Imagine my surprise when I was flicking through some 1970s Schlager records in a music shop in Germanys ‘oldest town’ of Trier and I discovered a signed copy of a Roberto Blanco vinyl. It’s not every day you come across a gem, and a signed one made this discovery extra special. The fact is that I had no idea who Roberto Blanco was either, but I was nonetheless intrigued. The cause of my instant intrigue in a naff ‘entertainer’ of the past was down to the image on the album sleeve; suffice it to say he is a Schlager singer from the 70s and one of the only, if not the only black singer in German musical history.
With race in the days of the Roman Empire being a lot less stigmatised than in the societies of today, I thought it strange that during the glory days of Trier as a centre of the Roman Empire, I would be seeing many more black people and, in fact, many more people from everywhere. After I had stopped laughing at the varying shades of corny, goofy and stale that I found within this atrocious collection of records, I began to wonder why.
For those not in the know, Schlager is a garish German brand of sentimental Pop music, especially popular in the post-war years. A popular music often adhering to songwriting traditions and patterns of German folk music. Goodtime, knees-up music: clapping on every third beat or banging your beer on the Tisch without a care in the world apart from, of course, your dentures falling out. This is because Schlager is often considered music for the old folks, especially underlined by the old and sometimes outdated song content. A remake Schlager version of a traditional lullaby, Es war in Böhmerwald wo meine Wieger stand, literally ‘My Cradle Stood in The Bohemian Forest’ is a hit exemplary of this, as the Böhmerwald is no longer part of German territory and, after the post war expulsions of the German population of the area, has no more German cradles standing in it like most of former Prussia. A titan of the genre, Karel Gott, with his dyed hair, whitened teeth and young wife, is himself a Prager (of Prague origin) who sings in German, indicative of the temptation of the genre and the listeners to live in the past.
Of course, the reasons for differences in demographics between Germany and other countries in Western Europe are many, and it is certainly not something I can go into here. But, my discovery of Roberto Blanco in a way highlights the meeting of two separate worlds: Germany’s racist imperial past represented by the listeners, and the new Germany adjusting to the inevitable modern age in which people are moving as much as products and files on the internet.
Germany has been in the unofficial process of coming to terms with its identity as a multicultural nation in the last 15 years or so, during which one of the first steps was the abolition of the ius sanguinis principle in 2000, which only granted automatic citizenship at birth to those of German ancestry. In practice, this meant that those born and bred (and registered legally) in Germany where not automatically granted German citizenship on the day of their birth if the parents of the child were not German. I found this hard to comprehend. By denying a young child from an ethnic minority background the right to be considered German, even if they are neither proficient in the language of their parents, nor have ever been to the country of their family’s ancestry, one ascribes an identity for them which does not belong to either subject or the government who ascribes it. It is, in my view, absurd that my friend Nicolò, despite being born and bred in Frankfurt, knowing very little Italian and, in fact, only going to Italy for the first time at the age of 17, is not considered German by the state. Indeed, he had to apply for a German passport in a similar manner to the Syrian refugees who arrived in Germany during the European migrant crisis.
The cold and somewhat uncomfortable fact here is that such people are, or in this case were, considered irrevocably foreign by the government at the time of their birth due to their foreign parentage. As is often the case for second and third generation minority groups upon visiting the ancestral country of origin, acceptance is not always easily found. After all, the Turkish Turks in Turkey, unlike the German Turks in Germany, do not always see a young second generation Turk from Dortmund as Turkish at all. The Turkish identity given to him by German society, upon which he relied for any reference of who he is and where he belongs, is torn away from him. A situation is created where he is not seen as German in the country of his birth, because his parents aren’t German, and he is not seen as Turkish in Turkey because he’s never lived there and, frankly, has very little to do with Turkey. Such young people grow up with what Italian writer Gesualdo Bufalino would call a hyper-sensitive excess of identity.
The move from the völkisch German identity of the past, towards the new Germany, which has been embracing the multikulti nature of its fabric in recent years, is important - and I say this because in some ways the symptoms of a national identity based on ethnicity remained visible like a historical Weißbier hangover. Historically speaking, German lands as empires had limited contact with nations and people outside of Europe. Indeed, I would argue that while Germany’s neighbours a few doors down to the west (namely the French, Belgians, Dutch and British) were out gallivanting around the rest of the world colonising and ‘civilising’ as they went, the Prussians were out in their own back gardens colonising parts of Europe itself. This has affected attitudes regarding fellow Europeans, their neighbours to the east. To some extent these can be compared to the aforementioned countries’ attitudes towards Africa, Southeast Asia and the Indian subcontinent that can unfortunately still be found, in varying shades of shock, in their respective societies today.
