Donnerstag, 30. Juli 2009
Because of the European elections earlier this year (with their low turnout and the worrying success of the far right British National Party and the anti-European UK Independence Party) many Brits imagine that the Germany election, and the Irish referendum, are unimportant. In truth the outcomes will help to determine the success of the UK for a generation.
As the Oxford historian Timothy Garton Ash pointed out in an interview with Der Spiegel last month, ‘the true European elections will take place in Germany at the end of September.’
Garton Ash has one of the sharpest minds around. Like me, he lived in Berlin in the late Seventies and early Eighties. But while I was swanning about making movies with Bowie and Dietrich, he wrote his first book ‘Und willst Du nicht mein Bruder sein …’, a critical account of communist East Germany which lead to him being banned from visiting that country. His next books ‘The Polish Revolution’, winner of the Somerset Maugham Award, ‘The Uses of Adversity: Essays on the Fate of Central Europe’ and ‘We the People: The Revolution of ’89’ were seminal works, and constantly at my side when I penned my first book ‘Stalin’s Nose’. Since then he’s advised presidents and prime ministers, as well as directing the European Studies Centre at St Antony’s College, Oxford and serving as a Fellow at Stanford. It’s no surprise then that Time magazine included him in their list of the world's 100 most influential people.
Garton Ash believes that the European project is a victim of its own success. As he told Der Spiegel, ‘In each country, the pro-European argument, all national differences aside, took the same form: We were doing poorly, but thanks to Europe our lot will improve. But then comes the moment when we take Europe for granted, which raises the question: What is the purpose of this Europe?’
This questioning, and the understanding that EU is no direct democracy, lead voters to elect a new European parliament where at least 15 percent of the members represent right-wing extremists, protest groups and joke parties. So what does this mean for Europe's future?
Garton Ash recalled Bertolt Brecht words, ‘The womb is fertile still, which bore this fruit’. In the interview he went on, ‘We are deluding ourselves if we believe that the temptation of xenophobia and national populism no longer exists, and we shouldn’t be surprised to see these forces being strengthened in the course of a major economic crisis. We must make the social market economy credible again as the central solution for the middle class.’
When Der Speigel asked him how this might be achieved, he replied, ‘There are two major domestic policy challenges for the European Union. First: creating meaningful work for the majority of society. And second: the integration of fellow citizens of non-European descent. These are two sides of the same coin. After all, what are the populists and xenophobes saying, from Latvia to Portugal, and from Finland to Greece? They are saying: We’re in bad shape, and the others are at fault. Both parts of that sentence must be addressed politically.’
There is also the plain truth that Britain – in common with all the countries of the continent -- will only prosper by collaborating on a common foreign policy. The future is being shaped by China, America and India. Nothing can stop that shift in power. So to defend European interest in an increasingly non-European world, EU members must combine forces and work together.
And what about the Irish referendum on the Lisbon treaty? Last month in the Guardian Garton Ash wrote that the poet Seamus Heaney has come out plainly for a yes vote to the treaty. Recalling a memorable evening five years ago in Dublin’s Phoenix Park when Ireland's EU presidency welcomed ten new nations into the union, Heaney observed: ‘Phoenix renewed itself, just as the Union was renewing itself and continues to need to renew itself’. In a video clip recorded for the launch of the new Ireland for Europe campaign, Heaney stated, ‘There are many reasons for ratifying the Lisbon treaty, reasons to do with our political and economic well being, but … mainly for our honour and identity as Europeans.’ Then he read from his poem Beacons at Bealtaine which includes the line ‘Move lips, move minds and make new meanings flare.’
It ‘takes an Irish poet to remind us of the essential grandeur of this project we call the European Union, where nations born in so much blood work together freely in a commonwealth of democracies,’ wrote Garton Ash. May nay-sayers in Island Britain realise that a German election and an Irish referendum can ensure that the country doesn’t become a spent force by the middle of the twenty-first century.
Donnerstag, 23. Juli 2009
Shafqat Kadri is a 29 year old university linguistics tutor at the University of Sindh. As a teenager he decided to learn English. His father was a policeman and couldn’t afford the tuition fees so Shafqat taught himself the language, studying through the night and listening to the radio. As part of his studies he began to read classic works of literature, which opened the door to a new world for him.
