Posts tagged ‘Nazis’

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

A Beer in Peace: the Middle East, and German Anger

I’m no Mideast expert. I’m not a Germany expert either – I’m German, and only foreigners can be Germany experts. But given that there are views you will hardly find on the Voice of Germany, and out of a patriotic sense of mission, I’ve decided to create a new category on this blog – MyCountry. Blogposts on this particular topic will be sparse, hence no extra blog.

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It was probably Kurt Tucholsky, a journalist, and even more famously a satirist, during the Weimar era, who suggested that the most dangerous man was the one who just wanted to drink his beer in peace.

And even if Tucholsky never really wrote that (can’t find it on the internet, and I lent the book in question to someone and never got it back), it doesn’t really matter, because people will have other beef with him anyway. Stuff like Wo waren Sie im Kriege, Herr –? (This refers to world war 1.)
Another famous sentence of his, Soldiers are Murderers, is not so unpopular in Germany any longer, but that may be owing to the fact that we lost world war 2, as well. By 1945, it had become too obvious that going to war doesn’t pay, at least not for Germans.

Anyway – during the years of the Weimar Republic, Tucholsky belonged to the minority of Germans who strongly believed in free speech (his own freedom, and that of others), and who opposed the rising nazis openly, and consistently. Once the nazis had come to power, Tucholsky lived in exile. Otherwise, he might have been among the first citizens to be arrested, murdered, or put into a concentration camp after January 30, 1933. Carl von Ossietzky, one of his colleagues at the Weltbühne weekly, was arrested on February 28, 1933, and put into “protective custody”.

If his record as a journalist hadn’t been enough to get Tucholsky arrested, too, his life would have been in danger soon after, anyway – Tucholsky was Jewish.

Ever since 1945, an uncertain number of Germans has been busy with either white-washing the twelve years of nazi rule (usually a habit of those who, due to their personal record, prominent nazi membership etc stood no chance to make their contemporaries – or the allied forces’ authorities – believe that they had merely been fellow travellers or Mitläufer), or with distancing themselves both from the nazi ideology, and from any earlier German tradition that might have contributed to nazism. And of course, also to this day, an uncertain number of Germans continues to whitewash the nazi years because they believe that Germany had been attacked by Poland, in 1939.

Rudolf Augstein, a Wehrmacht lieutenant in world war 2, and founder of Germany’s news magazine Der Spiegel in 1947, liked to dive deep into history. He seemed to see a line of tradition from Friedrich II of Prussia right down to Adolf Hitler. He didn’t condemn Friedrich II, but he certainly wasn’t one of his greatest fans. Augstein was just as outspoken – rightly or wrongly – when it came to the Middle East conflict:

Ariel Sharon wants war, he has left no doubt. He brushed aside two decades of peace efforts. He accuses Yasser Arafat in the first place for the need [for Israel] to withdraw from Lebanon in 1982. He had wanted to turn Lebanon into an Israeli protectorate. And he would tinker one over Palestine if only he was allowed to.
(Ariel Scharon will den Krieg, daran hat er nun keinen Zweifel mehr gelassen. Zwei Jahrzehnte Friedensbemühungen hat er beiseite gewischt. In Jassir Arafat sieht er den Hauptschuldigen dafür, dass er 1982 aus dem Libanon zurückweichen musste. Den Libanon wollte Scharon zu einem israelischen Protektorat machen. Ein Protektorat über Palästina würde er sich auch heute zurechtzimmern, wenn man ihn nur ließe.)

If anyone who can read my post here can read Ariel Sharon‘s mind – as of 1982 -, too, please volunteer your findings now. To be clear, Augstein’s choice of the word “protectorate” would earn him a lot of critics nowadays – and maybe it did, too, back in December 2001, when he wrote the a/m article. After all, the nazis liked the concept of protectorates. Bohemia and Moravia were explicitly named protectorates, proclaimed by Adolf Hitler, from Prague Castle. Vichy France may count as another protectorate.

The concept existed long before nazi rule – but mentioning protectorates in the context of Israeli policies was an absolute NO in Germany – unless your name was Rudolf Augstein.

All that said, I found his article refreshing when reading it back then, in Der Spiegel’s printed edition.

Almost exactly two years after Augstein’s accusation, Sharon announced his disengagement plan from Gaza. Maybe Augstein had been wrong, and Sharon wasn’t that fond of protectorates after all.

But some German critics of Israel’s occupation policies might think of this policy change as a change of mind, and attribute it to critics like Augstein – when it comes to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, they frequently overestimate our country’s role. German daily Die Welt‘s Clemens Wergin, a blogger, and one of the critics’ opposite numbers in our daily Mideast brawls, relishes in pointing out how insignificant Germany – and Europe – actually are when it comes to current affairs south and east of the Mediterranean. His point, of course, isn’t that we did nothing to help building peace in the Middle East more in general. It is that we did nothing, or too little, to protect Israel in particular.

