Friday, October 16, 2009

Who is Hermann and Who Cares?

My first day here, bleary-eyed from an all night plane trip and jet lag, I had to find my way to Hermannplatz. I had already screwed up in finding the way from the airport to the building where I had rented a room. Frank’s directions were good. I just got off the bus at the wrong place, luggage and all, and then had to figure out how to get to Hagenauer Str. in Prenzlauer Berg. That is not so easy in a strange city in the best of times, but after all the stress of departure, the long flight, and the change of languages and cultures, it is no surprise I made such a mistake.

I did find my way to my apartment and then worked my way through the labyrinth of the Alexanderplatz underground station, with its numerous lines, to make my way to Hermannplatz. I surfaced at dusk on an oblong square surrounded by tall buildings, one a big department store and another a hotel. I remember the golden arches of McDonalds greeting me from the other corner of the square, a bit of familiarity in a strange land.
The platz was filled with kiosks and stands, which the merchants were carefully packing for the night, as garbage covered much of the square’s cement, some of it in mounds and some just scattered.
The merchants looked to me like people from the Mediterranean, though they were speaking German. Most were probably Turkish as Hermannplatz is on the border between Neuköln and Kreuzberg, both of them very heavily inhabited with immigrants, especially Turks.
Everybody was so busy and I needed to find somebody, interrupt them, and ask directions in German, hoping beyond hope I would understand what they said back. I stood there and studied the people near the subway’s exit, looking for who knows what that would give me the confidence to ask.
Two men who looked a lot alike, one a generation older than the other, perhaps father and son, had cleaned their table under a canopy of merchandise and were talking intensely. For some reason they looked friendly and so I interrupted their conversation to ask where a store was that I had told might have the plug adaptor I needed to use my laptop in Europe.
The younger one looked at me and listened carefully to my weird accent and probably imperfect German. His face broke into a smile, a smile of encouragement, not one that glowed with amusement at my foreign-ness, and told me to go to the end of the square and then around the corner, that the store was there.
His instructions were also very good. I found the store. But not until yesterday, two weeks later, did I stop to think about Hermannplatz. It was just a name, and a name that seemed vaguely strange and unusual, though there was also a Hermann Straße on that subway line. For some reason the name Hermann left me with a question, but one I could not articulate.
In Latin America, where German influence has been strong, I have known many Hermans, Hernáns, and Germans (this last pronounced with the h while the other two loose the h, despite its being spelled on the word; such the weirdness of language.) The name is common. But for some reason it made me step a bit thoughtfully, although for the life of me I could not figure out why.
Not only do cities rise when scaffolds and workers turn concrete, stone, brick, and steel into buildings, they also are dense with meaning laid on meaning, with more between them slurping like fresh cement. Names often are just names until suddenly their meaning jumps out. Otherwise, it takes a semiologist like one of Umberto Eco’s or Dan Brown’s creations to make sense of all the symbols and signs.
Yesterday Hermann jumped out at me and shouted boo.
I was online and a blog site maintained by the Social Science Research Council suggested an article about German mythology. I had already seen and handled a book on German mythology and the role it has played and still plays in mobilizing the various iterations of states that have flowed through the past of this place of many tribes and many principalities and not a few empires, until today the latest iteration is modern, reunified Germany. Its headline screamed the name Hermann.
Turns out Hermann, which means leader of armies, was named in Latin Arminius and was a captive taken by Romans from a Germanic tribe on the Rhine river. He was educated among the Romans and became a military leader, but he betrayed the Romans. In conjunction with his tribesmen he led twenty thousand Roman soldiers into an ambush. They were killed en masse, not that Hermann lasted long. He too was killed not long afterward.
But the books say that battle made the Rhine the border for Latin culture for a very long time, although the French and various German states have fought many times over, including at least twice in the last century, and the border has kept changing.
Anyway, Arminius‘ story was mostly forgotten, until around the time of Martin Luther a manuscript was discovered which narrated the story of his ambush of tens of thousands of Romans. the text was translated and the story told widely. It had value in the struggle with Rome then in course, as Luther broke from papal control. Sometime around then, Arminius became Hermann, the hero.
Though his story could be read in many ways, from traitor to hero, it was a story that also spoke to so many struggles that it maintained value to give sense and form to the dreams of German nationalism through the Third Reich. At the end of the nineteenth century, the century of romantic national consciousness in Germany and elsewhere a huge statue of Hermann was built on the border with France, which is still there.
Plays were written and performed widely as were epic poems and songs. Hermann became the focus of fraternities and their nocturnal activities. The many different peoples, with their own languages and dialects, were forged into Germans with Hermann as one of their main heros.
After the war, West Germany distanced itself from Hermann. His myth was transformed to be one of a lament that Roman enlightenment never made it to Germany, because of Armenius. The plays and poems disappeared, except for when young artists would find them and bring them out to be rebellious and rattle the establishment. Germany was officially anti-nationalist and opposed to these old myths.
