Archive for September, 2009

September 17, 2009

New school attack has Germans asking why

ansbach 2
The “Gymnasium Carolinum” in Ansbach, Bavaria
(Source: BILD)

THE HEADLINE IS SICKENINGLY familiar. “Student attacks school,” the newspapers scream. Once again, violence has erupted on a German school campus. Not for the first time – and surely not for the last.

Police in the Bavarian town of Ansbach report that on the morning of September 17, 2009, the third day of class following summer break. An eighteen year-old male student called Georg R. approached his school armed with Molotov cocktails, knives, and an axe. He first chopped his way through the door with the axe and then proceeded to hurl two of the incendiary devices at fellow students and teachers before special police units arrived on the scene minutes later and shot him in the chest, wounding him severely. A total of ten persons were injured. Two girls suffered severe burns to the head and were evacuated by helicopter. The student, who was described by his classmates as a “loner,” will be charged with attempted murder. There is no further word yet on his identity or motives.

Events of this kind always lead to profound soul-searching. This time people might search even harder, since this school hardly fits the profile of a killing field. But is that not always the case in Germany? The “Gymnasium Carolinum” is the second-oldest public high school in Bavaria. As a so-called Gymnasium, it represents the upper tier of the three-tiered German secondary school system. It is an elite institution dating back to 1528. It moved into its current location in 1736. Ansbach itself is one of Bavaria’s loveliest and most historic towns – a town that now, sadly, has one more claim to fame.

Back in March of 2009, another murder fantasy became a reality…


September 16, 2009

Banana sex cult highlights New Guinea’s “cargo” religions

ARE SOME RELIGIONS MORE bizarre than others, or are their eccentricities merely in the eye of the beholder? A recent scandal surrounding a sex cult in the Republic of Papua New Guinea puts this question to the test.


New Guinea goes bananas

According to an article in the Papua New Guinea Post-Courier dated September 11, 2009, police have broken up an animistic cult in Morobe Province in the east of the country. For the past four months, a charismatic leader and his followers had been engaging in full frontal nudity and sexual intercourse in public places and had been terrorizing the local population into joining in. Workers at nearby industrial sites reported widescale nakedness in nearby towns. When a local official, who had been imprisoned by the cult members and threatened with death for over a month, escaped and reported these goings on to the authorities, the police came onto the scene and hauled in some of the leaders. According to a later report from the London Telegraph, the unclothed cult leader was surrounded in his hut last Saturday, but then took off for the woods with seven stark naked companions, using his two wives as human shields. They are all still at large.

Why would anyone go along with such a thing? It seems that the area where these events took place is located far from government administration. Public services in this desperately poor region are virtually non-existent. That was the cult leader’s big chance…


September 15, 2009

Stargazy pie – Cornwall’s “sole” food

Stargazy pie

IF YOU THOUGHT THE Scots had long since cornered the market on peculiar British dishes with their haggis – although the English with their infamous spotted dick are catching up fast – then you clearly haven’t ever been to Cornwall.

Stargazy pie originated in the Cornish town of Mousehole (pronounced “mowzel”) near Penzance on the Channel coast and is traditionally eaten at the festival of Tom Bawcock’s Eve on December 23. It is an egg and bacon pie made with pilchards and up to five other kinds of fish covered over with a pastry crust. The fish are inserted into the raw dough and then baked with their tails toward the middle of the pie while their heads poke upwards as if they were gazing at the stars.

I first read about this delicacy long ago in a children’s book called The Mousehole Cat by Antonia Barber, which relates an ancient story that may have its origins in a pagan winter solstice tradition…


September 11, 2009

In search of a better Germany – east of the Berlin Wall

Seal of the German Democratic Republic (1949-89)

A COUPLE OF YEARS ago, I was struck by what I thought was a wonderful idea for a book. Over coffee and cake  in her tiny flat overlooking the Neisse River in Saxony, a relative of mine by marriage had just begun recounting her own experiences as an immigrant from West Germany to the communist-ruled German Democratic Republic in the 1960s. The Berlin Wall had gone up only a couple of years before. It seems that while the East German regime actively recruited new settlers, it hardly welcomed them with open arms. As my relative described it, the procedure involved spending several weeks in a Stasi-run relocation camp – a sort of crucible of the Cold War – where people like her were carefully interrogated and otherwise vetted before those deemed suitable were allowed to embark on new lives in “the better Germany.” The reasons her fellow applicants confided to her for wanting to make the move across the Iron Curtain provided a fascinating snapshot of the human condition. These motives ranged from a simple desire for gainful employment and moving love stories to (less frequently) genuine belief in the communist state’s Marxist-Leninist ideals.

What a discovery! This story combined the drama of the Titanic sinking with the philosophical speculation of The Bridge of San Luis Rey. All you’d have to do, I figured, was get hold of the files and you’d have a truly fascinating little volume on your hands. Not that I wanted to take on the project, mind you. I had other fish to fry. And so I was truly excited to discover historian Bernd Stöver’s brand new book Zuflucht DDR. Spione und andere Übersiedler (“The GDR as a refuge:  Spies and other immigrants”).

