Thursday, February 26, 2015

Reductio ad Hitlerum

Godwin’s Law states that as an internet debate continues, the probability of somebody making an inappropriate comparison with Hitler or the nazis tends towards 1. In plain English, this means that if you get into a long argument, somebody is bound to say something crass and stupid, like “Hitler had a dog, therefore all dog-owners are nazis.” The unwritten rule is that when this happens, the debate is over, and whoever made that comparison is automatically deemed to have lost it. I imagine there is an equivalent law for inappropriate references to Stalin or communism, and if anyone knows what it’s called, I’d be interested to find out.

It’s an important point for me because I personally cringe whenever, for example, people complain that Google is staffed by Nazis just because YouTube redesigned its site. I’ve thought long and hard about why I don’t have the same reaction when people make light of the Spanish Inquisition, and come to the conclusion that it’s several generations removed from us, no longer so clearly in the collective consciousness. That, and the fact that it always makes me think of Monty Python.

Nazi Germany, though, is still just about in living memory, and not something Germans feel they can joke about. There is also the point that there are extremist political groups that draw on nazi ideology for their inspiration — which is to say, there are actual groups of people that can fairly and almost accurately be termed “nazi”. These groups do not include people who insist on criticizing every split infinitive and misattached modifier.

I recently saw a fairly old tweet (which I won’t attempt to identify, as I’m not trying to start a twit-storm) featuring an image of a Venn diagram. Various circles with labels like “MRAs” (i.e., “Men’s Rights Activists”) and “Gamers” all intersected to such a degree that very little was outside of the intersection labelled “Nazis”.

Now, I suspect this is supposed to be sarcastic, but I can’t really tell. Mostly, I can’t really tell because, well, it looks sarcastic, but then somebody tweeted to him that you can’t call these people Nazis, and he tweeted back that yes, he could. Well... yes, he can. I just don’t think it’s a good idea, and if he was being serious, he was also being horribly ignorant. Looking through his Twitter feed, he certainly seems to have it in for gamers.

I think “gamers” probably refers to the storm-in-a-teacup story known as “gamergate” which revealed to a barely credulous world the astounding fact that some people who play or create video games are (gasp!) nasty bullies who are prepared to use threats of physical (including sexual) violence to intimidate. Which is a horrible situation that should never be, but hardly a surprise to anyone who has had any kind of experience with human beings, and certainly doesn’t warrant classing nearly all gamers as nazis. MRAs, for those who don’t know, are men who ostensibly worry that feminism has gone too far, but when you speak to them they turn out to be what my mother euphemistically calls “male chauvinist pigs”.

Nasty people. But “nazis”?

In my estimation, nazis are also nasty people, but it doesn’t follow that all nasty people are nazis. Let’s be clear what we are talking about: National socialism is a political ideology which takes fascism (which itself replaces socialism’s class warfare with warfare between nations) and grafts onto it “scientific racism” (a nice way to refer to the practice of using pseudo-science to justify xenophobia). Having established a one-party state, the nazis set about imprisoning and murdering millions and millions of people, spending vast amounts of money nobody had which would have ruined Germany’s economy had they not also provoked a deadly war which laid waste to much of Europe. Estimates of the number of people killed by the nazi regime go up to about 21 million.

There is, quite simply, no comparison there. It jars to see people using the word “nazi” to mean “unpleasant” or “unnecessarily strict” because while many members of the Nazi Party were undoubtedly both, the term means a whole lot more besides.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

On turning a setback into an opportunity

Germans are regularly accused of not having a sense of humour, which of course isn’t true. (To clarify: yes, it is true they are regularly accused; it is not true they don’t have one.) German humour may sometimes be laboured and overly goofy, and it is true there are areas of life where humour is definitely unwelcome (try giving a light-hearted eulogy at a German funeral, for example, and nobody will speak to you for three months); but that’s not the same as saying Germans are humourless. It’s just that there is a Time And A Place.

Sometimes, though, a little humour can pop up in unexpected places, and the sheer rarity of that happening makes it all the more awesome.