This year, a museum near the statue has opened an exhibition about Hermann, because a British archeologist found and excavated the battlefield. Crowds have overwhelmed the museum and the town nearby. The article noticed that this occurs at a time when there seems to be a revival of nationalism in Germany and questions about what it means to be German.
Yesterday the online version of Die Zeit, one of the major German dailies, carried a story about efforts to add to the constitution language, accompanying the description of the national flag, that the language of Germany is German.
This is controversial, even though France is resolutely French and that is legally defined. But here, it is the memory of the Third Reich that gives people a frisson of fear when German nationalism starts rising.
The article in Die Zeit spoke of the threat Germany currently faces from Anglicisms that increasingly sound from the lips of youths, but also rise from the pages of German books and magazines. It also mentions fear of immigrants, especially Turks, but also the other people who because their countries are members of the European Union come to Germany to seek work, even though East Germany has very high rates of unemployment.
Neo Nazis and Neo Communists, are appearing again with strength. Both with vigor in the East, although not exclusively. They are a very small part of the political field but they strike fear. Some people want to make nationalism almost the unspeakable, but many others, perhaps the majority, are looking for meaning in being German.
Of course, this German identity is part of a multilingual and multicultural economic and increasingly political space, with a common currency and policy making body, that for the first time since Rome, brings most of Europe into its arms. So the question, even if not expressed this way, is what does it mean to be German in contrast with the French, who have their own strong mythologies, going back to Celts, Franks, and Romans, the Spanish and their history and identity, or even the English.
In England one finds books detailing the genetic history of England, the history of the English language, the story of the English people and so on, though generally without any big comment or concern. Yet in Germany, the presence of books like those I have seen about German mythology, or the one I poked through yesterday that asks who are the German people; what is their origin; and what is their history, raises flags of concern.
Not only immigrants and the European Union shake contemporary Germany and Germans. There is also the fear they might not really be a single people. I read about a Wessie, who moved to Ossie land--that is a West German who moved to East Germany, and wrote about her experience provoking anger and rejection from her Ossie neighbors and colleagues. She felt culturally and socially rejected, the subject of scorn, and insult.
In part people were concerned because she did not understand the social norms of a people schooled under socialism, with its focus on community and solidarity (Note this is not the stuff the West tends to see in Communism, only repression and police states). They felt they were taken over by the West as an act of force, and not of their own will, and that they had lost their society to Western adventurists and exploiters. Life is much worse than it was, they feel.
However this historical memory and the anger it encased took focus in language. It became an issue of who said “ish” and who said “Ik”, two different pronunciations of the German Ich, or I. Turns out the High German dialects tend to say something like “ish”. The low German dialects that are numerically dominant in much of East Germany, say “ik” as do Dutch and Flemish, become the focus of separation and encapsulate, not unlike Hermann, enormous historical struggles, and differences of hopes and fears.
I ran into a site online last night that dared to pose the question of whether low German, is a single language. It notes the major grammatical and phonological differences between it and High German, and notes its close historical relationship with English. The Saxons who with the Angles formed a good part of England, at least in Myth, are still found in Germany. Saxon is still spoken very near Berlin, though the city language is a mixture of the various low German dialects, including Saxon, and formal High German.
This is not really about language, just as it is not really about Hermann. It is instead about the visible and tangible signs of social and political attempts to imagine something greater than small communities and families, generally as part of a struggle with others, imagined or real.
Who knows how all this will end, however it is fair to say it will probably end up the matter of formal instruction in schools where kids will just learn it, just as in the US they learn about George Washington not telling lies and flinging silver dollars. Maybe it will even be built into the mortar and concrete of towns and cities, as Hermann was.
So, I wondered, was Hermannplatz related to that Hermann, the one of the gigantic structure, or was I reading too much into things, a notorious occupational hazard. Turns out it was, but around the end of the nineteenth century,a s Berlin expanded massively, a civic leader of the neighborhood where the Platz developed was also named Hermann, and so the square could keep its name in his honor, despite the general displeasure with Hermann following the very destructive war, which is not Germany's fault alone.
In a fun reworking of stories, Hermannplatz, the square of the nationalist Hero, is now in between two heavily Turkish neighborhoods and filled in daytime with immigrant merchants from the Mediterranean. Rome has its revenge, after two-thousand years have passed, even if in the bodies of Turks. But really...

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