AFTER FOLLOWING THE NEWS stories of the past few months, you might have gained the impression that the Catholic Church is in essence a giant pedophile club. But this perception is unfair – not because it is untrue, but because it insinuates that Catholics have a monopoly on systemic child abuse. In fact, hierarchical religions of all kinds attract pedophiles to their ranks, including the Catholics’ main Central European competitor, Protestantism. A high-level resignation today once more casts a sombre light on what increasingly appears to be organized religion’s “original sin.”…
THE NOTION OF “POLITICAL Correctness” has taken plenty of knocks over the past two decades or so. Alongside the traditional grounds for discrimination complaints, i.e. race, gender, sexual orientation, and religion, new terms seemed to pop up daily: old people were now victims of “ageism,” ugly people suffered from “lookism,” short people became “vertically challenged,” and the impotent became “horizontally challenged” (although I always suspected this last one was meant a joke). What would “they” come up with next? the critics asked. For example, could the mere accident of birth in a certain region of a country be considered grounds for job discrimination? A former East German woman certainly thought so and took her case to court…
SIXTY-FIVE YEARS AGO this weekend, in four raids from February 13 to 15, 1945, 1,300 British and American bombers dropped a total of 3,900 tons of high explosives and incendiary bombs on the Saxon capital Dresden. The city center and much of the surrounding residential areas, by now swollen with refugees fleeing the Soviet onslaught from the East, burned to ashes. While Nazi and, later, communist propagandists originally spoke of up to 350,000 deaths, more recent studies estimate that between 18,000 and 25,000 German civilians and foreign slave laborers met a gruesome death in the firestorm.
As Kurt Vonnegut – who survived the bombing in a slaughterhouse cellar and later dug out corpses for the Germans – later wrote, “So it goes.”
No wonder, therefore, that Dresdeners have commemorated this event in various ways since the end of the war. The militant demonstrations against the murderous work of the “Anglo-American terror bombers,” a hallmark of the East German regime, have since given way to more conciliatory prayer services and calls for global peace. But ever since the fall of the Berlin Wall, German and international neo-Nazis have been flocking to Dresden…
The 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. …
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…
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.”
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. …
As William Dean Howells once told Edith Wharton, “Americans only want tragedies with happy endings.” And not just Americans, it seems, but also Germans along with everyone else on this punch-drunk planet who is able to afford the price of a movie ticket.
Whenever I tell people that I once lived for sixth months in old East Berlin and even wrote a whole book on ideology and propaganda in that troubled society, they almost always tell me how much they adore Florian Henckell von Donnersmarck’s 2006 film The Lives of Others. To them, this movie tells the true story of the East German experience and has redeemed their faith in humanity. Hmm, I always say. How can that be? Because to my mind the young West German director’s debut epos is not just manipulative filmmaking but presents a profoundly flawed history lesson. Is my negative take on this Oscar winner – which made number one on The National Review‘s “list of the 25 best conservative movies of the last 25 years” – merely a product of my imagined superior taste in movies or did the totalitarian experience sour me on “humanity” in general? Or is the scholar and history instructor in me rearing his head again? Since it is hard to explain my feelings to its devotees during a brief elevator ride, let alone amid the hubbub of a cocktail party, I think I owe an incredulous world a thorough explanation of why this movie is reactionary, radioactive rubbish and why they too should consider giving it a miss the next time it hits their local art house.
Before doing so I feel obliged to point out that my disdain for The Lives of Others does not in any way extend to fans of the film. On the contrary! Anyone who is willing to sit through two hours of gloomy Central European melodrama with colorless sets and pretentious subtitles has earned my respect. I also suspect that if I did not have such an intimate acquaintance with the realities of the East German regime, there is at least an outside chance that I might also think it was “the best movie I ever saw” (William F. Buckley). But I think nothing of the kind – and here’s why.
A Marxist-Leninist Christmas Carol
The Lives of Others tells the story of Stasi officer Gerd Wiesler, a professional spy and manipulator, who in 1984 receives orders to bug and then personally eavesdrop on the apartment of a politically suspect playwright called Georg Dreyman in order to detect suspicious activities or statements that could be used to prosecute him. The real reason for this mission, Wiesler soon learns, is that an East German government minister wants to eliminate Dreyman – King David-style – in order to make a move on the writer’s girlfriend, the actress Christa-Maria Sieland, who also happens to be a personal favorite of Wiesler. The more Wiesler learns about the couple and their ultra-cool intellectual lifestyle (complete with a luxurious bourgeois apartment, zillions of books, a vibrant social life, and plenty of hot sex), the more he sympathizes not only with the lovely Christa-Maria, but also with her lover, Dreyman. Then, after listening to Dreyman play a piece of music called “Sonata for a Good Man” on the piano and discovering the poems of Bertolt Brecht, Wiesler is spontaneously transformed into “a good man” himself and begins falsifying his reports to protect the couple from the Stasi and the minister. Tragic events ensue, both Christa-Maria and Wiesler sacrifice themselves, each in their own way, but Dreyman survives unharmed until reunification and dedicates his latest novel – appropriately entitled Sonata for a Good Man – to his invisible guardian angel. Not exactly a happy ending, but certainly a redemptive one that makes everyone feel really, really good about themselves.