Hitler and I

So far, I’m not old enough for certain suspicions to be raised. But sooner or later, I will reach an age at which people will start wondering whether my olfactory organ has undergone plastic surgery, or if my nose is naturally as beautiful and magnificent as it is. It’s uncertain what I will do at that age, where I will be, what my profession will be. But this one thing is for certain; I will still be facing Hitler.

“Facing Hitler” is my name for a phenomenon every travelling German knows. Well, not every. I have at least one German friend who was completely unaware of it. Then again, that friend’s name is Ayla, and even though she is undoubtedly German, she doesn’t specifically look like your stereotypical Hans Landa.

Facing Hitler comes in many different shapes and forms. Sometimes as admiration, like in your foreign partner’s parents welcoming you with the Hitler salute because they think you would like it. As confusion, like in your colleague abroad getting congratulated for her “little Nazi” after giving birth. Or as a weird kind of rivalry, as in Russians bragging about “their”megalomaniac mass-murdering dictator beating “yours”.

Holocaust memorial in Berlin. Right next to our parliament, where it belongs.

Holocaust memorial in Berlin. Right next to our parliament, where it belongs.

All of these incidents are awkward and highly upsetting. “That’s normal”, you might think, “who likes to talk about his country’s ugly past?”. Indeed, I’ve chatted up Cambodians about Pol Pot and earned little more than embarrassed silence. On the other hand, I actually enjoy discussing history, including Nazi era topics. Just when I met enthusiastic Nazi fanboys abroad, my blood regularly boiled before I learned how to deal accordingly with such situations. Besides, Hitler’s undeserved fame isn’t matched by other charismatic figures, dictators or otherwise. I doubt Cambodians face Pol Pot supporters abroad so often, nor do Russian travellers find Stalinists all over the globe, Brits aren’t patted on their back in acknowledgement of Churchill’s deeds and outside of Turkey, no-one actually knows Atatürk.

It might seem strange to non-Germans that we get so emotional here. I’ve been to seminars preparing young first-time travellers in Germany, where we spent hours talking about what to do when suddenly, your new friends abroad start sharing their sympathies with the Nazis. Now, it’s hard to imagine wearing another one’s shoes and feeling the pebbles stuck in them since 1945. So let me try to explain this to you.

First of all, hearing people talk positively about the Nazis is a completely new thing for us. It just doesn’t happen at home. Whenever someone utters something vaguely sympathetic towards Nazis, he better explain himself. Hence, you will find most Germans unprepared and somewhat unarmed when a stranger abroad happily tells him what a great a man Hitler supposedly was. Obviously, there are also Neo-nazis in Germany, people who deny the holocaust, etc. But those rarely make it into positions of public interest, and if they do, they keep their views undisclosed (still very dangerous – a Nazi with a tie is still a Nazi).

Secondly, the average German traveller is rather educated, usually being either an academic or a recent highschool graduate. If you’re being educated in Germany, you’re being confronted with the holocaust, the Nazi terror, Hitler’s surge to power, the numerous crimes, the “Schuldfrage” (question of guilt) and so on. Sure, there are racist educated people, too, but they don’t travel. Besides, if you objectively study genocidal autocratic dictatorships throwing their countries into wars with, like, everybody, plus additionally killing millions of innocents while losing the consequent bloodbath, you will notice that it’s hard to maintain a pro-Nazi stance unless you’re helplessly convinced of their cause beyond reason anyways. In fact, “it wasn’t all bad” is a common phrase we jokingly say when suspecting someone to be apologetic of the Nazi regime. I share an informed and researched opinion with (hopefully) all travelling Germans when I say: It was all bad. The few innovations which you could argue in favour of don’t even justify the humanitarian and physical losses of the first year of Nazi reign. Long story short, by the time young Hans and young Gretel walk their own trails abroad, in their mental backpacks they carry substantial knowledge of the crimes and failures of fascism. And then, we run into guys who know about Nazis as little as they know about Jews (but have solid opinions about both anyways), and still honestly believe they could tell us about Hitler.

