Archive for August, 2009

August 31, 2009

When politics is only “skin-deep”


IN GERMANY, POLITICS HAS traditionally been a serious business. But this year, with the conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU)  expected to continue its uninspiring grand coalition with the Social Democrats (SPD) following the September 27 election, all parties are willing to take a few more chances than usual and even show a little skin. And yet, even in this traditionally sexist society there are still a few no-go zones that one enters at one’s peril.

The new trend really got going in early August, when shapely fifty-seven year-old CDU candidate Vera Lengsfeld, a former East German dissident from the hip Berlin district of Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg, posed for an electoral poster alongside a stock image of an equally ample Chancellor Angela Merkel above the words “We have more to offer.” Merkel’s own wildly controversial photo, showing her in a low cut dress at an opera performance in Oslo, Norway, had already hit the tabloids a year earlier…


August 28, 2009

Hitler’s favorite Jew: The strange case of Dr. Eduard Bloch

Star of David

Star of David

SOME FOOTNOTES OF HISTORY are just that: random scraps of trivia that may well form part of the historical record but are of no real interest to anyone besides genuine buffs. Who was Napoleon’s podiatrist? Who cares? That is why it might at first sound like groping at the very bottom of the historical bag of tricks to write a book about Hitler’s family doctor. Unless, of course, that doctor happened to be a Jew whose remarkable life story has revealed a previously unknown side of the Austrian dictator’s character.

In fact, there has never been any mystery about Dr. Eduard Bloch. He was repeatedly interviewed by the Office of Strategic Services or OSS after his arrival in the US in 1940 and also published an autobiography in Collier’s Weekly in 1941. This information has been out there for generations, but so far no one has dared touch it. Austrian historian Brigitte Hamann has finally gone ahead and tackled the good doctor’s tale head on. Hamann, who is best known outside her home country for her 1999 book Hitler’s Vienna: A Dictator’s Apprenticeship, published her biography of Bloch in Germany in 2008. It has not yet appeared in the United States, but when it finally comes out we had all better be prepared to face what comes next…


August 25, 2009

“Baader-Meinhof” shoots its way onto American screens

Nadja Uhl as terrorist Brigitte Mohnhaupt

Nadja Uhl as terrorist Brigitte Mohnhaupt

WAS WESTERN INDUSTRIAL SOCIETY in the late 1960s and early 1970s really just inches away from a return to open fascism? The very notion sounds quaint today, even absurd. And yet those years saw the rise of a generation of idealists who were prepared to give their lives – and take many others – to prevent this scenario from occurring. This is the backdrop to Bernd Eichinger’s Oscar-nominated film The Baader-Meinhof Complex, which is finally opening in American cinemas.

In West Germany the situation seemed dire enough. Nazi war criminals walked the streets in freedom and several of them held high posts in government and industry. The young democracy was making sweetheart deals with Third World dictators, such as the Shah of Iran. Germany’s supposed liberator and ally, the United States, was napalming civilians in Vietnam. “The Jews” were in the process of transforming themselves from victims to imperialists by occupying the West Bank. Through all of this, the German population was being progressively dumbed down by trashy pop culture and materialism. Could true fascism be far behind?

This time around, the younger generation didn’t want to get caught supporting the wrong side. Ulrike Meinhof, an ambitious left-wing journalist and frustrated housewife, shared the outrage of millions of other “Nazi children” when the student Benno Ohnesorg was shot to death by a West Berlin policeman during a demonstration against a state visit by the “fascist” Shah. Soon afterward the revolutionary Rudi Dutschke was laid low by an anti-communist assassin. When the charismatic terrorist couple Andreas Baader and Gudrun Ensslin – the Bonnie and Clyde of the Beetles generation – captured the headlines by exploding bombs in two Frankfurt department stores, she knew she had found her true calling…


August 22, 2009

A new palace for Potsdam

Planned reconstruction of Potsdam Stadtschloss

Planned reconstruction of Potsdam Stadtschloss

IT TAKES ONLY MINUTES to destroy a building. Sometimes it takes whole generations to build it back up again. Today it looks as if the Potsdam Stadtschloss is finally going to get its second chance.

