Germany

Germany curbs some surveillance and intercept exports

Tuesday, 20 May, 2014 0 Comments

The Munich company Trovicor claims to be “a leader in communications and intelligence solutions that help law enforcement, national security, intelligence services, and other government agencies fight crime and terrorism.” Thing is, some of those intelligence services happen to be in Syria and Bahrain. The Syrian security services are also said to be customers of Aachen-based Utimaco, which supplies a range of software products, including a “solution to help telecommunications service providers respond to electronic surveillance orders as required by law.” Syborg from the Saarland and the Gamma Group are also in the surveillance and monitoring systems business.

The problem for these firms now is that Sigmar Gabriel, Germany’s Minister for Economic Affairs and Energy, has decided to stop the export of surveillance and monitoring technologies to authoritarian regimes. Although Gabriel hasn’t presented a list of the black-listed end-users, targets are thought to include Middle East states as well as Russia and Turkey.

According to the Süddeutsche Zeitung, Gabriel intends to halt the cyber spying exports until the EU adopts more stringent regulations for surveillance technologies and intercept tools, which would then become law in Germany. Legislation is being discussed in Brussels but there’s no clear indication of when it might be enacted.

Eye spy


What has the transatlantic relationship done for you?

Friday, 16 May, 2014 0 Comments

In these tense times, it’s not surprising that the outgoing NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen has been contemplating the meaning of the transatlantic relationship “and how we can preserve it and make it even stronger for future generations.” In response, the German Marshall Fund of the United States is holding a blogging competition to explore the current state of the relationship and its future.

The author of the winning post will receive a round-trip flight to the 2015 Brussels Forum. Submit your entry by sending it to [email protected]. Posts should be between 300 and 500 words and they’ll be judged on the criteria of relevance, breakthrough ideas and web traffic. Humour is not one of the requirements, but it’s the essence of virality, as Monty Python proved, and it does get the message across.


Calculating Easter

Thursday, 17 April, 2014 0 Comments

One of the most fascinating figures in the history of Easter is Nicholas of Cusa, a lawyer from Trier and a true Renaissance man, whose driving ambition propelled him all the way up from a non-noble birth to being made a cardinal by Pope Eugenius IV.

Nicholas established his reputation at the Council of Basel, which began in 1431 and went on for 18 years. He arrived in the Swiss town to argue the case of the disputed bishopric of Trier but made history by helping to broker an agreement in a bloody dispute between Rome and the Hussites. Then Nicholas turned to a matter that required enormous competence in law, mathematics and religious observance: the calendar. As John Mann writes in The Gutenberg Revolution:

Nicholas of Cusa “The Church was deeply concerned with the calendar because of the need to calculate the date of Easter. A thousand years before, the Council of Nicaea, laying out the ground rules of Christian practice, had decreed that Easter should fall on the Sunday following the full moon following the vernal equinox, one of two dates (in spring and autumn) on which day and night were of equal length. But the calendar of the time contained two errors. It’s year (365.25 days) was 11 minutes and 8 seconds too long, which over 1,000 years amounted to seven days; and the calculations that predicted the lunar cycle were way out as well. Actually, Roger Bacon, philosopher and scientist, had pointed this out seventy years before, but it was considered so intractable a problem that the papal authorities averted their eyes. In his De Reparatione Calendarii (On Revising the Calendar), presented to the Council in 1437, Nicholas expertly reviewed the evidence and proposed the only possible remedy: to adopt a new lunar cycle, leave out a week in the calendar — he suggested Whitsun, because it was a moveable feast and the general public wouldn’t notice — and then, as a final piece of fine tuning, omit a leap year every 304 years. This would have to be done not only with the agreement of the Greeks in Constantinople, because the were co-religionists, but also of the Jews, who would bear the brunt of revising all financial agreements.”

Given the fractured state of the church at the time, nothing was done, however. Reform had to wait for another 80 years when Pope Gregory XII introduced the “Gregorian” calendar, as we now know it. Still, the structure that measures our years and guarantees sweet indulgences in Spring owes an enormous debt to Nicholas of Cusa.