In another blogpost, he pointed out that opinions concerning the Mideast conflict were usually stronger than (background) knowledge.

Wergin usually sticks to the political or security issues, although he may sometimes try to draw psychic profiles of the German public and its Israel- or America-related debates.

In a recent post, he suggested that  U.S. president Barack Obama‘s recent policies on the Middle East were a disaster, in that Obama had joined Europe in believing that the Israeli-Palestine conflict was the central cause for all other problems in the region. The commenter thread which followed Wergin’s post was little more than an exchange of credos – either blanketly defending or attacking Israel’s policies. And soon enough, the first critic was lablelled an anti-semite. Both sides accused each other of being uncapable of listening to actual points in an argument. Some commenters from both sides indeed seemed to be unable or unwilling to argue – especially those who accused the other side of such incapacities.

Such accusations of anti-semitism can make sense, at times. But about as frequently, they are a convenient ersatz for an actual discussions of issues. That may be the case elsewhere, too, but particularly in Germany, and given our country’s nazi past, with millions of Jewish people murdered, it will usually carry weight, no matter who is applying the label on whom, and no matter if the accusation is justified or not.

Wergin’s posts take a perspective which might be described as Western, American, and Israeli security interests. Apart from relative outsiders to the Mideast conflict, people with an immediate interest in the conflict may occasionally be commenting on his blog, too – but you can’t usually tell from the way they express their views, and once the commenter threads begin, the my-beer-in-peace mechanism kicks in, either way. To those who side with Israel, Israel is seen as the party which wants peace, but is refused a peacful arrangement by its enemies. To those who side with Palestine, Palestine is the innocent party who is refused such a peaceful arrangement. To many of both sides, plus many of those who don’t really care about the Middle East, it seems to be seen as a region that doesn’t allow Germans to drink their beer in peace.

Anyway – while you may find characteristics in this debate which may apply to discussions in your country, too, some aspects and forms of such exchanges amount to an argument with particularly German characteristics. Israel and Palestine then mainly serve as dummies in exchanges of German righteousness (“we’ve learned our lessons from ww2″), anger and frustration – all that, however, with tons of explanations, and showing off individual Mideast expertise. Both sides prove each other wrong all along the time, or claim that they are doing that, and once nothing else works anymore, each side makes referrals to Germany’s nazi past in ways which suit its case best.

What both sides – and that’s pretty German, too – seem to ignore is that in the end, an individual’s opportunities to influence his or her country’s security policies are usually limited – and there is little evidence that as many Germans, if in a situation similar to Israel’s, would be prepared to join Gush Shalom, as are Israelis. Neither too many Israelis, nor too many Palestinians, can be happy with everyday life under today’s circumstances – but just as for people elsewhere, politics is only one aspect of daily life, and people have to earn a life, and to have some fun and family life after hours.

It’s only fair to point out that some very modest welfare state reforms in Germany, not too long ago, led to an old and venerable political party being shredded in subsequent elections. But removing the Israeli settlers from the West Bank is considered to be a piece of cake, from a German perspective. Or – an argument from the other side of the German debate – the concessions the Palestinian peace negotiators reportedly put on the negotiation table  were either too little to be taken serious, or too much to be believable.

I usually prefer to discuss such issues without too many referrals to my own country, or to the nazi past. The past is a factor, but when defenders and critics of either (German) side refer to it too often, I begin to doubt that the Middle East is the actual issue, and I begin to believe that our domestic issues are actually taking control of the debate. In that light, I have started to re-think my past ideas about the Middle East. What America does for Israel in security terms may not be glorious, but it may be a necessity. I have believed that before. What Europe does for Israel – and Palestine – may not be glorious either, but Israel’s and Palestine’s connections with Europe in terms of the economy, and culture, shouldn’t be despised as “too little to count”. That’s where I have changed my mind. I used to wonder if Europe couldn’t do more.

There are sources to the fruitless German public debate which can be found in Germany itself – both in circumstances of today, and of the past. There is an incapacity to take the perspective of a common citizen in the Middle East. Every discussion seems to boil down to angry exchanges between armchair politicians or armchair generals.

But another source is the incapability of either side in the argument to think of themselves as people with an anti-semitic heritage. That heritage is generously applied to Germany as a nation, especially by pro-Israeli posters. But it never seems to dawn on them that unconditional support for Israel can be no substitute for occasional individual soul-searching. Generations of people everywhere in Europe, and in Germany in particular, have inherited prejudices against Jewish people. Neither criticizing, nor supporting either side in the Middle East can be a replacement for self-awareness.