After sixty-four years, it was high time somebody filled the ugly gap in the very heart of one of Germany’s most beautiful cities. On August 21 Rainer Speer, finance minister of the eastern German state of Brandenburg, unveiled plans to rebuild the Stadtschloss or city palace, which had been damaged in an Allied bombing raid in 1945 and was later demolished by East Germany’s communist government. The plan calls for a reconstruction of the building’s original façade around an entirely new building that will serve as the new state parliament, containing a legislative chamber and nearly four hundred offices and meeting rooms. However, there will be some significant changes. The two wings will be widened to provide more space and the internal courtyard will therefore be reduced by around twenty percent. The new building will also include an underground parking garage and an extra office floor under the roof. It is scheduled to be completed by late 2012 and will cost around 120 million Euros.

The original Stadtschloss was built on the site of a Slavic fort located in the settlement of Poztupimi on the Havel river. German settlers took over this simple stockade  in the twelfth century and replaced it with a royal residence in the 1600s. It was then given a thorough makeover by the architect Georg Wenzeslaus von Knobelsdorff in the eighteenth century. While it is just one of several royal and imperial residences in and around Potsdam, the Stadtschloss was the town’s chief landmark until the Royal Air Force bombed it on the night of April 14, 1945, just days before the end of the Second World War…


August 19, 2009

East German doping scandal refuses to die

Oral Turinabol


THE PROTEST WAS INTENDED to be low-key. Victims of East Germany’s state-run doping program merely stood at the entrance to Berlin’s Olympic Stadium and passed out thousands of purple cardboard “glasses” to spectators of the 2009 12th IAAF World Championships in Athletics bearing the words “Ich will das nicht sehen” (awkwardly translated as “I don’t want to see cheats”). In fact, the action looked downright harmless, which made the enraged reaction by German discus throwing champion Robert Harting on August 18 all the harder for many guests to understand. “I hope,” Harting told a press conference, “that when I throw my discus it’ll head straight for those glasses, and then they won’t see anything anymore.”

ich will das nicht sehen

Outside the IAAF World Championships in
Athletics at Berlin’s Olympic Stadium

The protesters don’t just have Harting spewing threats, but have upset Germany’s entire sports establishment. And yet, it wasn’t originally meant to be this way. Twenty years ago, these athletes were not passing out cardboard glasses. No, back then they were the ones standing proudly on the winners’ podium receiving medals. A lot of medals. But today, in their thirties, forties, and fifties, they are instead receiving treatment for a whole range of ailments, ranging from sterility, hormonal dysfunction, asthma, diabetes, chronic joint and back pain to heart disease and kidney failure. And they want the world to know about it. …


August 18, 2009

The lowly currywurst gets its own museum

currywurst 2

SOME HONORS TAKE LONGER to arrive than others, but when they finally come, they are all the sweeter – and spicier – for the wait. This has been the strange fate of the currywurst, a simple dish for simple people that is celebrating its sixtieth birthday next month and has now received its very own museum in the heart of Germany’s capital.

Many towns claim authorship, but there is no longer any reasonable doubt that the original currywurst was invented in Berlin, one of Europe’s great cultural and culinary melting pots. (Yes, writer Uwe Timm has claimed in a recent novel that the currywurst was actually created in Hamburg in 1947, but here in Berlin we pay no attention to him.) Herta Heuwer (1913-99), the proprietor of a modest snack stand at the corner of Kant and Kaiser-Friedrich-Strasse in the British sector of West Berlin, sold her first currywurst on September 4, 1949. According to one story, Heuwer invented the currywurst by chance. Her husband had just returned from an American POW camp and demanded to be fed spare ribs. Heuwer had none to offer in those lean times, so she experimented with ketchup and curry powder one fateful afternoon and the rest is a particularly spicy chapter of postwar German history. …


August 13, 2009

When the Greens “go black”

Or why an insensitive election poster is giving the German left a bad case of the blues

IT SEEMED LIKE SUCH a clever idea. Why not poke fun at Germany’s traditional color-coded party spectrum and at the same time make a plea for cultural diversity and racial tolerance? Doesn’t that sound like a very “Green” sort of thing to do? So when the local Green Party organization in the small town of Kaarst on the Lower Rhine unveiled its new campaign poster for the September 27 elections, it got a good laugh at party headquarters. 

But now that it’s hanging on buildings and lampposts all across town, not everybody thinks it’s so funny…


August 12, 2009

Happy birthday, Weimar Constitution!

