Archives for the month of: October, 2013

The second week of college, and everything feels a bit less frantic. There are still gaps in my knowledge and in the functioning of systems here, but we’re making a truce. For a university with 40,000 people attending every day, there’s access to less than 100 computers, all squished into a tiny space. The assumption is that you bring your own laptop, or you have internet on your phone. Laptop access is good and efficient, and there appears to be no black spots (like UCD Psychology dept.) where the internet fades. I went to print out a document yesterday, and it was during a busy period. There is one small room, with 6 printout stations. You have to take note of which printout station you have ordered your doc from, and wait until it appears. Unfortunately, if someone has decided to print out a book before you (or 10 people are printing books), you can wait hours. The assumption must be that you have your own printer at home. Do I sound like a Luddite? I’m thinking of the disappearance of the phone box in Ireland, because they became unnecessary. Probably the college-provided computer will also be history soon.

I had waited for the moment when I would be attending classes completely in German, and now it’s here. Luckily I had spoken, before I came here, to a few people who came to this University from UCD Psychology, who assured me that you can only understand about 25% of the first lecture. Otherwise, I might have burst into tears. It takes all my concentration to focus for the full length of the lecture (they are 2 hours long here), and even then, I haven’t grasped everything. However, the first lecture in every subject was a list of housekeeping and introductions, and from now on, we should be able to read the bones of the lecture via Blackboard online. Since Psychology is related to Anthropology and Ethnography, I am able to take lectures in these subjects too, something I’ve wanted to do for ages. The lecture this week was the lecturer talking, then throwing out subjects to the class for opinion, q&a, controversy, argument. The seminars are even better. Usually tutorials in UCD are a doddle – lots of people are barely present, they don’t answer questions, “forget” to do the written work, or just don’t turn up. Here, they are equally balanced for marks with lecture attendance, and they are a more intense version of open discussion, people disagreeing, the lecturer challenging either individual speakers or the whole class to think on their feet, go further, come up with new ideas. It is so exhilarating, but terribly frustrating, because I can’t follow it all. I know my German will improve, so I will be able to follow the argument in future, and actually it’s stimulating just to be in the environment of people really following an argument, willing to put out their own thinking, but also willing to see others point of view. The only tutorial I had in UCD that came close to this experience was in Politics, where a well-bonded class argued the Presidential Election under the guidance of Aoibhinn de Burca. At the end of the lecture or tutorial, everyone raps their knuckles on the table – the equivalent of applause – which is rather sweet and mannerly, to say thank-you.

I have taken more credits than I need, so that I can afford to drop the odd exam (you can decide to do that at the last moment). I have six sessions in German, and two in English. One of those is an examination of how Berlin appears to outsiders, and a look at how tourism (including international students) and image have affected Berlin. The second class I found purely by chance – called Contemporary Britain, Language and Identity, its run by a canny older Scotswoman, and is full of cynical younger people from the all over Britain. This week, we looked at the language politicians use to boost the flagging British ego – absolutely hilarious, even if I have to take it for no credit, it’s a blast being there. In terms of how the other students see me, I find it interesting that they are so interested in me. I guess lots of people are now used to seeing foreign student in their classes, and being older doesn’t seem to faze them. In every class so far, people have helped me, translated for me, shown me how things worked. The tutors are nice, but quite mixed – one or two of them are old-school, insisting on being called by their full title, and asking about how to address us (ie as Frau Sinnott or Lulu). In the middle comes a couple of lecturers who are really friendly and we are on first name terms, and at the other end of the spectrum there’s the lecturer who insists everyone uses the “du” familiar term, regularly uses swear-words, and told us about her past research with prostitutes and strippers. In order to get access to her population, she became a stripper for a few nights. You could hear a pin drop in the classroom, and I thought of all those UCD lecturers talking to us about statistical analysis and the like. This is ethnography of course, a bit of a leap to a new area. But I have to say it feels like real university.


About 10 days ago, almost overnight, the abundance of trees suddenly turned wonderful shades of yellow, orange and red. We had this Autumn wonderland until this week, when we woke up one morning last week to the trees losing their leaves altogether. From the kitchen, the greenery of the huge green beech tree has disappeared, and the bare outline allows us to see a building at the end of the garden, hidden to us until now. I have been here seven weeks now, and realised the other day that there has been no wind whatsoever in that time. People assured me that there has been wind, but it’s like a light breeze compared to home. Torrential rain fell, but in neat perpendicular lines, so that umbrellas make perfect sense. However, I know the cold easterly weather comes from Russia, so I’d better not speak too soon.

