Wallowing in the past

We like to think that we are immune to propaganda. Yes, other feeble-minded individuals may allow their attitudes to be shaped by the media and their surroundings, but we’re sure that we are far too smart for that.

In 1975, John Cleese savagely satirized British attitudes to Germany, in the classic Fawlty Towers episode The Germans. After a blow to the head, hotel proprietor Basil Fawlty loses his ability to self-censor. While taking a dinner order from some German guests, he proceeds to blurt out the names of Nazis; eventually he descends into xenophobic ranting.

The sad thing is that after 30 more years, nothing much has changed.

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World famous in Germany

Once it was decided that we were going to Hamburg, I decided to do some research and see if there were any of the famous Germans I knew of were from Hamburg. In particular, I wanted to know if any of the musicians or bands I’m a fan of happened to be from the area. The answer, unsurprisingly, was yes.

Holger Hiller was born in Hamburg. He played in various local bands, founded a band called Palais Schaumberg, then went on to a solo career in which he created the first album to be constructed entirely of samples from other albums—and a length of plastic drainpipe. He moved to Berlin in 2003.

Also from Hamburg were Xmal Deutschland, all-female Gothic/new wave band signed to 4AD records in the 1980s. Vocalist Anja Huwe has gone on to be a serious artist, and still lives in Hamburg.

TRIO aren’t from Hamburg; they’re from Gro├čenkneten, which is about 150km south west, the other side of Bremen. You can tell because they printed their home address on the front of their first album. Like the Beatles, they played sleazy Hamburg clubs in their early days. They’re best known outside Germany for their one international hit, Da da da ich lieb dich nicht du liebst mich nicht aha aha aha. The concept of the band was to strip down popular music as far as possible; the drummer had a ‘kit’ comprised of one bass drum, one snare drum and a cymbal, musical accompaniment was largely provided by a single guitar, and the vocalist (Stephan Remmler) also played Casio toy keyboards on some tracks.

Stephan Remmler has gone on to have a solo career, and I discovered that he released a new album with a very electronic and TRIO-like sound earlier this year.

I’m not entirely sure if Eloy are from Hamburg, but their first album was recorded there. They’re a kind of prog rock/heavy metal mix with Buddhist influences.

KMFDM started out in Hamburg. I don’t think I need to say anything more about them, they’re well enough known worldwide.

And that’s about it, as far as I know. Most of the other German bands I’ve heard of are from Düsseldorf (Die Krupps, Kraftwerk, Westbam, NEU!, Die Toten Hosen, Mouse on Mars) or Berlin (Tangerine Dream, Nina Hagen, Rammstein, Stereo Total).

Other famous Hamburgers include Heinrich Hertz (first to demonstrate electromagnetic radiation), and fashion designer Karl Lagerfeld. Oh, and Telemann and Brahms.

Hamburg introduction

I have to admit that Hamburg had never made it to my shortlist of places I wanted to visit. Apparently I’m not alone in that respect, because research soon revealed that there weren’t any English-language guidebooks about Hamburg in print. I started assembling what information I could from online sources, while rothko purchased 2 German guidebooks and started reading those.

The reason for our choice of destination was simple: both sides of rothko’s family can be traced back to Hamburg. It was to be a visit to the ancestral homeland, and a chance to do some genealogical research. We would be staying with some distant relatives who had visited Minnesota many years before.

The shortest air journey from Austin to Hamburg is two hops via Continental. Unfortunately, the timing is less than ideal; the first flight leaves Austin at 06:30, and on arrival in Newark there’s a 6 hour gap before the connecting flight to Hamburg. Factoring in the recommendation that you arrive 2 hours prior to departure, drive time to the aiport, parking, shuttle buses and so on, I realized I was going to have to wake up around 04:00 at the latest.

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The Unbearable Darkness of Being (German)

Theodore Dalrymple writes about the German psyche, and how even now Germans find it hard to feel national pride, or even anger at what was done to them in Dresden. My German roots are distant enough that I’ll have to take his word for that. However, he then goes on to diagnose a deep malaise in modern Germany:

The urban environment of Germany, whose towns and cities were once among the most beautiful in the world, second only to Italy’s, is now a wasteland of functional yet discordant modern architecture, soulless and incapable of inspiring anything but a vague existential unease, with a sense of impermanence and unreality that mere prosperity can do nothing to dispel. […] Nor are the comforts of victimhood available to the Germans as they survey the devastation of their homeland.

Of course, that pre-supposes that modern architecture is “devastation”. Apparently Dalrymple feels that the proper response to the end of World War II would have been to replicas of the destroyed classical architecture and make Germany a kind of Weimar Disneyland with compulsory lederhosen for all.

Instead, the influence of the bauhaus is everywhere. Though a few old Gothic typeface street signs remain, minimalist sans-serif typography is almost ubiquitous. And why not? The bauhaus is a piece of 20th Century culture Germany can be proud of; it profoundly influenced the entire world—and Hitler hated it.

So, I say better to look forward with modern architecture, than to build faux reproductions of the medieval Germanic buildings that Hitler loved.

Collective pride is denied the Germans because, if pride is taken in the achievements of one’s national ancestors, it follows that shame for what they have done must also be accepted.

What can I say? Apparently Mr Dalrymple hasn’t spent much time in the company of ordinary Americans. Even now, US torture is being written off as the responsibility of a few “bad apples”, as the architect of the policy gets moved into the Attorney General’s office, and SUVs sport magnetic “God Bless Our Troops” ribbons.

A young German once said to me, “I don’t feel German, I feel European.” This sounded false to my ears: it had the same effect upon me as the squeal of chalk on a blackboard, and sent a shiver down my spine. One might as well say, “I don’t feel human, I feel mammalian.”

Hyperbole aside, it’s not surprising that a regular contributor to the Daily Telegraph would be horrified by the thought of identifying as European. But what’s wrong with saying “I don’t feel human, I feel mammalian”? Am I the only person to have thought that while reading the newspaper?

Coincidentally, National Geographic reports that scientists have successfully fused human and animal cells, and that plans are underway to engineer mice with human-style (albeit very small) brains. There’s an obvious joke about chimp/human hybrids, but I don’t really need to spell it out, do I?

The news from the House of Pain led one person on Slashdot to ask: if we can “uplift” animals to a more human-like state, why shouldn’t we do so? My response was that if we do, they might start thinking and behaving like humans. If you want to know what’s wrong with that, ask a German.

Don’t get me wrong, I know a number of wonderful human beings. I’m just not wild about humanity as a whole. In that respect my philosophy has something in common with that of Bill Hicks (authentic Texan): as he put it, “We’re a virus with shoes”

Nervous traveler

I’m a nervous traveler. I’ve been to Belgium, Canada, France, Germany (including the former East, just after the wall came down), Italy, Luxembourg, Russia, Spain, and of course various places in the USA. Including rural Alabama, which is pretty damn scary. I’ve survived it all, but nevertheless, I’m still a nervous traveler.

It’s not the plane flight. Once I’m on the plane, I’m fine. I can relax, because everything is now someone else’s problem. No, it’s everything leading up to the plane flight.

Unfortunately, I have to face four plane flights in the next two months—a trip to Minnesota, and a business trip to DisneyWorld (yes, really). With alleged extra airport security hassle to increase my stress levels. I got my first attack of nervousness this afternoon.