Saturday, May 30, 2009

Der Tod von Benno Ohnesorg

Bild, or the Bild-Zeitung, as it is sometimes called, is a hugely popular daily newspaper in Germany and in the opinion of some, a cause for national shame. It's the largest selling newspaper in Europe, but stories are often based on very thin evidence and headlines are always sensational. Stories in Bild are written at about a fifth grade level
and in many ways it would make ideal reading for someone like me who's language skills are less than perfect. But for a variety of reasons, not limited to the generous and sleazy cheesecake always featured just below the fold on page one, I can't even pick one up when it's laying unclaimed next to me on the streetcar.

Bild tends to polarize people in Germany. In a country that takes newspaper journalism very seriously, Bild seems an insult to the level of excellence established and maintained by papers like the Süddeutsche Zeitung, or the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. But more than that, Bild has a long history as a conservative paper that allows its editorial point of view to shape (and at times maybe create) the news. Into the 1980's, Bild, founded by Axel Springer in 1952, still referred to East Germany as the Soviet Occupation Zone and only began using the GDR official name a little later in quotes. When university student Benno Ohnesorg was shot and killed by Karl-Heinz Kurras, a West Berlin police officer during a protest against the visit of the Shah of Iran in 1967, Bild actively shaped public opinion against the student movement and supported the need for police to defend themselves with deadly force.

During the time of those protests, which were mirrored in countries around the world, including the US, where our own Kent State shooting has many parallels to the killing of Benno Ohnesorg, lines were drawn along traditional Right/Left boundaries. Student activists protested against the new capitalist government which was supported by the United States and, in the eyes of the students, was simply a neo-Fascist follower of the Nazi regime. At rallies and speaches, they often used the rhetoric of the East German state and the vocabulary of Marxism. As the movement developed over several years and the actions of a violent, radical splinter group of the student movement began to dominate headlines, groups like the Red Army Faction actually formed secret alliances with the German Democratic Republic in the East.

On the other side, police, members of the conservative and centrist middle class and the politicians they elected, all used anticommunist rhetoric to support actions against the protesters and back up the policeman, Kurras, who was tried for Ohnesorg's murder in two separate trials. He was seen as a champion of pro western Capitalism and cleared of all charges in 1970. He eventually reached the level of Detective Chief Inspector in the Berlin police department. He has never shown any remorse for his actions and in fact commented on them by stating that "anyone who attacks me is crushed" (Wer mich angreift, wird vernichtet. Aus. Feierabend. So ist das zu sehen.) By all accounts, he is an authoritarian type, not given to self doubt and a strong supporter of order and obedience. And last weekend it was announced in the German press that he was also a secret supporter of the East German State, a communist party member and Stasi agent. (Stasi = Ministerium für Staatssicherheit, the official secret police of East Germany.)

If this fact had been made known in 1967, it's unlikely that any of the left wing protesters would have believed it. More probably they would have assumed it were just another trick of the bourgeoisie neo-Fascists. But the facts are now clear, discovered by accident in the mountain of documents left behind by the fall of East Germany and the Stasi. Kurras, now in his 80's doesn't deny his membership in the party. So looking back, we can see that virtually all participants were allied with their own natural enemies and working at cross purposes to their own interests. The East German Communist party allied itself with radical activists to destabilize the West German government although they hated disorder and hippies and disobedience above all other evils. The students joined forces with the very people who were at least indirectly responsible for killing the left's greatest martyr. Western capitalists joined ranks and did everything in their power to unknowingly protect a communist secret agent. And with hindsight it's easy to see that the fight wasn't about socialism versus capitalism. The true battle front was running perpendicular to the one we were all watching so closely and the good news is, the good guys won, albeit completely by accident.

This story is still unfolding and the Stasi archives likely hold many more secrets, although it's hard for me to imagine any could top this revelation. There is no evidence to suggest that Kurras was acting under orders from his Stasi controllers when he shot Ohnesorg, but his actions contributed significantly to the speed and intensity with which the left wing student movement turned violent. Like the Reichstag fire in 1933 that Adolf Hitler used to solidify his power base, the Ohnesorg murder was a rallying cry for left. But the truth of the Reichstag fire is still unknown. In the case of Ohnesorg's murder, the truth has come out with the shock and certitude of a Hitchcock plot twist in the final frames of the film. Bild Zeitung is reporting on the story too, but with no mention of its former support of Karl-Heinz Kurras and certainly no apologies. I guess I didn't expect any.

