Tag Archives: Germany

How Not to Cover the German Election Results Today

24 Sep

german_opinion_polls_2017_election1

(Image by KevinNinja used under CC 3.0 via)

 

We will have the German election results in just under six hours. After the unanticipated success of Brexit and Trump in 2016, many here are terrified that the Alternative für Deutschland will end up doing better than the polls predicted. There is speculation that many of its voters would never reveal their decision to a survey-taker. If the AfD does do better than predicted, it will declare victory – even if over 80% of the country has voted against it.

If this happens, please be thoughtful—not careless—when you consider using Nazi language to describe what’s going on. Some members of the AfD have definitely earned the Nazi label because their rhetoric and policies are flat-out militaristic, authoritarian, and/or racist. But German political scientists are careful to only apply terms like “Neo-Nazi” and “fascist” when it is apt. Much of the foreign media too often uses World War II jargon like—“marching to victory”—to describe any right-wing politics that happen in Germany, while refraining from using it to describe right-wing movements in their own countries. Rule of thumb: If you didn’t use those words to describe the xenophobic politics of Marine Le Pen, Geert Wilders, Brexit, or Donald Trump, think twice about using them now for the AfD. At best it’s lazy and at worst it implies that racism among Germans is worse than racism among any other sorts of people. As nationalist politicians across Europe and the United States continue to threaten democracy, no one can afford to be complacent.

And please beware the term “refugee crisis.” Over one million Syrians have arrived in Germany and guess what? Very little has changed. I live a few blocks from a refugee housing unit and couldn’t name one difference in my everyday life since the doors were opened. Perhaps I pass by more refugees than I realize on the street – but they’re not really any different looking from any of the other immigrants and expats. To be fair, many refugees are certainly experiencing crisis. The war in Syria is a crisis. The horrid conditions along the Balkan Route is a crisis. The bureaucratic mess paralyzing several authorities that refugees are required to deal with is a crisis. But when you broadly use the word “crisis” to refer to the arrival of people in Germany, you’re doing white supremacist groups like the AfD a huge favor.

Some other fun facts you might miss? Germany’s voter turnout over the past decade has been consistently higher than in the U.K. and the U.S. All voters over 18 are automatically registered here and receive the address of their polling place via mail. Because Germany has a coalition system, every voter gets two votes. The polls have consistently projected the two largest parties, the Christian Democrats (CDU) and the Social Democrats (SPD) to garner the most votes, while the four smaller contenders have been separated by a mere 1%. (The graphic above of the recent polls illustrates this well.) If the AfD shoots ahead, this will be newsworthy. If it comes in third place but only by 1 point, that should also be noted in all post-election analysis. Failure to note it will only help the AfD create a narrative of overblown success.

In politics, as often in life, narrative is everything.

 

 

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I Never Thought Marriage Equality Would Come to the U.S. before Germany

2 Jul

Berlin Pride(Image by Berolino used under CC 2.0 via)

 

I never thought the U.S., my country of birth, would enact marriage equality before Germany, my country of residence. And yet here we are. When I moved here 12 years ago, same-sex civil unions were legal across the country and the mayors of Berlin and Hamburg, the two largest cities, were both openly gay. The country was four years away from the election of its first openly gay vice-chancellor. Back in the U.S., the Supreme Court had only just decriminalized homosexuality nationwide, same-sex marriage bans were spreading across states, and the president was pushing for a nationwide ban in the form of an amendment to the Constitution. The hard-won victories we have seen since are worth every moment of celebration, but the backlash has been loud and angry.

When it comes to gender equality, Germany is hardly in the midst of such a heated culture war. Restrictions on reproductive freedom or sex education rarely make it into the national debate. Paid parental leave is generous and available to both mothers and fathers. Those who find marriage antiquated or unnecessary are widespread among Germans of all income levels and political persuasions. I know young, white-collar couples with four children and conservative couples in their 60s who have never gotten around to getting married. Among those who are married, it is not hard to find men who have taken their wives’ surnames or created a hyphenated name, like the head of the Protestant Church. Few noticed when Germany became the first European nation to add a third gender option on birth certificates. I have met my share of men here who have nothing nice to say about feminism (or “genderism,” as they sometimes call it), but I have met far more who actively embrace it. Men like the dad who famously wore a skirt in public so that his little boy would feel safe doing so.