As far as that’s concerned, I’m beginning to appreciate the EU’s Mideast policies (to the extent that common EU policies exist). These policies aren’t rushing to conclusions. They provide for the role that the immediate stakeholders – Israelis and Palestinians themselves – need to play, before relative outsiders can begin to play a helpful role. And they have – by and large – resisted the temptations that lie in heroic, but hollow, rhetoric and gestures.

Those may work for newspapers, but not usually in politics, or in daily life.

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Related
» Exorcising Hitler, Hester Vaizey / The Independent, April 29, 2011
» My fearful Country, March 19, 2011
» We Invented the Katyusha, October 30, 2009
» Mit Panzern nach Berlin, Henry Kissinger, November 8, 2002

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

JR @ the Movies: “The King’s Speech”

Movie: The King's Speech

Movie: The King's Speech

I don’t go to the movies too frequently. Last time, I think, was more than two years ago.

As Wikipedia points out, The King’s Speech (2010) doesn’t provide us with an entirely correct account of King George VI‘s historic stammer, but the scriptwriter was surely lucky in that the king’s speech disorder therapist‘s (Lionel Logue) notebooks were found nine weeks before filming. Some of the remaining inaccuracies struck me, too, even though I’m by no means a historian. Either way, as both the awards to date, and ticket sales in Britain would suggest, it is a movie which connects to the mood of our times. It seems to be a movie which can, in the view of many Britions and Americans, speak to and for Britain.

I’m no thorough critic. The easiest way for me to assess this Anglo-American narrative should be to take a French perspective (a German perspective would be problematic for obvious reasons). As this is a blogpost and no expert opinion, I’ll try to choose a French angle, as it seems to suit me best.

Marcel Pagnol, a popular French playwright and filmmaker of the 20th century, distinguished between a playwright and a belletrist (or novelist) as follows:

The language of theater sounds from the actor, it must sound as if it was improvised, and the answer must come right away, because once the right moment has passed, it will be lost. On the other hand, it must not come across in a literary way: it’s not the language of a writer, but the language of the character.

The playwright’s style is in his choice of characters, in the feelings he lends them, and in the proceedings on stage. As for his personal position, [the playwright's language] must restrain itself. May he remain silent! Because if he wants to make his own voice  heard, the dramatic movement will drop. He must not leave the wings [...]: his actors speak to us for him, and they will impose his feelings and his ideas on us, and make us believe that they are ours.*)

There may be many French plays which are as full of educational intent as are Bertolt Brecht‘s. Maybe. But France, the Catholic Church’s first-born daughter (or so they say – the belated Italians might still differ), hardly produced as many missionaries proselytizing foreign lands as did America, or Britain.

If I may equate drama and movies (I believe that I may, in this context), Pagnol’s definition is true when applied to his own work. His characters don’t seem to educate the audience – they don’t come across as if their author  wants to make people believe that their feelings and ideas, and those of Pagnol’s characters, were the same. They really seem to be the same. Pagnol tried to characterize the people as he saw them anyway, rather than idealizing them – and given that he was no idealist (or no self-professed one, anyway), but a business-minded moviemaker and playwright -, he did so with ease. Every shrewdness and even wiliness was in order, so long as it could be deemed “typically French”, or more specifically, provencal. Everything typical was something to be affirmed, rather than to be judged, let alone to be condemned. If there was any educational motivation behind it after all, it would probably be to encourage people to become even more themselves – not in a way the times or politics might demand, but for the sake of individuality itself.

At first glance, the same may be said about The King’s Speech. The king would speak both to the people, and  for the people. He would be their voice – or that’s about how the movie puts it. The king himself was an actor – and his Queen consort was the Empire’s First Actress. The king stuttered, as did the Empire in the first phase of the second world war (the phoney war) – the irony  can hardly be lost on us. But The King’s Speech isn’t about daily life – it’s about collective challenges in extraordinary times.

Given that I’m no frequent moviewatcher (and it really takes a few prods before I’ll find myself in a cinema after all), the size of a movie on the silverscreen alone will hardly ever fail to impress me. Besides, The King’s Speech is a great movie, and I’d recommend it to anyone except to people who are fundamentally opposed to strong language. But although Susan Sontag once condemned the habit, I’ll never leave an impressive piece alone. I’ll always try to categorize or to interpret it.