It's great to live at a time when a German can visit Siberia as a friend.

It’s great to live at a time when a German can visit Siberia as a friend.

My third reason, surely not the last, is a bit psycho. By utilising almost all fields of culture for themselves, the Nazis managed to leave an imprint in our collective mental backyard till today. Among many other factors, such as issues with everyday words perverted by Nazi terminology, there’s the implied necessity for Germans to come to terms with the national past. Consciously or not, most Germans (probably excluding Ayla, again) at some point in their life wondered what their grand or great-grandparents were up to back then. Were they victims, heroes of the resistance or – much more likely – enthusiastic followers, soldiers, aspirants for the “Mutterkreuz”, seduced by hatred? Some seek the to find out, but the further away history carries us, the more figure that it’s no longer important for our lives today what the individual inhabitant of Nazi Germany did back then. And, well, others simply deny. But whatever path the educated German traveller in question might have taken, once his favourite barber in Istanbul, Lima or Mumbai jokingly utters the specter’s name, the traveller is unpleasantly reminded that, despite how we personally might or might not have overcome the spirits of the past, to most of humanity we’re defined by who we are least.

The obtruding question I bypassed earlier; why is this ill, weirdly bearded and to modern ears funny sounding Hitler more present and unnervingly popular than, say, Stalin, Mao, Chomenei? It’s not even the only thing people know about Germany. There’s football, beer, cars, and in my experience, near everyone outside of Europe knows more about all of those than about the actual Nazis. Then again, as it is with rulers, it’s about imagery rather than facts. Here are some of my ideas, feel free to add:

  • To an extent, the Nazis still incorporate the stereotypical German. Disciplined, emotionless, efficient. The average German, I learned, is also liberal in comparison, but who talks about that?

  • Wide spread anti-Semitism. Why Myths about and hatred of Jews are so global, yet so ungrounded, would require books to fathom. I recommend Hannah Arendt for long evenings.

  • Incomplete knowledge (“gefährliches Halbwissen” or “dangerous superficial knowledge” in German), as simple as that. How can you expect people from East Timor to know about European history when you don’t even know what East Timor is?

  • As a consequence, little informed people are apparently lead to the terribly false assumption that Germany’s current position in the world is in any way thanks to the Nazi rule. Google “Cologne 1945” and look at the pictures; you will see the Cologne cathedral, in its foundations hundreds of years older than fascist ideology, enduring in a desert of modern age debris.

The first time I encountered someone who told me in the face that he likes Hitler was in Russia. It wasn’t a Russian though, but another intern, and I had no idea how to react. I almost threw a tantrum, so I got drunk instead and did party stuff. To make it worse, it was an AIESEC party, a place where you would expect people promoting tolerance and peace. Since then, my reactions developed. There’s no one perfect response, but necessity to adjust to the situation. During my first trip to Istanbul, while discussing a text by a Jewish author in class, another student mentioned that she didn’t like Jews. I sensed that this wasn’t entrenched antisemitism but more profiling on what appeared to her as a safe topic. So I told her I was Jewish and she apologised. I accepted her apology and said I figure she didn’t mean it. I have no idea if that was the right thing to do, given that I am as Jewish as a christmas tree, but I don’t have the impression she turned more anti-Semite afterwards. It’s so hard to blame someone for the financial crisis when he politely asks to borrow a pen from you.

Same classroom, other seminar; another student who barely talks German told me he thinks Hitler is great and proceeds with saluting him. This time, I turn away in disgust. I had heard the student talk before in the little German he knew and figured; there’s nothing to win here, not for me.