But anecdotes about cultural values can be problematic. Personal experiences can depend heavily on the social circles you tend toward. Liberal cities like Berlin and New York both have corners where LGBTQI people are threatened. And as the geographical crossroads of Europe, Germany’s political landscape is varied. The home of the Lutheran Church is also home to Alpine and Rhineland Catholics, and atheists of the former East Germany. The loudest opposition to marriage equality here has come from Catholic bishops and the fledgling far-right, anti-immigration party Alternative für Deutschland (AfD). The AfD has moved to challenge this week’s marriage equality law in court. Legal experts are divided as to how successful they could be. The AfD’s polling numbers have dropped to 7%. Meanwhile, 44% of its voters support marriage equality, and its current candidate for the national election in September happens to be an openly lesbian woman who is in a civil union with a woman from Sri Lanka.

A national study released this week found 83% of Germans support marriage equality. Four of the five parties represented in the Bundestag – the Greens, the Left, the pro-business Free Democrats, and the center-left Social Democrats – stated their official support before the Bundestag vote. While only 75 of the 309 members of Angela Merkel’s center-right Christian Democrats voted yes, a survey of their supporters in the general public revealed that 73% were for it. This in a party named for its traditional association with the Catholic Church. All in all, support for marriage equality in Germany is widespread and significantly higher than in all but five of the 21 countries that already had marriage equality before this week.

This explains why marriage equality has taken so long here. Since the horrors of the Nazi regime as well as Communist East Germany, politicians in the Federal Republic have generally sought to be more pragmatic than ideological. Social change is usually slow and incremental for the sake of consensus-building. This is done for the sake of preventing angry backlash and deep divisions.

Of course, this gradual approach can be deeply upsetting for those waiting on their human rights. A couple in their thirties seeking to adopt wants to have a family now. A patient dying of AIDS wants the partner who stood by him to be legally protected from whatever objections his family may have now. As many politicians argued during the Bundestag vote, offering same-sex couples the right to marriage instead of mere civil unions is a way of proving that Germany not just tolerates them but accepts them. That such couples and families have had to wait for others to accept them is as much a moral problem as it is a historical fact.

100 years ago Berlin was home to the first gay rights magazine, the first LGBT film and the first LGBT neighborhood. Many have deemed it the gay capital of the world at the time and some historians claim it was on the brink of becoming the first Western jurisdiction to legalize homosexuality in 1929. But then. We know what happened. Berlin sent its LGBT citizens to death camps. The quiet street where I live is scarred by plaques naming the victims, Nazi and Soviet bullet holes, and the exact place where the Wall later stood. When I moved here 12 years ago, it was renowned for being East Berlin’s gay district. It is a conglomerate that tells a story and shows that all cultural values rely on the intersection of when and where. This is why human rights must be vigilantly protected, never taken for granted. And why every place on earth has the capacity to change.

 

 

My Beloved Berlin

21 Dec

berlin-copyright-emily-sullivan-sanford

 

This morning I woke up and said:

Good morning, Berlin – my beloved home for 11 years now.

Where the police have asked the public to be alert and “do not spread rumors.”

Where the administration has refused to assign blame “before all the victims have even been identified.”

Where reason, rationality, modesty and a refusal to engage in hot-headed hate is the dominant mood.

Where 11 leaders of different religions and sects joined hands in solidarity and condolence to the victims’ families yesterday, standing just a few yards from the untouched rubble of the Gedächtniskirche, which has been preserved for 70 years as a reminder to Germany – and to all – of the dangers of nationalism.

