Brief Interviews with Germans I Have Offended

If there’s one thing Germans love, it’s pointing out that other people are wrong

I’ve been making grand, middle-informed generalizations about Germany since the first day I set foot there in 1995, just out of my freshman year of college and full of serious, incontrovertible ideas about Thomas Mann, Nazis and gaining fluency through “immersion,” by which I definitely did not mean “studying.”

“I’m too busy getting my nose pierced and wearing this ankh necklace and listening to Dave Matthews to STUDY.” Photo: Rebecca Schuman

And for at least that long, Germans have also taken great enjoyment in my failure to portray their culture correctly (if only there were a word to convey such an emotion).

For if there’s one thing Germans love, it’s pointing out that other people are wrong. Of course, the fun thing about that particular massive generalization is that it’s the asshole bon-mot equivalent of a self-tightening knot: Any German who dares contradict it is just proving my point.

I will, however, begrudgingly admit that in the half of a year I have been in residence here at The Awl, I may, perhaps, have not been one hundred percent correct in every single thing I’ve said about Germany. And I’m not just talking about my grievous mistranslation of the word Unkraut, or my somewhat creative approach to German Rechtscreibung, which is more often than not Unrechtschreibung.

So, I bit the proverbial Gewehrkugel, and reached out to some Germans and asked them to engage in their national pastime of correcting me. Here goes. Their responses have been edited for length; my questions have been edited to make me look smarter and more articulate.

GERMAN I HAVE OFFENDED: Kersten, 42, translator
CRIME AGAINST THE VATERLAND: Insufficient appreciation of asparagus

Eat a bag of Spargel. Image: Wikimedia Commons

What am I missing about Spargel? If it’s really so good, then why are only you people obsessed?
First off, there’s a certain degree of conditioning. Germans grow up with the Spargel-Kult, so it’s ingrained in the national psyche, and it’s been going on for a long time. You (of course) know how Germans have an irrational weakness for homeopathy? Apparently, asparagus was thought to have healing properties, and as late as the 19th century was listed as a medicinal plant in the amtliches Arzneibuch, the official book of medicines, and therefore was supposed to be stocked by the local apothecary. You of all people will also appreciate the fact that asparagus is associated with spring, and spring with procreation, and procreation with penises; white asparagus also has a certain phallic look to it, even if for most men only in an aspirational way.

Is it possible that there’s some German-only Spargel tastebud?
I think Germans generally still consume a significant portion of their fruits and vegetables when they are in season. Now, most produce that we think of as seasonal is fruit, so asparagus is pretty much the only popular vegetable that has fairly limited seasonal availability. In the US, most types of produce are available year-round thanks to the fact that the US has a much more varied climate. In Germany, it’s much less common for produce that can be grown locally to be eaten out of season.

Is there an equivalent American food, or are our food tastes so abhorrent that we lack this kind of epicurean ability?
The closest thing I can think of in the US is how there’s pumpkin everything in the fall: pumpkin spice latte, pumpkin ale, pumpkin pie, pumpkin bread, etc. As somebody who didn’t grow up with any food that used pumpkin as an ingredient, I frankly find all that stuff unappealing. So I would maybe say that the pumpkin is America’s asparagus, without the sexual innuendo.

I knew a guy who fucked a pumpkin once, so you’d be surprised.
Oh, Gawd!

GERMAN: May, 46, professor
CRIME: Dismissal of far-right political parties as a joke

A poorly-attended AfD rally in Stuttgart a few weeks ago. Screengrab: STUTTGARTER ZEITUNG

So you mentioned that you had a friend who, if not actually an AfD* voter per se, is sympathetic to at least some parts of their platform. (*Note: non-German reader friends, AfD is short for Alternative für Deutschland, and they are basically if Steve Bannon and Sarah Palin had a German baby, and that baby formed a political party, and there I go treating it as a joke again.)
I like to listen to people and consider all sides of an argument, like a “trained academic,” and this may be why over the past 15 years or so, I have heard opinions from people that others have not, or at least not as much. Some of the opinions overlap with those by today’s AfD, or come close: for example,“Muslims generally cannot be integrated into German society because of [some supposedly intrinsic quality].” (This sounds like the AfD’s, “Der Islam gehört nicht zu Deutschland,” or “Islam doesn’t belong in Germany.”) Behind many of these views seems to be some kind of desire for a national identity, that I always thought was very foreign to me (I am, in the view of the New Right, a successfully reeducated postwar child).