Case in point: a little while back, an optician’s in our area was broken into, and the thieves made off with thousands of euros’ worth of spectacle frames.

Yes, spectacle frames. It’s hard to imagine a black market in spectacle frames, but unless the burglars were themselves in dire need of eye tests and broke into the wrong establishment, it seems there is, somewhere on this planet, a man sidling up to opticians in pubs and whispering out of the corner of his mouth: “Got some stuff for you. Two dozen frames. Fell off the back of a lorry. To you, half a grand.”

It is a pretty weird story, but the optician’s managed to find a way to turn it to their advantage. In this morning’s paper was their latest ad, featuring a man in a balaclava and brandishing a flashlight. “Our frames are so good,” proclaimed the ad, “people are even stealing them.” Which is definitely a more positive way of looking at it. “We welcome all customers,” it went on. “But please, during business hours only.”

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

How to get yourself arrested

Generally speaking, in Germany, if you want to get yourself arrested, you have to be fairly determined or terminally stupid. Where possible, the police prefer the non-confrontational approach; so how, you might well ask, can you get yourself arrested for not getting up from your seat? By being really, incredibly dumb, that’s how.

The story begins on one of Germany’s high-speed trains, an ICE (Intercity Express for the uninitiated). A passenger, who has just boarded the train, has finally found his reserved seat and is slightly dismayed to find a young man already sitting there. I personally hate it when that happens, because it means I have to speak to a stranger, which, for an Englishman, is up there with “being waterboarded” on the list of things I would rather not have to do. But since our unfortunate passenger is German, he doesn’t hesitate to politely ask the young man to move.

He stays put.

Nobody likes to have to move, but there it is: if you didn’t pay to reserve that seat, you’re supposed to give it up to whoever did. That’s sort of the point, really. So there began what our newspaper referred to as “a discussion”.

And then the young man decided that the only way to be allowed to stay in his seat (which wasn’t his seat) would be to commit a crime, so he operated the emergency brake. Yes, in Germany, it’s a crime. The fines can be massive, not to mention the court costs; and if the sudden halt caused any injuries, you can be looking at a bill with a six-figure sum on it.

You have to wonder which planet this guy’s brain was orbiting at the time. The guards came to discover that the “emergency” was a squabble over a seat reservation. Any other passengers whose sympathies may have been with the young man were unlikely, at this point, to be as well-disposed towards him. Unsurprisingly, the guards informed him that when the train arrived at the next stop (fifteen minutes late now, because... well, y’know, emergency brake and everything), the young man would have to leave the train.

For some reason, and don’t try this at home, he thought to himself, “How can I possibly make this even worse for myself?” It was a stroke of genius (of a kind) what he came up with: not only did he still refuse to leave, meaning the police would have to be called to physically haul him off the train, but he casually explained that he had a knife and wasn’t afraid to use it, meaning that the police, when they came, came in force.

I don’t know the details of his arrest, but I can guarantee it was a spectacle of the sort you so rarely get in this country. Accusations of police brutality do surface from time to time, but what was this guy thinking? Did he think everyone would back down? Did he suppose he would be let off with a warning? Perhaps a free ticket and an apology for the inconvenience?

At any rate, the police — however many of them there were — manhandled him off the train using whatever technique they had of dealing with potentially armed idiots to prevent them from sticking their knife into anything, and of course found, perhaps predictably, that he didn’t have any kind of weapon on him.

I think the only way anyone would be able to top this would be to board a plane, smile apologetically at the cabin crew and say, “I’m a bit nervous — this is my first suicide bombing mission.”

Saturday, February 7, 2015

Those untrustworthy Hessians

There’s a story about an American doing some historical research in England, who stumbles on two towns, just a couple of miles apart. The inhabitants of one refuse to speak to the inhabitants of the other, and vice versa. This intrigued the American, and he scoured the local libraries and museums for clues as to how and why this came about. After three years of hard work, he finally discovered that the problem started after one of the towns neglected to warn the other that the Danes were invading, 1,000 years previously.

You’d think the Germans would be more sensible than that, but you’d be wrong, as a recent conversation that took place bears testimony. As a bonus, it also describes, in a nutshell, the typical mode of communication employed by me and my wife.

