed clue to this that Donald has strewn for the linguistically knowledgeable is the misemployed present participle (“you are spending”); the far clumsier hint for those with less German language skills is the “mood swings between passion and clinical coldness”.

This dichotomy between a rather adroit dissection of the classic mistakes German learners of English make and the would-be ironic trotting out of the old English clichés about Germany kind of sums up Springtime for Germany: it’s a book with so much to offer and yet so much that detracts from this offer.

What this passage offers, for example, is a critique of the way even some educated British people continue to write Germany off as an unattractive lump of concrete and pine trees populated by unreconstructed Nazis. What detracts from this is that Donald’s narrator – i.e. Donald himself – feels consistently compelled to prove that these clichés exist by resorting to them.

Not, of course, that Donald means any malice by doing so. In fact, I can see two obvious reasons to keep referring to the old Mel Brooke and Bette Midler gags: firstly, if you think these clichés are going to be occurring to your reader, it’s best to bring them out into the open and fight them through humour; secondly, Donald is of course trying to prove his own point of the British being so blasé about their hackneyed view of Germany that they just can’t help themselves: “I felt bound to defend a proud British tradition of nation-bashing and playful xenophobia.”

In other words, it’s the old circular irony predicament with which German writers like Thomas Mann had so much trouble in the 1920s. Donald is ironising the supposedly ironic jingoism of his countrymen; but, once you get to two layers of irony, the danger is that they end up melding back together and leave you looking like you’re being serious.

Of course we know that Donald really, really isn’t being serious. Why else would he be writing a book about Germany with many very informed and very heartfelt passages if he didn’t actually like the place and actually want to turn it into a travel destination? It’s just that the anti-jingoistic jingoism is so insistent – especially in these imagined conversations with ‘Manny’ – that it seems to put most readers off.

This passage has two valuable insights for those of us looking at the history of Anglo-German writing and trying to conceive of its future. Firstly, whilst we Brits may be famed for our ironic sense of humour, it’s so easy to overegg the pudding: just a brief hint in the direction of Mel Brooke or Bette Midler might have worked as a way of showing how easily even the educated British mind can be bought to laugh at simplistic, outdated Germany gags; actually reproducing both quotations in full makes the narrative turgid and opens the writer to accusations of tastelessness.

Secondly, and following on from this: ‘Manny’ is right about the special relationship between Britain and Germany, but since so much as already been said about it – and since every British person has the image of John Cleese’s comedy goose-walk branded onto their mental retina anyway – mightn’t it just be better to really, seriously, just for once, actually not mention the war?

Donald’s narrator clearly doesn’t think so, but perhaps Donald himself once did. The clue is in the acknowledgements: “To my agent, Patrick Walsh, for initially picking up the project and also convincing me that no one would ever buy a straight travel narrative on Germany.” Donald himself probably conceived of this book quite differently (and probably in a far more sensitive, nuanced way), but his agent didn’t think it would sell. This brings us back to the set of questions above about the English-speaking travel writing market and Germany – questions which, however, might well have been answered by books such as Peter Watson’s The German Genius and Simon Winder’s Germania – and also makes us reconsider who the narrator in the book really is: my bet is that the clumsily-(un)ironic jingoism of the narrator is more Donald’s agent and that Donald himself is in fact often to be found hiding behind ‘Manny’.

Springtime for Germany is in places like the above confusing, but stimulating reading: it is essentially trying to define where the current taboos are, where British irony about Germany still works and where it doesn’t – and makes the informed reader think about why certain jokes fall flat on their face whilst others don’t. There are also some great passages – the one about the Oktoberfest stands out – that show that when Donald lets the perceived need to tackle clichés take a back seat, he can succeed in making Germany an attractive travel destination – and making a good read out of it.

Tuesday, 9 August 2011

Martha Dodd gets lost in Deutschland

In my last post, I looked at a well-known writer who wrote about Germany: D. H. Lawrence. I commented on how during my research I am surprised again and again by the big-name authors who spent time in and commented on Germany, such as Virginia Woolf and Evelyn Waugh.

Another surprise in looking for English-speaking writing about Germany is how many interesting authors I’ve come across for the first time; it’s almost embarrassing to learn about the existence of important figures like W. E. Dubois and Thomas Wolfe this late, after my formal education is long completed. Embarrassing, and yet invigorating, a reminder that the old truism about how you never stop learning really is… well, true.

Martha Dodd is another author I’d never heard of before, but who, in retrospect, makes me ask why it took so long. After all, this American diplomat’s daughter published several books with first-hand accounts of Nazi Germany during the war before going on to take a stand in the whole McCarthy witch-hunts of the fifties, eventually fleeing to the Communist Block. When that turned out not to be all it was cracked up to be, she tried to get back into the USA and eventually died just over 20 years ago in Prague. Quite a life, and one I assumed that I would somehow have heard of or read about.

Where, how & why did she write about Germany?

In 1933, at the age of 25, Dodd accompanied her father to Germany as he took up his post as ambassador there. She remained there with him until they left in 1938, when she took up residency in New York and composed her memoires of her time in Germany, published in a timely fashion in 1939 under the title Through Embassy Eyes (or My Time in Germany in the UK).

She followed this with a novel in 1945 about the moral decay of German society under the Nazis, something of a clunking work of fiction which was read, if at all, for the first-hand accounts which were obviously its basis.

The extract here, taken from Through Embassy Eyes is Dodd at her best, however, describing how she experienced Germany as a typical travel récit, but with no small amount of attention to imposing structure on the material and crafting a slightly literary form.

What to look out for
For readers with litte time/short attention spans – or looking for a funny comment/a way to look clever

1. I’m sick and silly of being told smugly about how conspicuously recognisable Brits on holiday are by their bright red colour – this in a country of sun-bed obsessives who walk around in the same hue of melanoma-orange as their favourite autumn vegetable, the pumpkin! Well, Martha Dodd delivers all the proof I need (and I don’t need much) that Germans are just as bad.

2. Despite the fact that Wansee is so close to Berlin as to actually be a part of it, I fail to see how Dodd and her companion could have left it at six and arrived in what she means by Berlin (i.e. the city centre) at six.