‘I vividly remember the effects of Tolstoy’s What Then Must We Do? and Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables,’ Shafqat told me. ‘This reading of literature changed me completely.’
Shafqat won a place to study medicine but he gave it up to do an MA first in English literature and then in Linguistics, graduating top of his class, one of only two Sindhis ever to achieve a First in the latter degree.
‘I had to go hungry most of the time as I could afford only one meal a day,’ he said. ‘The choice was either to eat or to pay my fees.’
At university he discovered the work of Hermann Hesse.
‘I read Siddhartha and became fascinated by the vision of the writer. Next I was introduced to Nietzsche and then Schopenhauer. I started studying Karl Marx and I really enjoyed Brecht. I’ve read eight of his dramas, as well as Kafka and Freud, but all in English.’
More and more Shafqat wanted to read German literature in its original language, and then to translate works into Sindhi. He found a tutor and in a matter of weeks had worked his way through the man’s tattered, elementary course books. After three months he was reading Heinrich Böll’s Wo warst du, Adam? in German, all the while texting his tutor dozens of questions by SMS.
‘I must tell you that in this ancient civilization of mine, not a single German book has been translated directly from German into Sindhi,’ Shafqat explained to me. ‘I am interested in German literature and the language because our two countries – Germany and Pakistan – have had to face similar situations, although at different stages in our histories. We too need Aufklarung – enlightenment. Our mullah-infected society will not let secular-minded people pursue their aims in peace. We need to wage a fierce intellectual battle for ideas to live and inspire. This emancipation of thought will surely lead to general social emancipation. To achieve all this I must first learn the great masters of your culture and then introduce them here.’
As well as translating Goethe and Hesse into Sindhi, Shafqat’s dream is to offer free German language classes at his university. His students are enthusiastic about the idea but the authorities question the value of such a programme.
‘They say, “Why bother with German? English is enough. It gives you many job opportunities.” In response I tell them, “Man does not live from bread alone!”’
Shafqat knows that he’s not yet fluent enough to teach German.
‘I will work on the language for another year and then go for language test in Goethe Institute in Karachi. After passing my test I will open a German Letters Corner in our library and start teaching German philosophy and language. I know this is all very ambitious. Aber das ist mein traum. (But this is my dream.)’
To achieve his goal, Shafqat needs help.
‘Please do not suppose that my objective here is to hunt for a free trip to Germany. I want to translate and introduce the German thought into my native Muttersprache (mother tongue). But I must tell you that I am working on this project against all odds. Here in Hyderabad I have no up-to-date books and no one to talk to in German. What I need are books, teaching material and guidance.’
Can you help Shafqat? Or are you in a similar situation to him, studying Goethe alone in the Congo or conjugating German verbs in an isolated fishing port on Greenland? Let me know, and let’s share the tools of language and literature.
Donnerstag, 16. Juli 2009
Britain long ago surrendered itself to supermarkets and the popular myth is that they ruined the place. The Temples of Consumerism have caused much damage: loss of neighbourhood grocers and butchers, strangulation of the High Street, erosion of green field sites, increase in vehicle traffic. But these negative points must be seen in context. British supermarkets offer customers vast choice, convenience and competitive pricing. Likewise in the States, Canada and especially France where a visit to a hypermarché can be a culinary adventure par excellence.
In contrast Germany doesn’t do supermarkets, or at least it doesn’t do them well. There are of course biggish, one-stop shops like Lidl, Edeka, REWE and Kaufland which sell all the standard food stuffs. Customers push around their trolleys and buy their pork, pickles, bread and yoghurt, considering themselves lucky if they saved a few pfennings on a box of Müsli. But there the similarity ends. If shoppers want a real bargain, or fancy something out of the ordinary, something new, then they need to make tracks for somewhere else.
In Germany it’s the supermarket – not the customer – which dictates what goods are on sale. Special offers tend to be pitiful. There are no ‘deep discount’ loss leaders. And finally few shops stay open until a time that’s convenient for the working man or woman.
