Letter from Munich – 018
Letter from Munich – the Joseph Affair – 18
EINE DEUTSCHE FASSUNG STEHT WEITER UNTEN.
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11 May 2001
Dear Mr. Graf, dear friends,
We were discussing democracy. Andrea, who had not said anything for some time, suddenly spoke up, “A student in one of my university English classes here in Munich asked me the other day what I thought the greatest difference between Germany and America is.”
Andrea can be so shy and almost withdrawn at times that it’s hard to imagine her as a teacher in a classroom. “I told that student,” she went on quietly, “that I thought there were two basic differences, which actually have been discussed quite often by a number of different people.”
She ran her hand a little nervously over her hair, which she was wearing severely pulled back into a ponytail, in style reminiscent of America in the 1950’s. She looked at us with an intense expression through her horn-rimmed glasses. “The first difference is that, as a rule, in Germany everything is forbidden unless it is expressly permitted; whereas in the United States the reverse is generally true: everything is permitted unless it is forbidden. And many people believe this is one of the sources of the inexhaustible energy and the sometimes overwhelming power and creativity of American society – and perhaps of the whole English-speaking world in general. That world is not nearly as obsessed with rules and hierarchy and it is not nearly as leadenly serious as the German often world is.”
“You’re right about one thing,” said a student named Carlos. “Those hoary old truisms have been around for so long that it’s time to give them a decent burial.”
Andrea looked at the rest of us for moral support. “The second difference,” she said, “is that in America people actually believe that their politicians and government officials, even the police, are working for them – whether that’s completely true or not is another question, but people believe it. In Germany on the other hand, people seem to act and think as if the reverse were true, as if they were still subjects and not citizens, as if they were working for the politicians and the civil servants. There are even strict laws against offending or insulting public officials, laws that would be laughed out of court in America.”
With a kind of quiet dignity she lifted her hand and adjusted her glasses, which had begun to slip down her nose. “Kurt Biedenkopf, prime minister of the German state of Saxony, once said that if he were in America, he could sue the media for millions of dollars for publishing and broadcasting the story that the child Joseph was murdered by neo-Nazis in the town of Sebnitz in Saxony. The truth is, though, that in America the media would describe him as a corrupt, old tyrant who did everything he to could see to it that his officials covered up the real cause of the boy’s death and who is now doing everything to maintain his iron grip on power – and who cheats his own government by not paying a fair rent for his state-owned home. And there would be nothing that Biedenkopf could do about such comments. However, you could never say such things about him in Germany, where an exaggerated respect for authority is still the rule.”
As always, I was utterly shocked by such comments. I would never describe Kurt Biedenkopf as “a corrupt, old tyrant who did everything he could to see to it that his officials covered up the real cause of (Joseph’s) death and who is doing everything now to maintain his grip on power – and who cheats his own government by not paying a fair rent for his state-owned home.” That is simply not true. It cannot be true. No matter what people say. No matter how many investigating committees the SPD wants to set up in the parliament in Saxony in order to look into what Biedenkopf has done.
“When the U.S. government finally sent Al Capone to prison,” said Carlos, “it wasn’t for murder or bootlegging or selling drugs or running prostitution rings, it was for income tax evasion.” He laughed. “Maybe if they can’t get Biedenkopf for fraud or obstruction of justice, they can get him for not paying his rent.”
I was more than shocked at such a remark. I was outraged. I may be just a stupid old man, but I believe Kurt Biedenkopf – “King Kurt” as he likes to be called by the good people of Saxony – is a great and good man. I really believe that. Really.
Robert John Bennett