And here comes the supreme discipline; I’m teaching a class that just recently started learning German, which is also the only language we communicate in. There is no way I can discuss heavy topics here, so I have a rule: No politics before completing B1 (which is vaguely the language skill you’d need to make sense out of this blog). Nevertheless, some of my students begin to perform the Hitler salute. I love teaching my kids, and I have to maintain a stable relation to them if I want them to learn from me. Naturally, I can’t do what I would do in Germany in a corresponding situation, but I can’t just leave it be, too. On a higher level, I would “talk the talk” with them, which might go so far as to include pictures of concentration camps. But they’re not advanced enough for that. In Turkey, respecting authorities is kind of important, so I communicated that this behaviour is highly disrespectful to me. They stopped saluting, but it would be naive to assume they understand the entire situation, or even what they have been saluting to.

There’s also another kind of situation. A student that goes on an excursion to Germany tells me she’s afraid of Nazis. Of course, this is absurd. The town we’re heading to is not nearly as dangerous for young girls as Istanbul, no matter their ethnicity. Just today, 10,000 locals have been protesting against racism there. For any Neo-nazi, there are dozens of German-Turks alone who would beat the living hell out of that piece of scum, plus all the other rightful people sticking around. At the same time I need to confess to myself, painful or not, that I cannot and never will be able to write the words I’d love to write: There’s no Nazi left in Germany.

The Nazi era is a wound that never closes. Yet though painful at times, this old injury has benefits besides saving money on flags. For history not to repeat itself, it’s healthier to be paranoid than patriotic.

Ottoman pomp without Ottoman power and a true Ottoman phallus

Standing in Europe, you can see Asia in the background. Apparently, the hostile British fleet as also visible during the First World War from here.

Standing in Europe, you can see Asia in the background. Apparently, the hostile British fleet was also visible during the First World War from here.

Once upon a time, the Ottoman Empire was a true global power. Its armies laid siege to European capitals while at the same time roaming the Maghreb and battling the Persian Empire on different scenes of the global theatre. Societies in northern Africa, southern Europe, the Middle East and adjacent regions were influenced by the opulent sultans, the gruesome janissaries and the aspiring architects likewise. By the late 19th century, short before it seized to exist, European politicians would refer to the aging giant as “the sick man at the Bosphorus”. But even then, the pashas would reside in palaces of oriental splendor.

One of which I visited recently.

It’s a good time to talk about palaces in Turkey. It might have come to your attention that the current pasha, Mr. Erdogan, now resides in Turkey’s new presidential palace, usually refered to as “his” (Mr. Erdogans) palace, even in his own speeches. The entire topic is a very controversial one. The structure is the biggest government building on the globe, it’s built inside a natural reserve, no-one really knows how expensive it was, it coincidentally has the same name as the president’s former party (Ak Saray, Ak Parti; Ak meaning “white” or “pure”), etc. The general impression one would get while reading up on the whole story is that Mr. Erdogan built a pompous home for himself on everybody’s back and is not intending to ever leave it, which is kind of a worry considering that we are talking about the residence of the head of state.

In this situation, it is interesting to take a look at the Ottoman correspondence, the Dolmabahce Palace located in Besiktas, Istanbul, which later was the summer residence of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, who also died in here before being immortalised by Turkey’s ongoing quest for identity.

Quick summary of Atatürk's popularity. Yes, that is a tie.

Quick summary of Atatürk’s popularity. Yes, that is a tie.

Talking about Turkey and identity; it is not surprising that the modern day local power feels drawn to the glory of past days. Highly succesful TV-soaps about life in the Harems and a president seeing himself personally responsible for Muslim sanctuaries far away from Turkey’s national borders are only part of the picture. The Turkish-German University’s construction being postponed by months because Ottoman architectural elements are missing is another part of it. My initial response to finding out about this was to ask whether timber-frame and Prussian stucco are also envisioned. They aren’t. But in case it bothered you; if the Kemalists were in power rather than the Islamists, instead of Ottoman elements it’d be a compulsory statue of Atatürk required on the campus. And none of Adenauer.

The Dolmabahce Palace as you can see it as of today is not the one it would have been one hundred years ago. The times of the young Republic have left its traces. For example, the Harem’s* most famous room nowadays is the private chamber in which Atatürk perished. The clock still shows the time of his death and his furniture is untouched, including what apparently was his favorite painting. Naturally, it is a very emotional place for most Turks.