Thanks to Dionhinchcliffe on Flickr for this picture

The Extract
Saturday, June 30th, was a beautiful and warm a day as we had yet had in Germany. I determined to spend the day on the beach, imitating the German habit of acquiring a sunburn as early as possible in the season. I had a date with a friend of mine, a young secretary in a foreign embassy. In less than a week, I planned to go to Russia and, since I had heard the heat was unbearable, I was getting in training as well.
We took down the top of the Ford roadster and drove to Gross Glienicke, a lovely and fairly private lake near Wansee. I baked in the sun the whole day, retiring to the shade only for cooling drinks and sandwiches. It was a beautiful serene blue day, the lake shimmering and glittering in front of us, and the sun spreading its fire over us. It was a silent and soft day – we didn’t even have the energy or desire to talk politics or discuss the new tension in the atmosphere. At six o’clock we decided we had had enough sun and we drove slowly and quietly back to Berlin, our heads giddy and our bodies burning from the sun.
We passed through lanes of acacia tress, their beautiful white clustered blossoms, like bunches of rich ivory-tinted grapes, falling heavily forward and down, their scent like ripe grapes in the sun-laden air. (…)

We were not thinking of yesterday, or tomorrow, of the Nazis or of politics. Men and women were speeding by us both ways on bicycles, with small children in little wagons on the side, or in baskets on the front. (…) I was happy, pleased with my day and my companion, full of sympathy for the earnest, simply kindly German people, so obviously taking a hard-earned walk or rest, enjoying themselves and their countryside so intensely.

It was six o’clock when we drove into Berlin. I pulled down my skirt and sat up straight and proper as befits a diplomat’s daughter. The atmosphere had changed, fewer people were on the streets, many of them in curious static groups. Soon we noticed there was an unusual number of police standing around. As we drove nearer and nearer to the heart of the city, we saw heavy army trucks, machine guns, many soldiers, S.S. men, and especially large numbers of the green uniformed Goering police – and no S.A. men. The familiar Brown Shirt was significantly absent. As we came closer to home, we realized something very serious was happening. More truckloads of arms and soldiers on the edges of the streets and in the parks, some streets blocked off, guards and police everywhere. Hardly a person dressed in civilian clothes could be seen as we neared Tiergarten Strasse, and traffic seemed to have stopped. We had a diplomatic number so we were allowed free passage.


My companion was alarmed by this time. He let me off at the head of the lane that led to our Embassy and sped away to his own. I flew towards the house in the broiling sun. Breaking suddenly into our darkened house, the cool air striking me in the face, I turned a little dizzy, my eyes blinded for a moment from the lack of light. I stumbled up the first flight of stairs. When I got halfway up I saw the shadowy figure of my brother at the head of the steps. He called out nervously, “Martha, is that you? Where have you been? We were worried about you. Von Schleicher has been shot. We don’t know what is happening. There is martial law in Berlin.”

My two pfennigs
For readers with more time on their hands

The very admirable Oliver Lubrich (to whose book, “Travels in the Reich, 1933-45: Foreign Authors Report from Germany” I am much indebted) describes how Dodd’s book of 1939 evolves from a “classic travelogue… into a bildungsroman”. Essentially, Dodd starts by taking things at face value, describing her experiences as a privileged ambassador’s daughter and examining the Germans from the outside. At first, she simply enjoys this seemingly fine country full of polite, healthy-looking people. The sheer weight of events, however, forces her to look behind the scenes, to start reading between the lines of what Germans say to her, and before long, she is convinced of the danger at the heart of Nazism and writing against it (in 1939, when it was still by no means clear that the US would enter the War).

What Dodd does well is to manage the transition. She doesn’t have herself wake up one morning a few years more mature and a convinced anti-Nazi, but rather describes how she slowly changes her opinions based on a range of alarming events. This extract is a great example of how she achieves this, focussing at first on the weather and her own desires and then showing how political events such as the move against Röhm, Hitler’s former S.A. chief, in 1934 impact on her mental priorities.

At a second glance, it becomes clear that Dodd didn’t get lucky, but actually aimed to use her retrospective view to ironies herself and her narcissistic ignorance of what was going on around her. Her emphasis on describing the bucolic splendour of the day at the lake is, in fact, slightly jarring: when describing the acacia trees and their blossom, she repeats “grapes” in a clumsy fashion, perhaps aiming for an over-obvious bacchanalian connotation, or perhaps revealing her concentration on the structure and necessity of describing nature rather than a particular desire to do so.

Although Dodd is clearly relating things that actually happened, she was almost certainly very aware of the classic oppositions she was building up: in the country during the daytime, the sun shines, the Germans look happy, and she is concerned with nothing more onerous than getting a tan; in the city, night is approaching, the house is dark, the Germans are uniformed and her concerns are immediately far more grave.

All through Dodd’s book, pleasant events are interrupted by horrible reminders of Nazism: on holiday, a woman having "consorted with a Jew" is ridiculed in public; at parties, sudden outburst of fanaticism and melancholy destroy the mood. In this way, the author is telling us that even the most determined hedonist with a diplomatic licence plate, money to burn and no particular political interest had to, at some point, be woken up to circumstances in which they found themselves. At the same time, with its opening emphasis on the fun and attractive sides of the resurgent Germany, it shows just how easy it was for people to find places and ways to ignore the wake-up calls, and even to feel that Hitler and Nazism were, with a few regrettable exceptions, good for Germany on the whole. On that point, Lubrich’s book also includes diary entries from John F. Kennedy commenting on how “the Germans really are too good – it makes people gang against them”.

(The copyright-holders for Martha Dodd were not contactable. If you have any information regarding how to reach them, please post it below.)

Tuesday, 5 July 2011

D. H. Lawrence gets lost in Deutschland

The kind of Bavarian scenery in which The Prussian Officer is set (image: Josef Türk Reit, Flickr)

Looking into which English-speaking writers have written about Germany is turning up a whole range of surprises: “Him?” – “What, she was there too?” – “Really, how come I never knew that?”. I suppose I’d assumed that I’d find mainly underrated, half-forgotten Deutschland-enthusiasts who sacrificed fame and fortune in their native land for their love of Teutonia: instead, I find a long list of well-known writers who made visits to Germany, often at historically crucial moments. This in turn sparks off my curiosity in the biographies behind their books and – before you know it – I’m tumbling down the literary-historical rabbit-hole.

