There’s a dwarf in an orange safety suit sweeping the old city walls of Ulm. The Danube flows just beneath the walls, dividing the “free state” of Bavaria from the rest of Germany. A few ducks are paddling upstream against the current, giving the illusion of remaining in place.
There is a storm due in from the North later in the day, promising more grey clouds, rain, and possibly snow pellets. In Ulm, they say if you don’t like the weather, wait ten minutes and it will change. It is about the only thing that does.
Last month I published an article in the Richmond Review called There’s No Joy in Deutschland, an article critical of what I termed the mediocrity machine of the modern German state. I wrote the article partly because of my own observations after living in Germany for nearly two years, partly because of the observations of my university students, who were unhappily about to graduate and enter that machine, and partly because my German girlfriend Ines had broken up with me because my American values and characteristics clashed so jarringly with her German need for Gemütlichkeit: comfort, safety and security.
I used to be a university professor in the United States, a position I walked away from four years ago to follow the old dream of becoming a writer. I taught Henry Miller’s “Tropic of Cancer” my last semester as a professor and that book has either ruined or saved my life. I’m not really sure which–yet.
But in the last four years I’ve managed to live in France, Switzerland, Italy and now Germany. I’ve recently finished writing a novel and I’ve also published over a dozen pieces of journalism, mainly about my experiences living on the Continent: articles about such topics as running with the bulls in Pamplona, attending the techo-noise festival called the Love Parade in Berlin, anti-Semitism in Switzerland, living in a small village in Italy, and the Biennale in Venice.
But one central theme seems to occur over and over in my work: the soul-deadening conformity of middle-class consumer society (what Miller called “the graveyard of senseless sweat and toil”) and how artists must continue to fight and struggle against this death-in-life. Comfort, safety and security are themselves the death of the creative spirit.
And yet over and over I’ve found myself being dragged back into that “life.” I cannot survive by freelance journalism alone. So in order to survive in Europe I’ve taught English and Business English courses on-and-off; after the company I worked for in Italy went under I returned to Germany to teach part-time at the Universität Ulm and to do some Business English courses for O’Connor Business English Training, working in companies like Daimler-Chrysler, Siemens, EADS and pharmaceutical powerhouse Merkle-ratiopharm.
In the last six months, though, I’ve barely written a word. And as I found myself being sucked back into a system which offers no opportunities for any kind of risk, any kind of fall, any kind of failure, or ultimately, any kind of success, I knew that only writing could get me out. In order to write again, I had to learn to live with failure as a daily companion, a daily possibility, keeping me sharp and hungry, instead of dull and complacent.
I took a look under the surface of life here and I wrote There’s No Joy in Deutschland.
There’s really nothing in the article which isn’t covered in the popular “Xenophobe’s Guide to Germany” or in the writings of Friedrich Nietzsche. I stand by my observation that the German national character of arrogant superiority has been deliberately repressed, quashed, squelched and buried under the mask of the peace-loving, recycling, environmentally-friendly but socially-inept German by post-war socialist governments. But under the surface still beats the heart of nationalistic fascism. It’s no surprise as the economy here teeters that right wing law-and-order parties are becoming more popular and conservative politicians like Edmund Stoiber ascend to the national stage.
I also stand by my observation that other Europeans hate the Germans. This has been told to me over and over–not only by other Europeans but by Germans themselves. One of my former students told me that every time she goes to Paris she cringes when she has to ask a question in her German-accented English. She said the French merely snort at her and turn away. “Perhaps it’s because you’re speaking English,” I suggested. “No,” she replied, “it’s because I’m German. They still hate us.”
And I also stand by my observation about the Business English industry, which promotes a deliberately-crafted fantasy about the cultural differences between Germans, French, Italian, British and American speakers of English. After teaching this gospel of shite for more hours than I care to recall, I had to face the truth–and hope that others would not be too offended by the truth about “cultural diversity” as well to at least discuss it.