I realised last week that I had spent the last month-and-a-half without getting into a car, and my body feels the benefit. I probably walk 45 mins a day without counting it as a walk, from home to transport to college and back. I used to moan about having to take lectures in the Health Sciences Building in UCD, but this week I realised just how big the campus is here. From the main building, I have a 25 minute walk to two of my lectures, or to the Psychology or University Library. One of my classes was in the Latin-American Institute, two train stops away, until, thank goodness, the class expanded to such a degree that they have to find a bigger space, so are moving nearer to the centre. This week (and indeed last week) were hard, trying to work out a completely different system for getting in to classes. The problem is that they are introducing an online system this year, so it will eventually be something like UCD’s version of purgatory, but meantime, the older and the newer system run side-by-side. I managed to get online registered for two classes, but the rest were done via visiting the head of the relevant department, asking for a written permission from the prof, and asking each individual lecturer if they can accept me. After that, there are no “controls”, except that at the end of the semester, the lecturer gives you a written note to say what you have done, which is taken to an office for calculation. I had to look for an explanation, as it seemed too relaxed, but each of your credits is broken up into: attending lecture (2), doing presentation (2), handing up essay (2) and sitting exam (2), or something like that; which means that you can choose to do or not do each segment. It’s a system that relies on the student to do the work. You can also negotiate to get more credits for producing a bigger assignment, if it’s a subject you feel passionately about or have a special interest in. At the end of the semester, you can utilise the 6-week long break to finish your assignments – they are not due until the beginning of the summer semester. The brand-new students here feel so much older than the newbies in UCD, and “attending lecture” doesn’t mean whispering, sleeping or Facebooking, it means actually participating. Doing presentations often garners less credit points than writing an essay, but I think German students are very used to doing presentations, whereas Irish students (including myself) aren’t confident about either the exposure or Powerpoint. There are lots of deadlines given us – you must register by such-and-such a date, but then there’s always a way to change everything if it doesn’t suit. It appears very precarious and inefficient to students like us, used to not getting in to classes because of bureaucracy, but it’s actually far more efficient, because the University allows for the human element, and finds ways to make people happy in their choices. Of course, I haven’t completely finished my registration, so I may well be less dewy-eyed by next week. Watch this space.

This is just an addition to the previous post, to clarify.  Though 11 million people were killed during the Holocaust, 6 million of them were Jews.  Approximately two-thirds of Jews living in Europe died, including over a million children.  Not all concentration camps were death camps, though conditions were so terrible that many died of starvation or sickness.  Auschwitz was probably the best known death camp,  where conveyer belt conditions ensured the highest efficiency for killing, and over a million people died there.  However, the first concentration camp was Dachau, opened in 1933 to contain political dissidents, Communists, undesirables. From that point, it’s a very short move to including other social categories i.e. non-Aryans.  The 11 million figure was actually what Heydrich suggested to Hitler as the guideline for killing Jews in Europe.  He had a sort of wishlist for the future, of places they were going to take over or had already taken over, and he had totted up the potential obliteration of the Jews, including  Ireland (where he imagined some huge number of Jews living – but that would cover any other losses that might be incurred) and of course Britain, where Dad’s Army (known as The Home Guard to any of you unfamiliar with the old TV series) were stopping Mr.Hitler from getting a toe in the door.

Our cultural outings (arranged by the German course) are over now. You could sign up for them every afternoon – we were originally told we could sign up for two of them over the whole six weeks, but most people didn’t bother taking up the option or were too busy, so any empty places were up for grabs. Needless to say, I went on every single outing, and would never have managed to get to so many places without the help of our teachers (who acted as guides). Though we visited art galleries and the very impressive restored Bundestag, the most sobering visits were to Topographie des Terror and Haus der Wansee Konferenz.