Take D. H. Lawrence, for example. As an educated British subject, I suppose I just kind of assumed that I had Lawrence down pat (much in the same way as French graduates all assume that they have a good knowledge of Voltaire). Looking at it, though, I realise that I actually knew very little about Lawrence beyond Sons and Lovers, Lady Chatterley and the whole working-class-boy-turned-posh-novelist-thing.

There’s a whole range of far cooler stuff I didn’t know, though. Like the fact that Lawrence taught in a school in Croydon between 1908 and 1911 (okay, maybe only cool for me because I grew up just a couple of miles away…). Or like the fact that he eloped from this lovely London suburb with the wife of his former university professor, who just happened to be a distant relation of the legendary “Red Baron” Manfred von Richthofen (you have to admit, that is pretty cool).

Where, how & why did he write about Germany?

Lawrence and his new love ended up in her native Germany – first at Metz (part of the territories occupied by Prussia after the defeat of France in 1871) and then south of Munich, from where they continued on to Italy. This is where Lawrence finished Sons and Lovers and then dedicated himself to a range of short stories, including The Prussian Officer and Vin ordinaire, both set in the claustrophobic confines of the Bavarian plains inside the even more claustrophobic Prussian army.

Lawrence and Frieda Weekley/von Richthofen stayed abroad until 1914, making it back to the UK just before the First World War broke out. Here, Lawrence had The Prussian Officer and Other Stories published; the extract below is taken from the eponymous short story around which the collection was published.

What to look out for
For readers with little time/short attention spans – or looking for dinner-party tid-bits/neat essay segues

1. The fact that the young orderly towards whom the officer feels so violently, homoerotically jealous is called Schöner, meaning “a beautiful one” or, in slang, “you, gorgeous” when applied to men. A little heavy-handed, if you ask me, Mr. Lawrence – but I suppose one doesn’t want a Lady Chatterley-style circus every time one oversteps the bounds of old-fashioned British decency, eh?

2. The phrase “a horrible breaking down” has a wonderfully visceral, poetic effect in English because it is way past the limits of standard usage. I wonder to what it extent it was influenced by German speech patterns? In German, all verbs can easily be turned into nouns in a way which English verbs cannot: “ein schreckliches Zusammenbrechen” would be less unusual in German than its English equivalent here.

The Extract
“Why have you a piece of pencil in your ear?” he asked.
The orderly took his hands full of dishes. His master was standing near the great green stove, a little smile on his face, his chin thrust forward. When the young soldier saw him his heart suddenly ran hot. He felt blind. Instead of answering, he turned dazedly to the door. As he was crouching to set down the dishes, he was pitched forward by a kick from behind. The pots went in a stream down the stairs, he clung to the pillar of the banisters. And as he was rising he was kicked heavily again, and again, so that he clung sickly to the post of some moments. His master had gone swiftly into the room and closed the door. The maid-servant downstairs looked up the staircase and made a mocking face at the crockery disaster.
The officer’s hear t was plunging. He poured himself a glass of wine, part of which he spilled on the floor, and gulped the remainder, leaning against the cool, green stove. He heard his man collecting the dishes from the stairs. Pale, as if intoxicated, he waited. The servant entered again. The Captain’s heart gave a pang, as of pleasure, seeing the young fellow bewildered and uncertain on his feet, with pain.
“Schöner!” he said.
The soldier was a little lower in coming to attention.
“Yes, sir!”
The youth stood before him, with pathetic young moustache, and fine eyebrows very distinct on his forehead of dark marble.
“I asked you a question.”
“Yes, sir.”
The officer’s tone bit like acid.
“Why had you a pencil in your ear?”
Again the servant’s heart ran hot, and he could not breathe. With dark, strained eyes, he looked at the officer, as if fascinated. And he stood there sturdily planted, unconscious. The withering smile came into the Captain’s eyes, and he lifted his foot.
“I-I forgot it-sir,” panted the solder, his dark eyes fixed on the other man’s dancing blue ones.
“What was it doing there?”
He saw the young man’s breast heaving as he made an effort for words.
“I had been writing.”
“Writing what?”
Again soldier looked him up and down. The officer could hear him panting. The smile came into the blue eyes. The soldier worked his dry throat, but could not speak. Suddenly the smile lit like a flame on the officer’s face, and a kick came heavily against the orderly’s thigh. The youth moved a pace sideways. His face went dead, with two black, staring eyes.
“Well?” said the officer.
The orderly’s mouth had gone dry, and his tongue rubbed in it as on dry brown-paper. He worked his throat. The officer raised his foot. The servant went stiff.
“Some poetry, sir,” came the cracking, unrecognizable sound of his voice.
“Poetry, what poetry?” asked the Captain, with a sickly smile.
Again there was the working in the throat. The Captain’s heart has suddenly gone down heavily, and he stood sick and tired.
“For my girl, sir” he heard the dry, inhuman sound.
“Oh!” he said, turning away. “Clear the table.”
“Click!” went the soldier’s throat; then again, “click!” and then the half-articulate:
“Yes, sir.”
The young soldier was gone, looking old, and walking heavily.
The officer, left alone, held himself rigid, to prevent himself from thinking. His instinct warned him that he must not think. Deep inside him was the intense gratification of his passion, still working powerfully. Then there was a counter-action, a horrible breaking down of something inside him, a whole agony of reaction.

My two pfennigs
For readers with a few more moments to spare.

According to Antony Atkins (editor of the edition I read), the publishing industry was thrown into panic by the outbreak of war and leapt at Lawrence’s German stories because of their depiction of Prussian militarism, rearranging the author’s preferred running order to headline the two pieces set in Germany out of the fourteen overall: The Prussian Officer and Vin ordinaire. There is some debate as to the extent to which Lawrence was against this re-weighting of his collection from a group of short stories with widely-varied settings, heavily focussed on literary technique, to a by-the-numbers indictment of German militarism; yet it seems to be a price he was willing to pay – and which he had the emotional currency to pay, too.

In 1913, for example, Lawrence had confided in a letter to Edward Garnett that he had “suffered from the tightness, the domesticity of Germany. It is our domesticity which leads to our conformity, which chokes us.” The stifling atmosphere of pre-war Germany, its insidious mixture of provincialism, dictatorship and militarism certainly seems to have been something that Lawrence felt weighing on him during his stay. Furthermore, Lawrence certainly isn’t afraid to lay it on thick, here: the officer replies to poetry in the private sphere with corporal punishment in the public; the fact that his public cruelty is an outlet for his repressed, private homosexuality is made so obvious as to be almost no fun anymore – there is no detective work left for the reader to do.