Two things came to my mind this week, when thinking the almighty pictures over again. One was a speech made by British prime minister David Cameron in Munich, on February 5th this year, on islamism – or stronger (collective)  identities at home:

Frankly, we need a lot less of the passive tolerance of recent years and a much more active, muscular liberalism.  A passively tolerant society says to its citizens, as long as you obey the law we will just leave you alone.  It stands neutral between different values. But I believe a genuinely liberal country does much more; it believes in certain values and actively promotes them.  Freedom of speech, freedom of worship, democracy, the rule of law, equal rights regardless of race, sex or sexuality.  It says to its citizens, this is what defines us as a society: to belong here is to believe in these things.  Now, each of us in our own countries, I believe, must be unambiguous and hard-nosed about this defence of our liberty.

Horatio Hornblower, a fictional British naval officer during the Napoleonic wars, came to my mind, too. I read several volumes of C. S. Forester‘s patriotic stories repeatedly when I was in my mid-teens. Hornblower is to some extent a fictional copy of Lord Nelson (but of much more humble ancestry), and just like the hero of Trafalgar, Hornblower rises through the ranks, and becomes a lord and an admiral in the end. And as is said about Nelson, Hornblower, another naval hero, suffers from the same embarrassing weakness, too: he’s prone to seasickness.

He copes, and –  despite the setbacks that a believable military story requires, plus the personal problems that make him a believable human being – strides from victory to victory. The first novel, The Happy Return, was published in 1937, some two years ahead of the war, and at a time when British defense wasn’t in great shape. Two more novels, A Ship of the Line and Flying Colours, were published in 1938. And I’m pretty  sure that they helped to raise public morale, and a preparedness to add to the military budget.

“I find Hornblower admirable”, Winston Churchill wrote in The Great Alliance, published in 1950.

Talking about Winston Churchill – in The King’s Speech, he’s portrayed as King Edward VIII‘s opponent, given Edward’s determination to marry a somewhat off-color lady, Mrs Wallis Simpson. Churchill was in fact one of King Edward’s most prominent (and rather few) defenders in parliament.

It doesn’t seem to make a great difference, as long as you don’t confuse fiction and history (but don’t be too sure that most of the audience won’t confuse these anyway). It doesn’t really hurt that King George – then still the Duke of York  – had in fact overcome much of his stammer as early as in 1927. The culmination of his accession to the throne, and the beginning of the war, combined with his still (according to the movie) still continuing speech disorder,  are good for the drama.

What appears more questionable to me, even if a movie must have the liberty of re-writing history when it seems to suit -, is the portrayal of the king’s happy family – the Queen consort, and the two princesses. That’s a very idealistic picture, and leaves some shadows out of the account. There should have been no need to divide the world of 1939 that much into colors of black (Germany) and white (Britain). Nazi Germany’s shape would have been sinister enough to allow for some shades of grey on the other side of the English Channel, without a loss of contrast.

The Queen reportedly found the movie moving and enjoyable. Maybe it wouldn’t have hurt if she had enjoyed it a bit less.

But I wouldn’t go as far as to suggest that The King’s Speech were mainly a propaganda movie. It was moving and enjoyable.
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Note

*) La langue du théatre sonne au sortir de la bouche d’un acteur, elle doit paraitre improvisée, la réplique doit etre comprise du premier coup, car une fois passée, elle est perdue. D’autre part, elle ne peut pas etre un modèle de style littéraire: ce n’est pas la langue d’un écrivain, c’est celle du personnage.
Le style d’un auteur dramatique est dans le choix des personnages, dans les sentiments qu’il leur prete, dans la démarche de l’action. Quant à sa position personelle,  elle doit rester modeste. Qu’il se tamse! Dès qu’il veut faire entendre sa propre voix, le mouvement dramatique tombe: qu’il ne sorte pas de la coulisse: [nous n'avons que faire de ses opinions, s'il veut les formuler lui-meme: - couldn't translate this one, hence the omission in my quotation above - JR] ses acteurs nous parlent pour lui, et ils nous imposeront ses émotions et ses idées, en nous faisant croire que ce sont les notres.
!0AMarcel Pagnol: La Gloire de mon Père, Presses Pocket, Paris, 1976, 1986, p. 10

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Related
Main Tag: movie »

Update / Related
Rallying round the Flag, World Socialist Web Site, February 3, 2011

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Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Shanghai Expo: Waiting Messages

You are a Nazi, when people have to endure long queue times in front of your pavillon at the Expo 2010 Shanghai. That’s some visitors’ message to the German Pavillon crew, anyway. Which  shouldn’t upset anyone familiar with these  regular customs. After all, you are a Nazi, too, when you “support Zhang Danhong.  Or when you aren’t subscribing to the Tibet-has-been-Chinese-since-Pan-Gu-made-Heaven-and-Earth theory. Or if you wouldn’t vote for the CCP if it was available for a vote.

