All quiet on the Western Front?

All Quiet on the Westren Front - Film

Having spent some time in England over the festive season, I found myself bombarded (no pun intended) by news relating to the upcoming centenary of the outbreak of World War I. I also read that German politicians are not planning high-profile remembrance services, preferring instead more low-key ways of marking the event – a fact that seemed to disappoint the British journalist who wrote the story. It is interesting to observe how we become accustomed to our national perspective on issues, making it difficult to see another point of view.

But then Britain’s relationship to the Great War is perhaps unique – the issue is still very much alive. The annual National Service of Remembrance plays a pivotal role throughout the country with live coverage from the Cenotaph in Whitehall on the Sunday closest to 11 November (World War I Armistice Day). Also, expressions like feeling shell-shocked (when something far more mundane is the matter), or ‘all quiet on the Western Front’, to say that all is calm and there’s no trouble brewing, are still used widely.

The latter one is interesting. The Western Front, where most British servicemen saw action, ran from the coast of Belgium through France and down to the Swiss border, and was so named quite simply because it was in Western Europe. The source of the expression is more surprising: it is the title of a 1929 novel by the German writer Erich Maria Remarque, an unflinching tale of the mental destruction and eventual annihilation of a group of young German school friends at the front. The book became an American Oscar-winning film in 1930 and was translated into over fifty languages, making it a bestseller. Though a World War I veteran himself – his book was based on personal experience – Remarque’s dim view of armed conflict did not sit well with German ‘politicians’ at the time, and he enjoyed the further distinction of having his book burned by the Nazis.

Germany has come around to Remarque’s point of view, though. A few weeks ago on ’Tagesthemen’ (Review of the day on German national television) there was a report covering the Federal government’s support for the launch of Europeana 1914-1918, an online archive dedicated to telling the usually unheard, personal stories of World War I through film, pictures and artefacts from different sides of the conflict. The act of supporting and publicly promoting this archive – which is partly the work of Oxford University – reflects a more European, less nationalistic perspective on an event that will be occupying the media extensively in 2014.

Schlager – A well-kept British secret?


Last week I saw a poster announcing that Cliff Richard would be playing in Berlin next May. Sir Cliff, at the O2 Arena – one of the biggest venues Berlin has to offer. Clearly his audience in Germany is not limited to mildly curious Brits abroad with a taste for the ironic. But who is it, then, that the organisers are hoping will pour into the stadium come May? Could it be that Sir Cliff appeals to the same kind of people who listen to ‘Schlager’, a genre that has lately enjoyed a bit of a renaissance in Germany?

Schlager literally means hit music. More specifically, it has simple, easy-to-remember tunes and lyrics and is sung by solo artists sharing happy ever after stories, often in an almost confessional style. Heimweh, or homesickness, is as upsetting as its gets. As a late-night infomercial for a multi-CD Schlager compilation has it: ‘Nur Schlager, nur gute Laune’ (loosely translated: Only Schlager, only a good mood). Tonally, parallels may be drawn to folk and country, but without any hint of hardship. In other words, Schlager does its best not to offend or upset, which may go some way to explain its wide appeal and enduring popularity.

The 50’s and 60’s were the heyday for Schlager in Germany, a time when post-war austerity was giving way to the good times of the ‘Wirtschaftwunder’. Holidays in southern Europe became popular, and so did romantic tunes of sun-kissed bliss by the azure Mediterranean. Golden hits hail from this era: ‘Santa Maria‘ by Roland Kaiser, ‘Ein bisschen Spass muss sein‘ by Roberto Blanco and ‘Griechischer Wein’ by Udo Juergens. However, Germans were not the only ones who liked to spend time in the sun: in 1963, a very young Cliff Richard went on his ‘Summer Holiday’ and came home with a hit – a Schlager of gute Laune, easy rhythm, and sing-a-long potential.

