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.

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Battle lines

As a general rule, I don’t make New Year’s resolutions; but I did promise to myself that this year I would blog more regularly (or blog at all, actually). Little did I know that 2015 would begin with such a horrific story: Islamic terrorists shoot dead half a dozen cartoonists. And it’s not the sort of thing I really wanted to blog about, but sometimes you just have to. You have to, because there are times when you have to make a stand, lest history later judges you on your silence.

The generally accepted narrative is that these terrorists are brainwashed madmen who want to impose their narrow, bigoted ideas on the rest of the world and rob us of our freedom of speech; that they are religious fanatics who are prepared to kill in the name of a fairy tale.

That’s the narrative that has long been accepted by large numbers of people in the west; ever since the 9/11 terrorist attacks in New York, suggestions that there might be a more rational explanation have largely gone unheeded. It’s clear what the tactics are: to cause a backlash, to provoke us westerners into persecuting Muslims in order to make ordinary Muslims want to — need to — fight back.

And it’s working. Our local paper contacted some local Muslim community leaders to get their response; most declined, citing their own fears in the light of attacks on Parisian businesses run by Muslims. For weeks now, various people have been quoting figures at me that literally make no sense in the light of my own personal experience: that 50% of Germans support the anti-Islamic PEGIDA organisation, or that 80% of British Muslims truly believe that cartoonists who depict Mohammed deserve to die. These are representative surveys conducted by reputable agencies, or so I am told; they don’t represent anyone I know.

And obediently following the terrorists’ agenda and stoking the fires of sectarian violence blunders Richard Dawkins, a man who is a world expert on evolutionary biology and a complete idiot on everything else. It’s almost as if he had never opened a history book in his life. He certainly has never opened a book on theology, and is even proud of the fact: that sort of makes him less an expert on how religious people really think than he is on subjects he’s actually studied.

There is a sense here of battle lines being drawn up, of positions being taken, of the identification of allies and enemies. It feels like what the writers of Doctor Who would call a “tipping point”: what we decide now will decide our futures. Are we going to declare war?

And in the middle of these thoughts, I stumbled over one cartoon by Joe Sacco that gave me something to hang my thoughts on. The pen is mightier than the sword — indeed, mightier than the Kalashnikov — and that makes it a weapon. Like all weapons, those who wield it must do so responsibly.

It’s not that I would want to see the freedom of speech curtailed, at least not by legal or religious fiat. But I have long said that those who wish to exercise their freedoms must take responsibility for the consequences. How many times can you poke a sleeping tiger with a sharp stick before it bites your arm off?

At this point, it is important to state very clearly that of course the attacks we saw in Paris — and attacks we have seen elsewhere, including 9/11 in New York, 7/7 in London and more recently in Sydney — are atrocious crimes and are to be condemned in the strongest possible terms.

But, as Sacco pointed out, the staff of Charlie Hebdo were being highly provocative, and very irresponsible. Not — I repeat — that they deserved what happened to them; but that it did isn’t surprising.

Free speech is now being used as an excuse to provoke, which is not what those who espoused the idea in the first place had in mind. But here the “insane” terrorists are doing a better job, because they haven’t deluded themselves that the other side will back down: they’re counting on us to lash out. They’re counting on us to churn out, in a show of defiance, yet more cartoons and articles designed to vilify entire belief systems, and by extension demonise sincere adherents to those belief systems; they are deliberately planting in our minds the idea of Islam as inherently violent and murderous, and therefore dangerous, so that we will drive them out of town and into the welcoming arms of IS.

And they are succeeding. In this war, we are already losing the first battle. That first battle is not for our freedom of speech, it is for our hearts and minds.

It’s not too late, but it soon will be. We can win this battle, but we first have to acknowledge that this is the battle we are actually fighting.

I mentioned earlier that the surveys showing how divided we have supposedly become don’t square with my own experiences. Let me relate, by way of presenting a glimmer of hope at the end of this uncharateristically pessimistic piece, just one of those experiences.

I live in a small, secluded valley in the extreme north-west of Bavaria. It is staunchly Catholic, and staunchly conservative: the only mayors around here that are not members of the right-of-centre CSU are independents. Immigration around here is low, and low immigration is usually associated with low tolerance towards immigration. In short, if ever there was a place you would expect ordinary folk to reject Muslims, statistically speaking, this would be it.

And yet when shelters for asylum seekers started opening up in the villages around here, the locals rushed to help out. They visited the shelters, made the people feel welcome, talked to them, listened to their stories, swapped recipes even. These weren’t trendy young folk determined to cement their credentials as revolutionary rebels kicking against the reactionary nature of their parents’ generation: they were sixty-year-old ladies with time on their hands and a sense of duty.

One of these shelters is in my own community, and houses several refugees from Palestine. The local priest was delighted to discover that their native language was Aramaic, “the language spoken by Our Lord,” as the local paper quoted him, and this despite their being Muslim. A reminder, said the priest, that we must accept everyone, regardless of origin or religion.

This is where we must begin: by refusing to draw battle lines. The terrorists want us to demonise Muslims en masse. Let us instead meet Muslims individually, and swap recipes. Our salvation lies, I am quite certain, in the example of housewives who just want to help out.