In Pomerania


by Justin E. H. Smith

The far-right National-Democratic Party of Germany has put up campaign signs in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern with the slogan ‘Ausländer raus’. In case you don’t believe me, I’ve provided photographic proof. On closer inspection, the signs in fact read ‘Kriminelle Ausländer raus’, but this is more a vivid example of the pragmatics of font size, and other elements of graphic design, than it is a mitigation of the political view expressed. The NPD hovers as close as it can to the boundary which, if crossed, would place it in violation of the German constitutional ban on neo-Nazism. In the past decade there have been two failed, but close, attempts to have it outlawed. The MLPD, the Marxist Leninist Party of Germany, has made this one of their principle campaign issues in the current election, which from my American free-speech point of view looks like a frivolous distraction, as there are far better ways to isolate fascists than to give their organizations the extra charge of illegality. The National Socialist Underground has committed at least a dozen murders since 2000; an illegal NPD would be great for their recruitment.

According to a 2010 article in Die Zeit, in that year a constitutional court ruled that the phrase ‘Ausländer raus’ by itself does not necessarily amount to a violation of the constitution; the entire context of the phrase needs to be considered in order to determine whether in a given occurrence it is meant as a reference, or indeed a citation, of the phrase as it was used in the 1930s. Without the addition of ‘criminal’, however, the NPD would probably not be able to pass off the phrase that follows as independent from the identical phrase as used by the Nazis, as the entire context of the party’s existence is the longue durée of fascism in Germany. But as it is they can claim, bald-faced, that they are only pushing for the same desideratum that even center-left parties support: the deportation of non-citizens convicted of felonies. Said by its members to be a party of ‘grandparents and grandchildren’ (i.e., frightened old bigots and energetic street-fighters), the other campaign signs alternate between ‘Sie’ and ‘du’, exhorting the kids for example to ‘Vote German!’, in the familiar second-person plural, and pleading with them ‘Don’t be a frog!’ (the motif of the complacent amphibian, in water slowly brought to boil, has been borrowed from the Greenpeace campaign against global warming). It’s hard not to notice, finally, that the campaign signs for Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union, often found defaced by NPD activists, are themselves much more aggressively nationalistic than would have been acceptable some years ago (‘Deutschland ist stark, und soll es bleiben’, etc.), the principal difference being that the CDU stresses Germany’s current strength, while the NPD sees the current state as one of dangerous decline, with only one possibility for salvation.I should add that in the ten days I’ve been in Greifswald I’ve seen no one who looks like a neo-Nazi. Nor have I seen anyone a neo-Nazi might identify as an ‘Ausländer’, so perhaps the shock troops feel they’ve done their job and can stay home and play World of Tanks or whatever it is they do. Interracial contact seems to remain as much an abstraction as it had been in the DDR, with its poster art featuring African workers who somehow still look like the figures one might have seen in poster art for coffee or banana advertisements from a half century before. The theme in the DDR was of course friendship and solidarity, whereas the NPD stresses hatred and separation, but still somehow things remain the same.

In Pomerania, Trabants are parked in front of apartment blocks not for the sake of kitsch Ostalgie, which one might see on display for tourists in Berlin. They’re just left over, just like anyone older than 25 is left over. The island of Rügen, the gem of East German tourism, still has its monuments to the victory over fascism, still has streets in towns like Binz and Sassnitz named for General Heinz Hoffmann. There’s also a town called Gingst and one called Zingst, and one called Libnitz. Some are German deformations of West Slavic words, others adapted from Scandinavian. What used to be the West Pomeranian Voivodship of Usedom is not far away, and I don’t know how that word came into being (the Polish equivalent is ‘Uznam’, which suggests, at least to Russophones, a ‘finding out’), but it sounds like an archaic form of ‘usury’ that one might come across, say, in the Domesday Book. Many places, including the fishing village in which I am lodging near Greifswald, bear the name of ‘Wiek’, or some variation on it. I am assuming this is an altered form of the Scandinavian ‘Vik’ (from which we also get Reykjavik and Jorvik, later known as ‘York’), and have seen historical documents that mention ‘Wyjk’, ‘Wick’, and so on. Vik means place, and there are many such places. I’m in one of them.