What does this tell us about German society? First, many German women – especially outside the large cities -- are housewives who do the family’s shopping. They trek between local stores then hurry home to look after the kids and cook the family supper. (Bear in mind also that school starts here as early as eight o’clock and usually ends around lunchtime, keeping many mothers out of full-time employment -- an outdated structure which harks back to an agrarian age when children helped in the fields).
Second, German home cooking isn’t adventurous. In North America and Australia, mass immigration has ensured that supermarkets stock a wide range of ‘ethnic’ foods. Likewise the British, with the revolution in their international travel habits, brought a taste for the foreign home from their holidays. At my old local Tesco’s in rural Somerset for example I could always find Thai green curry paste, Mexican tacos, Japanese soya sauce and prepared Jamaican jerk chicken. On the rare occasions when I couldn’t locate a specific item, Customer Services would order it for me.
Third, Germany – for historical and geographic reasons – has resisted absorbing (and being changed by) the culture of its ethnic minorities. These days Britain’s national dish is considered to be chicken tikka massala (chicken tikka is an Indian dish, the massala sauce was added to satisfy the desire of Brits to have their meat served in gravy). Many, many more Brits now eat Indian food than roast beef on Sundays. But I know a Bavarian who would rather drown himself in a vat of Paulaner Hefe-Weißbier than accept that Turkish babaganush might become more popular than bratwurst.
Fourth, food is more functional in Germany than it is in, say, France. The French live to eat but the Germans, like the Scots, eat to live.
Fifth, Germans are conservative and loyal to their local shops. In contrast the Brits are willing to be seduced by loss leaders and convenience.
Sixth – and importantly, most Germans don’t want vast supermarkets…at least not yet. The English nation-of-shop-keepers chose to become a nation of convenience shoppers. No one forced them to forsake their local High Street and join a traffic jam on the by-pass outside their nearest megastore.
Perhaps German supermarkets will improve over time, but any change will only come about through customer demand. And there’s the rub. As usual I’m willing to do my part, starting now at my local Lidl. At the customer service desk I’ll politely ask them to order me a big jar of Patak’s mango chutney or Marshmallow Fluff… So why are German readers laughing at my suggestion? Because most German supermarkets do not have a Customer Service desk. And if they did, they’d probably tell me to go shop somewhere else.
Donnerstag, 9. Juli 2009
Regular readers will know that I’m vexed by the disappearance of the Wall. I often ride my bicycle across the former death strip to glittering glass and steel Potsdamer Platz at the heart of ‘new’ Berlin. All evidence of the heinous barrier has been removed from here, apart from a few slabs left standing for tourists. In fact, no where can one truly experience the brutality of the barrier which divided the city and world (the three remaining sections include a short stretch beside the Topography of Terror museum, a longer length along the Spree at the East Side Gallery and a partly reconstructed, third section at Bernauer Strasse which was turned into a memorial in 1999).
The complete removal of the most visible and oppressive remnant of Communism, so understandable at the time, helped to consign the Cold War to history. As a result the concrete reality of the Wall’s existence has become an abstraction. These days young people study photographs of it, visit the DDR Museum, but without the dark shadow of its physical presence the Wall threatens to become as irrelevant to their lives as the Treaty of Worms. Most importantly they become less likely to ask themselves why their parents built, defied, maintained and patrolled a barrier to individual free will. Perhaps its removal even contributes to the lack of appreciation for the duties of democracy (consider the apathy of German voters in last month’s European Parliament election)?
The Wall can’t be rebuilt, of course. So an innovative idea to mark its physical legacy, rather than just cover the land with yet another shopping centre, must be celebrated.
This week Joyce van den Berg opened her exhibition New Light on No Man's Land at Berlin’s German Centre for Architecture. Her plan is to turn the former death strip -- which she calls ‘landscapes of trauma’ -- into recreational areas. She wants to commemorate the Wall’s history and preserve remnants of the former border area through landscaping and plantings. She envisages bicycle paths weaving between secret gardens in former watch towers (only five of which remain…once there were 302 of them). One of her most moving plans is to mark the hidden escape tunnels that were dug in secret from East to West Berlin by projecting beams of light along their length, commemorating both the tunnels and all those who tried to use them.