Thursday, May 28, 2009


I've had innumerable conversations with citizens of Germany who have tried to explain America to me. I'm sure that with their more objective point of view they must have some insights I've missed, but let's face it: the idea is absurd. I've lived in the States my whole life more or less, and they've seen a bunch of films made from Steven King novels, but they want to explain my country to me? Ich don't think so.

And I know many Americans, most of whom have never been to Germany, and they in turn want to explain Germany to me. They think they know all about it because they watched Hogan's Heroes every week in the 60's, so now they're experts. But the world is complex, too complex for such instant evaluations. Still, we need to file our experiences into mental shoe boxes in order to understand them. I've found, in fact, that the less I know about a topic, the more confident my opinion about it can be. Having spent three years living in Germany, I find that my picture of what Germany represents or what it means to be German is more complicated than ever. My cycling trip in the Mosel Valley just added to that complexity with a series of experiences that defy the mental shoe box.

I don't think it's possible or profitable to categorize all of our experiences, but it seems to be a universally human trait. The fact is that every country is filled with contradictions and Germany is no exception. The stereotype is, all Germans drink beer and lots of it. The reality is revealed in the view from my guesthouse window in Lösnich. Everyone in the Moseltal makes and drinks wine. Beer is an also ran.

I learned in fourth grade that Germany was the land of the barbarians. Home to the germanic tribes that sacked Rome. The reality is, Trier was the largest Roman city north of the Alps. The Moseltal is filled with the ruins and artifacts of hundreds of years of Roman culture. They planted the grapes, built the terraces and watched the show at the Trier amphitheater. The city gate is still standing and in good shape.

And aren't Germans supposed to be a little wild? Pierced tongues, shaved heads, tattooed eyelids, Rastafarian armpit hair... Yes, it's all relatively common at, for example, a Gymnasium in Berlin-Friedrichshain, and that's before the students show up. But this Konditorei, where I breakfasted in Trier, was preserved like a museum for the Spiessers of the 1960's, and the women who work there have never pierced anything more dramatic than a Schokowalnußkuchen, and then only to see if it were time to take it out of the oven.

It seems to me, that as soon as I learn enough to define a stereotype, I find a dozen exceptions that make me re-think my original thesis. Probably I'm better off not trying to draw any conclusions, but then I come back to a fundamental truth: Germany is distinctly different when compared with, say, Poland. And France is distinct from Spain. There are differences, but they're complicated and not easily grasped. For me it all became clear with a beautiful Jungendstil gate I saw in Traben-Trarbach, just before boarding a train back to Essen.

Clearly influenced by Art Nouveau, this arched gate on the bridge between the town's two halves is distinctly German in the way color is used, in it's proportions and in the romantic reference to the castle seen in the turrets on either side of the arch. But what really struck me was the small traffic sign down at street level. Yes, you may be driving through the vineyards of the Mosel, visiting one of the most charming tourist cities in all of Rheinland-Pfalz, but what's really important is that you know the proper speed limit in case you need to cross the bridge in your tank. It's the kind of detail that's just not left to chance in Germany.

Monday, May 25, 2009

The Butcher's Sign

Back in Essen and sorting through the photos for a blog post. It will take a while to process all the experiences and synthesize them in one (or two) insightful and pithy essay(s.) But in the meantime, I've got to post these photos I took in Traben about halfway to Koblenz along the river. We stopped to check the map and saw the finest butchershop sign in southwestern Germany. I knew all Forschungsjahr readers would want to see it.

Thursday, May 21, 2009


I was riding the Mosel bike path until 10 pm this evening and passed this tent as I went through Trier. It was the site of a particularly nasty heavy metal concert, but without the accompanying sound, it looks quite picturesque.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009


As planners in Essen prepare for all the excitement of the 2010 European Cultural Capital celebration, I'm sure at least some of them are wishing they had a spare cathedral or a few Fachwerkhäuser at their disposal. Or maybe a nice old chunk of city wall with a gate included, like the Brandenburger Tor in Berlin. Instead, Essen has a coal mine. And ultimately, you can't plan an event with the Sehenswürdigkeiten you wish you had: you have to work with what you've got.

But it's not just any old coal mine. When Fritz Shupp and Martin Kremmer were charged in the late 1920's with developing a design for Shaft XII of the Zollverein coal mine, their brief was to build the biggest, most efficient, most beautiful coal mine in the world. The architects were influenced by the same ideals of simplicity and rationality that were driving the Bauhaus aesthetic and they combined those principles with a monumentality that has to be seen to be believed.