So there were the Slavic tribes, and there was Swedish Pomerania from the end of the Thirty Years War until 1815, and there was the DDR and then I showed up. But somewhere near the end of this series there was German Romanticism, which became permanently associated with Western Pomerania thanks to the paintings of Caspar David Friedrich, who captured the landscapes, the seascapes, the dawns and nights of the meadows near Greifswald, the cloister ruins at Eldena, the Backsteingotik churches, the cliffs of Rügen, and the coast of the Eastern Sea. So one walks the same paths, and speaks of the sublime, and of the sea as Urmutter, and as one does so one worries about going too far and getting overexcited about the same sort of shit that declenched the historical process that led to the NPD. But the adolescents, born even after the fall of the DDR, haven’t made all the connections yet, and so they go to the cliffs of Rügen and they place locks on the safety fences on which they have engraved their names, and they throw the keys into the sea. One might also indulge one’s romantic side, in a slightly but not fully different sense of the word, by jumping into the night-black sea and drowning. If I worked for the Pomeranian tourism board I would propose an ad campaign that plays on the multiple meanings of the romantic: “Looking for a romantic getaway? Try plunging into the void from atop the stark precipices of Rügen!” &c.

There are sea swans on Rügen that seem to insist on being symbols of something. The supermarket at Sassnitz features canned lungs. There are slugs on the trails at Jasmund, and dried leaves and humus cluster on their mucous tails as they peristaltate in a relative hurry across dangerous open spaces.  There are two little hardscrabble boys, DDR boys, timeless, chimney-sweep boys, standing on the coast at Rügen selling beach stones from a bucket. The younger one, five or so, asks in a pip voice, “Would you like to buy some stones?” I say I’m not sure I have enough money. “Maybe you want to collect your own stones then?” he says understandingly. That I might not want any stones at all is out of the question.

The CDU, led by a woman who comes from the East, is pragmatic and serious, and seems to have been thrust by the worldwide economic crisis into a role that makes it uncomfortable. What else can it do but keep touting Germany’s strength, even if in doing so it gives new life to the old stereotypes about Mediterranean folk as work-averse and childishly unable to plan for the future. Even Goethe, sympathetic and world-feeling as he was, could not withstand a few gratuitous comments to this effect in his beautiful Italienische Reise. At the same time, I am certainly convinced that there is such a thing as Prussian discipline. I am at the receiving end of it, teaching a summer-school course on Kant’s Critique of Judgment for a well-known government-funded student association at the University of Greifswald, where I am expected to show up promptly every morning at nine, and to have prepared more thoroughly than I can recall doing for quite some time. Come to think of it, in that same work Kant himself argues that die Zucht, discipline, is the highest natural end of humanity (der letzte Naturzweck des Menschen), while Glückseligkeit by contrast, happiness, which had been of supreme importance for Aristotle, comes out as merely fleeting, subordinate, trivial. Aristotle, as you may know, was Greek.

But I am always so happy in Germany! A student told me I speak German like Friedrich the Great, and that I would have fit right in at Sans-Souci. I thought this was a compliment, but when I asked him what he meant, he explained that I tend to just use French words, and to tack on German suffixes at the end: thus ‘dezidieren’ instead of ‘entscheiden’, ‘ambig’ instead of ‘zweideutig’, ‘Fidelität’ instead of ‘Treue’, and so on. This breaks my heart, since I am on record insisting that what gives German its great aesthetic advantage over English is precisely its relatively greater resistance to Latinate borrowings: ‘Tier’ instead of ‘animal’, ‘Gesicht’ instead of ‘face’, ‘Fürsorge’ instead of ‘solicitude’, and so on. And now here I am neglecting the very qualities I had come to praise. The reason is simple: another language now stands in the way, prevents me from accessing all the Rilke and Hölderlin and Goethe I read in my twenties, when I learned all those blunt Germanic roots that made me shiver. This other language is one I’ve taken great pains to learn in more recent years, and whose poets I’ve barely read. It takes much from Latin, and thankfully a bit from Frankish. I do my best with it.

Piece crossposted with Justin E. H. Smith’s website