And if you think Schlager in Britain begins and ends with Sir Cliff, think again. Try humming along to these ones: Elton John’s ‘Nikita’, Tom Jones ‘Delilah’ or Petula Clark’s ‘Downtown‘; easy on the ear, and impossible to get out of your head. While they are there, why not go for the full Schlager experience? Link arms with your companions, and sway gently from side to side. You are now partaking in the art of ‘Schunkeln’ and have truly crossed over.

Hardcore Schlager (savour that oxymoron) remains rare among British artists and audiences, though. From our shores, only Sir Cliff has managed to enter the Schlager Hall of Fame (ZDF on a Saturday night, in other words), perhaps in no small measure thanks to his willingness to sing in German. Swing by Youtube for a listen. Even better, buy a ticket for a once-in-a-lifetime chance to schunkeln to Sir Cliff live. Who knows, you may find me standing next to you, ready to link arms.

A Merchant Adventurer

English House, Hamburg, Lithograph by Jess Bundsen 1811.

English House, Hamburg, Lithograph by Jess Bundsen 1811.

I went on a short adventure to Hamburg recently. I stayed in the Harvestehude quarter of the city, an area not unlike London’s Holland Park or Richmond: tall town houses and small front gardens, and a park, the Innocentiapark, planted with oak, horse chestnut and ash. An Englishman, and particularly a Londoner, can feel at home here (bar the lack of organised flowerbeds, deck chairs and the sound of leather upon willow). Add to that the regular sightings of MGB GT’s and original Mini Coopers in British racing green, and you might wonder if you’ve stepped through a portal to old Blighty.

It got me wondering why Hamburg is so enamoured by the English way of life and to find out if its not just me seeing the world through St. George-tinted glasses: the good Bürgers of Hamburg are self-confessed anglophiles. Using a pre-Google method of finding things out, I went to the Historical Museum of Hamburg by the beautiful Alte Elb park, another place reminiscent of London’s parks. Here I discovered that a group of English traders called the Merchant Adventurers began trading in Hamburg with the agreement of the city as early as 1567. The Merchant Adventurers specialised in exporting cloth from England to the Continent in the early fifteenth century, but set up shop, as it were, some hundred years later in Hamburg. The term ‘merchant adventurer’ also refers to those who were willing to adventure or risk their money on speculative ventures.

The Hamburgers and the Adventurers seemed to hit it off, and after 1611 the Adventurers’ foreign trading activities in Europe were centred in Hamburg, with the city offering them a property free of charge in Alte Groeningerstrasse, aptly named the English House (see picture). The company survived in Hamburg as a trading guild until 1808, when the Napoleonic Wars forced them to retreat west of the English Channel.

Perhaps these old trading ties are the reason why Hamburgers continue to have a soft spot for their neighbours across the water. And the affection is not one sided: Hamburg merchants were the only Germans allowed a permanent place on the London Stock Exchange, and for many years it was a firm tradition for Hamburg merchant sons to serve an apprenticeship in a British company. So perhaps there are older and deeper reasons for Hamburg’s enduring fascination with England – the traditional tailoring, the sporting pursuits like rowing, horse racing and cricket, or design like the parks, cars and houses. Ultimately, we are perhaps not so very different: adventurers, of the mercantile persuasion.

Neither cottage nor cabin


Underground maps sometimes throw up names that seem out of sync with the city or culture they appear in. A case in point is Onkel Toms Hütte (Uncle Tom’s Cabin) here in Berlin. I’ve always wondered about that name. What link could there possibly be between this leafy west-Berlin suburb, and Harriet Beecher Stowe’s classic abolitionist novel? Reader, I googled it. The area takes its name after a Gaststätte (restaurant-pub) built in 1885. Its owner, Thomas, or Tom, built some cabins in the beer garden where patrons could seek shelter from the rain, and eventually the restaurant gained the name ‘Onkel Toms Hütte’, a jocular nod to the 1852 internationally best-selling novel. Sadly, the restaurant was knocked down in 1977.