Journalist of the day: Vera Brittain

Wednesday, 9 April, 2014 0 Comments

To understand the pacifism of Vera Brittain it is imperative to know that her brother Edward, her fiancé Roland Leighton, and her two dearest friends, Victor Richardson and Geoffrey Thurlow, were all killed during World War I. Thirty years later, she was vilified for speaking out against the saturation bombing of German cities during World War II, Vera Brittain but her position was seen in a different light when, in 1945, the Nazis’ Sonderfahndungsliste G.B. (Special Search List G.B) of 2,820 people to be immediately arrested in Britain after a German invasion was shown to include her name.

9 April 1942: “At tea-time went to Mayfair Hotel to see demonstration of ‘Liberty cut’ sponsored by the Ministry of Health as an anti-typhus measure. New line of country for me; place crowded with hairdressers; representatives of the Press (mostly hard-working women plainly dressed), and fashionable ladies in mink coats looking as if they’d never heard of the war. Several leading hairdressers talked on the importance of shorter hair for women in present crisis. Demonstrations of ‘Liberty cut’ on different girls followed, including a showing of the ‘cut’ itself. The number of men present interested me; it showed how much money there is to be made out of women’s hair.” Vera Brittain (1893 — 1970)

Tomorrow, here, Mme. de Gaulle mispronounces “happiness” and Kenneth Williams gleefully pounces upon the double entendre.


Germany’s chief Putin “understander”

Wednesday, 2 April, 2014 0 Comments

Moscow, 11 December 2013: “Meeting with Helmut Schmidt” is the title of Vladimir Putin’s press release and it’s filled with oleaginous praise: “It is a great pleasure and honour for me to meet with you in Moscow, for you are not only the patriarch of European politics but of global politics as well.”

Last week, the former German chancellor used the pages of Die Zeit, a weekly newspaper printed in Hamburg and of which he is a co-publisher, to pay back the compliments he had received in the Kremlin. “Helmut Schmidt hat Verständnis für Putins Krim-Politik” is how the abbreviated piece was titled in the online edition; “Putins Vorgehen ist verständlich” was the title in the print edition. Both were repulsive in their attempts to legitimize Russia’s aggression, and both were nauseating in their efforts to display “understanding” for Moscow’s thuggery. At one point in the print version, the vain, doddery, chain-smoking oracle says: “Until the beginning of the 1990s, the West had never doubted that Crimea and Ukraine — both — were part of Russia.” In fact, until the beginning of the 1990s, they were part of an entity called the Soviet Union.

Schmidt-Carter Helmut Schmidt was German Chancellor from 1974 to 1982, and Jimmy Carter was the President of the United States from 1977 to 1981 so their paths often crossed. Carter’s White House Diary portrays the Hamburg-born politician as an unpredictable whinger, constantly lecturing the Americans on global economics, and then disappearing when Washington needed his help. According to Carter’s notes, Schmidt “acted like a paranoid child” who believed that if life were fair, he would have been president of the United States instead of the man from Plains, Georgia. And in an observation that’s relevant to today’s debate, Carter noted on 5 January 1979: “I was impressed and concerned by the attitude of Helmut toward appeasing the Soviets.”

In 1980, Jimmy Carter lost the presidential election to Ronald Reagan. The upside for the Democrat was that he would no longer have to deal with the German leader. In his diary, he noted that he was “glad to deliver Schmidt… to Reagan.”


Fack ju EU

Monday, 10 February, 2014 0 Comments

The comedy Fack ju Göthe premiered on 29 October in Munich and by the end of 2013 it had become the first film in six years to sell more than five million tickets in German cinemas. It’s about an ex-con forced to take a job teaching at a school located over the spot where money from a robbery is stashed so that he can dig up the cash. What’s made the film such a hit is the language. Ostensibly, it is the language of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, but it’s actually American Hip-Hop that’s been remixed with German by immigrants from Turkey, the Maghreb, Russia and the Balkans. The result is a pidgin that allows its speakers communicate by dropping articles, mashing up prepositions and disregarding the genitive, the dative and the conjunctive. And central to it all is the word “fuck”, or “fack” as it’s enunciated by those who find \'fək\ difficult to pronounce.