I've been on the grounds of the UNESCO World Cultural Heritage Site at Zeche Zollverein countless times and yesterday I had a tour with a really knowledgeable expert on the topic. But I still find it hard to grasp. The site is complex and not easily filed in any existing categories that I've got in my brain. But perhaps the most significant thing about Zollverein, and one that's easily overlooked, is that for all its overwhelming size, the above-ground presence of the mine is dwarfed by its subterranean counterpart. I've never been down the shaft, and I'm not at all sure I want to go. Even though my understanding is incomplete, I'll be happy to share some of the pictures I took yesterday with my 2.0 mm mobile phone camera. Enjoy the photos and make your plans to visit in 2010.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Musik in the Ruhrgebiet

I'm reasonably pleased with my decision during the past year to subscribe to a national newspaper, but there's no denying that it has had its drawbacks. Because I've been reading Die Zeit each week, I haven't been reading the local paper for Essen (Die Westdeutsche Allgemeine Zeitung). It means that I've been out of loop for some events in Essen, but I've tried to make up for it by paying closer attention to posters and fliers. When I'm out walking, I often snap a quick photo of advertisements like this one for a concert I attended last night:

The Yellow Jackets have a group of dedicated fans who have been following their music for thirty years, but I'm not one of them. I first heard of them back when I lived in Long Beach and they were playing somewhere in Los Angeles. They got some airplay on the campus station and I thought they were pretty good, but I didn't follow up on my interest. But the thing about live music is that it's almost always good. Even if it's something you would never otherwise listen to, there's something about being there that makes it worthwhile for me. A fan might say, "The boys were off their game last night. Bob Mintzer seemed tired from the flight, and they didn't play their best stuff." I, on the other hand, have no particular benchmark for last night's concert. Maybe they've played better in the past, but I'm comparing the performance to staying at home and preparing my Pausenbrot for the next day. As they say on the sitcoms, it's a no brainer.

In the past ten days we've taken in several concerts here and I'm wondering why we haven't been hearing live music more regularly during the year. I guess I know the answer: now it's relatively warm and staying light until about 9 p.m.. A few months ago, it was damp and cold and got dark a little after four. It was hard to get excited about leaving the house at all. My mantra now is, Today is the first day of the rest of your sabbatical. No regrets.

So I'm up for anything now, including a classical accordion performance by the students of Mie Miki, who's in charge of the Akkordeonabteilung of the Folkwang Music School here in the Ruhrgebiet. Miki has been called the Pablo Casals of the accordion and she performed a short piece along with her students. After hearing the concert I decided to get a recording of John Zorn's 1986 composition, Road Runner, which Frau Miki performed. I listened to it today, and probably for the last time. Live, it was electrifying. As a recording it doesn't do much for me. It's not bad music, it just strikes me as pointless. A little bit like watching a magician on TV.

Even the musique concrète concert we saw last week was different live. Admittedly, the sounds are all recorded and the "performers" just stand over a mixing board and move sliders. The spot lights were all directed to the speakers sitting on an empty stage. Still, the music is moving around you, and the concert hall setting forces you to pay attention. If the same music were playing on my Stereoanlager at home, I'd probably think it was a good time to balance my checkbook.

And on Saturday I experienced a performance by a group of not especially talented young musicians from Bulgaria. They were playing a mixture of Bulgarian folk music and pop standards from the U.S. on the street in downtown Essen and I had to stop and listen. In spite of the less than optimum performing venue, or maybe because of it, they were excellent. Passers by began dancing spontaneously and everyone was in a great mood. I don't know what these guys would sound like if I bought their CD and they didn't have one anyhow. The point is, is was sunny, it was Spring, it was Saturday and they were there. Unlike the Yellow Jackets drummer (Marcus Baylor; he's phenomenal) who has a full drum kit with seven or eight cymbals and the best technicians money can buy to set up the mikes, The Bulgarian band just had some weird middle-east tom-tom and a kid who looked about sixteen to hit it, but it was great. I hope they hang out in the Ruhrpott for a few weeks and I'll keep looking for fliers. With ten weeks still to go, I want to experience as much as I can before heading back to Logan.