 

This Is What War Looks Like, 70 Years After the Fact

7 Apr

 

 

This past Wednesday, Berlin’s Central Station—the largest train station in Europe—was closed after a 220-pound Soviet bomb from World War II was discovered by construction workers.  840 residents were evacuated from the area before the bomb was successfully defused.

Not all such bombs can be defused.  This past August, an American bomb discovered in Munich had to be detonated by experts, as you can see in the video above.  Approximately fifteen unexploded World War II bombs are discovered in Germany every dayThis does not happen where I come from.

To live in Berlin, my favorite place on earth, is to live in a city of scars.

 

 

Degenerates, Nazis, & the U.N.

16 Dec

(Via)

 

A reaction to last week’s post about the U.N. Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities sparked a behind-the-scenes discussion about whether or not I should allow name-calling in the Painting On Scars comments section.  I like to engage with almost anyone who disagrees with me, but online I know I also tend to only comment on sites that have strict no-drama policies because discussions can become pointless and boring really, really fast when there’s nothing but insults and exclamation points.  I ultimately decided that, for now, any rude behavior speaks for itself: Commenters can name-call all they want regarding people they dislike or say absolutely nothing, because in both cases they’re not going change anyone’s mind.

That said, I will always tell any supporters if they adopt tactics I want to have nothing to do with.  And it’s important to call out invectives that are particularly malicious in a way some might not be aware of.  The comment in question last week referred to the U.N. as “a bunch of degenerates, throat cutters, and other trash.”  Using the word “degenerate” in a discussion about disability rights is exceptionally insensitive, if not mean-spirited.    

The first time I read the word out loud to a friend here in Germany, his eyes shot up and said, “Be very careful with that word.  It immediately makes everyone think of the Nazis.”  And by “Nazis,” he meant the actual, goose-stepping, genocidal nationalists who tried as best they could to make sure disabled people either died off or were killed off.  Not “Nazis” in the Internet-temper-tantrum sense of “anyone I disagree with.”  The word also evokes the brownshirt term “degenerate art.”  Modern German sensitivity to the term is the result of looking honestly at the nation’s history of ableism.

Action T-4 was the first genocide program ordered by the Nazis, calling for the extermination* of those deemed by doctors to be “incurably sick.”  Between 200,000 and 300,000 disabled people were killed, though many were used for scientific experiments first.  *And by the way, I DETEST any use of the term “euthanasia” in this context.  “Euthanasia” literally means ending life to end pain, and for this reason I find it applicable where patient consent has been given or where pets are concerned.  But to imply that what the Nazis did to disabled citizens was anything other than murder is to dehumanize the victims.

The forced sterilization programs of disabled people in Nazi Germany, meanwhile, were modeled after American laws.  The very first forced sterilization law in the world was introduced in Indiana in 1907, and 30 states followed suit.  The Supreme Court upheld Virginia’s eugenics program in 1927 and it remained on the books until 1974.  Oliver Wendell Holmes summarized the Supreme Court’s decision thusly:  

It is better for all the world, if instead of waiting to execute degenerate offspring for crime or to let them starve for their imbecility, society can prevent those who are manifestly unfit from continuing their kind…  Three generations of imbeciles are enough.

The Nazi poster featured above focused instead on the expense: “It costs the German people 60,000 Reichsmarks to keep this genetic defective alive.  Fellow German, that is your money!”  After World War II, the Nuremberg Doctors’ Trial and the resulting Nuremberg Code discouraged ableist politicians from openly promoting eugenics on either side of the Atlantic.  But it wasn’t until 1981, the year I was born, that the disability rights movement in West Germany came into full swing and sought to combat ableism head-on. 

Almost every human rights movement is said to have a trigger moment when oppression went a step too far and the people fought back.  For the American Civil Rights movement, it was the death of Emmett Till.  For the gay rights movement, it was the Stonewall Uprising.  For the German disability rights movement, it was the Frankfurt Travel Ruling of 1980, brought about by a woman suing her travel agency for booking her in a Greek hotel where a group of Swedish disabled guests were also vacationing.  She claimed that having to see and hear disabled people had ruined her trip and the judge agreed with her.  Protests exploded across the country and the next year, which the U.N. had declared the Year of the Disabled, several West German disability rights groups organized and formed agendas.  They used the U.N. events to draw attention to the dire situation of disabled citizens in the country.