The word was in the mouths of Germans again at the weekend, but this time the establishment was voicing it, thanks to Victoria Nuland, the US Assistant Secretary of State whose F-bomb was secretly recorded and dropped on YouTube (apparently by the Russians). The impact was felt from Berlin to Brussels.

Fack ju EU

Although Ms Nuland could have been more subtle, her analysis is fundamentally correct. This was proved in another Russian-recorded conversation, this time between Helga Schmid, a representative of EU High Commissioner Catherine Ashton, and Jan Tombinski, the EU Ambassador in Ukraine. Snippet:

Helga Schmid: “I just wanted to tell you one more thing in confidence. The Americans are going around and saying we’re too soft, while they’re moving more firmly toward sanctions. […] Well, we’re not soft! We’re about to issue a very strongly worded statement about Bulatov!”

When was the last time that Putin lost sleep because of “a very strongly worded statement”? No wonder Nuland is so contemptuous of these people. Putin has no intention of going down in history as the Russian tyrant who lost the Ukraine and he’s not going to let statement typists stop him, either. He knows that the US and the EU have more power than the Russian Federation does, but he also knows that they don’t have a joint approach to Ukraine. Brussels and Berlin prefer to busy themselves drafting “strongly worded statements” and, as with Syria, the Obama administration keeps sending out signals that confirm Putin in his belief that he can bully the Ukraine without paying a price.

Fack ju EU, indeed. But it’s not just Victoria Nuland who’s saying it.

This just in: Switzerland goes there. It’s said Fack ju EU, too.

Denglisch


The Tyrant Games

Sunday, 9 February, 2014 0 Comments

The Olympic Games have a long and ignominious history as a glossy brochure for evil regimes, from the Nazi Games in Berlin in 1936 to the Communist Games in Moscow in 1980. Now, we have the Putin Winter Games in Sochi, an enormously expensive show that’s an ideal metaphor for the current Russian regime: corrupt, […]

Continue Reading »

People of the book

Friday, 7 February, 2014 0 Comments

On 10 May 1953, the old German city of Chemnitz was renamed Karl-Marx-Stadt (Karl Marx City) by its Communist rulers. On 21 June 1990, Marx was deposited in the dustbin of European history and Chemnitz was Chemnitz once more. The city is home to many attractions, including the Lessing & Kompanie bookshop. According to the German book trade magazine, Börsenblatt, the owner of Lessing & Kompanie, Klaus Kowalke, invested €3,500 in an all-day session with a professional photographer taking 1,700 snaps of 127 of his customers in the shop, with their favourite books. The result is a charming Tumblr.

Lessing & Kompanie


The final tragedy of Philip Seymour Hoffman

Tuesday, 4 February, 2014 0 Comments

Ten days ago, Associated Press film writer Jessica Herndon spoke to Philip Seymour Hoffman in Park City, Utah, and here’s the opening sentence of her report: “Philip Seymour Hoffman’s new movie is a psychological thriller about terrorism, but he says it also has something to do with hitting a midlife crisis — and that’s what really drew him to the role.” The midlife crisis turned out to be more destructive than most of its kind and the actor was found dead on Sunday morning in his New York apartment, after a suspected drug overdose. He was 46.

The reason that Jessica Herndon interviewed Philip Seymour Hoffman in Park City was that his most recent film, A Most Wanted Man, had premiered at the Sundance Film Festival there. Hoffman plays a rogue German counter-terrorism expert, heading up an anti-terrorism team in Hamburg, the former home of the 9/11 hijackers. The film is based on John Le Carre’s 2008 thriller, which is marred by the author’s didacticism. The US has now replaced the USSR as the le Carré adversary of choice and his portrayal of Americans is too close to caricature to be considered seriously. It is a tragedy that this would turn out to be Philip Seymour Hoffman’s final serious film.


When happiness is a warm Smith & Wesson

Wednesday, 11 December, 2013 0 Comments

Earlier this year, the German writer Wolfgang Herrndorf asked his friends if they knew someone who knew someone who could get him a revolver. He wasn’t planning to rob a bank or commit a crime of passion. Rather, he intended to fight cancer — his way. Before long, he was the owner of an unregistered .357 Smith & Wesson and he found it to be a thing of considerable beauty. “It possessed such a comprehensively calming effect that it’s unclear to me why the health insurance provider didn’t pay for it,” he wrote in his diary. On 26 August, he left his apartment in Berlin, strolled along the bank of the Hohenzollernkanal, found a seat, put the barrel of the gun in his mouth and pulled the trigger. He was 48.