Yet in The Prussian Officer, the soldier humiliated in the extract below later rises up against his despotic commander and literally chokes him. As such, Lawrence can be seen to be showing not just the crushing effect of rampant German militarism on private life in the antebellum era, but also the currents that rise up against it and threaten to wash it away at any moment.

Nevertheless, the fact that the soldier who has risen up against his master then dies, disorientated and distraught, would indicate by this reading that Lawrence may have thought Germans too regulated, too brow-beaten by their strict societal constraints to dispose of their autocrats and handle an ensuing revolution properly. The chaos of the interwar period and the longing for order that saw Hitler elected would seem to have proved him right.

Despite this neat one-to-one correlation between Lawrence's story and the history of Prussian militarism, however, I would be careful of reducing it to that - no matter to what extent Lawrence may have been happy for that to happen, and no matter to what extent his letters show corresponding views after his stay in Germany. After all, Lawrence's work is filled with repressed, uptight types, especially from the British aristocracy. In that sense, he probably saw Britain and Germany being rather similar in some respects.

Monday, 13 June 2011

Fynes Moryson gets lost in Deutschland

The second writer I’ve chosen for my series of English-language texts about Germany is Fynes Moryson. Born in 1566, he spent the years between 1591 and 1597 touring through Europe and the Near East, and many of the following years writing them up at a somewhat leisurely pace.

I’ve chosen him because, in a way, he reminds me of sixteenth-century version of myself. Just like yours truly, he went to Oxford and then decided he fancied exploring Europe, making something of a base out of Germany for quite some time. Unlike me, however, he seems to have principally lived off his wealthy father’s allowance, as was the custom at the time for anyone with the leisure and resources to travel for its own sake.

Where, how & why did he write about Germany

In his eight years abroad, Moryson frequently passed through Northern Germany, entering Europe via the medieval Hanseatic port of Stade and moving on through Hamburg and Lüneburg into Germany proper. The extract I’ve chosen is his description of Hamburg as he travels through it the first time in 1591.

The well-preserved Hanseatic town of Stade, a bustling port back in Moryson's day

What to look out for
For readers with little time/short attention spans – or looking for dinner-party quips/neat essay segues

1. The “Limey bastard” factor: Being British abroad at the moment is a relatively sweet deal. People in Europe tend to like London, the Royal Family and a lot of the music our fair islands have produced, so you generally tend to get a warm reception wherever you go. This hasn’t always been the case, of course, as Moryson discovers in Hamburg. Even before City-style financial capitalism went wild, the English have always had a tendency to be neo-liberal, and the fact that the port of Stade just twenty miles down the River Elbe was offering slightly better conditions was reason enough for English traders to up sticks and break of hundreds of years of cooperation with the port of Hamburg.

2. The “Wow, he speaks German!” factor: Nevertheless, Moryson gets a “heads up” on the widespread dislike of the English amongst the Hamburg harbour workers as he overhears a couple of them scheming to throw a ten-pound sack of merchandise at his head. Moryson had a good command of the German language, something that, today, makes English people even more popular in Germany than they already are.

The Extract

The passage by water to Hamburg had beene much easier, especially for a stranger, and a boat daily passeth from Stode thither in some three hours space, if the winde bee not contrary, wherein each man paies three Lubecke shillings for his passage: but all Passengers without difference of condition must help to rowe, or hire one in his stead, except the winde bee good so as they need not use their Oares; besides that the annoyance of base companionsw ill easily offend one that is any thing nice.

Hamburg is a Free Citie of the Empire, and one of them which (as I said) are called Hans-steten, and for the building and populousnesse is much to be praised. The Senate house is very beautifull, and is adorned with carved statuaes of the nine Worthies. The Exchange where the Merchants meet is a very pleasant place. The Haven is shut up with an iron chaine. The Citie is compassed with a deepe ditch, and upon the East and North sides with a double ditch and wall. Water is brought to the Citie from an hil distant some English mile, by pipes of wood, because those of lead would be broken by the yce, and these pipes are to bee scene under the bridge, whence the water is convaied by them unto each Citizens house. The Territory of the Citie extendeth a mile or two, and on one side three miles out of the walles. It hath nine Churches and six gates called by the Cities to which they lead. It is seated in a large plaine and a sandy soyle, but hath very fatte pasture ground without. On the South side and some part of the West, it is washed with the River Elve, which also putteth a branch into the Towne, but on the North and somewhat on the East side, the River Alster runneth by towards Stode, and falleth into the Elve. The streets are narrow excepting one which is called Broad-street (vulgarly Breitgasse.) The building is all of bricke (as in all the other Sea-bordering Cities, lying from these parts towards Flanders) and all the beautie of the houses is in the first entrance, having broad and faire gates into a large Hal, the lower part whereof on both sides is used for a Ware-house, and in the upper part lying to the view of the doore, the chiefe houshold-stuffe is placed, and especially their vessell of English Pewter, which being kept bright makes a glittering shew to them that passe by; so as the houses promise more beauty outwardly then they have inwardly. Here I paid each meale foure Lubeck shillings, and one each night for my bed. The Citizens are unmeasurablyil l III affected affected to the English, to whom (or to any stranger) it is unsafe to walke out of the gates after noone, for when the common people are once warmed with drinke, they are apt to doe them injury. My selfe one day passing by some that were unloading and telling of Billets, heard them say these words: Wirft den zehenden auff des Englanders kopf, that is, cast the tenth at the Englishmans head. But I and my companions knowing well their malice to the English for the removing their trafficke to Stode, were content to pass bey as if we understood them not.

My two pfennigs
For readers with large amounts of time, and attention spans to match

Hamburg then and now

One reason I chose this extract is because I currently live in Hamburg, so it is naturally of interest to me to read what an Englishman was writing about the place five centuries ago. What is striking is just how recognisable the portrait is, despite the intervening years and the Great Fire of 1842, which destroyed most of the medieval Hamburg Moryson is describing. The “Senate House”, for example, perished in the flames, but the new Town Hall is a fine building also “adorned with statues”. Meanwhile, whilst the city has expanded considerably, the remains of the ditches Moryson writes of are still visible in the form of a belt of green parks surrounding the city-centre.