Sunday, May 10, 2009


I really enjoy riding my bicycle in the Ruhrgebiet, but it's not without its stressful moments. I often have people comment on my behavior while I'm riding and although my interactions with them are far from conclusive, my natural guilty conscience makes me imagine I might be breaking some traffic rule. Today, for instance, as I headed down Bredeneyerstr. for the path along the Ruhr, an elderly fellow waved at me as I approached him. He didn't really say anything, but seemed irritated as he pointed to the crosswalk lines on the street in front of him. He was standing on the sidewalk waiting to cross, and as I pulled even with him I stopped and waited for him to explain himself. He looked at me, I looked at him, I looked at the crosswalk lines and at the red "don't walk" light across the street. He remained silent, I saluted and went on my way. What was he trying to tell me?

Traffic rules here are so complex, I imagine that at any moment I might be breaking several laws as I ride. Unlike most parts of the US, where bicyclists are seen as a nuisance to auto drivers, but of no more real significance than the bugs that get caught in your radiator, most European countries try to incorporate cycle traffic into the big mix. Sidewalks often have a "bike path" down one side and points are awarded for each pedestrian maimed. On other streets there might be a narrow lane painted red on the right margin for cyclists. It's sometimes hard to see these lanes as you ride along, but they are most easily identified by all the trucks parked on them. A street might be designated one way for cars, but bikes are allowed to weave in and out of traffic in both directions with no designated lane. And when in doubt, you can just follow signs like these:

In spite of all this chaos, everyone seems to get where they want to go and there is a minimum of "road rage" killings. I do my best to follow the rules, but sometimes my inner cowboy takes over and I just do what seems to make sense. Mostly I'm met with tolerance and I find I can usually return the favor.

Today I rode about 25 kilometers along the Ruhr, from Werden to Mülheim. If there is a means of locomotion I did not encounter along the way, I am unaware of it. I saw a really cool tandem bike with a recumbent seat up front and an upright saddle in the stoker position. I saw a wheel chair fitted with a rowing mechanism for propulsion. I saw unicycles, inline skates, kayaks, canoes and sailboats. One passer by was carrying a bicycle across his chest instead of riding it. Some bikes go by creaking and squeaking as though they haven't seen the light of day since Willy Brandt was in office. Others are so loaded with cargo, you can only imagine the riders are planning a three week trip, camping on every street corner between the Ruhr and the Mülheimerbahnhof. I thought I had seen it all and then as I was having a refreshing Pilsner at a beautiful Biergarten on an island in the middle of the Ruhr, a Viking ship came by and pulled into the locks to continue its progress down river. I can't wait until next Sunday.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Hang on, St. Christopher

When I was in grammar school, it was important to have a good saint. I was named for St. Christopher and as far as I was concerned, you couldn't do much better than that. In the Roman Catholic tradition, Christopher was a pretty bad dude who sought the most powerful being in the world to serve. He served a king until he found out the king feared the devil, then served the devil until he learned the devil feared Christ. Some kids had lame saints, guys who fed birds and stuff. There wasn't much to be done about it. My saint on the other hand, was massively strong and had a glorious death. I paid for my smugness later when the Vatican sort of pulled the rug out from under we Christophers. It seemed there wasn't enough actual evidence of Christopher's life to justify canonizing him. There was the possibility that he was just a legend. As opposed to say, the virgin birth.

Saint-wise, I've been adrift, until today in Recklinghausen. With my new found mobility, I'm planning a series of weekend bike trips. Today I planned to ride from Reckinghausen to Haltern am See. A short hop of 25-30 km in the northern Ruhrgebiet. The plan had the advantage that I could do the ride from one Bahnhof to the next and it would all be within the region served by my monthly transit pass. In other words, my travel would be free. It's easy to bring a bike on a DB train. I rode to the Bahnhof here in Essen and got a train into Recklinghausen without incident, but thereafter, nothing went according to plan.

First, I discovered that Recklinghausen has the largest icon collection outside of the Greek Orthodox world. The museum was right downtown and it seemed a shame not to take it in. I stopped there before leaving on my odyssey and was glad I did. Although the museum is small, they have a wonderful collection of icons. And icons are my kind of Art. They're relatively easy to understand and enjoy. When I see an exhibition with work by say, Richard Serra, in which he flings molten lead at the wall of a 300 square meter room with killer clerestory windows, I often think how great it would be if I could clean up the lead hazard and use the room for painting. Or maybe a day care center for kids. I know I can't: Richard Serra is a great artist, and he makes great Art. But I prefer the icons.

