18 10 / 2014

Everybody knows that trains in Germany run on time, right? Well, not at the moment: millions of passengers were left stranded on Saturday after train drivers began a 50-hour strike that halted two thirds of long-distance trains in a dispute over pay and negotiation rights.

It couldn’t be a worse moment for customers because the GDL union decided to strike at the start of the fall school vacation. Many travelers were not amused:

One comment on Sueddeutsche.de reads “This is power abuse at the expense of ordinary citizens.”

There has been widespread criticism that GDL leader Claus Weselsky is using this strike as an aggressive maneuver against the rival conductors union EVG because he wants EVG members to join his GDL instead. Even Weselsky’s predecessor accused him of “calling for holy war just to bolster his ego.”

Officially, the GDL is seeking a five percent pay rise for 20,000 train drivers and a shorter work week. Another demand to set wage deals for around 17,000 conductors and other personnel, among its members.

However, railroad operator Deutsche Bahn says it will negotiate only with the larger EVG union for those types of employees. DB made a new pay offer on Friday, but the GDL union rejected it and went ahead with the strike.

Meanwhile, flying could also be a problem: Germans also face more strikes by pilots at Lufthansa’s Germanwings due to a long-running dispute over an early retirement scheme.

07 10 / 2014

One of Germany’s last great authors of the post-war period died Tuesday. Siegfried Lenz ist not well-known outside of Germany but in his homeland he ranks with Nobel laureates Heinrich Böll and Günter Grass.

Like Böll and Grass, Lenz tried to come to terms with the horrors of the Nazi regime.  When he was 17, he was drafted into Hitler’s navy.

Until July 1944, Lenz was a Nazi supporter, the assassination attempt on Hitler by Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg changed his mind and in the end, Lenz deserted and briefly became a British prisoner of war.

After the war, Lenz studied English and philosophy in Hamburg and eventually became a journalist.

Lenz is mostly known for his 1968 novel Deutschstunde (“The German Lesson”). The book focuses on a father-son conflict with the father symbolizing the generation that made the Hitler dictatorship possible and the son representing the post-war generation that had to grow up with the consequences.

The novel is also about the battle between political authority and freedom of the arts: the protagonist, Siggi Jepsen, an inmate of a juvenile detention center, is forced to write an essay with the title “The Joy of Duty”.  Jepsen describes his youth where his father, Jens Ole Jepsen, does ‘his duty’ as a police officer which includes enforcing the blacklisting of an old childhood friend, the painter Max Nansen (based on expressionist Emil Nolde).

Siggi feels compelled by Nansen’s paintings and manages to hide some of the confiscated paintings. Following the end of World War II, Jepsen is interned for a short time and later reinstalled into his position. When his father then nonetheless continues to carry out his former orders, Siggi brings paintings that he believes to be in danger to safety.

His father discovers his son’s activities and turns him. While forced to write “The Joy of Duty” at the detention center, childhood memories emerge and Siggi goes far beyond writing just an essay on the obligations of duty.

Ten years after Deutschstunde, Lenz revisited his East Prussian roots in Heimatmuseum (“The Heritage”). In this book, the protagonist, a carpet weaver, destroys a local heritage museum he once saved to prevent it from being misused for political purposes.

Together with Günter Grass, Lenz was politically active after the war, campaigning to improve Polish-German relations in particular. Literary critics were initially not too kind with Lenz, lambasting Deutschstunde as “worthy but weak.” That has changed somewhat over the years and accordingly, the obituary in the Süddeutsche Zeitung was entitled “A great storyteller.”

16 9 / 2014

The final hours of hectic campaigning are underway in Scotland. On Thursday the small European nation has to decide whether it wants to continue being part of the United Kingdom or become independent. The latest polls for the Scottish independence referendum suggest it will be a very close decision.

Is this for real? Another small European state in the making after Slovenia, Slovakia, Montenegro etc? And now a land less populated than metro Atlanta, as NPR points out.

Clearly, the NO campaign (also known as ‘Better Together’) is now deeply concerned that Scottish independence might actually happen and so are prominent economists and the US government.

Former Treasury Secretary Larry Summers, Nobel-prize winning economist Paul Krugman as well as billionaire investor George Soros have all urged  the Scots to say “NO” to independence.

President Obama told Britain’s prime minister Cameron, the United States had a deep interest in ensuring the UK remained "strong, robust and united", although he stressed that the decision on independence was ultimately “up to the people of Scotland”.

Cameron himself just signed a cross-party pledge promising “extensive new powers” for the Scottish Parliament “delivered by the process and to the timetable agreed” by the Conservative Party, Labour, and the Liberal Democrats.