What was stunning for me personally though was the overwhelming abundance of space. The majority of the rooms consisted literally of nothing but Ottoman style chairs and couches, usually neatly arranged around nothing in specific. There were a few rooms which obviously had an actual purpose – such as the library or the pompous great hall (they placed a table under the giantic chandelier so that no-one would feel tempted to stand directly beneath it). Apart of these, the extensive rooms and halls of Dolmabahce were home to a strained ensemble of beautiful yet somewhat isolated furniture. So much of them, that my favorite palace game – “Point out things you’d totally have sex on” – got boring pretty quickly.

Given that the general room arrangement was just remotely similar a century ago, it becomes very clear that his palace was not as much the hardline nerve centre of an Empire, but a place for social mingle and to, well, show off. Which is fair enough for me; it’s an awesome palace and enjoyable to visit, interesting also under other aspects than the one I pointed out here. The semi-secret passages for the female residents caught my attention, for example, just as some of the stories around Atatürk and the parrot. There was a free, wild parrot!

Looking at the jewel of Ottoman empirical architecture gives you some idea about the true purpose of administrative buildings. Obviously, the residents of Dolmabahce had no need for 285 rooms and 46 halls, given that in the end, most of them were reduced to enchantingly pretty waiting rooms. Still, someone saw a need to built it this big and it does look amazing lying on the shore of the Bosphorus.

It's technically forbidden to take pictures inside Dolmabahce, so this is the only one from inside. You see me trying to comprehend why someone would put an overdimensional vase head high in front of a mirror.

It’s technically forbidden to take pictures inside Dolmabahce, so this is the only one from inside. You see me trying to comprehend why someone would put an overdimensional vase head high in front of a mirror.

Ak Saray isn’t situated at the side of the Bosphorus. If you google for some pictures, you will even notice that all the good views are made from an arial perspective. It’s not as suitable as a tourist attraction as Dolmabahce, as it isn’t meant to be. Naturally, it misses out on the beauty of the comparably small Ottoman counterpart. All it is, is big. In fact, Ak Saray is estimated (!) to have around 2000 rooms, and I already wonder how many of them have no further use but hosting a few nice chairs and couches.

This all being said, if Dolmabahce was the charming, yet expensive coronet of the Ottoman Empire (in fact, one of them; they had several), then Ak Saray is something like the over-dimensional cowboy hat a cliche Texan likes to wear while parading his masculinity as if anybody questioned it. It’s a pretty big hideaway for something so small as a single individuals self-esteem, but then again, I can’t recall anybody saying something along the lines of “Oh boy, look what an awesome Porsche this guy is driving, I bet his package is really big”.

I like to finish this piece with a sentence I read in a book of Terry Pratchett, whom I adore. I can’t remember the exact quote, but it’s from a prince talking about his country’s monumental pyramids, constantly reminding the inhabitants of glorious eras. These pyramids, the prince senses, are pinning his country to the past. But after all, monuments are seldomly built for future generations.

This picture of my cat has nothing to do with anything.

This picture of my cat has nothing to do with anything.

* “Harem” refers to the private rooms of the sultan and has tragically little in common with the Western interpretation.

Realms of Concrete and Flesh

Realms of Concrete and Flesh

I might have an odd view on cities, strongly influenced by the opening scene of the magnificent “Amélie”. I perceive every cluster of human dwellings, be it a household, a campsite, a village or a metropolis, not as a single entity, but as a composition of the subjective habitats of every individual living there. An example; when I think about the town where I used to study until recently, I naturally have a different Bielefeld in mind than any other former or active of its residents. To me, the trams were like veins, pumping the students, workers, guests from one end of the city to the other. Each place of importance is connected to the tram lines and I remember their position according to the nearest station. Places I traversed regularly, like the uni, are represented with more detail in my mind than sites I rarely visited. Quarters not connected to the tram system are shadowy lands hidden in the mist of ignorance. It is obvious, though, that other residents or non-students would imagine the parts of the town they are accustomed with in full colour and light, while the uni or my dorm would be faceless voids like their homes are to me.