Is this the book I’ve been waiting for? Not exactly, but it comes awfully close. Stöver spends relatively little time on the human interest stories that first aroused my curiosity and instead focuses on nine more or less famous personalities…


September 10, 2009

How Pat Buchanan is rehabilitating Hitler

Nazi soldier executing Polish civilians:
Was it all Britain’s  fault…?

WHEN PAT BUCHANAN’S RECENT op-ed piece commemorating the seventieth anniversary of the beginning of World War II hit newspapers on September 1, those of us who follow such things largely assumed it was merely a delusional but marginal essay that would quickly slip under the radar to a well-deserved oblivion. As the days pass, however, “Did Hitler want war?” has taken on a life of its own and can be found splattered all across the Internet, garnering over 6,000 Google hits and counting. When I posted my own retrospective on the Polish invasion for OS that same day, I did so in the hope that we had all finally put the debates of past decades behind us. Instead, Buchanan’s piece demonstrates that in many people’s minds “Case White” (the Nazis’ codename for the invasion) is as wide open as ever.

Buchanan’s basic argument in the piece (essentially a digest of his recent book Churchill, Hitler and ‘The Unnecessary War,’ which is itself a rehash of A.J.P. Taylor’s Origins of the Second World War from 1961) is that the German invasion of Poland and the ensuing Second World War with its tens of millions of deaths were not the consequence of Adolf Hitler’s own policies but rather the fault of the British, French, and Polish governments…


September 8, 2009

Is Obama Hitler? A historical fact check on “black Nazis”

With the health care debate and the metastazation of the “Obama is Hitler” meme reaching a crescendo, I decided to repost my August 10 article on the fate of Africans and biracial people in the Third Reich. While I obviously don’t expect a mere fact check like this to influence the discourse, if just one or two people on this planet would start to feel even a little bit ashamed about the self-serving nonsense they’ve been dishing up over the past several months then I’ll feel like I’ve done my good deed for the year.

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 black Kenyan man and a white American woman – would feel any affinity for the NSDAP and its doctrines?…


September 4, 2009

Berlin’s “ice men” take the heat for global warming

Brazilian artist Nele Azevedo

ON SEPTEMBER 2, 2009, the World Wildlife Fund sponsored a remarkably touching public demonstration on Berlin’s Gendarmenmarkt square. Brazilian artist Nele Azevedo carved a thousand diminutive men out of ice and then placed them on the steps of the Concert Hall, home to the renowned Berlin Konzerthausorchester. There she left them to melt under the hot late summer sun to draw attention to the melting of the polar ice caps and the Greenland ice sheet, which, the WWF warns, could lead to changing weather patterns, rising sea levels, and the release of even more greenhouse gases into the earth’s atmosphere.

Ice men

Avezedo has set up this installation in cities all over the world, including Sao Paolo, Havana, Paris, Porto, and Florence. Originally she intended her exhibit to shine an ironic light on permanent urban artwork, which has traditionally been fashioned out of marble or bronze. Only later did she begin shifting her focus to environmental issues. “This work was conceived as a critical view of the official historical monuments,” the artist said in an interview. “As the reading and interpretation of an art piece is open, I’m glad it can also speak of urgent matters that threaten our existence on this planet.” …


September 3, 2009

Political silly season in Europe: Bizarre election posters


ELECTION TIME IS ALWAYS silly season, but at least Europeans aren’t afraid to let some of that silliness spill onto their election posters. In the following I’ve made another selection of placards from recent elections that are clever, silly, and sometimes downright bizarre. They each say something about the society in which they were created, although just what that “something” might be is open to interpretation…


September 2, 2009

Angela Merkel commemorates outbreak of World War II

Angela Merkel

Angela Merkel

ON SEPTEMBER 1, 2009, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and other European leaders met in Gdansk, Poland, to commemorate the German invasion that began exactly seventy years before, touching off the Second World War in Europe. Merkel’s speech received an extremely positive response and was widely quoted in the press. Since I wanted to post her comments here to show just how far Europe has come since then, I searched for the text online and was surprised that there is still no official English translation of the entire speech. So I went ahead and translated it myself and have posted it here for free distribution.

The German attack on Poland seventy years ago today marked the beginning of the most tragic chapter in European history. The war Germany unleashed brought immeasurable suffering to many peoples – years of oppression, humiliation, and destruction.


No country has ever suffered as much suffering in its history as Poland under German occupation.


Particularly in this dark time, which we are talking about today, the country was laid waste. Towns and villages were destroyed. After the crushing of the uprising of 1944, no stone was left standing in the capital. Random cruelty and violence permeated everyday life. Scarcely a single Polish family remained untouched by it.


Here at the Westerplatte, as the Chancellor of Germany, I commemorate all Poles who were subjected to unspeakable suffering due to the crimes of the German occupiers.


The horrors of the twentieth century culminated in the Holocaust, the systematic persecution and murder of the European Jews.


I commemorate the six million Jews and all others who suffered a cruel death in German concentration and extermination camps.


