Category Archives: Europe

German Unity Day

Today is the 30th anniversary of an event that I once thought would never, ever happen: the unification of the two postwar Germanies: West Germany (Bundesrepublik Deutschland, or BRD) and East Germany (Deutsche Demokratische Republik, or DDR). What surprised me even more was that the East German government allowed itself to be dissolved peacefully, and that the whole transition, although certainly fraught with many problems, was successfully carried out with little violence.

To this day, I continue to be surprised by aspects I had not considered realistic. For example, I recently learned that there are some fascinating legal questions and unsettled arguments about the legal status and nature of the German nation-state.

The whole subject is highly contentious and complicated. At its roots are the complex problems with defining what “Germany” is supposed to be, and specifically, what the “German Reich” is. Students of history understand that this has been one of Europe’s fundamental problems for many centuries, and a reoccurring cause of wars between the European powers. This, and World War II, have made the whole issue a taboo subject in today’s Germany.

Complicating things is that historically, several imperial lines, such as the Habsburgs, have laid claim to the title of “German Emperor”, and all sought different solutions to the fragmentation of the German people across Europe. The circumstances leading to the collapse of the German monarchies after World War II, the establishment of the short-lived Weimar Republic, followed by its economic demise, and the subsequent rise of the “Third Reich”, are well documented.

What is less well known and discussed is what happened to Germany, or to the concept of the German Reich, after World War II.

After the war, the governments of each East and West Germany considered themselves the legitimate German governments of the legitimate successor states of the German Reich. This is not trivial, because being defined as “successor state” carries important consequences in international law.

But this is already where the agreements come to an end.

There are experts in international law, and circles, who call into question whether especially West Germany was, or is truly a successor state at all. These arguments are based on two different, competing lines of reasoning. One is that when the Third Reich was defeated, the whole German Reich, as a construct, became extinct. Consequently it cannot have a successor. The other line of reasoning asserts the opposite. It claims that since the German Reich was never formally dissolved, it still exists. However, the argument goes, West Germany could not be be a legitimate successor, because it was just an occupied territory, with a constitutional structure, a legal framework, and a government imposed by foreign governments, namely Britain, the U.S.A. and France. Even the borders of this brand new nation state were drawn by foreign powers. Furthermore, the people living in the western occupied zone were never consulted about the form of state that would govern them, it being a union of states governed by a federal republic. What is more, the people living in these territories didn’t consent, but were compelled to become citizens of this so-constructed nation state.

According to this line of reasoning, East Germany would have a more legitimate claim to be a successor state, and of being “the real Germany”. This theory was certainly maintained by the DDR’s government and used in Soviet propaganda, according to which the USSR was the only power that had first defeated, and then mercifully “liberated” Germany. Reorganized under socialist rules, of course, and arguably also without properly consulting the people living in the eastern occupied zone – at least after the border was sealed. At which point people who didn’t consent to become citizens of the socialist DDR had no alternatives, and thus were also compelled to become subjects of the socialist state, whether they wanted to or not.

The unification of the two Germanies 30 years ago has complicated matters even more. The treaty clearly specifies that the DDR ceased to exist. But then, according to one of the theories above, wouldn’t this mean that any legitimate successor state status would be extinguished?

There is also the argument that neither one of the two Germanies were legitimate successors of the German Reich. So is it in fact extinct? No so, some argue, pointing to interpretations of international law which seem to establish that a nation-state’s defeat in war does not obliterate the right of its people, which continues to have the right to exist and collectively choose whatever form of government it wants.

Today there are groups in modern day Germany which reject the unified federal republic’s claim of being the “the one and only real Germany”, unified or not. Some hardliners even claim that they therefore have the right to “opt out” and not be subject to laws of a nation they never consented to be citizens of. As a consequence, some of these groups refuse to pay taxes and fines, create what they claim to be institutions of the “German Reich” and issue their own, so-called “official documents” – none of which is recognized by the German Republic, any of its member states, the European Union, or the United Nations.

While these are certainly fringe groups who routinely (and not surprisingly) get slapped down by the courts of the new Germany, it appears that they might carry the age old “German question” into the 21st Century:

What and where is Germany?