What is true for the medium-sized Bielefeld or smaller realms such as your grandparent’s bathroom is also true and unimaginably more fascinating for the colossal crucible of matter, time and life that’s called Istanbul. Every block is the periphery of someone’s world. Each time you pass a street, you are unknowingly entering someone’s domain. For me and most other foreigners, Istanbul is pictured from high flats in the central districts or from the view you have when taking a ferry over the Bosphorus. Alas, many natives have lived in the outskirts of Istanbul and never even seen the sea. For them, Istanbul has nothing to do about water. Instead, it might be perceived as a forest of mono-coloured concrete buildings, each filled with friends, hazards, competitors, customers, strangers. Moreover, each 500-tenant block, itself an organism stuffed with warm-water-veins and an electric nervous system, is filled to the top with stories. Stories not only of the living inhabitants, but also of the physical and immaterial objects, such as the graffiti on floor five which informs us of Emres love to Ezgi; two imaginary individuals who’s real-life counterparts might have not seen each others in decades, just married or might be separated by death.

The complexity is even more beautiful if you add another dimension, which is time. My flat, rather my little house, is two hundred years old. One room features the star of the Ottomans on the ceiling. I’m wondering, who was it built for? Back then, it would probably have been a middle class or upper middle class residence. Maybe an officer? A tradesman? After the end, fall or rise of their lineage, who lived here then? Did a poet write his verses in the room I’m sitting in right now?

These are the thoughts that go through my head when looking at the numerous skylines of Istanbul, a city that old, that at least ten big Wikipedia entries are needed to tell its story. Maybe more. I lost count at eight.

Anyways…I’m back abroad, so from now on, I’ll start posting again!

In unrelated information, I'm still available. *Overly explicit winking*

In unrelated information, I’m still available. *Overly explicit winking*

Why I don’t like Russian war memorials

I’ve taken a fancy in Russia since quite a while. The availability of fine arts in Russia, Russian girls, pre-Soviet architecture, Russian girls, Russian history, Russian girls, etc. I guess it’s just this hint of exotica that’s connected to anything Russian, as it’s at the same time so similar, yet so different to the rest of Europe. Perhaps, I see Russia as an alternative Europe, one that has taken an entirely different path at some point. What is it that makes the difference? The stronger influence of Asian, Muslim and other cultures as compared to the Roman Western Europe, maybe?

Mosque in Kazan. The oriental influence can also be seen in onion-domed spires, though.

Mosque in Kazan. The oriental influence can also be seen in onion-domed spires, though.

In the wake of recent developments, it might be fruitful to take a look at something different, though, that has startled me about Russia. There seems to be an affinity towards patriarchism and strong traditional male symbols. Take Stalin, perhaps the biggest sadist and mass murderer in human history along with Hitler, Mao and Tamerlane (thumbs up to Southern Asia, for having a big proportion of the human population, but so far abstained from breeding a psychopath of this scale). Even though being indirectly responsible for the tremendous losses of the red army in the beginning of WWII, Stalin still has a considerable amount of fans, even among young academics, for “winning” said war. A completely different field; more than once have I heard (and seen) how sporty, brutish dudes with a strained decisive manner had much more of the feminine attention on parties in Russia than most of the other guys. Now I would include my personal experience, but, uhm, sociological experiments require a basic population of at least 1000 members to be relevant, and I just happen to have hit on 999 Russian damsels. Anyways, to see how Putin uses this cultural phenomena to his advantage, you can check out following this hilarious link or by observing his fight against what stupid people often regard as the least masculine behaviour of all, which is homosexuality.

A memorial I like: The Eternal Flame reminding about the victims of Stalins purges.

A memorial I like: The Eternal Flame reminding about the victims of Stalin’s purges.