Wife: So, I was at the store, and this man — Hessian, of course — came in with a bottle and told the cashier she’d just sold it to his brother. Well, obviously, her face fell; she could get into serious trouble for that. So, anyway—

Me: (interrupting) Hang on — trouble? Why?

Wife: Well, him being under 18 and everything.

Me: Oh! She sold a bottle of something alcoholic to somebody who was under age?

You see what I’m up against? I usually have to remember half my wife’s lines for her.

Wife: That’s what I said.

Me: Then what?

Wife: Well, I’d already paid, so I didn’t hang around. But I saw him leave the store, with the bottle, and get into the only car there registered in Hesse.

Me: What does his being Hessian have to do with it?

Wife: Well, nothing. But... you know, Hessian. What else would you expect?

Thursday, January 29, 2015

Lest we forget

Earlier this week saw Holocaust Memorial Day on the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, and I’m afraid it passed me by. I actually wasn’t aware there was a Holocaust Memorial Day, but it makes sense of the recently-published study that suggested that 81% of Germans wanted to forget Auschwitz.

At least, that’s how it’s been reported. I haven’t yet been able to find the study — news websites I’ve looked at just vaguely refer to “a study” and, because this is the internet, neglect to link to the source — so it’s hard to know what to make of it. Politicians, of course, know what to make of it (they always do): this is very disturbing, and we must never be allowed to forget.

The devil is always in the detail you never see, though. Did 81% of those polled say they never wanted to hear anything about the concentration camps ever again? Or did they merely say that right now, Germany has more serious issues to deal with?

UPDATE: Thanks to @HollyGoMadly for providing a link to the actual study. According to this, 81% of Germans agreed with the statement “We should concentrate on current problems rather than on crimes committed against the Jews which happened over 60 years ago.” Interestingly, so did 64% of Israelis polled. Also, 55% of Germans agreed with the statement that we should not keep talking about the persecution of the Jews and instead draw a line under the affair, but the report points out that since 1991 the number of people saying they disagree with the statement has steadily risen. It seems the press have conflated these two results to come up with “81% of Germans want to forget Auschwitz”. See pp 24 and 25 of the report.

I have a certain sympathy with the idea that perhaps Germany has been overdoing it with the self-flagellation on this subject; and as I write this, I realise the sound of thin ice cracking under my feet has reached my ears. But it has been two generations now, and there’s a sense that Germany hasn’t yet quite managed to move on. And by “move on”, I don’t mean “forget”.

The years of Nazi dictatorship were bad — horribly bad. The systematic torture and murder of millions of people based on things like ethnicity, sexual orientation, political views and religious affiliation, together with a warmongering mindset that eventually laid waste to most of central Europe, can’t ever be swept under the carpet. But neither was the Nazi regime the only one of its kind: human history, including recent human history, has endured (and continues to endure) countless others: Stalin, Pol Pot and (if the sketchy and often unverified accounts are to be believed) the Kim dynasty of North Korea all belong on that list.

Is it possible that in trying too hard — almost eagerly — to display hitherto unprecedented levels of contrition, Germans might simply be giving themselves a complex?

It seems appropriate in a country that has given us philosophy and psychanalysis and with them words like angst and weltschmerz that it should give itself something to agonize over. The same study revealed that an awful lot of Germans strongly disapprove of Israel’s policies in the Middle East; the implication for some hand-wringing politicians appears to be that an awful lot of Germans are antisemitic. Does this mean that those Germans who welcome Muslim refugees from that part of the world are antisemitic (because if Israel is right, they have no business claiming to be victims of persecution)? Must Germans choose between antisemitism and islamophobia?

The obvious answer, of course, is that opposing a government’s official policy is not the same as hating that government’s subjects. I can, say, speak out against the death penalty in the US; this does not imply that if you happen to be American, I will refuse to be your friend. But we humans have a tendency — a need, really — to categorize things as neatly and as simply as possible, into things that can hurt us and things that can’t, which is how the whole sorry mess got going in the first place. A system that puts antelopes into a category of safe things and tigers into a category of harmful things works well for hunter-gatherers, but doesn’t work for human society. We end up categorizing people who think like us as safe and people who think differently as harmful.

