A Fine German Childhood Is Full of Death

Deutschland über us.

Image: [martin]

Last week at the White House, the leader of the free world held a long-anticipated meeting with Donald Trump. It went about as well as expected. And, after the President of the United States refused to shake German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s damn hand, the Germans reacted by making beautiful use of their freedom to reason freely, as Kant would say, by which I mean they created hella memes.

There’s this one:

And this one:

And the best one of all:

Here, The top line says, “HAVE YOU CLEANED YOUR ROOM?” The bottom says: “LOOK AT ME WHEN I’M TALKING TO YOU.”

Hahaha get it? Because all of Germany sees Merkel as the mom and Trump as the petulant fourth-grader who (may or may not have) light-treasoned himself into the Oval Office.

And while American mothers also enjoy this exact exchange with their petulant fourth-graders, our cultural context is a bit different. For an American kid, the implied “or else” in the second line might mean, say, the loss of one’s backup iPad, or perhaps some mild corporal punishment. For a German kid, the “or else” means he’ll be set on fire in his sleep. This is because by the time a German kid has reached the petulant fourth-grader stage, he has been brined like a veritable Sauerbraten in a milieu of misbehavior-related violence and death.

I’m not just talking about the original versions of the Grimm Märchen, or fairytales, which are of course way grosser than the sanitized Disneyfied versions you know. Because the Märchen are to German children’s-story violence what Bluth-level treason is to Trump-level (alleged) Treason.

Allow me to introduce you to der Struwwelpeter (dair STROO-vul-PAY-tur), the 1845 book by Heinrich Hoffmann of “merry stories and funny pictures,” a.k.a. basically the German version of Mother Goose, but with way more death and dismemberment. This explains so, so much.

My punishment for being a bad kid is having to learn to read that Fraktur script. Image: public domain.

If, for example, you suck your thumb, like poor Konrad here, this Joker-looking dude will straight chop it off.

Image: DER STRUWWELPETER, public domain.

And ’member the kind but firm bear with the booming voice who told us not to play with matches? Meet the German equivalent, Paulinchen (pao-LEEN-shen), who ignores the warnings of her cats, and burns the fuck to the ground.

AAAAUGH. Image: DER STRUWWELPETER, public domain.

And then, for the picky well-done steak-and-ketchup eaters out there, here’s der Suppen-Kaspar (ZOOP-un-KOSS-parr), who won’t eat his goddamned soup, and so he ends up like this.

Kaspar gets thinner and thinner, and “in five days, he lay dead.” That’s soup on top of his grave. Image: DER STRUWWELPETER, public domain.

As a result, Germans grow up eating their damn soup (that’s a metaphor for “obeying authority”), and also with a somewhat less romanticized view of our inevitable shuffling off of the mortal coil.

Back when I was a German professor, I used to enjoy shoving my American college students right into the deep end of this particular icy Bavarian stream by showing them, on the first day of class, the 1912 poem “Schöne Jugend,” or “A Fine Childhood,” by Gottfried Benn, who worked by day in a Berlin morgue.

The mouth of a girl who had long lain in the reeds
looked so chewed on.
When we broke open her chest
the esophagus was so full of holes.
Finally, in a bower under the diaphragm
we found a nest of young rats.
A little sister lay dead.
The others lived off the liver and kidneys,
Drank the blood and had enjoyed here
a fine childhood.
And fine and fast came their death, too:
We threw them all together into the water.
Oh, how their little snouts squeaked!

(Translation: me!)

“How do you know she’s a prostitute?” I’m glad you asked, Astute College Freshman. You see, her prostitudinousness is implied, because she’d been ditched in the reeds for long enough that clearly nobody was looking for her, and also because the “fine childhood” she clearly did not get to have is contrasted with the disease-ridden vermin who inhabit her body cavities. Gottfried Benn rules, right? Wait, what is this “drop slip” you are placing in front of me?

Yes, I get it, this is probably a very shocking tableau for American youngsters, given that even amidst the gore of games both video and Throne, kids here still grow up hearing that all their pets are chilling at a farm “upstate,” and all their relatives have “passed on” to a “better place,” with not a rat or perforated internal organ in sight. Germans, for better and worse (and then much worse, and then much, much worse, and then slightly less worse, and then better again), do not have the same weird ingrained denial-slash-romanticization of death that we do.

And this means, obviously, that der Suppen-Drumpf is one motherfucker who’s fucked with the wrong mother.

Eat your goddamned soup. Meme: Rebecca Schuman