It still seemed worth an expedition, though. Apparently, the restaurant was located near the junction of Riemeisterstrasse and Onkel-Tom-Strasse, and at this spot I found myself on a warm and humid July afternoon some weeks later. No signs of the Gaststätte, though, but across the road I spied the eastern perimeter of the Grunewald Forest. I went to have a look, and had not gone far into the forest when I saw what appeared to be the concrete foundations of a stepped garden, moss-covered, and cracked out of shape by the roots of tall trees. I’d found it but needed to celebrate and confirm my discovery, and an enquiry at a near-by pub, the Rodelhütte, confirmed that I had indeed found the ruins of Onkel Toms Hütte. The beer I drank to celebrate was none the worse for being served by the friendly landlady of the Sledging Cabin, rather than Tom.

My mind now wandered to Swiss Cottage on the Jubilee Line in London, another underground name that seems somewhat out of place. I used to live near it, and remember a rather out of place structure stuck between the junction of Finchley Road and Avenue Road, a mock chalet-style pub called Ye Olde Swiss Cottage. The current pub stands at the site of the Swiss Tavern, an inn from 1805, though this tavern was not what was known as the Swiss Cottage. That name was given to a farmhouse and one of its outbuildings that stood nearby – this was at a time when the area still reflected its countryside past. The outbuilding, or cottage, was first a dairy, then a tollhouse, and was, for whatever reason, deemed to look Swiss. The tavern was named after it, and cottage and farm stood undisturbed for nearly 200 years until it was knocked down in the sixties. The modern spirit of the age could not stamp out the name, though, and once the underground station had been expanded, Ye Olde Swiss Cottage was erected.

Neither the original Swiss cottage nor the American cabin remain today but their names live on and stand out as foreign and somewhat maverick in a sea of ordinary suburban place names.

The Berlin Tiergarten, from England with love?

ImageThere are some obvious similarities between Berlin’s Tiergarten and London’s Regent’s Park. They were former royal land (indeed, Regent’s Park is still owned by the Crown) which were later landscaped into city parks, and today they are both home to zoos. But whereas there are no horticultural echoes of Germania in Regent’s Park, there is a little piece of Albion in Tiergarten: the north-western corner of the garden is home to the Englischer Garten, a 40,000 square meter area sporting classic English designs such as a pond of with grassy bank and weeping willows, a rock garden, a bridge of folly-like design and a wilder nature garden for exploration, all within the safe confines of the big city. There is also a formal garden with small fountains, flowers, and lawns laid out in symmetrical patterns, but the less said about that the better.

This is not, as you would perhaps suspect, a nineteenth century German version of the English style of garden design that was the height of fashion in that era. Inaugurated on May 29, 1952, it first acquired the nickname ‘The Garden of Eden’, after Sir Anthony Eden, the British foreign minister, who was present at the opening ceremony. The garden itself was the brainchild of General Bourne, the British commander in Berlin after 1945. Seeing the devastation the war situation had wrecked on the Tiergarten, he found garden enthusiasts in England who shared his dream to re-build the park in a vision he felt appropriate. Over 5000 trees were sent from the English towns, gardening organisations and private donors, with some trees and plants coming from the royal gardens and forests of George VI, the father of Elizabeth II. The royal connection was sealed when Elizabeth II planted an oak tree from the garden at Windsor Castle in 1965. The design of the garden was thanks to Willy Alverdes, a German garden planner, and the place stands to this day as a symbol of how the Germans and the British managed to work together through the blockade of the city in 1952.

The name should be seen in this context, I think, rather than as a home away from home for the English with green fingers. The garden, while picturesque is as well-kept as the rest of Tiergarten, which means it’s neater than most other parks in Berlin. But perhaps the biggest disappointment is the Teehaus (tea house): here there is even less of England than in the surroundings. The menu is one of those intent on ensuring that no one will go uncatered for: everything from matjes filets, to pasta and New York cheesecake. The only English item is fish and chips, which would not make it onto the menu of many tea houses west of the White Cliffs of Dover. The indifferent collection of tea sachets are served in glass mugs. There are no cream teas, no English teapots and no cucumber sandwiches on china side plates.