The typical merchants’ houses he describes, in which the bottom floors are used as a warehouse and the upper storeys for living, may have disappeared by and large, but there are enough of them around to give today’s traveller a feel for the city as Moryson would have experienced it. Ironically though, a trip on the S3 down to Stade is even more informative in this regard. In Moryson’s day, Stade was a major city in the powerful Hanseatic league, on a par with Hamburg and Lübeck in terms of its commercial and military importance; now, it is a forgotten backwater, a satellite town in Hamburg’s orbit which provides a neat day destination for the bicycle-besotted urban middle-classes. In 1591 though, Moryson landed there and was able to pay for his board and lodgings in pounds and shillings. Today, Stade is so behind the times that you can probably still pay in some places using those very same pre-decimal coins – or at least Deutsche Marks.

Then again, it is precisely this loss of power that has spared it for today’s flâneur out for a glimpse of old Northern Europe: the harbour was never developed much beyond its seventeenth century state, and its stock of narrow alleys and timber-framed merchants’ houses has survived the European wars since then intact.

Travel then and now

Maybe the savage conflicts that separate our place in history from Moryson’s make the ease and speed with which he traverses Europe seem so odd in retrospect. We’ve come to think of ourselves at the end of a long development from closed borders through to freedom of movement, but if there’s one thing reading Moryson’s memoires makes clear, history does not always keep moving in the same direction and there have been other times when crossing national boundaries was relatively easy.

Of course, Moryson belonged to a privileged class of traveller and had financial resources which would today be on a par with those of a very wealthy banker, but there is still something invigorating about the speed with which he can charter a coach or board a boat; he does it with the same sort of nonchalance that we modern Westerners reserve for budget airline trips, despite the fact that, on his maiden voyage, his ship to Stade is almost captured by pirates in the English channel (see the opening pages of the Itinerary).

Nevertheless, privileged or not, in this extract, Moryson has to slog his way upstream from Stade to reach Hamburg like any other man: “all passengers without difference of condition must help to row” as he notes, with a veiled hint that he have been slightly displeased by this rather hands-on approach to travel. I find the idea of an English gentleman being conned out of a few bob and then set to work rowing his own passage rather comical, and it’s certainly an indicator of how much travel has moved from being a tiring chore done by most out of strict necessity to something that people nowadays look forward to and see as their right. By setting off on a whim to explore Europe for its own sake (he writes in the introduction of his “innate desire to gaine experience by travelling into forraigne parts”), Moryson is, in fact, one of the first recorded modern travellers; but he’s travelling by distinctly pre-modern means.

Not lost in Germany, at home everywhere else

An interesting question for me however, raised both in this extract and the Itineraries generally, is whether and to what extent Moryson really did travel with the nonchalance and coolness depicted here. He didn’t publish his Itinerary until 1617, a good fifteen years after he set out on his first trip; according to his foreword, he writes from a combination of notes and memory. So by the time he started writing back in England in 1609, he would have passed through Germany four times, and so perhaps this explains the laconic, detached and somehow underwhelmed impression of his writing.

After all, Moryson went on to visit much of the rest of Europe as well as the Holy Lands, and so Germany must have seemed pretty tame to him in hindsight. At least at the time of writing, Moryson is by no means lost in Deutschland anymore. Furthermore, he may well not have admitted in writing if he was. The movement towards the description of one’s own feelings that has become more and more a feature of modern writing was, by most measures, only just beginning with Moryson’s French contemporary Montaigne; until him, most writers were aiming for a more Classical historian style. My bet, though, is that Moryson was probably as enthused, confused and mildly overwhelmed by Hamburg in 1591 as I was the first time I got here.

Dip into the full length Itinerary courtesy of Archive.org here.

Monday, 6 June 2011

David Hume gets lost in Deutschland

I thought I'd start this series on English-language writing on Germany with David Hume. His similarities to my situation are limited: apart from both being self-opinionated and both being barely able to scratch a living from writing stuff, we've little in common. Hume confesses to having known little about Germany before arriving (I knew a lot) and having anti-German prejudice (which I didn't) - then again, that makes him a perfect analogue to many a modern visitor to Germany, I suppose, and certainly makes him quite "lost in Deutschland".

Where, how & why did he write about Germany

In the spring of 1748, the somewhat impoverished David Hume found himself secretary to a Scottish general, whom he accompanied on his diplomatic mission for the British government to the capital of Austria. The quickest way to Vienna back then being to cross to Holland then travel up the Rhine and then down the Danube valleys, the party traversed a good portion of what makes up modern Germany.

Hume kept a written record of the journey in the form of letters to his brother John. (Incidentally, I find that there is a neat irony in reading Hume, key figure of the Edinburgh Enlightenment, writing on a country in which he may well be have said to kick-started one of the world’s most important philosophical traditions: forty years later, Immanuel Kant would single out the writings of the Scottish thinker as those which “woke him from his dogmatic slumber”. - but that's by the bye). Here, I’ve reproduced the two parts of Hume’s epistolary journal that I find most interesting: a letter written from Bonn on 25th March, and then another from the Danube on 15th April, just as he is about to leave Germany into Austria.

Bonn town hall, which Hume would have no dobut visited

What to look out for
For readers with little time/short attention spans – or looking for dinner-party quips/neat essay segues

1. The "Don't mention the war"-factor: If you're one of those rather one-dimensional types who likes to comb German history for early signs of the Third Reich, then you'll get a little kick out of Hume's observation that if Germany were united, "it would be the greatest power that ever was in the world." After all, just 100 years after he wrote that, Bismarck was trying to see whether it would work - and 200 years later, so was somebody else.

2. The "We're all friends now"-factor: If, on the other hand, you're looking for a conversation piece a little more suited to post-war sensibilities (and current German foreign policy - see Libya), you'll like the following quote about the Elector: "he always keeps out of wars, being protected by his suredness of character."