It’s a mammoth task. The former border strip is almost 100 miles long and ranges between 30 feet and 1.5 miles in width. And naturally, this being Berlin, there is no money for this remarkable project. But as van den Berg told Der Spiegel, ‘I would really just like to start off the debate and get people thinking about how to go about making changes. I’d like to open people’s eyes, I think they could be pleasantly surprised. And I think it’s very important not just for Berlin and Brandenburg but for all of Europe because it is part of our history.’
The exhibition Neues Licht auf das Sperrgebiet, which runs through the summer, gives an overview of van den Berg's plans. There is also the opportunity for visitors to sign up for two bicycle tours -- one of which will be led by van den Berg herself -- along the Berlin Wall Trail. Berlin’s leaders should be encouraged to get on their bikes and recognise their responsibility to preserve the lessons of history for future generations.
Donnerstag, 2. Juli 2009
‘One of my fundamental personal beliefs has always been that I must not do things that others can do equally well,’ said Ralf – later Lord – Dahrendorf, who died of cancer on 17 June in Cologne.
Dahrendorf was a liberal sociologist whose reputation and loyalties transcended national boundaries. His passion for individual liberty informed his life.
He was born in Hamburg in 1929, the son of a social democrat member of the German Parliament. His academic career spanned a dozen universities at home and abroad. He served as a member of the Bundestag and a Parliamentary Secretary of State in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. He became a European Commissioner in Brussels (and grew critical of European Union bureaucracy). In 1974 he was appointed the first foreign director of the London School of Economics. He said that the post ‘would enable me to combine my academic and my public interests, my feelings for London and my internationalism, for the benefit of an institution of which I had been fond ever since I first set foot in it as a student in September 1952.’ He settled in the UK in 1986 and adopted British nationality in 1988. He was granted a life peerage in 1993 and was created Baron Dahrendorf of Clare Market in the City of Westminster.
Dahrendorf made his academic reputation by examining class and integration in modern society. He once said that his life was marked by a conflict between the obligation he felt to the country of his birth, Germany, and the attraction he felt for Britain, which he praised for its belief in liberty.
Last month the Süddeutsche Zeitung printed a photograph of the famous sociologist in deep discussion with student movement leader (‘Red’) Rudi Dutschke outside the German Liberal congress in 1968 (reproduced above). In his memory the commentator wrote, ‘Those who think that a liberal is someone who wants to reduce taxes and takes no interest in the State should read Dahrendorf. In his 1965 book Society and Democracy in Germany, he was the first to observe that it was the mix of theoretical humanity and practical inhumanity that sometimes made Germany so unbearable.’ It was a work that brought him resounding praise from philosopher Jürgen Habermas for whom it marked ‘the major change in the mentality of a Germany that was still rebuilding its identity.’
Elsewhere Dahrendorf asserted that history is open and uncertain, ‘rather than goaded to its predetermined goals by the hidden hand of dialectical inevitability’.
Dahrendorf, who authored 55 books, will be remembered for his good deeds and solid ideas. He will be admired for the ease in which he moved between European, British and American society. Most of all, he will be remembered by the many individuals – myself included – whose lives he changed.
An English correspondent wrote on his death, ‘Ralf Dahrendorf's book On Britain which I read in 1982 was a defining book for me, and after the depressing years of the 1970s opened up my eyes to the possibility of a successful liberal future for Britain and a liberal Europe too. It was he who catalysed my interest in the European Community. I owe him a huge debt of gratitude.’
A German reader of this blog called him ‘a great thinker, without whom and his influence on German politicians, I would
not have benefited from an improved German education system.’ The sentiments were echoed by the German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier who stated, ‘Education is a civil right – in Germany that is an axiom inseparably associated with (Dahrendorf’s) name. Without his inspiration, social mobility through education would have remained the privilege of the few.’
Nick Clegg, leader of the British Liberal Democrats, believed that ‘Dahrendorf was a liberal European to his fingertips. His contribution to British politics and liberal political thought across Europe was immense. All those who worked with him across his many areas of expertise will recognise that he was one of the most influential thinkers of his generation.’
Finally Chancellor Angela Merkel paid tribute to Dahrendorf, saying he was a great European and ‘one of Europe's great intellectuals and thinkers who, like only a few others, rendered outstanding services to European integration.’
Dahrendorf never did things ‘that others could do equally well’. While mourning his loss, we can continue to learn from his example.