KrautBlog

Occasional musings, Geistesblitze, photos, drawings etc. by a "resident alien", who has landed on American soil from a far-away planet called "Germany".

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Word of the Month: Die Extrawurst

Word of the Month: Index

Extra is a prefix that has in German the same meaning it has in English: It indicates a quality exceeding or a position outside some established range or norm. Wurst probably needs no explanation—boiled or grilled, it's the ur-German comfort food. For readers who have yet to hear of it: It means "sausage".

An Extrawurst, in the narrow sense, is an additional sausage, like the one a mother may put on her son's plate because "the boy is still growing". In the figurative sense, and that's how the term is mainly used, it stands for the special treatment someone is demanding or given, and when it's used in this way, there is at least a whiff of disapproval in the air.



The term pops up regularly in German media in discussions of the role Britain has played in the European Union, and it's typically said with some exasperation. The claim is that the Brits always demanded an Extrawurst in the resolution of an issue, and this may be the explanation why expressions of regret about the Brexit vote are remarkably muted in Berlin—or Brussels, where some officials seem only too eager to get the exit negotiations started.

Monday, February 27, 2017

Word of the Month: Die Gleichschaltung

Word of the Month: Index

Gleich is an adjective/adverb/prefix indicating that something is the same as or indistinguishable from something else. For example, if two people have "die gleiche Meinung", they have the same opinion. Schaltung refers to the sum of the connections between the components of an electrical, electronic, or mechanical device as depicted, for example, by the wiring diagram of an appliance. In a car, Schaltung refers to its gear mechanism.

Combining the two words we get Gleichschaltung. The term refers to the enforced uniformity of opinion and purpose in the administrative and cultural institutions of a country—the goal is to have them all "wired the same" in the end. The emphasis is on "enforced": Gleichschaltung doesn't happen by itself, but is always ordered and orchestrated from above, like when independent reporters at state-owned media are fired and replaced by conformists.



Gleichschaltung typically accompanies the beginnings of an autocratic regime or a dictatorship, starting with the media and moving on to the civil service, especially the judiciary; the police; the military; the arts; and eventually the universities, when professors critical of the regime are fired, if not put in jail, and research challenging the official propaganda is suppressed.

Getting the media under control is always an important first step because it takes away peoples' ability to receive uncensored news and to learn what's really happening in their country. We saw this taking place when Putin came to power in Russia and now in Turkey, where Gleichschaltung has already reached the universities.

Acknowledgment. I would like to thank Al Rodbell for pointing me to this term, which has lost none of its relevance [more about this in my comment].

Monday, January 23, 2017

Word of the Month: Der Dauerbrenner

War on Christmas
Word of the Month: Index

A Brenner is a burner (derived from brennen—to burn). Dauer means "duration" and refers to the time something lasts. Used as a prefix, it indicates that something lasts seemingly forever. Thus, a Dauerbrenner refers to an oven that continues to burn while consuming hardly any fuel and without human intervention. Used figuratively, the term refers to something that seems to be going on forever or to someone who has been performing for a long period of time.



Here are some examples demonstrating how broadly the term can be applied: The Lion King has been a Dauerbrenner on Broadway. Willy Nelson has been a Dauerbrenner in country music. And if you're looking for an issue that can be considered a seasonal Dauerbrenner, the so-called "War on Christmas" comes to mind (more on this in my first comment).

And here's an example from a recent issue of a popular German soccer magazine: Under the heading "Die Dauerbrenner" (note that the plural is the same as the singular), it identified the handfull of players who haven't missed a single minute of play so far in the premier German soccer league (the Bundesliga).

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Word of the Month: Der Wiedergänger


Don Giovanni Wiederganger
Word of the Month: Index

A dark winter night, a fire in the fireplace illuminating with its flickering light an otherwise dark room—the perfect time to tell a ghost story, perhaps one that involves a Wiedergänger.

Wieder is an adverb meaning "again", and a Gänger is a person who walks. In combination, the two words refer to someone who "walks again", i.e., rises from the dead to take care of some unfinished business. Perhaps the most famous Wiedergänger in literature is the ghost of Hamlet's father.



One could also view the Guest of Stone from the Don Juan legend as a kind of Wiedergänger: He is a statue on the grave of a man slain by the libidinous Don. The statue comes to life and appears as a dinner guest at the Don's castle to send him to hell as punishment for his sins. Mozart's opera Don Giovanni tells the story in unforgettable music (my drawing on the left depicts the climactic scene).

Note that a Wiedergänger is not the same as a zombie: He has a mission and will disappear once this mission has been accomplished, whereas zombies, or the undead, represent a more general menace.
Remark 1: The adverb wieder (again) its not to be confused with the preposition wider (against). Even many Germans are not aware of the distinction and misspell wider as wieder, an understandable mistake as the two words are pronounced exactly the same. Note also that both can be used as a noun or verb prefix. For example, wiederholen (literally "to bring again") means "to repeat", whereas widersprechen (literally "to speak against") means "to contradict".

