December 3, 2011
December 3, 2011
“We are on a difficult course, on a new Odyssey for Greece,” former Prime Minister George Papandreou once observed of his country’s economic malady. “But we know the road to Ithaca and we have charted the waters.” The man could be forgiven for falling back on the iconic Odysseus—Greece has always looked on the Classical Age as a usable past.
But the metaphor of the Odyssey offers no guidance for Greece’s economic travails. For the Odyssey is about adventure and revenge and the yearning for home; profit rarely figures in the journey. And when it does, on one occasion in Phaeacia, it is used to taunt Odysseus to demonstrate his skill at feats of physical prowess. “Oh I knew it!” said a local mocking the traveler. “I never took you for someone skilled in games, not a chance. You are some skipper of profiteers roving the high seas in his scudding craft, reckoning up his freight with a keen eye out for home cargo, grabbing the gold he can!” Odysseus takes the bait—after all, honor and glory matter. He gives the games of Phaeacia a whirl.
The ancient Greeks did not have much praise for commerce. Plato denigrated it in the Republic, as did Aristotle. Commerce was not fit for men of the polis, and was best left, it was thought, for metics, resident foreigners. No solace could be found in that classical tradition Greece passionately claims as its own. The German bankers should not rest easy if Greeks come forth bearing the inspiration of the epics and heroes of ancient Greece.
Ironically, the more usable—and proximate—past comes from the way the Greeks performed as traders and merchant mariners during the centuries of their subjugation to the Ottomans. The story is not heroic. Banking and business are not the stuff of legend. The Ottoman Empire created structures of collaboration: Some three-dozen nationalities and communities made up that ramshackle empire. The bureaucracy and the army were the preserve of the Turks, but the Greeks found a niche for themselves, and they prospered as merchants and middle-men.
They could be found in all parts of the Sultan’s domains, in the Greek Peninsula, in Anatolia itself, and wherever the Ottoman soldiers went and conquered. Greek was the lingua franca of the Levant, on par, in places, with Ottoman Turkish. “So they always had the sea, the very essence of caprice,” Jason Goodwin wrote of the Greeks in his beautiful reconstruction of the Ottoman world, Lords of the Horizons (1998).
The Greeks dominated the empire’s coasts. Smyrna (today Izmir), on the Anatolian seaboard, stood as a monument to the brilliance of the Greek merchants. In the 1600s, this city was to know a golden age, and the merchants did it on their own, outwitting the Ottoman bureaucrats, and the Sultan’s court in Constantinople. Its world was genuinely cosmopolitan; the Greeks were the city’s bankers, lawyers, merchants, and doctors. Alexandria, too, was a haven for the Greek traders, and Greeks could be found peddling their wares in the remotest corners of rural Egypt. They were a resourceful breed, and the French and the British, pushing their way into the markets of the Levant, saw the Greeks as agile and brilliant competitors.
The ancient Greeks did not have much praise for commerce.
But this accommodation with Turkish power could not withstand the appeals of nationalism, and the Greeks sought a world of their own. As practical as the Greeks had been under Ottoman rule, they grew increasingly romantic. They had lost touch with the classical world, which they would glorify in the course of the nineteenth century. There were foreign admirers, and they fed the Greek sense of specialness, of being set apart from the other nationalisms. Orthodoxy and Hellenism blew at will, and the great powers jostled over the making of this new Greece. The Greeks would at once need foreign help and suspect it—a pattern that carries over to the present. Conspiracies stalked their homeland. Greek nationalists believed that jealous nations were out to rob the Greeks of the place they had had in the past. The calling of “Greater Greece” was a rebuke to the small kingdom that had been secured from the Ottoman wreckage.
There would be no normalcy in the Greek political world—the dreams always deadly, far bigger than the Greeks could attain. The national church was no help. It stoked the fires of these grandiose ideas. Populism and Communism closed the circle of this unhappy history. The Latin West was always needed and hated at the same time. The roots of this schism ran deep, all the way back to the conflict between the heirs of Byzantium and those of Rome.