But the German pavillon commissioner, Dietmar Schmitz, deplored assaults as well, in a letter to the Expo organizers, and asked for additional security staff. Otherwise, the pavillon would have to close for an indefinite period.

Queuing times are currently about two hours, writes Die Welt.

German federal president Horst Köhler is due to visit on Wednesday.

Friday, December 11, 2009

London: A Flurry of “Justice”

The British government will reportedly advise retailers and importers to distinguish on labels whether imported goods from the West Bank were made by settlements or by Palestinians. It looks like a good decision. After all, there should be no settlements in the West Bank. And the measure doesn’t hit an Israeli government that is reeling between attempts of moderation and domestic pressures like the one led by Kadima until March this year.

I know quite a number of people here in Germany who would like to see the same move here, and if they have any misgivings at all, it will be merely for historic reasons.

But many of the people on my mind who might like the planned British import labels and see them as a good example for Germany will at the same time oppose sanctions against Iran. Besides, the timing of the move makes me wonder. Shortly ago, a super-tax on bankers’ bonuses was announced. And on or before June 3 next year, prime minister Gordon Brown and his Labor Party will have to face general elections. Why the sudden flurry of “justice”?

If Gordon Brown is just acting as the messenger boy for the American government as the Telegraph suggests, that would be good news.

But even if so, we in Europe should remember a few things:

In 2005, Israel withdrew from Gaza. Then prime minister Ariel Sharon saw the withdrawal through, despite immense pressure against it from within his own country. The Gaza Strip is now controlled by Hamas.

In 2000, Israel withdrew from Southern Lebanon. The move didn’t add to Israel’s security.

I’m not fundamentally opposed to labelling products from the West Bank. But before doing so, we should be sure about who it will serve, and who it will hurt. It won’t necessarily be the proverbial ordinary Palestinian farmer who has been denied access to his own land so far who will suddenly see his rights enforced.

Oversimplification within the Middle East has done a lot to fuel its conflicts. Oversimplification from our side of the Mediterranean won’t do anything to defuse them.

Looking at the sudden activity in itself, a lot would speak in its favor. But in the context of some other trends, it stinks.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

JR’s Saturday Review: Is the Internet the Enemy of the Intellectual?

Adam Soboczynski tries to explain why the Intellectual is hounded with hatred on the internet.

The deluge of disgust onto the last bastions of professional opinionmaking wears an unmistakenly revolutionary complexion: the newspaper in crisis just as its pendant on the internet are antiquated oligarchical botches; forums, blogs, and even platforms like pirate bay from which copyrighted material can be obtained stand for anti-authoritarian liberty and counter public which is therefore morally refined. The suppressed underground, at last, ripped through the establishment. It was the victory of pace over inertness, spontaneity over professionalization, the unpaid over the paid. A journalist employed by a publisher is always wrong face to face with the blogger, just like the ancien regime sovereign face to face with the townsman, the latter of which having moral and progress on his side.

Soboczynski’s article is apparently motivated by comments on the German weekly Die Zeit‘s internet pendant – comments written by readers who agitate against anything that may somehow come across as aloof, especially on the feature (or feuilleton) pages.
“An author who doesn’t go beneath a certain level simply failed, simply couldn’t make up his mind to see his work as a service for the average consumer,” Soboczynski writes ironically.

The author’s main points, technically put, seem to be that a newspaper’s authority derives from a blend of political scandals, red-top issues, and the current-affairs analytical feature – the latter of which adds weight to the papers’ prestige, even if only a minority may care to read the features. Even those who don’t want to read them, or who find them too complicated or hard to subsume, may agree that it is something to take the paper serious for – and possibly something to think of as an incentive to work on his or her own cultivation.

Contrary to that, “the internet doesn’t know a concurrence of texts of different standards within one platform.” An internet article, Soboczynski argues, is found by its keywords – which makes its vendors (which probably refers to the authors or providers, depending on the article’s nature) choose the most popular keywords. An article on the internet is attractive when it finds many readers, while an article is attractive for a paper when it fits into the blend – when it helps to make the paper attractive or pleasant as a whole.

Soboczynski also provides an example as to how many opinions lumped together may obscure a picture, rather than explaining a topic. Assessing a medical practice in town on a public platform, Gaby decorates its rankings with one (lousy) out of five (excellent) stars because she had to wait for half an hour, “even though she had an appointment there”, and Max is as kind to provide two stars, because, after all, his hip trouble was professionally cured, although the doctor’s halitosis made him suffer. The author then quotes late German playwright Heiner Müller saying that “ten Germans are more stupid than five Germans”.

Soboczynski also touches on a central problem – the question of class relations, really.