Coat of arms of the German Reich (a.k.a. "Weimar Republic), 1919-33

Coat of arms of the German Reich (a.k.a. the "Weimar Republic"), 1919-33

ON AUGUST 11, 1919, the job was done. A special delegation carried the new “Reich Constitution” to the desk of Reich President Friedrich Ebert for his signature. With a flourish of his pen, this saddle maker turned statesman made Germany’s first democratic constitution the law of the land.

It had been a long slog up to this point. As historian Peter Gay puts it, the first German republic “was born in defeat,” namely in a disaster of a World War that had only just been formally ended. Some two million German soldiers lay in hundreds of cemeteries across Europe. They were joined in death by 700,000 civilians – victims of starvation, disease, and appalling industrial accidents. The economy was in free fall. Throughout the hot spring and summer, as the delegates to the National Assembly sat pounding out a constitution in the National Theater in the provincial town of Weimar, representatives of the victorious Allied powers had been convening in the Hall of Mirrors in Versailles to draw up a draconian peace treaty that would hobble Germany forever. The results, presented to a stunned public at the end of June, convinced millions that their country had been “stabbed in the back” by evil foreigners and conniving politicians. Was this any time for democratic experiments?


August 11, 2009

Nazi sex gynoids

…and why we still need them

Franz Tschakert and his "Woman of Glass" (1936)

Franz Tschakert and his "Woman of Glass" (1936)

SAY WHAT YOU LIKE about SS leader Heinrich Himmler, he sure had the well-being of his soldiers at heart. More than anything else, their physical happiness and sexual hygiene cost the diminutive Reichsführer countless hours of precious sleep. He had already received far too many reports of SS men and regular soldiers succumbing to syphilis and gonorrhea in the unwholesome brothels of Paris and Poland, and the army’s own mobile “field brothels” were costly and woefully overextended. Why not use true Aryan ingenuity to come up with a “final solution” to one of the oldest problems of warfare?

Himmler found his man in the technician Franz Tschakert, the creator of the celebrated “Woman of Glass” model for the Dresden Hygiene Museum. According to research by the German journalist Norbert Lenz, in early 1941 Tschakert and his team at the museum were put in charge of a top-secret “Reich project” to construct a fully functional, lifelike “gynoid” or sex doll called “Borghild” that could be mass produced like so many V-2 rockets to service soldiers in the field. The SS officer in charge was Dr. Joachim Mrurgowsky of the feared SS Institute. These Nordic-looking “galvanoplastical dolls” were to be manufactured out of special polymers developed by the IG Farben conglomerate and then dispatched to the front by the thousands in specially-designed “hygiene trailers” for the discreet use of Wehrmacht troopers. The SS held the technicians to the highest standards…


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August 10, 2009

Is Obama a “black Nazi”?


IN A RECENT ESSAY, Salon editor Joan Walsh asks in dismay whether “our first black president [is] a ‘Nazi’?” After being exposed to the increasingly frantic political rhetoric enveloping President Obama’s health care reform proposals, one is tempted to believe that he is. None other than Rush Limbaugh has pointed out that “Adolf Hitler, like Barack Obama, also ruled by dictate,” taking care to remind us that Obama has adopted a health care reform logo closely modeled on the Nazi Party emblem.

Well, I guess that about clinches it – for many of us, at least. Now I have already presented my own reasons why Obama isn’t Hitler elsewhere, and I’ll leave the comparisons between the President’s actual policies and those of the National Socialist dictatorship to the subtle minds that congregate on talk radio. What interests me is the term “black Nazi” itself. It sounds impressive enough, but just what does it mean? Yes, I know – in itself it means nothing at all. As George Orwell once wrote, “The word Fascism has now no meaning, except in so far as it signifies ‘something not desirable.’” Or perhaps Lewis Carrol’s Humpty-Dumpty had a better grasp of today’s politics: “‘When I use a word,'” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean neither more nor less.'” But just for fun, let us imagine for a moment that words actually do have some sort of verifiable meaning, and that terms taken from history have… well, a history of their own. So what attitude did actual members of the National Socialist German Workers’ Party – the fabled “Nazis” of American political punditry – display towards people of African origin? And what are the chances that a man like Barack Obama – the biracial offspring of a Kenyan man and an American woman – would feel any affinity for the NSDAP and its doctrines? …