Two years later, the Green Party entered the Bundestag for the first time and was the first to voice support for disability rights as a human rights issue.  The Greens were born out of the 60s student movement in West Germany.  The movement was famous for protesting what most young activists across the Western world opposed at the time: the Vietnam War (and war in general), traditional gender roles, consumerism, pollution, etc.  But first and foremost, the West German 68ers were young people demanding the nation come to terms with its dark past, decrying that an overwhelming number of the nation’s leaders and officials were former Nazis.  Their commitment to human rights was inspired by an unfaltering awareness of how horrific things can get.  Their actions led to the passing of anti-discrimination laws and an amendment to the German Constitution in 1995, modeled after the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Another result of the students growing up and entering the government came in 1983 when conscientious objectors to the draft were no longer required to argue their motivations before a board for approval. This made it far easier for young men to opt for a year of community service in lieu of military service.  By 1991, half of those drafted became conscientious objectors.  For over 30 years, scores of German 19 year-old boys worked with mentally ill children at the Red Cross, in nursing homes, as assistants for physically and mentally disabled teenagers, and for Meals on Wheels.  This has created generations of men who often speak fondly of the experience and who are usually less fazed by disabilities or dependence, demonstrating a tolerance and openness that seems extraordinary for their age. 

The draft was discontinued last year and since then the community service option has been suspended.  Military debates aside, I agree with conservative politicians who have called for preserving the community service requirement and expanding it to women because it is an excellent government tool for combating both ableism and social segregation on a personal level.  Ableism is still a tremendous problem here in Germany, but in three generations, the country has changed from one of the most ableist societies on earth to one of the least.   The word “degenerate” signifies humanity’s capacity for cruelty and sensitivity to the word signifies our commitment to never repeat it.

To be fair, the word in last week’s comment was not aimed directly at disabled people but at the U.N. members working for disability rights.  And frankly, I’m a little insulted.  Because if anyone’s a degenerate here, it’s me. 

I am scientifically a mutant by virtue of my fibroblast growth receptor gene 3.  (Yes, yes, my genetics professor explained that technically all of us are mutants, but mostly just in boring ways… )  I am a semi-invertebrate now that pieces of my backbone were removed six weeks ago.  And I don’t take the last empty seat on the subway and request my friends slow down to my pace when walking for nothing.  So if anyone’s gonna go calling the organization that sprang from the Nuremberg Trials and founded the Universal Declaration of Human Rights a bunch of degenerates, they gotta get through me first.  I’m a degenerate living in Germany and proud of it.

 

 

Berlin Loves You

8 Jul

Ponys für alle(Image ©Folke Lehr)

 

The very first time I entered Berlin, on a backpacking trip across Europe, I remember thinking that it was fairly ugly compared to Paris and the idyllic villages of Bavaria.  But seeing the remains of the Wall at The East Side Gallery and the Memorial Church left from World War II blew my mind.  By the time I finished studying here, I was deeply in love.  Soon I will have lived here longer than any other place.  My partner calls it “the only livable German city.”  Even though I am still very much American, Berlin is home to me in every sense of the word. 

And seeing as I kvetch so much about the cultural and social problems of our day, I want to take a breath and gush about a place I adore.  (I’m quite sure my head will explode if I see myself write the word “society” one more time without a break.)  So what’s the big deal about Berlin?

For one thing, it’s a city, and having grown up at first in the suburbs of Long Island and then rural Upstate New York, I’ve found I’m happiest in the urban setting.  Yes, people are less friendly and there’s more pollution.  But there’s also little room for gossip or judgment or homogeneity.  You can wear anything you like and no one cares, or you accidentally start a new trend.  Nothing is done only for tradition’s sake.  So much is done for art’s sake.  You can get anywhere you need to go, including out of the country, without a car.  And while it’s no social utopia, anyone who’s visibly different gets stared at less in the cities than anywhere else.

