Berlin diary


What did the Germans think of us?
Eurozone tensions have sparked some verbal hostilities in Ireland towards Germany, and many Irish living in Germany find themselves confronted with the same vexing question on their trips home: “What do the Germans think of us?”

History provides a simple answer to the question: whatever we choose to tell them. That, at least, was the view of Éamon de Valera when, in March 1921, he decided to send a team to explain the Irish Free State to Germans, “camouflaged perhaps under a trade title”.

This month marks the 90th anniversary of these first tentative diplomatic contacts. The ostensible head of the effort was John Chartres, a diplomat, but British diplomatic protests and political commitments at home meant most of the work in Berlin was done by his deputy, Nancy Wyse Power.

Wyse Power, who had studied in Bonn and spoke German, came from sturdy nationalist stock: her mother, Jennie, was president of Cumann na mBan and the 1916 Proclamation was signed in the family shop, on Henry Street in Dublin. Her journalist father, John, was a prominent member of Cumann na nGaedhael and a founding member of the GAA.

In a 1921 memorandum Wyse Power noted that German newspapers ran Irish news lifted largely from the British Press Association, thus giving it “the wrong tinge”. “If the papers continue to be dependent on enemy sources for news,” she wrote, “the inevitable colouring of such news will, with time, have an effect on the minds of the readers.”

Wyse Power was just 31 when she arrived in Berlin on April 16th, 1921, to produce an Irish bulletin. Putting out the first edition just two weeks after her arrival was nothing short of a minor miracle: material from Ireland failed to arrive, forcing her to use Irish news from the very British media she was there to counteract.

The twice-weekly bulletin was received politely in Berlin, but Wyse Power realised the German priority was not to upset the British by getting too friendly with an unofficial diplomatic mission disguised as a press office.

The frequent absences of John Chartres were difficult, but his presence in Berlin didn’t help either after a turf war broke out between himself and Charles Bewley, the newly appointed trade representative to Berlin.

“Almost everybody in Germany who purports to be working for Ireland’s interest,” Wyse Power wrote home, “is more concerned in blackening the character of everybody else than in doing any useful work.”

Wyse Power complained to de Valera in November 1921 that “it might have been better to leave the matter untouched, rather than conduct propaganda in this haphazard manner”.

By the spring of 1922 the Berlin operation was disintegrating amid the growing political chaos of the Weimar Republic and Treaty tensions between the Berlin office staff. Dublin halted publication of the August and September editions amid rows about whether the bulletin contents were pro- or anti-Treaty. Chartres left Berlin in September 1922; Wyse Power returned home a month later.

Bewley stayed on, but Dublin would have to wait until 1929 for its first ambassador to be recognised by Berlin. The Clongowes boy William Binchy had no illusions about the place of Ireland in German consciousness, and saw his role “to bring light unto the Germans”.

Before he did that, however, his first task was to disabuse Dublin about Ireland’s place in the German mind: “The Foreign Office thinks of us in precisely the same terms as it thinks, say, of Bulgaria or a small Central American republic.”

In many ways Binchy’s dispatches to Dublin are as applicable in the current eurozone row as then. So, back to the original question: what do the Germans think of us? To quote Binchy: “Uninformed sympathy . . . The average German . . . is exceedingly friendly to Ireland, though he knows little or nothing about us.”

'Crazy Irish' earn some very bad press

That “uniformed sympathy” towards the Irish was sorely tested over the Easter weekend when about 400 “crazy, roaming Irish” Travellers descended on Cologne.

“The so-called ‘tinkers’ boozed and boxed their way through the Cologne bars,” noted the local Bildtabloid.

The pub crawl began on Saturday night when the group descended on bars in Cologne’s old town. A scuffle broke out at their first stop when, according to locals, several Irish women declined to pay their bar bill and instead left dirty nappies on their table.

“The women and girls attracted quite a bit of attention, dressed in very tight, loud neon colours,” reported the Kölnische Rundschau newspaper.

At the next stop, the Jameson pub, customers claimed that the Irish openly took drugs, got into fights with locals and demolished two tables.

On Sunday morning the Irish began fighting each other in the Shamrock bar. The police were called, arrived en masse, took the details of 87 Irish and took another seven into custody. In the end they rounded up the Irish to, as a spokesman put it, “keep them from committing further crimes”. Spokesman Lutz Flaßnöcker said the Irish left behind a “considerable number of unpaid bills, willful damage to property and bodily harm”.

At about 10.30pm on Sunday evening the visitors eventually got back into their camper vans and caravans and drove off.

“There was one, natural, death,” said the police spokesman. A local newspaper added: “They wanted to take the body with them but were not allowed. It’s likely that the crazy Irish will stay until the funeral.”

Nazi slur bad sign for foreign minister

The quickest way to end your career in Germany is to compare a prominent person publicly to a Nazi. So it’s a sign of how far the star of German foreign minister Guido Westerwelle has fallen that no one seemed to mind when a leading historian described him as “the most small-minded foreign minister since von Ribbentrop”.

The remark in Der Spiegelmagazine by the leading political scientist Christian Hacke, author of a piece on German foreign policy, prompted not a peep of protest from the German establishment, or from the media.

