Archive for September, 2009

September 30, 2009

Freedom Day: Prague, September 30, 1989

Prague embassyThe makeshift refugee camp outside the West German
embassy in Prague, August-September 1989

PRAGUE MEANS MANY THINGS to many people. It is the site of the infamous “defenestration” of 1618, which marked the beginning of the Thirty Years War. It is the home of Alfons Maria Mucha and the decadent, absinth-crazed dreamers of the Austro-Hungarian Empire’s delicious fin-de-siècle. It is the mist-shrouded metropolis of Rabbi Loew and Franz Kafka. It is the seat of “Reich Protector” Reinhard Heydrich, psychopath extraordinaire. To today’s young backpackers it is the party capital of Europe. But for anyone living in Central Europe in those years, the Prague of September 30, 1989 represents a historical turning point none of us will ever forget.

Erich Honecker and his communist German Democratic Republic were living on borrowed time. Encouraged by the growing success of the Solidarnosc movement in Poland and by democratic reforms recently introduced by Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, East Germany’s Protestant churches finally took heart in the summer of 1988 . In church gatherings and in small private meetings they called upon their own members and GDR citizens as a whole to ensure that the local elections scheduled for May 7, 1989 be conducted on a democratic basis. As a rule, elections in communist countries are a mere formality – public acclamations of the status quo – and voters stay away from the polls at their own risk. But this time, a new generation of activists were urging their fellow citizens to make use of the limited democratic structures included in the East German constitution by demanding reforms and also by nominating candidates of their own choosing. …


September 29, 2009

Did Adolf Hitler survive the Bunker after all?

Were reports of Hitler’s death “greatly exaggerated”?
Cover of
Time Magazine, May 7, 1945

BACK WHEN I WAS growing up, Hitler sightings were a running joke, a semi-comical preview of the Elvis and Jacko sightings that haunt our tabloids today. I still have a vivid memory of one such story in the National Enquirer. The front page depicted a wrinkled, grizzled ex-Führer hiding out in Argentina. According to the Enquirer, Hitler had been the driving force behind the recent Falklands War and was now on the run yet again. This came just a couple of years after the appearance of The Boys from Brazil starring poor old Gregory Peck as Josef Mengele in the most thankless role he ever let himself get talked into playing. These sightings finally dried up around 1989, when Hitler passed the hundred mark, and I thought we were well rid of them. But now that new evidence has surfaced challenging the standard version of Hitler’s suicide in the Reich Chancellery Bunker in April of 1945, you would be well advised to fasten your seatbelt and prepare for a Hitler sighting renaissance.

A scoop to die for

The sudden upsurge in online speculation about Hitler’s true fate has been provoked by a History Channel documentary called Hitler’s Escape, which was first aired on September 26. It promises to be the scoop of the young century. For the making of the film, American archaeologist and bone specialist Nick Bellantoni from the University of Connecticut flew to the Moscow State Archive to examine a skull fragment with a bullet hole through it that the Russian government has been publicly claiming belonged to Hitler since 2000. Bellantoni swabbed the bone fragment and had the genetic material analyzed at a laboratory back home in New England. His examination revealed it to be not that of the fifty-six year-old dictator but rather the remains of a young woman.  …


September 28, 2009

Liberals, Pirates, and other winners: Germany has voted


Angela Merkel and Guido Westerwelle

Angela Merkel and Guido Westerwelle

THE VOTES ARE COUNTED, the champagne bottles stand empty, the tears of triumph and despair have been dried, and Europe’s most populous country is awakening to a new political dawn.

After four years of a grand coalition with the Social Democratic Party (SPD), the conservative Christian Democrats (CDU) under Angela Merkel are about to return to their traditional coalition with the liberal (i.e. business-oriented)  Free Democratic Party (FDP) under its leader Guido Westerwelle, who will likely become foreign minister. The FDP achieved an astonishing triumph vis-à-vis 2005, climbing from 9.8% to a previously unimaginable 14.6%. Angela Merkel’s CDU slipped from 34.2% to 33.8% but remains the largest party. The future Conservative-Liberal government is expected to pursue privatization and deregulation, tax cuts, higher university fees, enhanced family benefits, tougher law and order policies,  increased domestic surveillance, and a more muscular foreign policy. This will come at the expense of social welfare programs, personal freedom, and environmental protection.