But Berlin also has lots to offer that New York and Paris and London and Hamburg and Munich do not, because, in the words of our mayor, it’s “arm aber sexy” (poor but sexy):

Decent Housing.  While gentrification is naturally creeping into many of my favorite neighborhoods sections, Berlin still offers cool places at a fair price.  Students and recent graduates are not economically exiled to ludicrously dirty or dangerous or diminutive areas.  The less expensive districts have beautiful parks.  Social workers can afford three-bedroom turn-of-the-century apartments with stucco lining the walls and balconies with French doors.  Housing developers are also restricted to buying up only a few houses in a single block to prevent aesthetic monotony.  I believe a society that doesn’t remind you every day of how little you earn by refusing you security, cleanliness or beauty is a free society.  (The S word!  Oops!)

Hip without the Hipsters.  In the words of Gary Shteyngart, “Whether German or foreign, these young people genuinely care about the communities they have forged out of the rubble of the 20th century’s most problematic metropolis… It’s still okay to be excited by things in Berlin.”  Take that, Williamsburg.

Das Kiezgefühl.  It’s a city five times the area of Paris, yet every neighborhood has its own cozy feel to it.  We know our postman by name.  Our favorite bookstore owner lent us his bikes while we were on vacation in his home country.  My partner buys groceries for the little old lady who lives above us.  On Christmas Eve this year, I said hello to seven familiar faces in the 10 minutes it took to walk home from the U-Bahn station.  In between I hummed, “Can you tell me how to get?” 

Good Parenting in Public.  Unlike in the U.S. and other nations I’ve inhabited, it’s extremely rare to ever see a German parent screaming at their child.  It’s also your responsibility to call the police if they so much as slap them, which I’ve never once witnessed.  With the introduction of paid paternity leave, many Berlin dads have jumped at the chance to take time off to actually get to know their children, pushing baby carriages with all the finesse of an expert.   

No Urban Sprawl.  Along with containing huge forests, nearly 70 lakes and more canals than Venice, Berlin ends at the countryside of Brandenburg.  The budget of communism and the physical imposition of the Wall made the city stop rather abruptly, and the environment can be grateful for it.

You Can Walk Around Freely At Two in the Morning.  Despite having the highest crime rate in Germany, Berlin is very laidback compared to most major cities.  I also love it that local crime is rarely a topic of conversation among Berliners, unlike in the U.S.

Döner Kebab.  And kettwurst and currywurst and Bionade (organic soda).  And flammkuchen and excellent schnitzel.  Furthermore, German breakfasts—a wide selection of good bread and soft pretzels with salami or liverwurst or mettwurst or teewurst or jam or cheese or honey or Nutella—cannot be beat.  Yeah, and beer.  And in the words of a recent English guest, “It’s dirt cheap!” 

Streetcars!  And no turnstiles, meaning no hassles with over-sized luggage or broken card readers or premature goodbyes.  And the S-Bahn seats are heated in winter.  And it’s one of the few cities whose airports are directly linked onto the public transportation system, so there are no exorbitant shuttle fees obstructing your way to the city center.

The Scars of Recent History.  The Berlin Wall once stood at the west end of my street.  On the east end, Soviet and Nazi bullet holes line the columns of the local school.  Street markers signify houses where Jewish families were arrested.  The city’s biggest mountain, Teufelsberg (“Devil’s Mountain”), is made out of rubble.  Undetonated bombs are still discovered regularly throughout the year.  The local tabloid newspaper screams hysterically when the Homosexual Memorial is vandalized.  Berlin knows what happened here, and it wants you to know, too.    

Anything Still Goes.  Every year, the districts of Friedrichshain and Kreuzberg rebel against their joint bureaucratic status by having a food fight on the Oberbaum Bridge.  It’s known far and wide as the “Gemüseschlacht” (Battle of the Vegetables).  Need I say more?