The only reaction was a satirical news report that descendants of the Nazi foreign minister were outraged by the comparison with Westerwelle.

Although no German diplomat would ever make such a far-out comparison, several let off steam about their boss in Der Spiegel– anonymously, of course.

“He has learned nothing and, at this stage, will never learn,” complained one senior diplomat.

The bad reviews confirm the suspicions that many political observers had when Westerwelle (below) entered the ministry: that he was uninterested in foreign affairs and would be better suited to a domestic cabinet posting. But Westerwelle insisted on becoming Germany’s chief diplomat as a matter of prestige, to follow in the footsteps of his political mentor Hans-Dietrich Genscher.

Things began to unravel after he insisted Germany, a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council, abstain from the recent Libya vote.

Critics attacked Westerwelle for, as they saw it, splitting Europe, annoying Washington and isolating Berlin. Sources close to Chancellor Merkel claimed that, without her intervention, Westerwelle might have even voted against the resolution.

Adding to his woes, an unbroken run of regional poll disasters saw Westerwelle deposed as leader of the junior coalition Free Democrats earlier this month. He has clung on in the foreign ministry, but Germany’s prestige-conscious diplomats are not amused at having a political has-been as boss.

“Westerwelle has to go,” fumed Hacke. “He doesn’t represent German interests adequately. And because one has to feel embarrassed for him.” Ouch.

Kellys may be tutu much for us, but life is rosy over there

Anyone worried about German attitudes to the Irish should say a novena for Maite Kelly, the 31-year-old hot favourite to win the German version of Strictly Come Dancing.

She shot to fame in Germany as a member of The Kelly Family band, huge stars in Germany in the 1980s and 1990s.

Despite their American- German pedigree – only one of the 11 children in the family was born in Ireland – their Irish- American father-manager cultivated the band’s image as a wild, vagabond family from the Emerald Isle.

In spite of selling millions of records in Germany and around Europe, The Kelly Family enjoyed only modest success in Ireland with their 1994 album Over the Hump.

Oh how we Irish sneered at their double-decker tour bus, their houseboat, hippy hair and home-made clothes.

Times have changed, and we need to hitch our wagon to any passing success story.

With Maite on course to win, Dublin could act quickly to hijack the victory for Ireland by giving the Berlin-born celebrity an Irish passport. Call it the Passport for Pirouettes programme.

Asparagus parties are where it's at

As the silly season warms up, Germany is already gripped by asparagus season.

The humble white asparagus inspires quasi-religious fervour among the Germans who, from April to June each year, eat about 1.6kg of white asparagus per head, usually served with new potatoes, hollandaise sauce and a schnitzel.

Asparagus parties are a common occurrence, as are asparagus festivals in growing regions. Beelitz, in the state of Brandenburg, source of asparagus for Berlin, is celebrating 150 years of asparagus growing in the region.

It kicked off this anniversary season by crowning its new asparagus queen, Cindy Demko. “We had three applicants, but Cindy impressed us with her open and approachable manner,” said one of the jurors.

The 23-year-old put her success down to her ability to cram enough technical facts and figures about asparagus for the jury interview.

In her acceptance speech a teary Cindy said: “My grandparents grew their own asparagus here in the region.” She gave thanks to the local car dealer for loaning her a Renault Mégane for her one-year reign.

Bad vibrations keep Berliners awake at night

Each summer Germany is a welcome source of silly-season happenings for news editors parched for news. In the interests of quality the Irish Timesforeign pages cannot print all of these stories, but here’s what you’ve been missing.

The season got off to an early start this week in Berlin when police were called by apartment residents complaining about a drill-like sound all night from a neighbouring flat.

Unable to contact the tenant, police broke down the door to find a vibrator, switched on and doing a solo run across the bedroom floor. “You could hear the noise out on the street,” complained one neighbour.

Police took the vibrator into custody. On her return the 23-year-old owner can expect to face furious neighbours and a bill for the broken door.

Politicians plagued by plagiarism proceedings

For two months a plagiarism scandal involving leading politicians has livened up Germany’s otherwise tame parliamentary scene. Political shooting star Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg resigned as defence minister last month after it was revealed that vast chunks of his doctoral thesis were lifted without citation from other sources.

The scale of his copying-and-pasting was revealed by a collective of online plagiarism hunters. After claiming their first scalp they have moved on to their next target: the liberal MEP Silvana Koch-Mehrin.

A vice-president of the European Parliament, Dr Koch-Mehrin is a leading light of Germany’s governing Free Democrats; she now stands accused of lifting passages for her 2000 thesis on currency reform.

The online co-operative says more than a quarter of the work’s 227 pages contain instances of undocumented citation. Dr Koch-Mehrin, whose husband is Irish, has maintained a silence on the matter. Her alma mater the University of Heidelberg has set up a panel to investigate the claims.

How long before the plagiarism hunters turn their attention to the big game? How about Chancellor Merkel’s 1986 doctoral opus? It’s called Investigation of the Mechanism of Decay Reactions with Single Bond Breaking and Calculation of Their Velocity Constants on the Basis of Quantum Chemical and Statistical Methods.

Good luck with that one.