To the others, the intellectual is a parasite. The others sense that the business of an intellectual – happily scrutinizing and interpreting his environment – can hardly be considered to be work.

But this is something Soboczynski only takes into account at the end of his article, with a short and fragmentary paragraph, and that’s unfortunate. Because this was and is a central problem. An employee squeezed by his boss, the market, or both, may not find the energy and time to deal with matters beyond his individual (or not so individual) life. A man or woman without much education may not have developed a sense of things beyond commercialized monkey conditioning. An intellectual mainly brings happiness into the life of occasionally relaxed people.

To be clear, the intellectual shouldn’t be blamed for that, just as the non-intellectual or anti-intellectual can’t escape his own responsiblity of cultivating himself, with the simple excuse of his or her tough childhood. But Soboczynski  shouldn’t leave the matter out of the account. Mentioning it but not keeping to it is a distinctive feature of Soboczynski’s article. This approach might be a central motivation for the quarrel between the intellectual author and his “hateful” commenters. An intellectual who really wants a broader readership shouldn’t lower his standards. Not at all. But he should try to understand who his readers are, and why they are taking aim at him, rather than exploring his texts.

In general, I’d say that Soboczynski is fighting the good fight of intelligence. I can only agree with what he writes about pirate bay, blogs, and forums. The way many bloggers take photos from other sources and adorn their opiniated re-hashes of news originating from otherwise disdained mainstream sources is a nuisance (sorry to possibly offend some people on my blog roll whose posts I do respect in general).

The enmity against education (in the sense of cultivation of mind, I seem to understand) had many heydays, according to Soboczynski, most recently within the two socialist totalitarianisms of the twentieth century.

Maybe it would be too easy to make fun of this invocation. For sure, Neuschwanstein Castle stirs revulsion rather than admiration within me. It seems to epitomize to me the beautiful things Soboczynski celebrates and defends in his article – which isn’t accurate on my part. Soboczynski doesn’t mention castles. He mentions rhetorical competence (seems to refer to the ability to understand and to make oneself understood clearly), poetry, and the arts and crafts. Things which seemed to be unusable for the Volksgemeinschaft, he writes.

To many Chinese, Soboczynski’s argumentation may look familiar. He’s referring to German, Russian and Chinese past forms of socialism alike. The cultural revolution smashed many Chinese Neuschwanstein Castles, and killed many people at home, whereas Germany’s Third Reich killed many people at home and abroad. Soboczynski is referring to both as socialist totalitarianism. Class grudges may indeed have been great drivers in both the Nazi and the Cultural “revolutions”. And the way Chinese intellectuals were hounded as the stinking ninth category (臭老九, chou lao jiu) is legendary.

But that’s also what makes the equation between the Third Reich and the Cultural Revolution look questionable. Reich means Empire – which has little to do with socialism. And intellectuals in Nazi Germany weren’t hounded, unless they opposed the Nazis.

My impression is that Soboczynski wrote something with his heart in it. With his heart too much in it, that is. That usually doesn’t help to be convincing. The way commenters on Die Zeit are sometimes spewing their resentment may be an unpleasant indicator of the state of our society.

I don’t think that Soboczynski should question his own role as an intellectual media professional in his article. After all, he arguably meant to be a reaction to other intellectuals who are only too willing to compromise with angry amateurs where they’d better take an honest, professional stance against them. That’s absolutely legitimate.

But did he question his own role in private, before going public?

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Update / Related: Why are Mass Media Losing Relevance, Febr 26

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Lev Kopelev: No Easy Solution

Siegfried Lenz was honored for his lifetime achievements at an award ceremony in Cologne last month, with this year’s Lev Kopelev Prize for Peace and Human Rights. The following are excerpts from his lecture. At the center of it are his thoughts about Lev Kopelev.

When a man is indicted, our insight may be twofold: We learn something about him, and we learn something about his times, about the spirit in which laws are written. The indictment which major Lev Kopelev of the Red Army was facing accused him of “bourgeois humanistic propaganda of compassion towards the enemy”. As what was then seen as an appropriate degree of penalty, the military court brought a ten-year Gulag sentence.

The reason which caused a stir with a lot of military judges – in the West, too – was that he kept making representations – Representations against the habit of triumphant soldiers of looting, raping, taking what had fallen to them at the end of the war. He later told me, “there is a shame of the victor, and it is about the temptation to give full rein to ones vengeance.” What an example of unheard-of relinquishment, of forgiveness, when bearing in mind the baggage of memory he carried with him: the scorched earth left behind by German soldiers in his country, confiscations, the countless dead. What a power it took, in an extreme situation, to remain true to the values which meant so much to him for all his lifetime: tolerance and humanity. The account of his life, called confession by himself, showes what enabled him. It’s compassion.