On the first floor the theme of the icons changed from the BVM (Blessed Virgin Mary for you Protestants) and Jesus to saints. And some images of a guy with what looked like the head of a dog. Reading the captions, I found that not only was I looking at examples of cynocephaly, but that this guy was my old buddy, St. Christopher. It seems there is a very different St. Christopher tradition in the orthodox world. Christopher was part of a race of half humans who ate people. He was taken in a battle and accepted baptism from his Christian captors. Then he did all the stuff that I had already heard about, carrying Christ as a child across the river, shoving his staff in the ground and having it flower. But before that, he was a dog-headed cannibal.

Wow. First, it explains why the Vatican was so eager to see the back of this guy. Second, it totally puts me back on top in the saint category. I've heard it said that he who laughs last, laughs best. Now I know it's true. The rest of the day was great too, but since this post is already too long, I'll summarize. I left the museum and got lost quickly on the road out of Recklinghausen. I rode around in a fabulous landscape filled with windmills and rapeseed fields but never got anywhere near my destination, Haltern am See. Instead I rolled back into Recklinghausen to find that Sunday afternoon was a Verkaufsoffener Sonntag. All the stores were open, and the city center was filled with people. I had a bratwurst and beer while listening to a group of old baby boomer types playing American folk songs. They began with "Worried Man," went on to "Sixteen Tons," and some Hank Williams favorites. The guy on the right was playing a washtub bass. They were good, but I left before they got into the Credence Clearwater Revival material. Like the Pope, I know you've got to draw the line somewhere.

Friday, May 1, 2009

May Day

Today is another holiday here in Germany. I thought I finally knew them all: Christihimmelfahrt, Buß und Bettag, Reformationtag... But they snuck one in on me again: Maifeiertag. Not too long ago, Germany still had very strict laws about store opening and closing hours. Stores closed around 5 or 6 p.m. on weekdays, Saturdays at 2 p.m. Sundays and holidays stores were closed, period. Several times during my first year in Germany, I learned of a three day weekend just hours after the stores had already closed on a Saturday. It made for some pretty lean mealtimes on those Monday holiday evenings.

Now, stores can stay open until 10 p.m., Saturdays as well as weekdays, and every few months there's a special "open" Sunday when stores are allowed to do business. So, I don't face the specter of starvation on the long weekends, but the truth is, I like to work. Time off is OK, but two days off every five is a good rhythm for me. The extra holiday mostly makes me feel bored. But the weather was fabulous again today and I enjoyed my time off with my new bike.

The pick up in Eltville last weekend went smoothly. I saw a good deal of Mainz on Saturday before the pick up and made a quick stop in Koblenz on the way home. There is a very high level of standardization in Germany, and towns can often look very similar to one another on first glance. A closer look however reveals subtle but specific differences. Mainz is a beautiful city and walking around there you realize how much it isn't like Bonn or Köln. I think the turning point between North and South might be Remagen, but don't quote me on this.

My new bike is a keeper. My first ride down Rüttenscheiderstr. on Sunday evening, coming home from the Bahnhof was a little rocky. The chain seemed very noisy and the seat was too close to the pedals. The tires were soft and the bike just didn't seem all that lively. Plus, the three speed hub didn't seem to be shifting at all. I rode it to the studio on Monday morning and started making some adjustments. I lengthened the boom so my legs weren't cramped and while doing that, noticed that the chain wasn't correctly routed over the idlers. Getting it on the right path got rid of the noise immediately. I oiled the hub, adjusted the shift cable, and had it shifting with some reliability in just a few minutes. After pumping up the tires I took it for a spin and was pleasantly surprised. The bike handles well. It's stable and easily maneuverable at very low speeds. On the other hand, it can really fly on a straight away and I can load it up with plenty of cargo when necessary. A great all around transportation bike.

So this morning I was on one of the many bike paths around Essen, weaving in and out of groups of Nordic walkers, three year olds on push bikes, ninety three year olds in wheel chairs, and people celebrating May Day with a traditional Bollerwagon with a case or two of cold beer in it. I can't put up with the crowd density for very long, but an outing on the bike paths of Germany is a cultural experience that's fun in limited doses. Mostly I think of myself as invisible, a spectator watching the crazy parade of people going by. But this morning I heard as one little boy pointed me and my new recumbent out to his younger sister. "Guck mal!" he said as I went by, "Sehr witzig!" so now I'm part of the show, and apparently a part that is well worth noticing.