In his superb book, A Concise History of Greece (2002), historian Richard Clogg writes of a Foreign Office minister who, in 1980, opined that Greece’s entry into the European community would be seen as “a fitting repayment by the Europe of today of the cultural and political debt that we all owe to a Greek heritage almost three thousand years old.” The Greeks took in and lived off this sense of entitlement and specialness. The debt crisis that overwhelmed the country by 2010 was born of that sense of abdication. The socialist tradition ran deep here, and membership in the European Union and in the Eurozone was bound to make Greece a European burden. Not for the Greeks was the discipline of the marketplace. If German savings were to sustain Greece’s indulgences, so be it. In the European Councils, the Greeks made the most of the truculence of their politics—the refusal of the country’s citizens to pay their way, to provide the taxes needed to maintain a modern state, and to accept the structural adjustments for an economy living beyond its means.
Reckoning came in 2010. Greece’s bills had come due, and the coffers were empty. Prime Minister George Papandreou struck an accord with the International Monetary Fund and the European Union to secure a bailout in return for budget cuts of 30 billion Euros ($43 billion). But the bloated public sector wanted nothing to do with the needed cutbacks. A 48-hour strike was staged on May 4–5, ending in tragedy. Three bank employees were killed, as their bank was set on fire. Papandreou was in a fight for his political life, caught between the demands of foreign creditors and the ways of his population. (It was telling that this prime minister was the grandson and the son of former prime ministers, a dynasticism that even the Arab office holders would envy.) The custodians of power in Greece were in no-man’s-land.
In Greek demonology, America is Satan—its capitalism a dreaded menace…
December 3, 2011
The last thing anyone does or says has an inevitable fascination, poignancy, and poetry. The fascination only intensifies when that person is an artist, in the profession of doing and saying memorable things. “There is a mirror that has seen me for the last time,” Jorge Luis Borges wrote. “There is a door I have closed until the end of the world.” The old Joseph Haydn, who invented what we think of as a string quartet, must have wondered after his dozens of quartets which would be his last. It was the one he could not find the strength to finish.
Last words are pithier than last pieces of music, and the world remembers the apropos or the funny ones. Enlightenment genius Johann Wolfgang von Goethe: “More light!” Gen. Robert E. Lee: “Strike the tents.” Gustav Mahler: “Mozart …” Richard Wagner, in the truest and most lucid words he ever spoke: “I feel lousy.” Oscar Wilde, contemplating the garish wallpaper in his hotel room: “One of us has to go.” Eugene O’ Neill, son of an itinerant actor, who was similarly unhappy about his last residence: “Born in a hotel room, died in a goddam hotel room!” Salvador Dali: “Where is my clock?” Steve Jobs: “Oh wow. Oh wow. Oh wow.”
Composers often turn to religious music in old age, hoping no doubt to earn some indulgence from the Lord for a few little sins. J.S. Bach was more personal. After a life of robust health, he suffered a sudden decline that included failing eyesight. He had been working on the Contrapunctus XIV of his monumental technical work The Art of Fugue, and for the first time in his composing had put in a melodic motif made from his own name: BACH in German notation is the notes Bb-A-C-B natural. After writing millions of notes, these were among the last he penned with his own hand. He never finished the fugue.
On his deathbed in the week before he died, blind and in the aftermath of a stroke, Bach had a friend play his organ chorale on the hymn “When We Are in Greatest Distress.” Even near the end of his rope, Bach’s lifelong perfectionism endured. He dictated a number of revisions to the chorale. At the same time, he renamed the piece, giving it a title from another hymn: “Before Thy Throne I Now Appear.” Serene and worshipful rather than tragic, it was his calling card to God.