The apparent Russian proneness in unreflected alpha males is, in my opinion, directly connected to their collective perception of the “Great Patriotic War” (aka the Second World War) in no less than two ways; by influencing it and by being influenced by it. I mentioned above how Stalin is regarded as the winner of the war*, but this goes beyond.

When I was in Veliky Novgorod, I saw a statue of a rising Soviet war plane. I asked my Russian friends what this was supposed to signify. The answer surprised me, as it was supposed to be a monument against war. Memorials I saw in Central Europe are usually simple. Names of the wasted lives engraved into stone, for example. Often, graveyards of fallen soldiers are transformed into memorials. In Cologne and Wroclaw I saw that parts of the cathedrals, which had been demolished in the war, had not been replaced in their former beauty. Those memorials, I think, remind people what war is about; death and destruction. While this kind of memorials also exist in Russian cities, what dominates are the other kind; rising MIGs, brute soldiers with edgy faces sternly observing the horizon, and tanks, lots of tanks. What comes into mind when you look at those memorials? Strength, I assume. If you pass by one of those statuary every day, sooner or later you will associate “war” with “strength”. It’s a positive implication, and turns “sacrifice” into a heroic concept.

Black tulip memorial in Yekaterinburg. What I'm talking about.

Black tulip memorial in Yekaterinburg. What I’m talking about.

This is the second connection between perception of the war and perception of “strong” unreflected alpha males. It’s also the one which worries me. Below, you will see a picture I found of a Russian soldier in a public school in Omsk, Siberia. Little kids, some as young as six years old, played to its feed every day. This is the ideal picture of manliness that automatically gets implemented into those little fellows; stern, decisive, unquestioning, probably never bothered learning a foreign language. Ironically, this specific fellow reminded me of the popular “Warhammer”-universe, home to numerous Sci-Fi and Fantasy games and stories. In this universe, just about every unit is a phallic symbol; huge, strong, never reflecting on their point of view, always happily giving their life for the superhuman “Emperor”. Fun Fact: If you take a closer look at the Warhammer universe, you will notice “commissars, resembling trashy Science Fiction interpretations of Soviet commissars in both looks and fanaticism. They also routinely shoot their own soldiers as soon as they try to retreat from the battle. Would you want a picture of those guys to hang in your children’s primary school?

Yeah, sure, he's standing on a broken swastika and that's cool, but he still doesn't look as if he'd drink wodka with me.

Yeah, sure, he’s standing on a broken swastika and that’s cool, but he still doesn’t look as if he’d drink wodka with me.

So as much as I like Russia (I actually have a book called “Traditional Russian Fairy Tales” on my e-reader right now), I think this connection of war and traditional perception of masculinity is dangerous. You can observe a side effect right now; ask any random Russian why Putin is being supported (or any conservative Turk about Erdogan our back in Germany in the 1930s about Hitler), and you will most likely hear “strong”. The implication is that strong men make good leaders (even though history often taught us the opposite). Obama, on the other side, is not perceived at strong at all. But this is what we want; the whole point of democracy is to prevent charismatic dictators from seizing power and turning their country into a swamp of corruption and injustice. After all, the “weak and indecisive” EU has been attracting all those countries who endured “strong” Moscowian rulers long enough.

Boy, I like Russia anyways. Like this song “Katyusha”; almost everybody in Russia could sing you this song about a (probably hot) Russian girl longing for her man who’s at war. But wait, isn’t it again a sign for the Russian identity mainly being based in the sacrifices of the Great Patriotic War? Ach, to hell with you, brain…

Or to Siberia.

Better to Siberia.

Russiaaaaaa <3 <3 <3

Russiaaaaaa ❤ ❤ ❤

* Of course, it wasn’t Stalin who killed Hitler in an epic battle between fantasy overlords like in this awesome comic. It were the Russian soldiers, engineers, factory workers and peasants who defeated the Germans. Stalin, however, purged all the experienced officers out of the red army in the late 1930s.