All of us have the bones of European history, but the details are so hair raising when viewed closely. The Haus der Wansee Konferenz is the site of the Wansee Conference, where, in 1942, Heydrich suggested the Final Solution to Hitler. Topographie des Terror is a Museum built on the piece of land where the Gestapo/SS had their headquarters (Hitler’s version of the Mexican “Federales” – a private military force attached to the Nazis). The impressive looking buildings were demolished after the war, and gradually people forgot what the site had been. In the 1980’s a makeshift centre was set up to start the process of documenting the site’s history, and in 2010, the current museum was opened. It’s interesting to me that when I lived in the Black Forest, almost 40 years ago, my contemporaries knew very little about the recent past, and nobody talked about the War, Hitler, Jews, concentration camps or What Happened Back Then. Of course, we were all a great deal younger, so perhaps our focus was on more frivolous aspects of life. It would seem that the generation that had actually experienced the War and it’s immediate aftermath wanted to produce a generation that had a ‘normal’ growing up period, so avoided close examination of the emotion, pain, guilt, anger and anguish that made up the previous half-century. When Adenauer came to power in 1949, he was over seventy and in his lifetime, lived through seven different regimes in Germany, from Kaiser Wilhelm 1 through to the modern democracy of West Germany, which he was hugely responsible in shaping. How much instability is caused by having seven different regimes in one lifetime? Looking at the history of Germany over the last hundred years, it’s impossible to separate pieces of history from what went before, or the root causes of events.

In the nineteen-seventies, angry young men and women in the Baader-Meinhoff Group communicated via bombs and shootings to convey their feelings about a failed de-Nazification process in Germany; many people associated with business or government in Germany at the time had either been Nazis or had Nazi connections. The questions they had were sidelined and they were painted as radicals (which they became). In the nineteen-eighties, German historians suggested that it was urgent to open up young people’s minds to the past for inquiry, for questioning the older generation, for airing an area that was hidden from sight. Every visit I have made to every monument or museum involves a discussion of what happened there before, during and after the Second World War. Guides constantly refer to what Hitler actually did, what each of the buildings were used for, how the process of the Holocaust was gradually normalised. It feels like a therapeutic journey, as if the Germans are opening up their wounds for the world to acknowledge. The German people alive today didn’t vote Hitler in, nor support anti-Semitism, nor endorse Concentration Camps, but they come from families who were either part of Nazi Germany, or complicit in the actions of same, or forced to become part of it just by being under National Socialism.



One visit to the Topography of Terror is really not enough. The permanent exhibition tracks the progress of the Third Reich from the beginnings of the Nazi Party in the early 1920’s thru Hitler’s rise to power, his appointment as Chancellor, his Anti-Semitism as a trademark slogan, the mysterious burning of the Reichstag by Nazi elements which gave Hitler the power to instigate martial law. He had always promoted the twin policies of German expansionism and anti-Semitism, imagining his enemies in France, Britain and Russia as being controlled by Jews. The SS started life as bodyguards for the Nazi Party, who were not averse to the odd punch-up with their political rivals. Interestingly, there were two levels of private military, one a group of ordinary men who were glad to escape unemployment and wear a uniform (often cobbled together from mixed origins), and one an elite set of highly skilled and intelligent officers. We always think of them as being simply dangerous human beings, but the majority of SS men had the benefit of a university education, and were lawyers, engineers, scientists, men who knew what they were doing. However, during the 1920’s in USA, Eugenics programmes were also in vogue, including forced sterilisations. The Nazi party took it a step further by obliterating the offending human beings.

When you look at how Hitler actually succeeded in taking over vast swathes of Europe, you can’t help but wonder how he planned it. You always think of Hitler in relation to France, Holland, Poland, but I’d never considered how he took over Norway or Greece. The precise organisation of the Nazi Party was put in place as it grew, so that when Hitler took over, the machinery and manpower was ready to follow orders. In 1929, Himmler was put in charge of the SS, and expanded it from a small group into an elite military wing of the Nazi Party, including running concentration/death camps. It’s the normalisation that’s so fascinating and horrifying, how anti-Semitism (always a feature within Europe anyhow) grew into an excuse to murder people, not just Jews, but anyone in the way.

The visit to the Wansee House was equally riveting. Our guide pointed out that the War was merely a matter of Hitler carrying out his policy of German expansionism. There were Germans living in countries all over Europe that he had to bring back into the fold, but in the process, of course, racial purity had to be maintained. She posed a question: of the 11 million who died in the Holocaust, how many were Jews killed in Germany? 165,000, one hundred and sixty-five thousand. The majority of those killed were in Poland and Russia, or what was called German-occupied Europe. The Wannsee Conference was called in 1942 so that Heydrich could put to the members of the Government, and to Hitler himself, the plan for The Final Solution to The Jewish Problem. Really, it was a matter of logistics – it was costing them too much in terms of manpower, time and ammunition to kill and bury all the Jews in Russia; far easier to transport them back in trains to Auschwitz (in Poland), where they could be gassed and burned. The Wannsee Conference came up with definitions of what constituted Jewishness, but it was not just Jews – those despatched to Auschwitz included political dissenters, Roma, homosexuals and prisoners of war. Put in these terms, The Final Solution sounds like a product you could use for extra Aryanness. It’s quite unimaginable that men sat around and discussed this over breakfast. There are those who see the museums, monuments and memorials as simply a tourist attraction, a money maker. I see them as a healthy reminder of what can happen everywhere, as a national education in the elements of terror, as an admission to the whole country of What Happened Back Then.