After the article appeared, nothing happened–for about two weeks. Then some of my colleagues read it and accused me of being “specious,” “stupid,” “insensitive,” and “rude.” “You’re a guest in this country,” one of them said. “Act like it.” “Yes,” I replied, “I am a guest. A guest worker, Gastarbeiter, just like the Turks, who do the shit jobs no German will touch. And look at the way the Germans treat the Turks.” Needless to say, I lost my “support community” of American expat language teachers.
Then the emails started arriving. I received several long emails from Germans who had read the article and wrote me what appeared to be school assignments. They accused me of being responsible for a)slavery, b)the slaughter of the Native Americans, c)Dresden, d)Hiroshima and e)various ecological malfeasances. One called me “a dirty Jew.” I also received letters of support from as far away as India. Finally, the tiny tempest died down and I resigned myself to at least another six months of teaching Business English and being bored in Ulm.
Yesterday I was teaching a course at Wicona, a company which manufactures window frames, to a group of civil engineers, all men. We were discussing the Olympics in Salt Lake City and one of the students mentioned how the Mormon Church had changed its values to profit from the influx of global visitors. Before I could respond (I lived in Idaho for three years and have had quite a bit of experience dealing with the Mormon Empire) another student said, “it’s just like the Jews. They have all the money and so they feel they can do anything.”
Needless to say, it took all my strength not to leap over the desk and strangle this Nazi bastard. Was this 1934? Did this moron read Der Stürmer over his morning coffee? Then one of the other students, noticing the look of hurt anger on my face, asked “Bruce, what religion are you?” “I don’t care to discuss that,” I replied, then went on to finish the course in a mood of cold disgust. I’m not sure if they put two-and-two together, but being logical German engineers, I’m sure it wasn’t that difficult.
Then I received a call from O’Connor Training saying they wanted to schedule a meeting with me. During the conversation I complained about this episode of anti-Semitism. There was a pause and then I was informed they wanted to speak to me about “the article I wrote.”
It wasn’t hard for me to put two-and-two together.
And so I met with the staff this afternoon and they told me that the personnel manager at EADS (a defense company formerly owned by Daimler-Chrysler and recently sold to a corporation in the Netherlands) had read the article and complained that they didn’t want me training there. Fair enough. I was told that my other students really enjoyed working with me and that otherwise I was doing a fantastic job (not that difficult, since I do have a Ph.D. and fifteen years of teaching experience, whereas the average Business English trainer has a six week TEFL certificate under his/her belt). Then I was told that all my classes were being taken away from me and that I was being sacked. Immediately.
“There’s no free speech for Jews in Germany!” my friend and fellow writer William Grim said, after I explained to him what had happened. Is he right? Is this a free speech issue? Or is this an anti-Semitism issue? All I know is that almost daily I had to listen to my German students tell me that Americans are superficial, shallow, stupid and fat; even though the American sitting in front of them is neither superficial, shallow, stupid, fat. But turn the light of criticism onto their culture of complacency and the ax falls. Germans really want to believe that the rest of Europe and the world admires them for their ordered, logical, structured approach to life. I tried to show them otherwise and instead of facilitating an open debate on the subject, I was shut up.
Ranier Maria Rilke, a Czech writer of beautiful German poetry and prose once wrote:
Leben Sie jetzt die Fragen. Vielleicht leben Sie dann allmählich, ohne es zu merken, eines fernen Tages in die Antwort hinein.
I guess I now have the opportunity to find out if he was right. Because the hardest fight is always with yourself.
Copyright © Bruce Gatenby 2002
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This electronic version of Deutschland: A Postscript is published by The Richmond Review by arrangement with the author.
Bruce Gatenby is an expat American writer living in Germany. He holds a
Ph.D. in English from the University of Arizona, which he has tried to
give back on several occasions. He has written three novels, nine
screenplays and is still searching for that big break. He
can be reached at [email protected] and his home page is at http://www.geocities.com/bgatenby/