Britain’s entire political establishment must be in full panic mode to offer this obvious bribe at the last minute. Nobody has really prepared for a YES vote: will Scotland be able to keep the pound? Westminster says no. Will Scotland be in the EU? Brussels says no. What form of government will Scotland have? Keep the monarchy like Australia and Canada? How stable will the Scottish economy be? How about the economic impact on the EU?

Small wonder the financial markets are nervous.

So, why do so many Scots want out of the United Kingdom after so many centuries together? Is it a romantic folly which just ignores the possible economic consequences?

The YES campaign actually promises more jobs and benefits and denies any dire economic repercussions.  

Many analysts believe it’s about a younger generation of Scots for whom the shared history of winning World Wars as part of Britain and running a colonial empire has become meaningless when compared to the notion that their nation is being run by English Tories from London.  

Something will have to change. Something has changed already: almost the entire Scottish nation is passionately involved in a political decision when other votes in the past mostly exposed apathy. The turnout on Thursday is expected to be very high.  

24 8 / 2014

Joseph Beuys has long been one of the most controversial modern artists of Germany.

In 2005, The Observer’s Sean O’Hagan called Beuys “fabulist and realist, romantic and activist, a man who made his life into one long, continuous and often seemingly contradictory art performance. Beuys was the last of art’s great 20th-century myth-makers, an artist who, since his death in 1986, has attained mythic status.”

O’Hagan admitted that “we are still trying to work Joseph Beuys out today, even as his ideas have infiltrated contemporary art to the point where we no longer notice them.”

Three artists in Düsseldorf recently came up with an odd idea to “work out” Beuys. They took what was left of a Beuys Fettecke (“Fatty Corner”) - mostly really old butter - and distilled it into liquor!

When Andree Korpys, Dieter Schmal, and Markus Löffler were done, they tasted their potent concoction and at least Löffler detected a hint of parmesan. “But it’s really about the taste of art history,” he said.

They called their message in a bottle Joseph Beuys, Remains of a Fatty Corner destroyed by the Authorities because the 1982 Fettecke, a chunk of butter on display at the Düsseldorf Academy of Art, had been “cleaned up” by a janitor to the horror of Beuys aficionados a mere nine months after the master’s death.

Artist Johannes Stüttgen rescued what he could from the garbage and subsequently claimed the leftovers as his own since Beuys had supposedly told him at the time: “Johannes, I’m finally making a fatty corner for you.”

Last month, Stüttgen allowed his colleagues to turn the Fettecke into “liquid documentation” but Beuys’ widow Eva was not exactly thrilled with the homage and threatened a lawsuit for copyright infringement.

Apparently, she mostly didn’t like the title of the project which has now been changed to Spirit. Remains of the destroyed Fatty Corner by Joseph Beuys.

She also didn’t like that the name of her late husband appeared in bold print, known as “fettgedruckt” or “fat print” in German!

Good thing the warring parties came to an agreement or the fat would really have hit the fire!

Is this the commemoration of a great artist then or a farcical gimmick? Who knows - but some people couldn’t resist calling it what to Germans is known as a “schnapsidee”:  literally an idea induced by the abuse of liquor.

26 7 / 2014

The war of words and sanctions between the West and Russia is going into the next phase.

Almost everybody outside of Russia and the self-declared ‘Donetsk People’s Republic’ in eastern Ukraine believes that Moscow-sponsored separatists shot down a Malaysian airliner nine days ago, causing the death of 298 people.

Many experts think the Soviet-era weapons system used in the attack on MH17 was supplied by the Russian military. Neither the rebels nor Moscow were exactly helpful with the investigation after the crash, either.

Now, the European Union is extending its sanctions against Moscow’s security apparatus. Russia is not amused and has indicated that this move will impact its ability to cooperate in “international and regional security issues”.

The foreign ministry in Moscow generally accuses the Obama administration of launching a "smear campaign" over its alleged involvement in Ukraine, saying it rejects “unfounded public insinuations” from the US government.

US and EU sanctions against Moscow started after the Russian annexation of Crimea in March which is not talked about much anymore. President Putin pretty much got away with that one.  Unfortunately, the Russian leader had to follow up with instigating and arming an uprising in eastern Ukraine as well.

Ukrainian government forces were unable to end the rebellion which is led by characters straight out of a James Bond movie. Most of them are suspected to be Russian intelligence or military or both.

President Obama has called the MH17 incident a “wake-up call for Europe” but significant divisions remain over exactly what types of sanctions should be implemented.

Clearly, accepting the aggressive behavior of Vladimir Putin is unacceptable for the West but letting the new cold war escalate is not a good option, either. And there seems to be very little maneuvering space in between.