And that does an awful lot of damage all round. The Nazis persuaded people that certain easily identifiable groups of people were harmful. Pegida wants us to put all Muslims (except those willing to “integrate”) into the “harmful” category. Quite a lot of people want us to label as harmful all Germans (“because they’re Nazis and always will be Nazis”). Some would like us to believe that all those who criticize Israel are antisemitic. Some, that all those who do not criticize Israel are militant zionists. We still haven’t really stopped.

The truth is that each individual is a mess of different opinions about everything, and most people are not really extreme at all. Imposing labels on them — “antisemitic”, “islamophobic”, “fascist”, “bleeding-heart liberal”, “feminist”, “misogynist”, whatever label you want to impose — is nearly irresistable for us humans, but it’s unhelpful and forces people into corners they don’t want to go. It’s one of the reasons you’ll never get me to tell you which political party I support: you’ll just assume that I agree wholeheartedly with everything you think that party printed in its most recent manifesto, and I can pretty much guarantee you’d be wrong.

I think, with the Holocaust, as far as Germans are concerned, the focus is slightly wrong. The focus shouldn’t be: “We Germans were horrible to the Jews.” It should be: “This is what happens when human beings stop seeing individual human beings as individuals.”

Monday, January 19, 2015

Are you sure you don’t run a travel agency? Have you checked?

There are various ways of contacting me, including the option of sending me something by snail mail to a PO box. It normally works very well: whenever I am in Aschaffenburg, I drop by the post office conveniently located by the railway station and collect my mail.

At least, it normally works very well, and this is the problem with German efficiency. It’s very efficient as long as everyone plays by the rules. The moment something unexpected happens, the system just collapses.

I found a large, white A4 envelope in my PO box, but addressed to some other company — a travel agency of some kind. The PO box number, number was mine, so presumably there are three possibilities:
  1. The sender typed the wrong number.
  2. The company had mistyped its own address.
  3. The PO box I am now using once belonged to this company, and the sender doesn’t know that the old address is no longer current.
No problem: I wrote on the envelope something to the effect that box number 100629 does not belong to the company addressed and pushed it through the hole in the wall labelled “Incorrectly posted items” and thought nothing of it.

It is, I know, hard to believe, but there are countries in the world where post office workers would read that, and either post it in the correct box or send it back. At least, that’s what happens in less efficient countries where things are expected to go wrong from time to time, and people just deal with it.

Not so Germany. In Germany, Things Cannot Go Wrong, so the drone behind the scenes saw the white A4 envelope, looked at the PO box number in the address, and posted it in the box with that number. Because That Is The Number, and therefore That Is Where It Goes.

The next time I went to pick up my post, there was the white A4 envelope waiting for me. So I took my trusty pen, and wrote in big letters, “DO NOT POST THIS IN BOX 100629! THE BOX NUMBER IS INCORRECT!” And to make extra certain, I struck through the PO box number on the address and wrote, “This PO box number is wrong.”

I don’t know if I’m missing something here, but it seems quite clear to me. Imagine, then, my dismay when I went in today and found the white A4 envelope waiting for me. The postal drone had not only returned it whence it came, but next to my frantic attempts to alert him to the wrongness of his actions had drawn a big question mark. Not only that, I also had a new A4 envelope, but brown, addressed in the same manner: to a travel agency I had never even heard of, but with my PO box number.

So I went round to the front, where the counters are, queued up and, when it was my turn, stepped up and presented exhibits A and B and explained the problem in words of one syllable (which, in German, is quite a feat).

“I see,” said the clerk, plainly not seeing at all. “And who are you?”

I didn’t honestly know how to answer that question. This is the problem in Germany: people’s brains aren’t wired up to cope with things not going to plan, so they have a little nervous breakdown. I showed him some of the post that was for me, and I showed him the key to my box, and what else was I to do?

