Herr Wachtmeister, Wo Ist der Dom?

I was out of town, so I am plugging in a piece I wrote for an anthology of articles on German studies.  This will be boring for most of you, but the German speakers should find it amusing.)


Stray Notes From the Periphery of German Studies

Let me make it clear immediately that I am not now nor ever have been seriously engaged in German Studies, most certainly not as a scholar. I am a classical historian, and German has for me essentially been simply a tool in my examination of antiquity. But one can hardly study the German language without being exposed to some degree to German literature and culture, and I have in any case long been in love with things German. The intent of this piece, then, is not a sober march through some aspect of German Studies but rather a somewhat less than serious meandering about the edges of die Deutschkunde.

I was born in 1946, so my earliest association with German culture came in the movie theater and the schoolyard, where I was hardly exposed to its loftier aspects. Post-war Hollywood of course portrayed Germans as sinister people and incompetent soldiers, but neither that nor the vague awareness that some horrible things had been done could dampen the enthusiasm of young American boys for the trappings of the Third Reich. Militarism is always a draw for young males, and these particular militarists had especially sharp uniforms, great parades and a very cool iconography (swastikas, deaths heads, runes, etc.). Sieg Heils and Hitler salutes and the odd ditty learned from Uncle Mac (“Hitler has only got one ball…”) were consequently part of the recess repertoire, and making it even more attractive was our knowledge that for some reason this sort of thing really annoyed adults. “But Mom, didn’t they fight the evil commie Russians?”

When I entered high school and was required to choose a foreign language, there was absolutely no question. French and Spanish were the languages of wimpy second-raters, and why in the world would anyone want to study a useless tongue like Latin (an ironic assessment given what I ended up doing for a living)? No, German was the cool language, if only because it conjured up images of the Wehrmacht, and in any case I knew it was also the language of science, and that was where I was headed. I thus found myself, along with many of my brainy (or nerdy) friends, in Jens Shurk’s first year German class, where we quickly discovered from our new dictionaries that the teacher’s name was seemingly an anglicized version of Schurke! And so my career of insufficient respect for authority began, literally auf deutsch in this instance.

In four years with Herr Shurk I went through all of Zeydel’s A Basic Course in German, published in 1951, which meant that to a good extent it was illustrated with photos of a Germany that no longer existed and seemed in any case to have no history between 1930 and 1945. The German in the second half of the book was printed in Fraktur, which certainly looked cool but seemed of limited use to a student who had no idea that he would be reading nineteenth century German historians. Zeydel was an uninspiring book of the Ich bin Walter, du bist Marie variety (and did not list coolness as one of its reasons for studying German), but just learning German was a heady enough experience, and Shurk, who had been stationed in Germany and married a German woman, soon began exposing me to perspectives on German culture that extended beyond Teutonic knights and the Third Reich. Most important for me was Richard Wagner, the operas of whom Shurk, a true Wagner freak, played in class under the somewhat specious pretext that they were in German. I wonder about the linguistic value of this practice, given the frequently bizarre nature of Wagner’s German, but while the other students were passing notes or dozing off I was beginning a lifelong love affair with die Zukunftsmusik. The poetry of Christian Morgenstern, the other delightful discovery out of high school German, was a pleasure gained only through laborious translating; the Ring could be absorbed directly into the bloodstream. And it has provided for the effortless acquisition of poetic German handy for all occasions, such as the announcement of a pregnancy – den hersten Helden der Welt hegst du, o Weib, im schirmenden Schoss – or a query about the style of one’s eggs – weiche, Wotan, weiche!

still in print 60 years later

still in print 60 years later

The Shurkjahre provided me with a basic grounding in German and a growing appreciation for the more noble aspects of the Kultur, but for all the club meetings, class discussions, German dinners and movies, actually speaking German remained elusive, as did the legendary Sprachgefühl that Shurk promised would one day descend upon us like a blessing from on high. The opportunity to learn actually to talk the talk came in college, where despite abandoning science as a vocation I continued with German (advanced placement!) as a minor to my ultimate degree in ancient history. This provided a broader and deeper exposure to German literature, which ranged from the tedious (Mann) through the cool (Borchert) to the wonderfully absurd (Dürrenmatt). The down side to this great reading, of course, was that it was in a bloody foreign language, though my concurrent study of Greek and Latin increasingly made German seem a language of stark simplicity.

