Neo-Nazi trial sparks debate on Germany’s racist undercurrents

Irish Independent, May 13, 2013

Enver Simsek was their first victim. On September 9, 2000, the Turkish immigrant and businessman was gunned down at one of the flower stalls he owned in Nuremberg, shot in the head eight times.

It was the start of an alleged killing spree by the far-right National Socialist Underground (NSU) that saw 10 people murdered between 2000 and 2007: eight men of Turkish origin, one of Greek descent and a German policewoman.

The case has left Germany reeling and has revealed not only severe failings on the part of the authorities but also a blind spot when it came to the threat posed by the extreme right. Continue reading

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How Hitler helped make Hollywood

GlobalPost, February 14, 2013
BERLIN, Germany — Two months after Adolf Hitler’s appointment as German chancellor in 1933, Jews working in Germany’s groundbreaking film industry were warned there would be no place for them under the new Nazi regime.

“We will not even remotely tolerate that those ideas, which Germany has eradicated at the root, are able to make their way either openly or surreptitiously back into film,” Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels announced that March. The powerful UFA studio canceled contracts for most Jews working there the following day.

Thus began the greatest rupture in German film history, marking the end of the golden age for Weimar cinema. Soon not only Jews, but left-wingers began fleeing the country, followed by others who saw no place for themselves in what would become the Third Reich’s propaganda machine.

Their departure would help transform another film industry: Hollywood. Of the some 2,000 movie professionals who left Germany in the 1930s, most ended up in California, where the techniques they pioneered back home would have a lasting impact on American film.

This week, the Berlin International Film Festival is honoring them in a retrospective called “The Weimar Touch.” More than 30 films dating from 1933 to 1959 are being shown in a program co-curated by the Deutsche Kinemathek film archive and New York’s Museum of Modern Art.

The selection explores not only films made by those immigrants after they left Germany, but also their influence on international cinema in general, from their experimental sets and lighting techniques to the way they viewed the world.

“Weimar cinema paid attention not only to the surface but the deep currents beneath,” retrospective director Rainer Rother said in an interview. “It was a cinema more of doubt than of self-assuredness, very open to nuances and ambiguities.”

Film was one of many arts that flourished under Weimar Germany, a period of nascent democracy and great instability between the end of the World War I and the Nazi rise to power. The political and economic uncertainty somehow translated into a great burst of creative energy that’s rarely been matched.

Although experimental works such as “Dr Caligari,” “Nosferatu” and “Metropolis” may be the first to spring to mind on mention of Weimar, Germany also boasted a vibrant commercial film industry that turned out comedies, musicals and other popular entertainment for the home market and international distribution.

But German cinema’s most creative and productive period ended with the exodus that began in 1933. Fritz Lang, Billy Wilder, Peter Lorre, Douglas Sirk, Max Ophüls, Robert Siodmak and Max Reinhardt were just some of the actors, directors and others to leave. Continue reading

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Guest on Deutsche Welle TV: Catholic Church: Not of this World Anymore?

On February 7, 2013 I appeared as a guest expert on Quadriga, Deutsche Welle TV’s English-language politics show to discuss the Catholic Church.

View the episode here:

Quadriga – Catholic Church: Not of this World Anymore?

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Germany’s analogue Father Christmas letter service continues in a digital age

Once upon a time it was an unremarkable village in the former EastGermany, with a rather misleading name: Himmelpfort, or Heaven’s Gate, they call it, though there is not that much heavenly about it.

No matter. The name has proven enough in recent years to attract an annual deluge of letters to Father Christmas, such that Himmelpfort has reinvented itself as Santa’s principal sorting office. Last year the village received more than 300,000 letters, of which more than 15,000 came from abroad. The old redbrick village schoolhouse has been turned into one of seven official Christmas post offices designed to process the mail. Every letter gets a reply with the official Himmelpfort Christmas stamp.

The yuletide postal service had humble beginnings. Back in 1984, two children wrote to Father Christmas at Himmelpfort and a post office worker, Konni Matzke, not sure what to do at first, decided to write back. “Word got out and by 1987 we received 75 letters. And it was lovely – mothers sent packets of coffee and homemade cookies to say thank you to Father Christmas.”

After the fall of the Berlin Wall, things got even busier, with about 1,000 letters arriving each year, and the village post office was soon overwhelmed. In 1995 Deutsche Post, the state postal service, stepped in to help organise the responses. Now Santa Claus, along with his 20 helpers – the “Christmas Angels” – spend from early November until Christmas Eve replying to each and every one. Continue reading

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Merkel unveils Roma Holocaust memorial

GlobalPost, October 24, 2012

BERLIN, Germany — Almost 70 years after the end of World War II, Germany has unveiled a memorial to the up to half-a-million Roma and related Sinti people murdered by the Nazis.

The memorial, a dark, circular pool of water with a triangular plinth in the center — where a fresh flower will be placed every day — stands in the capital’s Tiergarten park near the Reichstag.

Chancellor Angela Merkel and President Joachim Gauck joined politicians and representatives of the Roma and Sinti communities, as well as 100 elderly Holocaust survivors for the unveiling ceremony.

“Every single fate in this genocide is a suffering beyond understanding,” Merkel said. “Every single fate fills me with sorrow and shame.”

However, representatives of the Roma and Sinti — a related people who live mostly in German-speaking Central Europe — say the memorial should also serve as a warning about ongoing discrimination across the continent today. Continue reading

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German UBS clients raided on suspicion of tax evasion

The Guardian, November 12, 2012

German tax investigators on Monday carried out searches of hundreds of clients of Swiss bank UBS on suspicion of tax evasion. The raids, carried out by around 50 tax investigators across the country, were ordered by the state prosecutor’s office in the city of Bochum.

“There is an investigation into several hundred domestic customers of the Swiss bank UBS on suspicion of tax evasion,” spokesman Norbert Salamon said.

Prosecutors based their investigation on data contained on a computer disk purchased by the authorities in the state of North Rhine-Westphalia, where Bochum is situated. The finance ministry in the state, which is ruled by the Social Democrats (SPD) and Greens, has purchased a total of six CDs since 2010 in order to track down tax evaders. Continue reading

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Another German minister caught in plagiarism scandal

GlobalPost, October 20, 2012

BERLIN, Germany — A close ally of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s is under fierce pressure over claims she plagiarized her doctoral thesis more than 30 years ago.

Annette Schavan’s role as education minister, in which she oversees the country’s universities, makes the accusations especially damaging.

Opposition politicians have called on her to resign, saying her reputation is in tatters after the leaking of a report from the University of Duesseldorf appeared to back up the allegations.

“If the accusations prove correct, I have a hard time imagining how the minister in charge of science and research can credibly carry out her duties,” Green Party leader Claudia Roth said earlier this week.

Der Spiegel magazine reported that the university’s examination of Schavan’s thesis recommended stripping her of her PhD. But the university hasn’t made clear when it would make a decision, putting her in a difficult position for the foreseeable future. Continue reading

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