Maybe it’s just me. The Teehaus is well visited, and on sunny days the lawn by the pond is a popular picnic spot. I guess you can take the Engländer out of England, but you can’t take England out of the Engländer; what remains is an irrational love of lawns and foods only ever enjoyed vicariously (when did I last eat a scone?). Anyway, an almost-English garden is certainly better than no English garden.

Pastries, sticky things, indeed!

There were a few articles doing the rounds in the British press last week to commemorate John F. Kennedy’s speech 50 years ago in Berlin, on June 26th 1963. It was on this occasion that he, to declare his solidarity with the put-upon Berliners, said the famous words: ‘Ich bin ein Berliner’. Many of those stories chose to focus on his well-known grammatical faux pas, namely, that by including the indefinite article ‘ein’, a literal translation would have it that Kennedy believed himself to be a doughnut. Another thing one might learn from this is that the British press are as comfortable with German grammar as they are with schadenfreude.

It is true that in German it is incorrect to use the indefinite article when stating, for example, your nationality, profession or what city you come from. Kennedy should have said, ‘Ich bin Berliner’. However, it is argued by Berliners that since they themselves do not call doughnuts ‘Berliners’ but ‘Pfannkuchen’, their jubilation at his words was not caused by his unintentionally funny mistake. Kennedy came two years after the construction of the Berlin Wall, which, in addition to tearing families and friends apart, yet again put the city on the front line, this time of the Cold War. To the Berliners gathered in front of Schöneberg Rathaus that little ‘ein’ sounded like a way for Kennedy to emphasise his message of solidarity, and they responded in kind.

Pastries it seems are a rich area for cultural misunderstandings. The rest of Germany, bar a few regional exceptions, call doughnuts ‘Berliners’ – as they do in Denmark, the supposed ancestral home of all buttery, flaky pastry. Except that in Denmark, Danish pastry, as the Americans and British call it, is known as ‘wienerbrød’ (Vienna bread). Just to make matters worse, there is another Danish pastry called a ‘spandauer’ – and Spandau is a town within the city limits of Berlin. In a parallel world, Kennedy might have made his speech in Spandau, which no doubt would have resulted in more Schadenfreude, this time from the Danish press. So pastries can get you into some sticky situations, indeed.

Currywurst – A British invention?


On one of my first visits to Germany – back in 1979 – I was introduced to a snack of fried, sliced sausage covered in spicy tomato sauce served with fries on the side.
This, I was told, was the nation’s favourite dish. I, too, took to it, so much so, in fact, that I tried to make it myself back home in London.
I never successfully managed to reproduce the sauce’s consistency and taste, though, and I couldn’t find the right sausages. The fries were easier to come by, but without the rest, little remained of the dish I remembered.

What I had acquired a taste for was Currywurst, Germany’s beloved fast-food dish, popular especially [here] in Berlin, where it is eaten in more fast-food outlets than in any other city in the country. But where did it come from, and why was it so difficult to copy at home, given the ubiquity of curry in Britain?

This is even more strange when you learn that the Currywurst has Britain to thank for its very existence. In 1949, Herta Heuwer, former dressmaker, saleswoman and home economics student, ran a fast-food stand at the junction of Kaiser-Friedrichstrasse and Kantstrasse in the British sector of Berlin. Ingredients were hard to come by, but Herta had the wartime knack for making things with limited resources. From the British forces she managed to procure tomato paste and curry powder, and on September 4, 1949, she concocted a sauce of those two parts, plus what else was cheap and at hand. What she made was not the British version of the Indian kari – the hot, spicy sauce used for meat, fish and vegetable dishes – but a very German Currysoße. Tomato paste, onion, vinegar, vegetable oil and sugar, plus a good dusting of curry powder. The sausage was and is more often than not a Bratwurst; in the former East Germany it comes in an inexpensively produced skinless version. The curry taste, which the British returning home from India could not live without, and, so to say, remade in their own image, had been adapted again to fit the German palate.
So that is what makes up the Currywurst dish and how, in post-war Germany’s hard-pressed economy, it became the favourite snack. Thanks to cheap ingredients, an entrepreneurial saleswoman, and the British love of curry.