The SPD saw its worst result since the founding of the Federal Republic in 1949, plummeting from an anemic  34.2% in 2005 to an appalling 23% this year. …


September 27, 2009

Who I’d vote for: Election day in Germany

IT’S ELECTION DAY IN Germany, and even though I’m not allowed to vote, the country’s saturation with election posters and slogans could drive anyone half crazy. Thank god it will all be over tonight.

Who would I vote for? I’d be tempted to go with the Greens for old time’s sake, although the Pirates intrigue me and my conscience tells me I should really vote for the Animal Protection Party, if only to please my cat. But today I saw a poster that almost made me want to apply for a passport and make a mad dash to the nearest polling station…


September 26, 2009

Al-Qaeda: “An attack on Germany is tempting”


WHENEVER BERLIN’S POLICEMAN START wearing bullet-proof vests and carrying submachine guns, you can tell there’s trouble brewing. This time the reason is clear: On September 25, just two days before the parliamentary election, both al-Qaeda and the Taliban threatened Germany with an attack within the next two weeks if it does not immediately withdraw its troops from Afghanistan.

One of the video messages is from Osama Bin Laden personally. It shows an image of the al-Qaeda leader along with a voiceover with German subtitles saying that “Europeans should learn from the mistakes of others.” Bin Laden goes on to say in this five minute-long warning that the killing of civilians in Afghanistan is an act of great injustice, “and justice demands that you halt this injustice and remove your soldiers.”

Bin Laden
Osama bin Laden addresses Europe:
“Learn from the mistakes of others”

The Taliban video features images of German landmarks and politicians, suggesting targeted terrorist attacks and assassinations. “Your operation here against Islam makes an attack on Germany tempting for us mujahedeen,” a Taliban in the video states. A third video features 31 year-old German-Moroccan Islamist Bekkay Harrach, a high-ranking member of Al Qaeda, who warns from his hiding place on the Afghan-Pakistani border…


September 24, 2009

The Swiss take aim at “the Islamist threat”

Anti-Minaret Initiative
Logo of the Swiss “Anti-Minaret Initiative”

SWITZERLAND OWES ITS INTERNATIONAL reputation to its watches, bank accounts, chocolate, and the Matterhorn, but now it is gaining a name for itself in another area as well: as a bulwark against Muslim expansion in Europe. On November 29 the country is holding a nationwide referendum concerning the construction of mosques on Swiss territory. But a controversial political poster is already raising temperatures in this land of Alpine glaciers and pristine ski resorts.

Stop. [Vote] Yes to the minaret ban.”

The offending placard is the product of the “Anti-Minaret Committee,” an initiative that seeks to anchor a proposed ban on the construction of minarets in the Swiss constitution. The poster shows a veiled woman standing against a backdrop of missile-like minarets shooting out of the Swiss flag…


September 23, 2009

Wealth for everybody! How the Left Party wooes voters

NOT LONG AGO, I posted a sort of photo essay on Europe’s most bizarre political posters. I had great fun researching it, and some of the posters still make me snicker today. But none of them provoke the belly laughs I get on my way to the office every morning. As I hike down Berlin’s Torstrasse and turn onto Tucholskystrasse, this election poster from Germany’s Left Party pops up at least three times in my line of vision:

Reichtum fuer alle

“Wealth for all!” Left Party whip Gregor Gysi promises me. How wonderful! So what if Gysi is an ex-communist lawyer who was formerly employed by the East German “Socialist Unity [Communist] Party” and allegedly cooperated closely with the Stasi to spy on the dissidents he was supposed to be defending? We’ve put all that behind us. What Gysi is promising sounds like pre-Depression Herbert Hoover and “Kingfish” Huey Long (“Every Man a King”), all rolled up together with a hint of Robespierre and Trotsky into a shiny red package…


September 22, 2009

Pirates in Parliament! A new party is boarding Europe

Demonstration protesting the police raid on The Pirate Bay in Stockholm, June 2006

Demonstration protesting the police raid on The Pirate Bay in Stockholm, June 2006

A SPECTER IS HAUNTING Europe – the specter of piracy. First they raided the Spanish Main, then they boarded Hollywood. From there they have moved on to terrorize shipping along the Somali coast, and now they’re staking a claim on European politics. So break out the rum, raise the Jolly Roger, and enjoy the swordplay!