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100 Years Ago, Europe (And The World) Went Mad

100 years ago today, the Austrian (Habsburg) Empire declared war on Serbia. Russia sided with Serbia; the German Empire sided with the Habsburgs. France was requested to remain neutral but refused a clear reply, thereby leaving the German command unable to set up its deployment strategy. As a consequence, a declaration of war was propounded on France. And German troops marched into Luxembourg. Belgium also refused German troops to cross its territory on the path to France, and was served a declaration of war as well. The British Empire, irate that Belgian neutrality had been violated, declared war on the German Empire.

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And thus, what began as miscalculation and miscommunication all of a sudden turned into a global hellfire which consumed at least 17 million people and destroyed the British, German and Habsburg (Austrian) Empires. Almost nobody had seen it coming.

It was more than one “Great War” (as it was known then). Long after the guns fell silent four years later, a freshly divided and chopped up Europe lay in turmoil. The new nation states, artificially decreed, and haphazardly concocted from the rubble of former aristocratic empires, soon turned into uncoordinated, unsustainable economies and failed states. This in turn set the stage for economic despair, political division and the rise of anti-semitism, totalitarianism, communism and fascism.

Today, not enough time has passed to easily see the big picture. Many still view World War I, World War II, the Cold War and their multitude of ugly side shows of human perversion as separate events. But I believe all of this was part of an interconnected, complex greater picture — a dark era consuming much of 20th Century Europe.

Sadly, I know only little of the fate of my own ancestors in WW-1. What I do know is that my grandmother had eight male siblings, all of whom were mobilized and sent to war. Those who returned came back traumatized, injured, sick, and suffering for the remainder of their lives. All had departed thinking that it would just be a matter of weeks. Nobody expected what it would turn into.

My grandmother was still a minor, yet she was sent to work in a military hospital, while also taking care of  brothers home from the front on medical leave, and doing much of the household.

There was little talk about it, as the older generation believed that children should be spared the stories of war and destruction. And I was too young to ask the right questions while my grandparents were still alive.

Perhaps one day I will take time off to look through family archives and try to learn and reconstruct some of what has been lost.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/World_war_i
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/World_War_I_casualties

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Is Krampus Finally Coming To America?

Today’s Santa Claus is nothing but a sanitized marketing figure, stripped of all deeper meaning, and sanitized of any mystery. And (perhaps reflective of America), his morbid obesity problem seems to be getting worse from year to year.

Where I grew up, we still have the original Saint Nicholas. The figure is based on Nikolaos of Myra, a 4th century monk and bishop. “Saint Nik”, of course, represents goodness and selfless charity. He promotes quiet introspection and rewards the good.

But beware. If you are not good, you might expect a visit from quite another fellow who roams the Alps at this time of the year — especially during the night from December 5 to December 6. For if there is goodness, there must also be evil.

According to NPR, the nemesis of Santa Claus is now also gaining a foothold in America. Listen or read the transcript:

I’ve been saying for years: It is about time! (See my earlier blog entry). America needs Krampus to cut through all the commerce, carry off some evil people and restore Christmas to its rightful place as a promised time of light, hope and good joy for all mankind.

If you watch the video, you will understand why Austrian and Swiss children do better in school than their American counterparts, and why they never misbehave. (Well, rarely).


 

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Daylight Saving Time Makes No Sense

This Sunday we will again do the crazy switch: “Daylight Savings Time”. But the assertion that Daylight “Saving” Time “saves” energy is bunk. It is simply a stupid and anachronistic idea. It serves no documentable purpose and should be done away with.

Not only have the positive effects of DST never been conclusively documented. On the contrary! In recent years, there has been a growing body of scientific evidence showing an increase in energy consumption during DST.

The idea behind DST was that more daylight in the afternoon would reduce the need for artificial lighting, thus cutting down on energy costs.

But as it turns out, more light (and heat) in the afternoon also means an increased demand for air conditioning, which results in a net increase in energy usage. These are the findings of a 2008 study by two University of California, Santa Barbara researchers. “I’ve never had a paper with such a clear and unambiguous finding as this,” said lead researcher Matthew Kotchen.

Studies conducted in Japan, Australia and the State of Indiana have reached similar conclusions.

In the U.S., the situation is rather bizarre: some states switch to DST, others don’t. In the State of Indiana, some counties have DST. Others don’t. So if one drives though the state, the time jumps!