I commemorate the many millions of people who lost their lives in battle and in the resistance struggle against Germany.


I commemorate all those who died in innocence as the result of hunger, cold, illness, the violence of war, and its consequences.


I commemorate the sixty million people who lost their lives because of this war that was unleashed by Germany.


There are no words that could even come close to describing the suffering of this war and the Holocaust.


I bow my head before the victims.


We know that we cannot undo the atrocities of the Second World War. The scars will remain forever visible. But we have our own task: to shape the future in the consciousness of our enduring responsibility.


In this spirit, Europe has transformed itself from a continent of horror and violence into a continent of freedom and peace. That this has been possible is nothing more nor less than a miracle.


In the process, we Germans have never forgotten this: That Germany’s partners in the East and West have smoothed this path through a willingness for reconciliation. They have extended the hand of reconciliation to us Germans. We have clasped it in gratitude.


Yes, it is a miracle that in this year we need not only think back to the abysses of European history seventy years ago. It is a miracle that we can also think of the happy days that led to the fall of the Berlin Wall, the reunification of Germany, and the unity of Europe twenty years ago. After all, Europe’s path to freedom was only made complete with the fall of the Iron Curtain.


Back then, in the tradition of Solidarnosc in Poland, people everywhere courageously pushed open the gate to freedom. We Germans will never forget


  • the role played by our friends in Poland, Hungary, and former Czechoslovakia,
  • the role played by Mikhail Gorbachev and our Western partners and allies,
  • and the role of the moral power of truth that no one embodied more convincingly and credibly than Pope John Paul II.

It was thus also an issue of Germany’s special responsibility to smooth the path of Poland and the other countries of Central and Eastern Europe into the European Union and NATO, and to stand alongside them.


Yes, it is a miracle, it is a blessing, that we Europeans can today live in freedom and peace. Nothing symbolizes the difference to 1939 better than the close, trusting cooperation between Germany and Poland and the multitude of friendly relations between our two countries.


The unity of Europe and Germany’s friendship with its neighbors owes its strength to the fact that we face our history. The chairmen of the German and Polish Bishops Conferences summed this up in their recently published statement on today’s anniversary. I quote:


 ”Together we must look to the future, which we would like to approach without ignoring or playing down the historical truth in all its aspects.”  


When, in my country, we today also recall the fate of the Germans who lost their home regions as a result of the war, then we always do so in the spirit described by the bishops. We do it in awareness of Germany’s responsibility, with which everything began. We do it without trying to rewrite anything in Germany’s enduring historical responsibility. This will never happen.


And it is precisely in this awareness that today – seventy years later – I have come to Gdansk. To this once sorely afflicted, but now gloriously restored city.

Mr. President, Mr. Minister President, your invitation to me to attend today’s commemoration as Germany’s Federal Chancellor touches me deeply. 

I understand this as a sign of our trusting neighborliness, our close partnership, and the true friendship between our two countries, between the people of Germany and Poland. I would like to express my profound thanks!

September 1, 2009

It began with a lie: Remembering September 1, 1939


THEY ATTACKED THE RADIO station at eight p.m. sharp. A half dozen German SS men dressed as Polish partisans burst into the broadcasting house beside the wooden radio tower near the Silesian town of Gleiwitz and trussed up its German staff. Then one of the men barked a brief speech into the microphone: Achtung! Achtung! This is Gleiwitz. The station is in Polish hands. … The moment of freedom has arrived! … Long live Poland!” To give the stunt an authentic feel, the agents had brought with them a local German dissident who had been arrested by the Gestapo a day earlier. They  dressed him in the same kind of clothes they were wearing, shoved a set of forged Polish identity papers into his pocket, pumped him full of narcotics, and shot him dead, leaving his corpse behind as “evidence” of this “cowardly Polish attack” on German soil. Their work done, the gang then beat a hasty retreat.

The Gleiwitz attack was just one out of some twenty-one false flag operations dubbed “Operation Himmler” that the SS launched on the eve of Germany’s invasion of Poland. After six years in power, Adolf Hitler was still uncertain of his people’s loyalty, let alone that of his General Staff. “The war will be unleashed through appropriate propaganda,” he had told his commanders a week earlier. “Credibility is of no concern, because victory will make it right.” The next morning, in the early hours of September 1, 1939, he hurled 1.5 million soldiers at Poland’s porous borders. (They would be joined by Red Army forces attacking from the east on September 17). Then at a few minutes past ten, a seemingly outraged Hitler proclaimed to the Reichstag and a nationwide radio audience that “Last night Poland fired on our territory for the first time using regular soldiers. Since 5:45, we have been shooting back. From now on, we will pay them back, bomb by bomb!”

The war began with a lie. Almost six years and sixty million deaths later, it ended with one, too, when the Greater German Radio announced that “our Führer, Adolf Hitler, has fallen this afternoon in his command post in the Reich Chancellery fighting to his last breath against Bolshevism.” In reality, he and Eva Braun had committed suicide to avoid facing the consequences of his actions…