The Extract

"(Bonn) is about six leagues from Cologne, a pleasant well-built little town, upon the banks of the Rhine, and is the seat of the archbishop. We have bestowed half a day in visiting his palace, which is an extensive magnificent building; and he is certainly the best lodged prince in Europe except the King of France. For, besides this palace, and a sort of Maison de Plaisance near it (the most elegant thing in the world), he has also two country houses very magnificent. He is the late emperor's brother; and is, as they say, a very fine gentleman; a man of pleasure, very gallant and gay: he has always at his court a company of French comedians and Italian singers. And as he always keeps out of wars, being protected by the suredness of his character, he has nothing to hope and nothing to fear; and seems to be the happiest prince in Europe. However, we could wish he took a little more care of his high-ways, even though his furniture, pictures, and building were a little less elegant. We are got into a country where we have no fires but stoves; and no covering but feather beds; neither of which I like, both of them are too warm and suffocating."

Letter to John Hume of Ninewells, 25th March 1748

"Thus we have finished a very agreeable journey of 500 miles (for so far is Vienna from the Hague.) I have past through many a prince's territories, and have had in more masters than many of these princes have subjects. Germany is undoubtedly a very fine country, full of industrious honest people: and were it united, it would be the greatest power that ever was in the world. The common people are here, almost everywhere, much better treated, and more at their ease, than in France: and are not very much inferior to the English, notwithstanding all the airs the latter give themselves.
There are great advantages in travelling, and nothing serves more to remove prejudices; for I confess I had entertained no such advantageous idea of Germany; and it gives a man of humanity pleasure to see that so considerable a part of mankind as the Germans are in so tolerable a condition."

Letter to John Hume of Ninewells, 15th April 1748

My two pfennigs

For readers with large amounts of time, and attention spans to match

Lifestyle: more differences than similarities

In this series of letters to his brother John Hume, we are by no means dealing with the deepest of David Hume’s philosophical writings. In fact, if anything, the first thing to call the reader’s attention is his eye for the details of his surroundings. In the letters preceding the extract, Hume complains at length about the hearths and bedding in the lower Rhineland. In Bonn, where the first part of the extract begins, he may well be the guest of the “best-lodged prince in Europe”, yet the stoves and feather beds of this area are too hot for the (so I’ve read, somewhat portly) Hume to be at ease.

Travellers in today’s Germany, however, tend to complain rather more about how cold and clinically furnished some German homes can be. The high-ceilinged, well-proportioned city apartments preferred by the intelligentsia can be difficult to heat, while the Scandinavian style of wooden floors and white walls with minimalist furnishings has made inroads into almost all German homes. Pillows, too, are another point of consternation for English and American travellers: the average German pillow is a loosely-packed square which has to be doubled or rolled up to offer adequate neck-support.

Another difference in everyday life that made me laugh: whilst Hume upbraids Prince Clemens August for neglecting his highways in favour of rich interior furnishings, foreign travellers in Germany today are, of course, astonished by the autobahns. These premium-standard motorways need to be well-maintained, what with all the heavy, high-powered German vehicles powering down them without the inconvenience of a speed limit. Throughout his diaries, in fact, Hume’s now redundant pet peeves show generally how much Germany has changed in 250 years. This may sound like a trite point, but consider that this is little more than the life-span of four men, and is in sharp contrast to the relevance of his philosophical writings, which still form a core part of several degrees in this subject.

Politics: more similarities than differences?

Nevertheless, Hume’s writing is not just about his own physical comfort. Throughout his month-long tour through Germany, he has a keen eye for the economic and political circumstances of the city-states and palatinates through which he passes – which are manifold. In fact, at the end of the tour, in the second part of this extract, he sums up the fractured political situation of Germany as follows: “I have past through many a prince's territories, and have had in more masters than many of these princes have subjects.”

This humorous hyperbole illustrates the lack of central unified government in Germany at the time. And whilst Germany today does have a central government, in some respects, things have come full circle: the federal solution imposed on Germany after the Second World War had the aim of weakening German centralism in order to reduce the country’s liability to dictatorship. In its current, post-reunification model, this distinctly American structure has resulted in 16 different states, each with its own parliament and a full complement of state institutions.

In some cases, this seems like a sensible way to make government more manageable: the state of North-Rhine-Westphalia has nearly 20 million inhabitants, making it bigger than both its foreign neighbours, the Netherlands and Belgium, and seem somehow deserving of a regional parliament. In other places, however, this state apparatus appears ridiculously oversized: take the Saarland, a state with a population of under a million, or Bremen, a city-state which was independent in Hume’s time and now once again runs under self-government.

Just as Hume remarks on the opulence of palace at the comparatively unimportant Bonn, I myself am often astounded at the overgrown government buildings in state capitals such as Erfurt (Thuringia), an otherwise unremarkable historic town of some 200,000 souls, or Schwerin (Mecklenburg-Vorpommern), a city with the highest rates of child poverty in Germany. One may feel reminded of James Bosworth on the Grand Tour some twenty years after Hume wrote his dispatches: meeting the Prince of Zerbat, Bosworth laughs at his “troops, forsooth, to the number of 150 foot and 30 horse (… and) his little battery of cannon”. More profanely, I like to think of the child-hating ruler in “Chitty Chitty Bang-Bang” with his toy soldiers. Whatever the case, whenever German state rulers today have the opportunity to hold the federal senate to ransom and posture for the press, they often take on something of the pettiness of these past provincial rulers.

In another echo of today, however, Hume comments on the seemingly high level of comfort and independence enjoyed by Germans, who are “much better treated, and more at their ease, than in France: and are not very much inferior to the English.” In view of the alarming powers accorded to the British police since the late twentieth century, it would seem if anything odd today to take the English as a reference point for civil liberties. As far as I can tell, visitors to Germany from Britain and America are certainly amazed by the blithe way in which Germans swig beer out of glass bottles in public places and enjoy the use of cheap public transport without even having to pass through ticket barriers.

Travel removes prejudice

One point on which Hume is as modern as he ever was, however, has nothing to do with the way either Germany or other countries have changed. He writes of the “great advantages in travelling”, in that “nothing serves more to remove prejudices”, and this is an observation today so commonplace that it seems almost pointless to say it. Nevertheless, Hume is not alone when he writes that he “had entertained no such advantageous idea of Germany; and it gives a man of humanity pleasure to see that so considerable a part of mankind as the Germans are in so tolerable a condition.” This seems to me to be a reaction that many first time Germany-travellers experience today.