Most modern German writing is unreadable. There’s no shortage of material, but it seems that the writers are more interested in whingeing about the “Kapitalismus” that has given them such an enviable standard of living, or they’re occupied with absurdities such as the Occupy movement, or they’re fomenting hatred of Amazon and Google and generally acting the Luddite when it comes to technological progress. All this is preferable to the hard work of writing. The result is an endless stream of turgid polemical tracts misleadingly labelled as novels and memoirs. Wolfgang Herrndorf was the honourable exception to this rule.

His novel Tschick (English: Why We Took the Car) was published in mid-2010 and a year later Sand appeared. The two represented the most exciting and stylish German fiction of recent times. Tschick was published in 27 countries and one million copies were sold in Herrndorf’s homeland. Along with writing novels, Herrndorf posted regularly at his blog Arbeit und Struktur and it was there that the wider world learned of his battle with cancer. After three operations and bouts of radiation treatment and chemotherapy he decided that he’d had enough of modern medicine and requested the revolver. The book of his blog is now destined to be a posthumous bestseller.

Smith & Wesson


The Hildebrandts: Gollum and Banksy

Monday, 18 November, 2013 0 Comments

In the legendarium of J. R. R. Tolkien, the figure of Gollum is one of the most memorable and frightening. Down through the centuries of his miserable existence, Gollum has come to love and loathe the Ring, just as he loves and despises himself. But the Ring, which Gollum calls “my precious”, brings him no joy because he’s torn between lust for it and a desire to be free of it. This is the tragedy of the hoarder.

There’s something of the Gollum in Cornelius Gurlitt, who stashed 1,280 paintings and drawings — masterworks believed to be worth more than $1 billion — in his Munich apartment. Speaking to Der Spiegel magazine last week, Gurlitt said he had not watched television since 1963 and had never gone online, but did talk to his pictures. He kept some of his favourites in a small suitcase that he would unpack each evening to admire and for more than half-century his only true friends were a huge collection of prized images created by Picasso, Chagall, Gauguin and a multitude of other modern masters. He inherited the works from his father, Hildebrand Gurlitt, a Third Reich-era art dealer, partly Jewish, and one of just four people authorized by the Nazis to trade so-called degenerate art during their reign.

Soon after the end of the Second World War, Hildebrand Gurlitt was questioned by members of the Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives unit of the United States military, the group of historians, curators and soldiers entrusted with safeguarding Europe’s cultural heritage. In his statements to investigators, he emphasized his anti-Nazi sentiments and claimed that he had never handled stolen art, and that the works in his possession were mostly “the personal property of my family or myself.” The Monuments Men concluded that he was not a key player in the art trade and later returned to him paintings, drawings and other fine art objects. After his death in 1956, his son Cornelius inherited the family treasures and kept them, and most of the art world, in the dark for another five decades. His precious.

Unlike his Gollum-like son, Hildebrand Gurlitt was a worldly figure, a true opportunist and a totally amoral individual. His assistant, Karl Heinz Hering, told the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung that his boss knew how to satisfy those post-war customers with large wallets, zero taste and a longing for a little Heimat on their walls. “Well-off hunters used to come to the gallery, but most of the paintings on offer were by French artists, who were inspired mainly by the atmospheric aspects of landscapes. No hunting animals or familiar fauna, in other words. But Gurlitt was clever and he didn’t want to see the disciples of art going home empty handed so he’d find someone who could insert an imposing stag in a grove or a copse.”

This sounds a bit like Banksy, who bought a kitsch painting for $50 in New York last month and added a Nazi officer enjoying the bucolic Bavarianish landscape. It would be Hitler’s idea of perfect art, so Bansky titled it “The Banality of the Banality of Evil”. It was sold for $615,000 with the money going to the homeless charity Housing Works. Unlike Banksy, however, Cornelius Gurlitt isn’t giving anything away.

Banksy