[.....]

Compassion – for Lev Kopelev, it wasn’t revolutionary messianism, but something which expresses the longing for brotherliness. Similarly as with Dostoevsky, this missionary of compassion, we learn from him that an unacceptable world can only be saved by altruism [or charity]. Departing from the experience that almost everyone is surrounded by a variety of misery, we are advised that the compassionate doesn’t only give, but that he also takes; by connecting a stranger’s fate with his own, he opens his relationship with the world. The own existence is stepped up. Compassion can’t only be found in positive samaritanism. Rather, compassion gives to those who exercise it, a strength of empathy which virtually on its own leads to the readiness to help others. From the confessions of his friend Lev Kopelev, Heinrich Böll saw a new sacramental teaching of elementary commitment between people.  It shows, not least, in the accentuation of the old sources of vitality: bread and water.

[.....]

Committed to enlightenment, Kopelev made a decision one can only view with admiration and emotion. He went to camps where German prisoners of war were held. He gave lectures. To those who suffered from hunger or homesickness, he didn’t talk about the teachings of Marxism, but about German culture, the indestructible spirit of the country which had brought his own people unparalleled misery. He spoke about Hölderlin, about Kant, and Hegel, he reminded the exhausted, the defeated of what they once possessed, and, within the misery of internment, acquainted them with Dürer and Cranach. One can assume that for many of his listeners, it was their first encounter with German spirit, and I imagine how they reacted to the lecturer’s profound proficiency. I’m sure that, besides astonishment, there was admiration, and I wouldn’t rule out that, even if only with a few, a sensitivity for their own actions started to grow. The jurisdiction that applied saw a “glorification of bourgeois German culture” in it. We may explain it in a different way; we may see the ethics of forgiveness here. This was confirmed by repatriates who, after long imprisonment, often mentioned the humanity of the Russian people, their helpfulness, and also their compassion.

[.....]

[Lev Kopelev] raised his voice for embattled authors, he named the names of the ostracized, from Bulgakov to Pasternak, from Tvardovsky to the great poet Anna Akhmatova and pointed out their importance for Russia’s intellectual tradition. It had been a Russian – Pushkin – who called the printing craft a new kind of artillery, and thinking of that, one will understand why Kopelev translated the essay by Heinrich Böll, Language as the Bulwark of Freedom, an avowal which went from hand to hand in the Soviet Union, as samizdat copies.

[.....]

This man, who had always advocated a ban on all bans, had to get into conflict with a power which dictated ideological instructions to authors. He came to Germany, he was expatriated, he decided to stay here.

I won’t forget the days we stayed with our German publisher. Lev Kopelev was no foreigner. Similarly to Heinrich Heine, who spoke of a portable fatherland when in Paris, Kopelev, a Russian, spoke of Germany as his adopted country. [.....] German poetry, philosophers too, were always part of his life, while the great, “holy” Russian literature lived in his heart.

[.....]

One turns to an author by reading him – a simple but essential experience -, and what the books by the undispirited author Kopelev have to offer, contains a lot of eye-opening truth. In Ease My Sorrows, he familiarizes us with substantial chapters of his autobiography, including the years spent in the so-called sharashka, the prison of scientists.

[.....]

That he could return to Russia after ten years in exile was a miracle to him, but as he said more than once that sometimes, all people can do is to hope for a miracle. Let’s honor this man who kept demanding freedom of speech as an advocate of tolerance and humanity, let us take the words he used to remind us, in merciless times, of the transforming power of compassion. Let us preserve what he has left behind. There are only few of his kind.

My translation in extracts of the lecture by Siegfried Lenz probably leaves a lot to be desired. But I think it still reflects the spirit of the lecture. It reminds me of a Christian sermon, and maybe there lies my problem with it. Forgiveness on a personal level is a gift. That’s one of the things which made Kopelev a great man. But forgiveness on a national level is a different story. Forgiveness is something individual. To me, the lecture by Lenz doesn’t make it clear enough if Kopelev spoke for Russia, or for himself.

In our own interest, we shouldn’t believe that anything is forgiven.

That’s not to say that we should feel bad either. We should only be aware of a simple truth: that the murder of an innocent victim can’t be forgiven. It can’t be forgiven, because dead people can’t forgive. We can only work for the goal that there won’t be more victims in the future.