I had a quiet weekend for once, which is probably a good thing as have to organise my subjects for Uni, which starts in another week (quake in boots here). It’s a funny existence here on my own, and though wonderful, I do think about everyone at home too. However, I had a lovely dinner out on Friday night which was hilarious- in an English bookshop – a grubby space, two rooms stacked floor to ceiling with second-hand books, comfy old chairs here and there, with a kitchenette and loo inbetween, so you can make tea or help yourself to a beer from the fridge (2 euro, honour system).


The first week here, Steffen lent us the Lonely Planet Berlin guide, and Barry left it on the U-bahn. It was a Sunday, so we rang around a few bookshops to see if we could get a replacement, and in this bookshop “Another Country”, the nicest English gent searched for us, but couldn’t find a recent one, and recommended another bookshop. On German Reunification Day, when absolutely everything is closed, I rang in the hopes that it may be open, but the English gent said no, they were closed. I’ve been meaning to get down there and check out the shop, as I have no books with me, and really need a source. When I got to this Aladdins cave, a large woman dressed in black was talking to the American girl at the desk. I got lost in the books, but finally got exactly what I wanted. The American girl mentioned that the bookshop had a dinner every Friday at 9pm for ex-pats or people who like to speak English, all cooked by the woman who owns the shop. Actually, she said, that was the woman (in black) who left just as you arrived, she had gone home to cook for the afternoon.


So, back I came at 9, paid my 5 euro and headed down to the basement, also full of books (I hadn’t even found it earlier in the day!), but set up with tables and chairs and a buffet of hot food, mostly vegetarian, but with some turkey and chicken for the meat-eaters too. I found a spot and lined up to get my delish food. In a great flurry, the owner came down the little stairway with the last delivery of food, and headed back up the stairs – at which point, I had a good look at her legs, in navy-blue stockings hmmm. I was sitting with an Italian who has been living here for years (Immunologist working in the famous Charite hospital, but you’d never know – balding with a ponytail, scrappy beard, could be an artist, actor, chef, journo) – anyhow, I was talking about the owner, saying she cooked a great meal, and he laughed saying she was a he in ladies clothing, and sure enough, “she” was the helpful English gent. So perhaps it puts a new spin on the shop’s name – “Another Country”. I had such a fun night, with Allesandro and his friend Andreas, whose girlfriend arrived, and then Kirk, a dishevelled American sat down and invited us all to come and sing at his house. The conversation went hither and yon and they weren’t Italian or German or American or even Irish, all of us were Berlinners.


I had planned to leave at 11 or so and join friends in a Student Dance venue, but it was so much fun I didn’t leave until after midnight, and didn’t get to Ballhaus Mitte until almost 1, which is when everyone goes out. There was an enormous queue to get in, which I joined, and it took forever to move. Just as we neared the top, a group of drunk Dutch students crashed the queue, and pushed everyone, making it really uncomfortable (this is really unusual for Berlin, mostly people line up very quietly and in an orderly fashion). Someone pointed out to me that, up to this point we were a couple of hundred students in F.U. doing the Intensive German course, now 1500 Erasmus students have swarmed in this week, and it feels like the nice buzz is gone, and there’s a new hooligan edge. At that point, the bouncers said the club was closed to everyone, and the Police turned up. I half-thought about joining other friends at an Icelandic Elektro night, but it was after 2, so headed home to bed instead. The U-bahn is incredibly safe and used by everyone thru the night, and where I live is as quiet as living in the countryside, literally no traffic at all, so you could sleep with the windows open when the weather was nice enough to do so. Weather here is marginally better than it was the last couple of days (15 degrees day/13 degrees night, compared to 12/3 degrees!), but the sun is shy.

I heard there was torrential rain at home. Here, the rain, so far, tends to be persistent, but falls down in a straight line, rather than blowing-the-brolly-inside-out kind of wind and rain. Sept was colder than I’d expected, but apparently normal for here. I had blithely imagined I’d be swimming in the lakes until October (the way it is often possible to swim in Sandycove during the same time period), but I had to buy a hot water bottle and dig out an ancient thermal top to sleep in, as of course, I left my fleecy pj’s and HWB at home, thinking everywhere would be boiling hot. I’d better get used to the cold, it gets a great deal colder.