Far more important was the opportunity to attend Stanford-in-Germany, easily the best thing Stanford University provided me (apart from the piece of paper that got me the piece of paper that got me my faculty appointment). In June 1964 I left California for the first time, heading with some eighty other students for sixth months of classes at the Stanford branch campus in the village of Beutelsbach outside Stuttgart, which has subsequently swallowed it. Actually, the “campus” was ensconced in the Landgut Burg, perched on a hill above Beutelsbach, to which we could descend like visiting nobility in order to observe their quaint ways and try their rustic dishes, like Zwiebelkuchen and Spätzle. And their ways did strike a group of American eighteen to twenty year olds as quaint. This was 1964 and Germany and Europe were not yet completely awash in American culture and goods, and consequently one instantly felt he was in a foreign country rather that a German language version of the United States. This was especially so for peer conscious college students with their serious concern for what was hip and now. There were of course the vanishing traces of an older and more rural Europe – the resealable ceramic-capped beer bottles, the unshaven legs and armpits, the smell of the Misthaufen, horse-drawn vehicles – but what struck us most was our young German counterparts, who were in our arrogant estimation most definitely not hip and now. Their dress, their rock ’n’ roll and their dancing, the things that really mattered, were all several years out of date (eastern Europe was like a trip into the fifties), which convinced us more than anything else that these people were provincials, an irony that I can now appreciate.



Landgut Burg

Landgut Burg



Certainly not provincial at all in our underage eyes was the eminently sensible European attitude towards alcohol, which suggested that if you were old enough to vote and be drafted, you were old enough to drink. This resulted in an initial period of frequent inebriation, but the novelty wore off soon enough for most of us. There was a Ratskeller right bellow the classroom, but most preferred the experience of drinking in a foreign language and enjoying that almost unique German institution, the Gasthaus. Climbing back up to the Burg after a bout of Stein-lifting not being to my taste, I frequented the Gaststätte Hirsch in Eichelsberg, where under the tutelage of Hermann the Wirt and his wife I learned a great deal of the Volksbrauch, at least when it came to swilling beer. On a couple of occasions Hermann (whom we called ihr because of his size) brought a bottle of American whiskey after closing and crushed the cap, an indication that this was likely to end up a Kotzenabend. As I said, the periphery of German Studies.

At the Burg we had classes four days a week. We were divided into five groups by level of German, and since I had so much in high school I was put in Gruppe A, also known as the Wunderkinder, which included several native speakers. The seminars were consequently conducted entirely in German, which meant initially that for the first time in my life I did not have much to say. The other classes, economics and German philosophy, were taught in English, though the English of the German professor who taught the latter was certainly novel. Among other things he constantly spoke of “three-angles” and often began by saying “From begin on…” We never had the heart to correct him. It was, incidentally, in that class that I first read a non-mathematical book that I simply could not understand, Husserl’s Cartesian Meditations. Consider the following sentence: “The universal Apriori pertaining to a transcendental ego as such is an eidetic form, which contains an infinity of forms, an infinity of apriori types of actualities and potentialities of life, along with the objects constitutable in a life as objects actually existing.” You said it, Edmund!

But the whole point of the program was to get one off the campus into the bosom of Germany and its culture, so we were more than encouraged to travel on those three day weekends. My first trip was with some students who had a car and we visited Munich (with many jokes on the way about Ausfahrt and Einfahrt), where I had the exquisite opportunity to use a stock phrase from Zeydel that had been a constant joke back in high school German. We could not find the cathedral we wanted to visit, and I thus approached a policeman and asked “Herr Wachtmeister, wo ist der Dom?” That was truly a verweile doch moment for me. I subsequently traveled alone, hitchhiking, in order to pump up my German, and this did the trick, since as is clear from what I did for a living, I really like to talk. The flubs were part of the fun, as when I was telling one of the Dienstmädchen, Helga (die ewige Weiblichkeit zieht uns hinan – und hinein, especially when you are eighteen), about World War I ace Rudolf von Berthold: Er hat vierundvierzig Flugzeuge geschissen. An incredible accomplishment, when you think about it.

Rudolf von Berthold

Rudolf von Berthold

Not everyone spoke the German I was familiar with, however, inasmuch as regional dialects were still running strong. We certainly struggled to comprehend schwäbisch, though it was soon discovered that one could fake speaking it by adding –le to the ends of sundry words: Grüβ Gottle! (Much later I learned the reply and was able to use it in the Himalaya when a German hiker greeted me with Grüβ Gott: Wenn ich Ihn sehe!) I had frequent conversations with an old man who seemed always to be leaning out his window when I visited Beutelsbach, and I don’t think I ever understood a tenth of what he was saying. And schwäbisch was nothing compared to Schwyzerdütsch. One weekend I visited the departed Helga in St. Moritz, and the locals might have been speaking an entirely alien language. In fact, some of them were. I happened to be in one of the very few places where they spoke Romansch, apparently a vestige of Latin and the Roman Empire. I wonder about a country that can not decide what its national language is. My conversational ability nevertheless developed steadily, and after a couple of months I suddenly realized that I was sometimes speaking German without thinking about it, that I had developed some instinctive sense of what was correct and what was not. I even began to notice grammatical mistakes made by native speakers. The legendary Sprachgefühl had come upon me!