Thursday, 2 June 2011

Lost in Germany - relaunching Lost in Deutschland

Dear new "Lost in Deutschland" reader,

It was just over five years ago that I first had the idea for “Lost in Deutschland”. At the time, I was working at the German edition of the Financial Times during my year abroad from a languages degree and started writing in German about my experiences as a new arrival in Europe’s most populous country.

After going back to Oxford to finish my degree, I returned to Germany over three years ago and picked up where I left off writing in German about all the weird and unknown stuff I came across out here: first, I opened up this blog for a German audience under the tried-and-tested “Lost in Deutschland” brand name; three years ago last month, some contacts and I made a pilot film for
the web video series to accompany it.

Since then, I’ve been writing and making films about German peculiarities – about the food and drink (hhmm, pork and beer, uhuhuhh), about the complicated-but-resourceful language, about the world-changing history and culture, and about the way that Germans always ask you to pee standing up and refuse to signpost their toilets adequately (articles in English on these points here). I've been making a loosely-bound Teutonopedia, if you like, with everything from the sacred (roast pork) to the profane (bog-holes).

Even if the pork is as delicious, the beer as intoxicating and the toilets as just plain bizarre as they ever were, I’d be lying if I said that, after three years, I weren’t more familiar with them than I had been. So it’s time to revamp the blog and turn things over to other people who really are – or rather really have been – lost in Germany.

So from here on in, I’ll be featuring and commenting on English-speaking writers of all ages, eras and types who have spent time in Germany, for whatever reason, and written about it. There’ll be some surprise candidates (David Hume’s views on Germany circa 1770, anyone?) as well as – publishing companies willing – some old favourites (as a statement of intent, I’m gunning for Bryson and Winder amongst others).

Also, as you may have noticed by now, I’ll be writing in English from now on.



Lost in Deutschland - Der Relaunch

Liebe Lost in Deutschland-Leser,

es ist im letzten Mai-Monat genau fünf Jahre her, da mir der Name dieses Blogs einfiel und ich auf www.ftd.de meine ersten Texte auf Deutsch über Deutschland veröffentlichte.

Nach einer Pause, um mein Studium abzuschließen, kam ich wieder hierher und begann vor gut drei Jahren unter demselben Namen hier Texte zu verbreiten. Im letzten Mai-Monat hat sich der Probedreh für das erste Lost in Deutschland-Video zum dritten Mal verjährt.

Obwohl ich mir auch nach den fünf Jahren komme immer wieder lost vorkomme – am stärksten war das Gefühl letztens sonntagmorgens, als mein einer Mitbewohner strunze dicht auf dem Hamburger Fischmarkt mal eben fünf Kilo Spargel gekauft und auf den Frühstückstisch gestellt hatte – schwallt das Gefühl nun mehr nur noch sporadisch auf. Im Grunde genommen fühle ich mich nun hier genauso zu Hause wie im UK.

Nach drei Jahren, in denen ich mich immer wieder mit dem Thema Lost in Deutschland beschäftigt habe, kann ich nicht behaupten, ich wäre noch lost. Der Mensch ist ja nun mal ein lernfähiges Tier.

Was tun, also? Das Blog dichtmachen und die Leser im Stich lassen? Niemals!

Die Antwort liegt auf der Hand. Wenn ich mich nicht mehr lost in Deutschland fühle, müssen irgendwelche andere her, die es doch tun.

Von daher werden Sie in den nächsten Wochen und Monaten Texte von anderen englischsprachigen Autoren finden, die auch mal in Deutschland lost gewesen sind. Ich mache die Recherche, schreibe gegebenenfalls den Verlag wegen Einverständnis an und kommentiere das ganze.

Das ist die gute Nachricht. Die schlechte? So viel Zeit zum übersetzen habe ich auch nicht – und die meisten Schreiber, die hier mal lost waren, waren naturgemäß auch nicht unbedingt der deutschen Sprache mächtig.

Daher verschiebt sich nun der Arbeitslast von meiner Seite zu eurer – denn ihr werdet jetzt in der Fremdsprache lesen müssen, wo ich doch nun in der Muttersprache veröffentliche. Wobei ihr euch ja schon freuen könnt, dass meine Muttersprache ja Englisch und nicht etwa Baskisch oder Minoisch-B ist!

Vielen Dank und bis bald!


Wednesday, 11 May 2011

Deutschland und den Euro - von Außen betrachtet

Lange Zeit habe ich mich über meine Landsleute und ihr mangelndes Interesse at Deutschland beklagt. Nun in diesem 2011 scheint sich die Lage endlich zu verbessern: Bücher wie Germania machen guten Umsatz, die BBC fing das Jahr mit einer Deutschland-Saison an, der Guardian hat auch eine Woche jeden Tag über Deutschland im Rahmen des Europa-Monats geschrieben.

Und nun höre ich von einem alten Uni-Freund von mir Ted Maxwell, der bei der Agentur Intelligence Squared arbeitet. Deren Hauptgeschäft ist ein relativ einzigartiges - und sehr lobenswertes: die veranstaltet Debatten zu aktuellen Themen mit hochangesehenen Experten.
Nächsten Dienstag wird über Deutschland und den Euro geredet. Braucht Deutschland Europa und den Euro noch - oder kann es (und will es) sich daraus lösen oder Europa seine eigene Ordnung aufzwingen? Rund um diese Frage werden Deutschland- und Europa-Experten vom UK auch Vertreter aus Deutschland gegenübergestellt.

Wer hier wohnt und sich mit halbwegs normalen Leuten abgibt, der mag die Frage absurd finden. Ist doch Deutschland von der Grundtendenz her sehr europafreundlich (im Gegensatz zum Land, in dessen Hauptstadt diese Debatte stattfindet). Allerdings geben die politischen Sprüche aus Berlin, die nun im Ausland registriert werden, ein sich veränderndes Bild wieder.

Ich werde auf jeden Fall per Livestream mir das ganze reinziehen - heute um 19:45 CET.

Wednesday, 16 March 2011

"Lost in Deutschland"-Lesung Nr. 3

Liebe LiD-Fans in der Hauptstadt,

bald werde ich bei euch lesen! "Was," fragt ihr, "schon wieder Düsseldorf?"

Nein, liebe Leute, in der heimlichen Hauptstadt Deutschlands habe ich schon Anfang Februar gelesen: nun geht es in die offizielle Kapitale, nach Berlin!