Thursday, October 3, was German Reunification Day, celebrating the coming together of East and West governments back in 1990 to form the new Germany. I’ve been asking people about this holiday, the main celebration of which is at the Brandenburger Gate, which was a symbol of the division of East and West Berlin when the Wall existed. They couldn’t use 9 November, which was the famous night when the Berlin wall was dismantled by activists and beamed out to an astonished world, as it is also the date of Kristallnacht, in 1938, a shameful day in German history. I arranged to meet friends there, thinking there may be some fun. It was absolutely freezing, 3 degrees, and I didn’t get there until after 7pm. It took a while to negotiate the barriers and get around to the front of the show, but when I got there, there was a huge stage, spotlights up to the night sky, and the tackiest kind of pop music. All around, there were beer stalls and Snell-Imbiss (chip wagons), and empty bottles underfoot. A very mixed aged crowd tried dancing in their overcoats, but it was reminiscent of the dregs of Saint Patricks Day (without the drunkenness). The whole event was sponsored (and it was emblazoned in huge banners everywhere) by Coca Cola. Any Party Faithful from the East side must have found it very tasteless.
I innocently imagined that what happened in 1989/1990 was that the East Bloc pushed for change, especially Hungary, who opened a border with Austria. After that, the wall was dismantled by people on both sides of the border of East/West Berlin. Helmut Kohl seized the day, with Gorbachav’s blessing, and announced a 10-point plan for German reunification, without consulting either his own Coalition party, nor the Western powers. And they all lived happily ever after.
I was far away on the other side of the world when the wall came down, so only heard about it second-hand. I knew that the West was a bit disgruntled about having to foot the bill for a virtually bankrupt East, but I only learned last week that they never had a referendum to ask the people (East or West) if they wanted to be re-married. Politicians simply went ahead and decided on what would happen. I suppose they knew that if they asked, it may not have happened. The West were the ones with money, so very generously offered an amazing exchange of mark-for-mark, virtually. But as we all know, he who pays the piper calls the tune, so East Germany’s creaking industrial bases, which couldn’t compete with the West, were closed, and workers (mostly older) were given generous welfare payments instead, and the prospect of unemployment for life. East Germany’s factories formed the framework of the community, and their loss was huge, symbolic of the loss of the country. However, Honecker (the DDR Chancellor) had the country in hock (to Western states) to an incredible level, so it was only a matter of time before it would have collapsed anyhow. A huge proportion of young people, who had the benefit of a tremendous education, left for the West to find work, so the DDR has lost up to 20% of the population and is left with a largely older society.
One of the things I hadn’t heard was that a substantial proportion of the people revolting in the DDR in the 80’s wanted an independent state, and not to just be the poor relation of West Germany. All the other countries in the East Bloc had a hard transition from being under the Soviets to being independent (and some are more successful than others), but East Germany got swallowed whole by West Germany. The transition from East-communist values to West-capitalist values was undertaken by the (western, not always popular, often seen as yuppie carpetbaggers) Treuhand (Trust Agency), who closed down many factories and privatised (sold to the West) 14,000 businesses. People who lost property post-War were allowed to come back and claim it, often from families who had lived there 30 years. Those who look back nostalgically to a less individualistic, more values-based community in the DDR have conveniently painted out the invasion of privacy and unhealthy atmosphere of subterfuge that was the reality. Viewed from the other side, the East lost everything to the West after the war, and were left stuck in an unhealthy relationship with Moscow. However, being “embraced” by a sometimes resentful or know-it-all West German public, and having it as the only option, was another sort of trauma.
People are not very comfortable talking about this. There’s a lot of feeling around this that nobody wants to address. A couple of the political parties in the recent election wanted to make pensions equal in West and East, which I found astonishing. There must be still a kind of invisible wall there still, so that if you live in the poorer East, you get a smaller pension. How do they even tell? Oh you’re from Mountmellick, so you get less pension to spend because it costs less to live there than in Dublin? Lots of people may have mixed feelings about reunification, but generally they keep their own counsel, but the society has to watch out for the burgeoning of neo-Nazism. Younger people said to me that they finally feel close enough to their Eastern brethren to actually give out about them, just like real brothers and sisters. It’s very healthy to have Angela Merkel in charge, from East Germany, and I guess the new Germany is still very new. Another generation will make all the difference in terms of what is remembered and what isn’t.