Fortunately, the clerk had managed to reassemble enough of his scrambled brain cells to start functioning rationally, and led me back to the PO boxes; there he disappeared behind the scenes to see what he could find out. Which turned out to be nothing, judging by the question he asked when he finally resurfaced: “And you have nothing to do with this company?”

I suppose he was just double-checking, but why else would I have been complaining? No, I assured him, I had nothing to do with this company.

“Is it possible that you registered this company recently?”

No, I assured him I had done no such thing, and probably would have noticed if I did. My problem was that I was getting post that wasn’t actually for me, because it had the wrong box number on it, and no matter how many times I returned it, it just landed straight back in my box and I wanted it to stop.

“Maybe it’s not the same item; maybe it’s new post coming in.”

I pointed to the two large A4 envelopes he was still clutching. The brown one was new, I explained, but the white one has now been put in my box three times.

He capitulated. “All right, leave this with me. I’ll write them a note.”

I expressed the hope that this would be the end of it.

“Oh yes. After all, you did write on the envelope, so there’s no way it will be posted back to you.”

We shall see. This is beginning to feel like Groundhog Day.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

What do they mean by “integration”?

In a recent debate I had about what we might call the difference between acceptable and unacceptable immigration, I was told that all immigrants to Germany must adopt German culture and values, which is difficult for me because my wife is downstairs watching German comedy. That’s partly why I’m not downstairs with her.

And for my second paragraph, I shall try (no doubt unsuccessfully) to head off the usual howls of protest I get from Germans whenever I discuss the German sense of humour. For the record, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with German comedy, and I know for a fact that Germans have a sense of humour. Please, if you’re German, don’t write and tell me off for saying Germans don’t have a sense of humour. (You will, of course, because no matter how many times I explicitly say you do have a sense of humour, you always tell me I said you didn’t.)

I can’t, however, bring myself to enjoy German humour; certainly not the kind you see on TV. That doesn’t mean German humour is objectively bad, just that subjectively it doesn’t make me laugh. (Right now, two men dressed up as an amateur dramatics idea of a retired couple are throwing sausages into an audience of Germans splitting their sides with hysterical laughter.) So... does this mean I am not integrated? Am I failing to share German culture and values?

I’m quite worried about this, actually. I’ve never liked beer, which puts me at a distinct disadvantage in ways you can’t possibly imagine. On the other hand, I do enjoy the occasional shot of that kind of digestif which smells like cough medicine, which my (German) wife can’t stand, so in that respect I’m more integrated than she is. I suppose that sort of balances out, then.

Another value I can’t bring myself to fully embrace is bus stop etiquette. In Britain, where I grew up, even a single person at a bus stop will, in the immortal words of the great George Mikes, “form an orderly queue of one”. Here, it’s battle-elbows at the ready, and no quarter is given. It takes about twice as long to board a German bus with all that pushing and shoving, yet straight-faced Germans have explained to me, with relentless Teutonic logic, that it’s actually quicker if everyone tries to be first at the same time.

While I am not known for sartorial elegance (just ask my wife and watch her roll her eyes), there are some things I simply will not stoop to. Combining khaki shorts with white socks and brown sandals, for example.

When I’m invited to a birthday party, I find it hard to inflict on the birthday boy/girl an epic yet humorous poem written entirely in iambic tetrameter, and an uncompomising AABB rhyming scheme my wife calls Reim dich oder ich hau dich — rhyme, or I’ll hit you. The strain of making every second line a punchline and the embarrassment of having to briefly pause in order to accentuate said punchline are too much for me to bear.

There’s actually quite a long list of things I am failing to adopt as my own. But I have been making some progress, so I am hoping that if certain parties get voted in they’ll grant me a stay of execution. Since I come from Somerset, liking Apfelwein was quite an easy thing. Slightly more challenging was Sauerkraut, but I think I’ve got the hang of that now. And I am proud to announce that I have mastered the art of looking at my watch and tutting with impatience if a train is more than thirty-five seconds late.

So, it’s hard. I may never attain the Borg-like level of assimilation some might be looking for; I just hope that my efforts so far will be recognised. Please don’t send me back: they have the English Defence League over there.