So in order to find out just how popular AfD-type views secretly are, one has to take them seriously, more or less?
Well, I feel that it may be more helpful if people with opinions that seem to belong to the Neue Rechte (New Right), including the AfD, did not feel they had to hide them, as this would give them a chance to be convinced otherwise in open discussion. Moral outrage as a response, or breaking off dialogue, would only confirm their view of German social discourse as closed, and people as following some kind of officially prescribed doctrine. It may also make them less radical — though this may be wishful thinking. But right-wingers can present themselves as victims, or as a conservative avant-garde, in the current climate (also in the US!), and that is a problem.

So what did you learn when you really listened?
Some opinions that I heard had reasonable and understandable grounds, but were driven by fear or prejudice, or both. People can express the same concerns about immigration, but draw opposite political conclusions. The belief in change for the better, progress, or improvement of problems seemed often to be lacking. (For example, some predict a civil war in Germany.) This pessimism can be coupled with a critique of the Enlightenment and Modernity in general, with its universal humanism and belief in reason and progress, and so it can be hard, if not impossible, to argue against. The way right-wing opinions are expressed often poses a problem for discussion based on principles or reason.

So what can we do?
Engaging in a conversation without giving credence to what one does not agree with, or even finds appalling — that is the trick. And not an easy one. Discussing actual problems and proposing “alternative” solutions that are not just good “for Germany” but for humanity.

GERMAN: Rica, 36, lecturer
CRIME: Ignoring the cultural context of Schlager music

Schlager star Claudia Jung performs at Christopher Street Day in Cologne (aka German Pride) in 2012. Photo: Abhijay Achatz/Wikimedia Commons

Now, I want to start this by saying that this isn’t you being a pedantic German. I’ve known you for twelve years, and you’re the least pedantic German I know. This is something I legitimately fucked up. So, basically I was so worked up about schlager’s Pat Boone stylings (aka rock and pop without the pesky influence of people of color) that I didn’t take a whole shit-load about cultural context into consideration. First, that schlager is essentially the country music of Germany, and that taking cheap shots at it problematic in a similar way.
I agree, and it poses the same problems: On the one hand, there are so many issues with country, but on the other, judging country then becomes somewhat of a class issue.

And that was my biggest oversight. Because Germany does not have the vast income inequality that the US does, and the days of the Bürgerliches Trauerspiel are somewhat behind us (long story short: old-school Germans believed the aristocracy and the Regulars were two different species of human, and if they intermarried their offspring would be a monster). I just don’t think about class in Germany as much as I should.
I think in Germany class plays out via education level. Schlager is seen as the music of the uneducated. And I think during this global rise of anti-intellectualism, schlager then got this new hype that isn’t campy and self-ironic, but really serious (in a way that I am pretty conflicted about).

That was the other thing you mentioned to me when you suggested that my schlager coverage was shallow and superficial (which are probably the two adjectives I’d use to describe schlager! Irony!). I am completely ignorant of the camp aspect of schlager, but given that schlager stars perform at Pride, obviously it’s a big thing!
I was a teenager when schlager (but only a certain type) made a comeback in the 1990s, and though I was never a die-hard schlager fan I did dabble, in part because my friends did, and in part because my 1968 mom HATED it. Like, HATED. She’d get so riled up. It was hard to rebel against those student-revolution parents because literally every boundary we could push, they had already excelled at… so reveling in this superspießige 1950s aesthetic was pretty much the worst I could do to her. For her, schlager stood for everything she rebelled against. There are certain [songs and artists] I am still not allowed to even mention around her. This is definitely something I drunkenly did at parties.

That is amazing. So how does the camp aspect play into this?
Right during that time, you then had artists like Dieter Thomas Kuhn, who was doing covers of old schlager, in this weird self-ironic, campy, but also serious way.

I take everything back, this is the best.

And you were already an American citizen by the time the 2010s revival happened. Any thoughts on this final Schlagerwave?
Haha, honestly, I learned about that in your article.

Those are the artists I mostly studied for this piece and I basically found them to be Kellyanne Conway set to music. They really seemed just so aggressively bland and white, and gleefully so, and I was mostly writing from my gut reactions to them.
Honestly, the whole self-ironic 1950s nostalgia was also super white and super problematic (because, 1950s), but I think back then we didn’t think about that yet. Like, “Griechischer Wein” [an Udo Jürgens song about Greek immigrants] is such a weird way of dealing with immigrants. It’s sympathetic in this romanticized, but also really patronizing, simplifying way, that really centers the white person and his feelings. And at the same time, it totally won my grandfather over for the plight of immigrants in Germany when it first came out.