Remark 2: Gänger appears only as part of a compound noun, never by itself. An example is Doppelgänger, which has made it into English as a psychological term. Other examples: Fuß means "foot", and Fußgänger is the German word for "pedestrian", while Kost means "food", and a Kostgänger is a person who shows up regularly at some place to be fed.

When my wife and I lived in what was then West Berlin in the 1970's, the bell rang one evening, and when we opened the door, there were two boys out there, not older than 10, who asked for dinner. We gave them what was left of ours and let them stay over night. When we told the story to a friend, he called them Trebegänger, a term we had never heard before. It refers to children who ran away from home, or from a home, and are living on the streets. The origin of the word Trebe, which indicates a state of homelessness for children, is not known.

I dedicate this post and my drawing to my late friend Bernd Kraneis, who introduced me to the world of opera. Don Giovanni was one of the first operas we went to see together at the Deutsche Oper in West Berlin.

Friday, December 2, 2016

Friday, November 25, 2016

Word of the Month: Dolchstoßlegende Revisited

Word of the Month: Index

After the election of Barak Obama in 2008, I introduced Dolchstoßlegende (blaming a defeat on backstabbing at the home front) as Word of the Month. My examples implied that this type of pseudo-explanation is used primarily by the political right as an excuse for a defeat. But the recent election, in which Hillary Clinton lost to Donald Trump, shows that the right has no monopoly on Dolchstoßlegenden (that's the plural).

Two days after the election, Clinton claimed that her defeat was the result of interference by the FBI, whose director, James Comey, had sent a letter to Congress eleven days before the election stating that new e-mails had been discovered which might be pertinent to the Bureau's investigation of whether Clinton had mishandled classified information. The timing of the letter was indeed suspicious—early enough to have an impact on undecided voters, but too late for the Clinton Campaign to weather the storm.

However, we'll probably never know if and to what the degree the letter had an impact on the election—the polls have simply been too unreliable in the last days of the campaign. But even if it influenced some voters, it should not distract from the fact that Clinton simply ran a flawed campaign that failed to read the mood of a significant portion of the electorate correctly. In the words of Sen. Chuck Shumer, a Clinton supporter, “For every blue-collar Democrat we lose in Western Pennsylvania, we will pick up two moderate Republicans in the suburbs in Philadelphia, and you can repeat that in Ohio and Illinois and Wisconsin." This turned out to be a miscalculation and provides a much better explanation for why Clinton lost.

There is also a second form of the Dolchstoßlegende at work in the reaction of some Clinton supporters. This one blames Clinton's loss on the 1% of voters who voted for Jill Stein, the candidate of the Green Party. Yes, if these voters had voted for Clinton, she may have won. But why single them out? Why not blame the Democrats who voted for Trump (9%) or Hispanics (a whopping 29% in spite of Trump's anti-immigration rhetoric)? It makes no sense to arbitrarily blame a particular segment of the electorate when there are other segments Clinton did not reach either. Her campaign simply did not produce a majority in the swing states she needed to win, and this should be blamed on the campaign, first and foremost, and by implication, on its candidate.

But admitting mistakes is hard—I know this from my own experience. It's much easier to blame others and resort to a Dolchstoßlegende, i.e., an excuse disguised as an explanation.

Sunday, October 23, 2016

Public Architecture in China Today



In this month's Word of the Month, I pointed out the similarities of public buildings built in China in the 1950s and 60s with those built in Nazi-Germany and the former Soviet Union. But I cannot leave it at that—things have changed, and they have changed dramatically in China. Readers may know the skyline of Pudong, the new financial district of Shanghai, which has become a veritable architectural vanity fair, where each new tower added to the skyline tries to surpass its neighbors not only in height, but also, and especially, through its daring design.

Most of them are unabashedly modern, and this is also true for public buildings. We got a glimpse of this new architecture in 2008 during the Beijing Olympics, where the "bird's nest", the main athletic venue, became an icon of the games. The Beijing Opera, or more accurately, the National Center for the Performing Arts, which opened in 2007, is equally modern in its design (top left). On my recent trip, I was particularly taken by the Grand Theater in Chongqing, completed in 2009, which occupies a prominent location on a headland overlooking the Yangtze and Jialing Rivers and appears to be Chongqing's answer to the Sydney Opera House: A building with a unique shape, sitting on an exposed platform jutting into a body of water and destined to become an icon of the city (center and bottom left during the day and night, respectively).

It is true that foreign firms are still dominant in the design of these buildings (for example, the French architect Paul Andreu designed the Beijing Center and the German firm van Gerkan, Marg und Partner the Chongqing Theater). But this may change as Chinese architects rise to greater prominence (like Wang Shu, winner of the prestigious Pritzker Prize in 2012). In any case, Chinese authorities appear to be eager to demonstrate to the world that they are as modern in outlook as their Western counterparts.