There is similar confusion around the globe. Some countries switch to DST, others don’t. Some (just to top everyone else in terms of absurdity) switch only one half hour forward and back.

Here is a world map showing DST usage:

Legend: DST implemented (blue), DST not implemented (red), DST formerly used but now abolished (orange). Click to enlarge.

Of course, this impacts telecommunications, the travel industry, navigation and international business.

It is idiotic (to say the least!).

By the way: another false myth about DST is that Benjamin Franklin suggested it. Not true! Franklin merely suggested that getting up earlier (with the sun) and going to bed earlier would be more efficient – considering that most illumination in his days came from (expensive) candles and oil lamps.

Franklin is said to have remarked: “Early to bed, and early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise”. In 1784, he also published an anonymous letter, which satirically suggested taxing shutters, rationing candles, and waking the public by ringing church bells and firing cannons at sunrise. Of course he was not serious. And he never suggested to move the clocks back and forth.

Here is an organization with the goal of abolishing DST for good: http://www.standardtime.com/

(Adapted from my blog post of 03/07, 2008)

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Meeting Maria Altmann

Maria Altmann Portrait
Maria Altmann in her garden. Click to enlarge. © Reinhard Kargl 2000

Maria Altmann, heiress to Gustav Klimt paintings which were later sold for $328 million, has died in Los Angeles on February 7, 2011. She was 94.

When the Austrian state TV network ORF asked me to do an in-depth interview with Maria Altmann in 2000 — after Altmann had sued the Republic of Austria — I was a little apprehensive at first. How would she react to a reporter raised in the country she was suing for the injustices she alleged were done to her family during the Nazi era?

So I phone Mrs. Altmann to test the waters. But my fears prove to be completely unfounded. On the countrary! The moment she hears I was born in Vienna (as she was), Altmann immediately falls into perfect German slightly tinged with a distinct Viennese upper-class accent: “Ach, dann können wir ja auch wienerisch reden!” And she proceeds to tell me enthusiastically of the “wonderful” youth memories she has of the old imperial city by the Danube, the delicious pastries, the architecture, and the music.

She was 84 years old at our first conversation, still very busy working as fashion consultant and designer, interested in art and classical music, well read, highly energetic and articulate. I knew then that I was about to meet a most interesting and remarkable lady.

Since then, Mrs. Altmann’s story has been well publicised. Born into a family of wealthy Jewish industrialists in 1916, she was 22 and freshly married when the First Austrian Republic (the German speaking remnant left over after the disintegration of the Austro-Hungarian Empire), joined the German Third Reich in the Anschluss of 1938. Like many other Jewish residents at the time, Altmann’s (and her husband’s) family assessed the situation correctly and subsequently scattered, leaving almost their entire fortune behind.

Among the family’s possessions were various pictures by the still relatively unknown Gustav Klimt; among them were portraits commissioned by Altmann’s family.

Adele Bloch-Bauer I, by Gustav Klimt, 1907. Oil and golden and silver foil on canvas. 138 × 138 cm. Click to enlarge.

Compared to what happened to others, Altmann considered herself “very lucky”. After her husband’s arrest, his brief detention and the couple’s covert flight from Vienna, the Altmanns were able to make a new, peaceful life in America, where they also achieved financial security.

 

Anyway, so we decide to shoot the interview at Altmann’s home in Cheviot Hill, a small and neat suburbian residential area in West Los Angeles, where the widowed mother of four children has lived for a long time. We agree to shoot everything in German.

Altmann is well groomed and dressed and exudes an aura of ladylike poise and charm. As usual, I let the cameraman pick the best setting (which he finds in the backyard) and while the crew is setting up, I follow the usual ritual: engage in a little small talk with the subject in private, then go over a broad description of my questions, have the microphones attached, do a light and sound check. Not easy to endure at the age of 84.

The interview goes very well. Altmann gives long answers (luckily I’m not the one who has to edit this) and turns out to be patient and charming. We change tapes several times.

But then, we run into a problem: every home in the area has a yard. And every yard seems to be maintained by Latino “mow and blow” crews. And they all arrive at the same time with their noisy lawnmowers, power cutting tools and leafblowers.

