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  • Writer's pictureMeirion Harries

DAY THIRTY TWO A Question of Culture

Apologies to all those kind donors who have expressed outrage at being denied a visit to the Gnome Museum in Frankenhain. It was closed as the bike went past – so below is a public service broadcast by Deutsche Welle on the gnome phenomenon. If you don't care to watch the film, it is worth noting the statistic: there is one gnome to every four Germans - 20 million gnomes, that is. But there is a gnomic sadness in the land. Sales are holding up but cheap imports and an unwillingness of modern youth to learn the job of making gnomes means that the country's last manufacturers, the Griebel family, may soon have to close their business – a business that began in 1874 when people started taking allotments. The phenomenon does, however, raise the question of whether there is a mass culture in Germany. The Race Marshal and I discussed this topic over a slice of Prinzregententorte, a cake of seven layers spread with chocolate buttercream. The name honours Luitpold, Regent of Bavaria, a great patron of the arts who made Munich at the turn of the nineteenth century the cultural capital of Europe. His cake used to be made with eight layers, each representing a region of Bavaria - but one region has gone now and taken a layer with it. From our vantage point in the stylishly modern Cafe M in Coburg we were able to look along the Judengasse at the Judentor – a view sketched by Turner in 1840, on his way back from cultural immersion in Italy. What a pity the gnome hadn't been invented then: his art might have been so different. That splash of red might have been the hat of a gnome. In the 1970s, the Race Marshal and I wrote a book about the American occupation of Japan after the war and the attempt to steer that culture westwards. In Japan, there was a genuine clash of cultures – none more different. But the Americans also occupied a large swathe of Germany, including all of Bavaria and, after the occupation officially ended, maintained huge numbers of troops here – all pointing at the Soviet Union. As late as 1990, there were 200,000 American personnel based in Germany, Bavaria having the lion's share – the American base to the east, near the border with the Czech Republic covers 390 square kilometres. These days, numbers have dwindled and are down to about 38,000 servicemen, including airmen.


In Japan, American troops are mostly confined to Okinawa – but for seventy-five years, Americans were a physical and financial presence all over Germany. And during those seventy five years of boots on the ground, the channels of cultural penetration have deepened and widened. Fast food, pop music, fashion, tourism, film and television and now the internet, all coupled with American push, and all aimed at the wealthy German market, have created a potential tsunami of what is termed Americanisation (though the term loses meaning in a world of global commercial and media companies).

There is certainly evidence of wave damage: Coburg, with a population of only forty thousand, has American-style bars and cafes and two baseball teams. Across Germany there are 1,500 McDonald's with an average 56,000 potential eaters per outlet. (In the United States this average is 23,000.) Around 28% of Germany's population never eat at McDonald's and 20% eat there rarely; only half a million out of a population of 83 million eat there several times a week. This might suggest that German culture is hardly being overwhelmed - but the question has been asked. For example, the German Research Foundation was anxious about the culturally harmful effects of Dallas. Their researchers concluded that there is no simple process of cause and effect. Culture (excluding burgers) is never swallowed whole: cultural input is filtered by the recipient's own 'associations, emotions, and bodily sensations [which] in the process create a new object'. And this natural filtering has been buttressed by Germans fighting back. TV channels have produced German series that pushed American drama to the late hours; and when Nickelodeon arrived, two German companies created a home-grown children's channel. In the fast food arena, between 2013 and 2017, Hans im Glück and BackWerk grew at 64% and 24% respectively, while McDonald’s grew only 1% during the same period. Both these new chains drew on German culture: Hans im Gluck's name comes from the Grimm Brothers fairytale Hans in Luck and, when you enter, you enjoy your fast food in the deep cultural significance of a medieval forest. Backwerk started as a Backerie, and now is called Back Werk-iss frischer (eat fresher) - riding on the new cultural imperative of healthy and local food. But there is one extremely important area where there has been penetration and it hit Germany at a critical time – during the world-wide student movement of the 1960s. American pop culture accelerates the process of individualisation in society by the focus on 'me', and challenges established hierarchies though models of individualistic rebellion, like James Dean and Brando. Who knows how much this vector has pulled German society toward the current democracy, but academics emphasise exemplars like Elvis Presley in GI Blues replacing the stern discipline of the Wehrmacht with rock 'n roll soldiers or by “opening up new spaces for self-fashioning through the playful exhibitionism of female actors like Marilyn Monroe”.

For German youth coming to terms with the legacy of their parents' lives, validations of rebellion and individuality may have helped them find their place. And it is that generation, after all, that has built the liberal, euro-centred Germany of today. If now Americanisation can be seen as failing, it may just be that German culture has proven to be particularly robust. By this I don't mean national culture. There isn't one really. Germany throughout its history has been a shifting patchwork of independent cities and states, all with their own rulers, dialects and identities.

Bismarck was wrong to put his money on sausages and beer as national identifiers: he might as well have lumped Lyonnais and Normande cuisine together as 'food', or the Jura's vin jaune and Condrieu as 'wine'. German cuisine may be sausage shaped, but they are all different under the skin. Brillat-Savarin wrote: 'Tell me what you eat and I will tell you what you are': if you eat a Weisswurst, you are Bavarian - more than that, you are from Munich; if you drink Altbier, you are from Munster. Or, perhaps, you are a tourist. When the Allies decided that militarism stood less chance of revival if Germany was broken up into (what are now) sixteen states with devolved powers, they reinforced regional and local identities. And the more local a culture, the more robust it is because it is self-policing. But if localism is strength, then there is nothing with more cultural vitality than the centrepiece of our supper tonight, the Coburg sausage - Victoria's fond name, so it's said, for her somewhat rotund husband.

The Dallas Theme from 1978 -

The final unforgettable 1min 7secs of Season 7

Elvis in G I Blues -

As we're in Germany, here is Chuck Berry singing Roll over Beethoven -

And, course, the promised film about gnomes -

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1 comentario

10 jul 2020

excellent piece thank you

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