When his time came, Mozart had no illusions. On his penultimate day, he greeted his sister-in-law with, “You must stay here and watch me die. I already have the taste of death on my tongue.” He had been expecting the end for a while, perhaps even when he was writing the sublime fairytale The Magic Flute. Anybody who goes to the movies knows that when Mozart exited he was working on the Requiem. Yes, as in Amadeus he may have considered it his own requiem. No, it was not commissioned by his rival Antonio Salieri or by some mysterious figure, but by a Count von Walsegg, who had the quirk of secretly commissioning pieces and putting his name on them. An assistant of Mozart—who in fact had studied with Salieri (as did Beethoven)—finished the Requiem after he died.
Like most composers of the Enlightenment, Mozart was not much into tragic sentiments in his work, and though both he and his friend Haydn were eager to write religious music, what they produced generally did not reach the level of their greatest work. None of Mozart’s masses and such are as powerful and beloved as his comic operas. The exception is the Requiem. Its first movement, the only one he more or less finished on his own, is the most tragic movement written since Bach. It is music from a man staring into his own grave.
There is usually something revealing about the music of a composer who feels death at his shoulder. Beethoven’s late music has a distinctive voice. Little of it is tragic and there is no trace of self-pity, even though in his last decade he was deaf and suffering from an endless train of illnesses that included chronic colitis and possibly lead poisoning. In his spiritual life, Beethoven was no churchgoer and not particularly interested in Christ; he preferred to deal with God man to man. His music he could only hear in his head now. Some of it has an ethereal quality, some an almost childlike directness, like the first movement of his Op. 110 Piano Sonata—played here by Andrew Rangell. (His set “Beethoven’s Final Masterworks for Piano”—the last five sonatas, Diabelli Variations, and late Bagatelles—will be out in January on Steinway & Sons.)
The scope of the late style can be seen in the middle movements of the Ninth Symphony. The Scherzo is an intricate and essentially comic fugue, with explosions of timpani. It is ingratiating enough to have served as a theme for TV shows and, recently, for a commercial. Next in the Ninth comes one of his time-stopping slow movements, a transcendent reverie.
In his late works Beethoven pushed every envelope in every direction. As his body failed, his music became more complex and more simple, grander and more intimate, more spiritual and more comic, more exalted and more nutty. Representing the latter quality is his bizarre, notorious Grosse fuge, Great Fugue, the original finale of the Op. 130 String Quartet. Here is music that will be eternally avant-garde and in some dimensions nearly beyond comprehension…
December 3, 2011
Germany is shocked by a series of murders targeting Turkish citizens. Over the course of several years Uwe Böhnhardt and Uwe Mundlos from Zwickau randomly murdered flower sellers and grocery store owners as well as a policewoman. And for years they remained in hiding, while the investigations of local and national police came to nothing. The murderers originate from Saxony, a region of the former GDR, and they were part of a extreme radical rightwing scene. There are Neo-nazis in both western and eastern German states. What is less known, however, is that this ideology was surprisingly alive and well in the GDR. Freya Klier, a former East German dissident, describes how racism was actually promoted in the GDR. Today an atmosphere persists in the “new states” that continues to tolerate rightwing extremism.
In 1993 the National Chairman of the Republikaner, Franz Schönhuber, decided to fill the existing holes in his western party staff with former state loyalists from the East. One professor was deemed particularly worthy of promotion, previously a longstanding member of the SED and director of the sociology department within the Faculty for Communism Research at the Karl Marx University of Leipzig. This man became the State Chairman of the radical right-wing Republikaner for Saxony. A party convention was planned for June 1993 in Augsburg and on this occasion also an “act of national reconciliation.”
The party chief correspondingly gushed about the German Democratic Republic. In one statement he asserted: “East Germany was much more German than West Germany. It had a sense of family and was not the kind of elbow society we have now.” In others he praised the “proper goose-step” in the GDR and their “extensive hostility to foreigners.” Schöhuber shares this view with numerous citizens of the dismantled GDR and many socialist comrades.