The Pirate Party phenomenon began in Sweden on January 1, 2006, when computer systems designer Rickard Falkvinge launched a website called Within six hours, 75,000 people had joined his new movement, which calls for personal freedom, complete freedom of expression, sweeping privacy rights, increased democracy, and a loosening of copyright laws. Falkvinge traced his new party’s name to The Pirate Bay, a Swedish BitTorrent tracker company founded in 2003 that soon crossed sabres with the Swedish authorities due to illegal downloads of music, videos, and other copyrighted material. As the year progressed, EU authorities tightened copyright and intellectual property rules even further. On May 31, 2006 Swedish police raided and briefly shut down The Pirate Bay, provoking a massive public protest in Stockholm on June 3. (Thanks to this publicity, The Pirate Bay today boasts some 25 million users.)

The Pirates collected signatures over the summer and qualified themselves for the upcoming Riksdag election. In September their candidates received 34,918 votes. While this represented only 0.63% of votes cast, it nonetheless established them as Sweden’s largest non-parliamentary party. At the June elections for the European Parliament, the Pirates polled 7.1 % of the vote and sent their first deputy to Brussels. They likely would have received an even larger share if the other parties had not hastily altered their own positions on Internet copyright regulations in order to drive these pesky freebooters off the high seas. …


September 21, 2009

“Apocalypse Today”: Update on the German school attack in Ansbach

Would-be school assassin Georg R.

Would-be school assassin Georg R.

LAST THURSDAY I PUBLISHED an article in this space on a particularly vicious school attack that had just occurred in the picturesque Bavarian town of Ansbach. Eighteen year-old Georg R. entered his high school at 8:30 that morning  carrying an axe, Molotov cocktails, and knives, and began a systematic attack on his fellow students before being stopped by police. Since then, new information has come to light and it is gradually becoming possible to reconstruct the crime and identify the perpetrator’s motives.

It turns out that Georg was much more heavily armed than previously believed. According to state prosecutor Gudrun Lehnberger, the young man had equipped himself with a total of five Molotov cocktails, four of which he lit during the attack. He had three regular fixed-blade knives and one butterfly knife strapped to his waist. His axe had a sixteen inch-long handle. Upon entering the building, Georg began walking down the corridor, lobbing the Molotov cocktails into classrooms and attacking everyone in his way with the knives and axe. He injured a total of ten persons: nine students and one teacher. One girl underwent a seven hour-long operation in a Nuremberg clinic for axe wounds to the head. She is now out of danger.

Overall, it seems as if the response by both the school and the Ansbach police was exemplary. One of the students, a volunteer fireman, reported the attack the moment it began via Twitter and immediately extinguished one of the blazes. Students and teachers provided first aid to the injured until the emergency services could take over. Local police were on the scene in record time. Nevertheless, the Bavarian police are demanding an early warning system for the state’s school system so that such attacks can be halted even earlier – and, ideally, prevented in the first place. …


September 20, 2009

Death of a hero: The murder of Dominik Brunner

Dominik Brunnen, 1959-2009

Dominik Brunnen, 1959-2009

THE TERM “HERO” HAS been so grievously overused in recent years that we would all be hard-pressed to come up with a comprehensible definition for it. Nowadays it seems as if all you need to become a hero is just to be a passive victim of a terrorist act, or else to meet your end while wearing any sort of uniform (provided you’re fighting for the right side, that is).

But I think everyone can agree that on September 12, 2009 a businessman died and a hero was born. On that day, towards evening, Dominik Brunner, a fifty year-old senior manager of a brick company in Neufahrn in Lower Bavaria, boarded a suburban train on his way to his second home in the town of Solln near Munich. At the Donnersbergerbrücke station, four young teenagers – two girls and two boys – came on board with two older boys in hot pursuit. The younger kids had been on their way to what promised to be a fun evening at a bowling center when Markus Sch. and Sebastian L. (aged seventeen and eighteen) approached them on the station platform and demanded fifteen Euros from them. They continued their harangue in the train and threatened violence if the younger kids didn’t shell out the money.

At this point, Brunner stood up and told the older kids to lay off. He then comforted the four teenagers and said he would ride with them to Solln station and make sure they got off safely. However, the two young men remained aggressive, and so two stations before Solln Brunner alarmed the police via cell phone. When they arrived in Solln, however, the older kids followed Brunner and his four charges off the train and onto the platform. And there, according to one of the children, one of the thugs “went ballistic.” …