In 1979, one year before his exile began, Lev Kopelev, Heinrich Böll, and Klaus Bednarz (German Television’s correspondent in Moscow) had this discussion:

Kopelev: In 1933, when Heinrich Böll was just sixteen, I was twenty-one and already married. I must emphasise that from 1933 right up to 1941, our propaganda was never intended to sound anti-German, only anti-Fascist. We had a large German community here in Moscow and I had many German friends at the time, like Erich Weinart and Willie Bredel, both writers living in exile. The question was never put that way, nor did it have anything to do with our attitudes to Germany. My generation was more inclined to play down the threat of Nazism, to think it wasn’t as strong as it really was.
Böll: You mean people in the street…
Kopelev: Yes, it was, and still is, a problem with no easy solution.

I have a lot of respect for Siegfried Lenz, and for his works. But I have a problem with his lecture.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Voice of Germany – Zhang Danhong remains in the News

Zhang Danhong (张丹红) remains in the news in China, though in a new, lower-profile context. On March 4th, China Radio International (CRI) published an online article on the latest book by German author Günter GrassUnterwegs von Deutschland nach Deutschland: This globally respected Nobel prize laureate who kept asking himself and his country hard questions, once again reflects deeply on Germanys unification process and its political and social implications.

The CRI article also refers to the authors Danzig Trilogy (Tin Drum, Cat and Mouse, Dog Years): with the trilogy, Grass researched the underlying roots of Nazism and Fascism brought about by German nationalism.

After a reference to the views of Günter Grass on the potential of a reformed enlightenment movement and the role enlightenment should play in countering the current dominance of neo-liberalism, the CRI article comes to the point which really seems to matter: Grass’ views on China. And, just by the way, on the Voice of Germany and the Zhang Danhong case.

Last year, when Zhang Danhong, in charge of the Voice of Germany’s Chinese service, took a neutral stance concerning the case of Tibet and was blamed by many people and was then dismissed by the Voice of Germany, the VoG’s Chinese service also came under review. Some well-known Germans who felt with Zhang Danhong then wrote an open letter to parliament in support of her. Grass was one of them. It is said that he looked into the case very carefully and only signed the open letter after careful consideration.

The CRI article contains inaccuracies, beginning with the description of  Zhang Danhongs position as in charge of the Chinese service (she was in fact deputy manager), to her “dismissal” (she was suspended for days or weeks, and lost her position as deputy manager, but she wasnt fired). But what strikes me as most weird is how CRI is making a connection between poetry, enlightenment, Günter Grass and Zhang Danhong. Mr Grass may have some personal flaws of his own, and he wasn’t always accurate in the account of his own past, but if  he wanted to publish an interview with himself, he would probably inform us readers in advance.

After all, he is a professional.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Zeal of Living

Last year I had a discussion with another blogger about spirituality and what it can do to save peoples’ lives. He replied that spirituality doesn’t necessarily “save” people, that spirituality can be both good or evil, but that someone either believed in something transcendent beyond mere DNA replication, or he would be amoral otherwise.

Our discussion gave me some insights into my own values from a new perspective. I wouldn’t ever deny that there may be some kind of God, because it doesn’t make sense to negate something without evidence. That life on the other side of the cupboard, assumed by many people, is beyond confirmation or rejection for me. I can only discuss matters that I can feel or see.

But above all, our discussion made me feel that many religious peoples’ notion that only someone religious or spiritual – or someone whose views transcend mere materialism – can appreciate the value that life has.

I believe that I have this one life. I know when it began, but I don’t know when it will end. I don’t really understand either its beginning or its end, but I can make the best of it. I can open my senses to the world and “do nothing” – one might call that meditation, but it is no established methodology for me. I can make choices and fight. I can make a choice and I can love someone. I can make friends with people. I can make enemies, too. I can smoke and wonder how much it is enjoyment, and how much it is addiction.

When working hard, I can feel how my awareness is becoming stronger. When I’m working hard, I’m usually also best at writing some bullshit on this blog – sometimes pretty good bullshit, I think. I feel the intensity of life best when working hard. I’m best at sports when having worked hard just before. I’m also best at more playful competition after working hard. And I’m best at doing nothing after having worked hard just before.

I think it was Wilhelm Lehmann, a German poet, who used the term “zeal of being”. As far as I can tell, he was a religious man, as he referred to the world as a creation, and if he was religious, he might also be a good example for my spritual blogging colleague’s bid that spirituality can be both for good or evil. Because Lehmann was a lifetime civil servant, he joined the Nazi party in May 1933 – according to wikipedia -, for fear of losing his job otherwise. But he was a great poet, and although his poems were probably religiously motivated, I can relate to them in my own way without being religious myself.

So there must be something beyond and outside religion that can make people value life. That makes sense to me anyway. After all, if you believe in only one life, you might cherish it all the more. Life is nothing that I could take for granted. When you believe in one life, the one on this side of the cupboard, you might cherish other peoples’ lives, too. Just as much as someone who believes that life is a divine gift or loan.

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