In Kreuzberg wird es sein, in der Bar des Sputnik-Kinos. Dort wird um 20.30 am 13. April um rege Teilnahme gebeten - zumal es nicht nur meine Wenigkeit im Program geben wird und der Eintritt frei sein dürfte!

Ich freue mich auf möglichst viele von euch in Berlin!

Viele Grüße aus der LiD-Redaktion,


Thursday, 3 March 2011

Schlösser, Schlösser überall!

Ja, liebe Leute, nächste Woche ist Karneval! Das heißt, ich fahre nach Düsseldorf und ziehe mir drei Tage lang Altbier rein - einiges davon wohl der Marke "Schlösser".

Übrigens: Was hat es mit Schlössern in Deutschland auf sich? Dieser Frage bin ich schon einmal vor zwei Jahren in Herne nachgegangen. Meine Theorie, die Schlösser in Deutschland wären wie Neuschwanstein nachgebaut, um Touristen um Ihre Urlaubseuros zu bringen, hat sich zwar als falsch erwiesen, aber mein Ausgangspunkt, in Deutschland gebe es einfach verdammt viele Schlösser, bestätigt sich jeden Tag aufs Neue.

Gestern, zum Beispiel, als in der ZEIT ein Gespräch mit Eduard von Hapsburg-Lothringen über sein Buch Wo Grafen schlafen las.

ZEIT: Wie viele Schlösser gibt es eigentlich im deutschsprachigen Raum?

von H-L: Etwa 10 000.

ZEIT: So viele?

von H-L: Ja. Man kommt quasi ständig an einem Schloss vorbei. Aber man nimmt die Gebäude gar nicht mehr wahr.

Wednesday, 26 January 2011

"Lost in Deutschland"-Lesung Nr. 2

Liebe LiD-Fans,

gestern fand die erste "Lost in Deutschland"-Buchlesung im Hamburger Mathilde Café statt: und sie war ein eindeutiger Erfolg. Vielen Dank an alle, die gekommen sind - und an alle, die sichtbar geschmunzelt und laut gelacht haben - denn ihr habt mir Mut gemacht und schon nach einer Minute hat sich mein wild klopfendes Herz wieder eingekriegt und meine Lesestimmte sich eingependelt. Es hat dann nur noch Spaß gemacht, meine Lieblingstexte vom eigenen Buch euch vorzulesen.

Soviel Spaß, dass ich Lust habe, das unmittelbar zu wiederholen: und dies werde ich in einer Woche in Düsseldorf tun. Am Donnerstag dem 3. Februar kommt die LiD-Lesereihe in die schönste Stadt am Rhein, und zwar dort in die Buchhandlung BiBaBuZe in der Aachener Straße 1. Weil ich mich übrigens immer zu steigern versuche, ist der Eintritt zu dieser Lesung sogar frei!

Ich freue mich also darauf, viele von euch zu sehen!

Viele Grüße von der LiD-Redaktion

Thursday, 13 January 2011

Länger arbeiten? Yes please!

Es ist schon erstaunlich, wie groß der Unterschied im öffentlichen Diskurs manchmall ausfällt zwischen Großbritannien und Deutschland.

In Deutschland lädt mich meine Gewerkschaft ver.di dazu ein, an Demonstrationen gegen eine Erhöhung des Rentenalters teilzunehmen. Links ausgerichtete Medien bieten Menschen eine Sprachrohr, die en Machern der Reform eine 'Reite das Pferd bis es zusammenbricht'-Mentalität bescheinigen. Und die allgemeine Stimmung ist auf jeden Fall gegen die Rente mit 67, einen Begriff, der bei der Mehrheit negativ konnotiert sein dürfte. Diese Reform muss eben gegen den Volkswillen durchgeboxt werden.

In Großbritannien freut sich aber die Mehrheit, dass sie nun nicht mehr dazu gezwungen werden kann, mit 65 in die Rente zu gehen. Der Tenor der Berichterstattung in den Medien ist ganz anders, das Volk ist der neuen Reform eher geneigt. Und das, trotz eine gleichzeitrigen Erhöhung des Alters, ab dem die staatliche Rente in Anspruch genommen werden kann, von 65 auf 66 Jahre.


Die eine Antwort gibt es zwar nicht (und ich würde die so oder so nicht aus dem Stegreif wissen), aber folgendes dürfte da mit reinspielen:

- Altersarmut: Das Deutsche Rentensystem ist umfassender und großzügiger als das Britische, also ist es ja nicht so schlimm, wenn man früher aus dem Berufsleben aussteigen muss/will.

- Schulden: Brite sind privat oft sehr hoch verschuldet (meistens wegen einem Hypothek) und müssen eben länger arbeiten. Das Haus ist übrigens das private Altersvorsorge, also haben weniger Brite Lebensversicherungen oder anderes Erspartes.

- Gesinnung: In Großbritannien ist es ganz schlimm, ein skiver, also ein Schwänzer zu sein. 'Presenteeism' nennt sich die Volkskrankheit, immer als letzte aus dem Büro rausgehen zu wollen, um sich dann später darüber aufregen zu können, wie wenig die anderen tun. Man definiert sich noch stärker als in Deutschland über seine Arbeit.

Tuesday, 11 January 2011

"Lost in Deutschland"-Lesung

Liebe Blog-Leser und Blog-Leserinnen,

ich habe die Veröffentlichung vom "Lost in Deutschland" in Buchform als Anlass genommen, noch mehr neue Medien auszuprobieren. Also nach dem Blog, den Artikeln, dem Video-Blog und dem Buch wird die Lesung ins Programm aufgenommen.

Am 25. Januar geht es los mit der ersten Veranstaltung: Hier in Hamburg wird es sein, in der Mathilde Literatur & Café um 20:15. Der Eintritt kostet 4,00 EUR, 3,00 EUR für diejenigen, die sich dort öfter aufhalten und im Förderverein sind.

Natürlich werde ich versuchen, das Lokal möglichst mit meinem Entourage vollzustopfen, damit keiner was unpassendes fragt, was zwischenruft, komische Grinsen zieht oder so was. Aber im Sinne des englischen Fairplay sage ich euch eben Bescheid, falls ihr mich aus der Comfort-Zone heraus bringen wollt...

Viele Grüße von der LiD-Redaktion