Oh, the ruckus! My sound guy is wringing his hands (and I have secret fantasies of wringing some necks). We decide to take a little break, but to no avail. As soon as one crew of yard workers is done, another starts up a lawnmower or damn leafblower somewhere else in the neighborhood. These things aren’t even legal.

I am beginning to get nervous. We have already shot two thirds of the interview; going inside now would be a continuity problem. Besides, I am under orders to ship the tapes off right away. Meanwhile, the sunlight is beginning to fade, and so does Altmann’s ability to concentrate. Great.

I call a break again (probably the for the 5th time) and go outside to talk to the yard workers. Of course, they pretend to understand no Ingles. I know the game, so I put on my crazy gringo act and somehow convince the workers to take a break for a few minutes. I don’t know if they agree to hold the work because of the bribe I offer (for which I have no expense account, of course), because they think I am nuts (and possibly dangerous) or because they genuinely feel bad about preventing me from doing my job.

Whew! The cameraman plays some tricks with the white balance to compensate for the different light temperature as much as possible, and we hurry to continue and finish up.

Altmann is “terribly sorry” for all the trouble even though she didn’t cause it. She invites me for coffee, which she prepares herself.

I send the crew on their way. They are eager to get on the freeway, since rush hour has begun. Altmann has lots of time, enjoys the company, and the opportunity to talk about Vienna auf Deutsch. I know (and appreciate) that people from Vienna take their Kaffeejause (coffee break) very seriously.

I am amazed that Altmann, through it all, still feels connected with Austria. I recall pictures of the Alps and mementos of Austrian cities in her home. Whatever ill feelings she might have are directed at the individuals whom she believes have wronged her, but not at the entire place or German culture as a whole. Most likely, this attitude is what allowed her to cope and carry on with her life. It’s not even about the money, she insists, but about justice. Money, she says, has never meant anything to her. “At this stage in my life, I would not even know what to buy with it.”

Altmann keeps pouring coffee and brings plates of food, and it is long after darkness has fallen when I finally get on my way. She invites me to come back some other time, “zum Kaffee” (for coffee).

I am sad to say that I never took her up on the offer. Like so many times in life, I often thought about making a phone call to follow up. But then, I am always extremely busy, and something else always came up. As so often, I now deeply regret that time has run out.

The story of the Klimt pictures and Maria Altmann, the old lady who fought the Republic of Austria (and won), exploded into the global headlines. In the end, the Österreichische Galerie Belvedere released the paintings to Altmann. I was able to see them at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art before they were sold off.

Altmann told me (and others) that she sincerely wished and hoped that the pictures would be visible to the public, but sadly this is only partially the case today.

The most famous of the paintings, Adele Bloch-Bauer I (1907) is one of several portraits of Altmann’s aunt. It was acquired by Ronald S. Lauder for $135 million in 2006. It was the highest price paid for a painting to date. Adele Bloch-Bauer I is currently at Lauder’s Neue Galerie in Manhattan, but the other pictures have disappeared from public view.

My favorite image from the group is currently in a private collection:

Birkenwald/Buchenwald (Birch Forest/Beech Forest), 1903. By Gustav Klimt (Austrian, 1862-1918). Oil on canvas. 110 x 110 cm. Private Collection. Click to enlarge.

I wonder what Klimt would have thought of all this. He died in 1918. I admire his words: “If you cannot please everyone with your deeds and your art, please a few. To please many is bad.” You see, Klimt was quite a rebel in his days.

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Why We Must Hire Robots, Not Minimum Wage Workers

I encourage you to watch the following video entirely before allowing me to present my point of view:

As you can see, almost the entire manufacturing process in this film is handled by sophisticated machinery: robots.

I have long argued that instead of exploiting cheap Third World labor and lenient environmental regulations abroad, and instead of importing low wage workers en masse, the European Union and North America should focus on developing robotic manufacturing techniques for all consumer goods. Japan, unwilling to open its borders to foreign workers, is making great strides in this direction and will probably dominate the robotics industry, which it expects to see huge growth over the next few decades.

Robots could free mankind from the burden of most cumbersome, dangerous and boring toils. This would permit a restructuring of society to grant each individual more time for intellectual pursuits and pleasure. This in turn will fuel the education, media, travel and entertainment sectors of our economy, all of which are extremely difficult to outsource to cheap-labor countries.

Continue reading

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