The supposedly barbarous and uncultivated residents of areas that western imperial powers colonised, could be patronised and arranged as a convenient antithesis of ‘the West’ and ‘civilization’. This is a tool which would prove handy in the forming of national identities and empires, as Edward Said discusses in his acclaimed work Orientalism (1978).
The Teutonic Knights famously annexed areas of the Baltic coast in a similar manner to fight and convert the pagan Lithuanians to Christianity, a challenge that, once achieved, left them fairly redundant in the area. These areas were subsequently considered German and formed East Prussia at both the height of Prussian expansion in Europe and during the interwar period. This was a centre for Kultur, with the likes of Kant and Herder hailing from these territories. In a sense, when the Teutonic knights conquered and converted the non-believers in Lithuania and Latvia, they had in fact found for themselves what they believed to be people in need of their particular civilising influence. The same identity ascribed by imperial Europe to former colonies as the other, which lie as scars upon society and culture in Europe, can be found in a smaller way in Germany regarding fellow European neighbours.
It always seemed strange to me how in German culture, the ‘other’ that Said talks about being created by European imperialism begins geographically far closer to home than in other western cultures. The clichéd image of this ‘other’, being found in a variety of 20th century popular culture and literature, the Heart of Darkness of Africa and a recurring tendency to portray anywhere south of the Mediterranean and beyond as the unknown, bizarre, sinister or even dangerous became such a permanent fixture that societies started to believe it. During time spent in Germany, I found it very interesting that even to this day the ‘orient’ can encompass a far larger area than in the conventional sense. Indeed I have often noticed ‘der Osten’ used as a synonym for Poland.
Obviously, this is partly due to the literal ‘eastness’ of the nations in relation to Germany’s geographical situation in Europe. Even so, such literalness is unfamiliar to someone from the United Kingdom where it is not common practice to refer to the Low Countries or indeed Germany as ‘the East’. That means something else to us, namely the Far East, due to our history as a global power. Perhaps in Germany these parts of the world were lumped together for a long time. That the intriguing and peculiar racial slur Kanake, for which there exists in my opinion no adequate modern English translation, refers to Arabs, Turks and/or southern and south-eastern Europeans despite being historically used to denote Polynesians perhaps reinforces this. Perhaps it is only now, with the ever-present backdrop of the migrant crisis that we can gauge Germany’s updated feeling towards the orient in a sort of public acid test.
In the absence of a German worldwide spread of influence, the Czech, Pole, and Lithuanian fell under a somewhat similar category - filling a void left by a lack of colonies which was nonetheless necessary to form an empire. Bismarck and Hitler were able to use the fetishised image of Slavic people under the pretence of being superior, yet as an empire they, like all the European powers, needed this to enhance the evolution of their power.
One can’t help but wonder about the implications on the future of a post migrant crisis Germany if there are still home-grown ‘foreigners’ (or as the government now refer to them in splendid German compound noun fashion: those-with-a-migration-background) in my age group applying for citizenship. Indeed the idea of ‘indigenous foreign’ seems to jar with a country that has taken in such a colossal figure of refugees in the last four years and this seems to be a big step. The future generations of the new arrivals will be, unlike those born before 2000, granted immediate citizenship. In this sense the policies of Angela Merkel concerning migrants have been a move from naught to sixty and has been raising questions about compatibility of immigrants in Germany.
I will leave you with a reminiscence of an article I read recently in Der Spiegel, in which the rise of right-wing political groups in ‘eastern Europe’ was covered. From the ever more pious and preposterous Poland and the anti-EU chauvinistic chairman of the Czech party ‘Freedom and Direct Democracy’, to Orbán who straddles the Danube with a giant net fishing for refugees and migrants. It was all there, as is often the case with Spiegel, including one strange phrase which I honed in on, fascinated by its use in this context. As someone who dislikes the use of the term ‘eastern Europe’, something which I find not only historically and culturally inaccurate but also geographically so, seeing as Prague is further west than Vienna, I was especially intrigued to find this cluster of EU newcomers referred to as Naher Osten lit. ‘The Near East’. Because of the Cold War, British people also use the term ‘Eastern Europe’ for any country that was on the other side of iron curtain, and in that light we are not right either. Indeed, with relations with Russia increasingly resembling the amicable vibes of the good old days, it is likely that this term isn’t going anywhere soon. Journalistic fun with pun or not, I think that that last pint must have been bad because that hangover is hanging around for the time being.