But Schönhuber did not yet realise what these comrades had already managed to do in the East: a history of over 40 years of cultivated anti-Semitism and an iron grip on the extremely small minority of foreigners who had been allowed to stay temporarily in an encapsulated GDR. After the flight of millions of East German citizens, there was such a permanent lack of workforce, that in the late 1970s the socialist leaders reluctantly decided to let in certain quotas of Vietnamese and Africans from Mozambique – for three year periods, and then they were replaced by others.
However, the so-called “fijis” and “mozis” were placed in special housing units. They were not allowed to frequent official restaurants. They were not allowed to leave the city without a permit, had to perform the most menial tasks in factories, and they were not supposed to learn German at all. Above all, their wives were forced to have abortions - something still celebrated by all the right-wing radicals. Could there conceivably be a more right-wing policy? Today, the people who used to enforce are under now the guises of Die Linke party. And shortly after fall of the Wall they accused the West of their own rotten practices.
After the fall of the Wall the radical right was really able to take off. In September 1990 I published an essay on anti-Semitism and xenophobia in theAllgemeine Jüdische Wochenzeitung, which I had already written at the height of the GDR era. That put me at number eight on the murder list of the East German Neo-nazis, as an ex-Neo-nazi later informed me. I had written about what was going on in our perfectly organised German block-warden system, at a time when West Germany was not yet a factor in the East.
I wrote about the Vietnamese women and about my old Jewish friend Johanna, who had to look at the Nazi who had raped her and thrown her in the Elbe in 1935 now sitting in front of her as the Party Secretary of the SED. I wrote about our little anti-racism theatre piece that I rehearsed with two young people in Berlin, who were the offspring of a German-Sudanese student romance. The two boys grew up as “nigger” as “coal-face”, and ultimately had to be placed in a special army unit in order to survive their required period of service in the National People’s Army. We rehearsed this theatre piece at a time when the so-called “anti-fascist protection wall” was protecting us from western Nazis.
I still have vivid memories of the fascist hoard that attacked the neighbouring church with “Sieg Heil!” and “Jews out of German churches!” while stabbing fleeing punks with broken-off bottles. A year before I had gathered signatures with a few friends to prevent the Jewish cemetery in Berlin Weissensee from being levelled.
“We are standing on the ruins,” I wrote in 1990, “and we have to settle the record and face the facts of a discredited society. In the year 1990 a climate ofopen violence predominates in the cities of the run down GDR. Shortly before I had been forced to flee out of an empty commuter rail wagon, because a band of Nazis in combat boots and bomber jackets had decided that I was a “Jewish cunt” because of my dark hair. I only felt I was safe once I reached West Berlin territory. I could never have expected an East German police officer to protect me.
The politics of the reigning socialists fed resentment against everything that departed from the norm. The homeless therefore never blemished the grey picture of the East German streets – those who did not make an effort to work found themselves labelled as “antisocial” and were put behind bars, where they were forced to work for slave wages. There were no ramps for the disabled; integration schools were a foreign concept.
Already immediately after the fall of the Wall, I watched how the socialist comrades responsible for all of this began to pass the whole issue off on the “West”, the “Federal Republic of Germany” and “capitalism”. Over the years their propaganda machine has been kept so perfectly oiled, that phrases such as “the displaced youth of the post-Wall era” have become standard throughout Germany as well as the notion of the great childcare centres in East Germany. It’s hard to unlearn what you’ve learned. At the same time, the comrades themselves mutated from the SED to the PDS and then to the honey-sweet party of Die Linke.
How many decades will deeply internalised behaviour patterns persist and continue to replicate themselves? Citizens of the GDR were uncomfortable with any divergence from the norm, whether it was the lurid hair colour of the punks, the “niggers” or the “fijis”, the disabled or someone wearing an unusual hat….
December 3, 2011
This image has been posted with express written permission. This cartoon was originally published at Town Hall.