The entire group took field trips. Paris was certainly fun, but Prague was much more beautiful and certainly more interesting. This was Warsaw Pact territory, our ostensible enemy, though that hardly seemed the case with all the Czechs I met, and as a workers’ paradise everything was so cheap that many mothers, including mine, got that European crystal they had been dreaming about. On the other hand, one of the students later tried to smuggle a Czech friend to the west in his car and for two years got see the Czech penal system up close and personal. Easily the most exiting trip was to West Berlin. This was the front line of the Cold War, and the juvenile enthusiasm we had demonstrated in Stuttgart, Paris and even Prague was suddenly tempered in sight of the wall, which had gone up only three years earlier. There is something about tanks and soldiers with assault rifles that takes the fun out of stealing street signs. A showcase for the west and capitalism, West Berlin was like a city on amphetamines, wired up day and night and ablaze with neon and a terrific place for young Americans who couldn’t get into a night club back home. For me of course this was also the capital of the Second and Third Reichs, a place that oozed history, and I spent a lot of time imagining the Red Army advancing on the Tiergarten or the final events in the Führerbunker. Well, perhaps not as much time as I spent watching the girls on the Kudamm.

East Berlin was in some sense also a showcase – for the failure of socialism. There were, amazingly, still blocks of rubble from the war, and a notable absence of many sorts of goods in the stores. But the people, even some of the Vopos, were friendly, and on my first trip over I was invited to a family dinner, though they did ask if I might bring some fresh fruit when I came. When I returned that evening, a female border agent on the east side of Checkpoint Charlie looked at my bag of oranges and asked in all seriousness: “Haben Sie eine Pistole versteckt?” Visions of Rosa Klebb in my head, I stammered out a nein and watched a huge grin appear on her face. Here was an evil commie functionary with a sense of humor, something, as I discovered on later travels, that was conspicuously absent from American customs officials. For convenience I normally passed through Checkpoint Charlie, but in order to experience what ordinary Germans endured I once crossed through Bahnhof Friedrichstraβe and had one of the more unforgettable moments of my life. I got separated from my friends and had to wait an hour on the east side for them. The sun had already set, and sitting outside on a bench, I saw a squad of perhaps a dozen Vopos marching down the darkening street. Watching them in their black uniforms with their jackboots kicking up in the goosestep, I was suddenly transported into the past. All that was missing were the swastikas. Heavy stuff for an historically inclined eighteen year old.

 Bahnhof Friedrichstraβe in the day

Bahnhof Friedrichstraβe in the day

The grandest single moment of the entire half year in Germany, however, came on my pilgrimage to Bayreuth. I arrived on the day of the last performance of that year’s Festspiel, but knowing that tickets had been sold out since before Wagner’s death, I expected only to see the Festspielhaus, Haus Wahnfried and the graves of the Master and Cosima. But for the hell of it I went to the ticket office, and a ticket had come back! There were four people ahead of me, but for one reason or another they turned it down, and I realized that I was about to see (for about $15) Götterdämmerung at Bayreuth. Eat your Herz out, Jens Shurk! From then until the opera began I was floating several feet above the ground, watching the opera jet setters in their sometimes antique formal wear while they watched me in my not so formal wear. The production was by Wolfgang rather than Wieland Wagner and thus not that great, but who cared? I was in a box right next to the one Wagner and Mad Ludwig had sat in, and at the end of the performance the actual grandsons of the vile genius appeared on the stage. The ovation went on for the better part of an hour, and my hands were sore from clapping and my voice hoarse from yelling. I expect that I am the only person ever to have yelled “Bitchin’!” in the Festspielhaus.

the holy of holies

the holy of holies

Before I departed Germany in December for the Kindermädchenstaat I stayed a week with a German family in Schorndorf, a whole new experience in Haushaltskultur. I knew Germans did far more handshaking than we, but I was astounded to witness the children in the family shake hands with their parents before retiring for the night and upon greeting them in the morning. My guess is that this custom has evaporated as Germany has evolved – unfortunately – into a less formal society in the last three decades. Also enlightening was a trip with one of the boys in the family to his Gymnasium, where he studied a curriculum that would baffle many of the undergraduates in an American university. His English teacher was delighted to have a native speaker in the class and had me read the text they were preparing. Perhaps not so surprising to me after a half year in Germany, I was periodically interrupted by the instructor, who would point out “That is the way they say it in America. Here is the way it should be pronounced.” And I had thought I spoke standard, non-dialectical English.

My time in Germany in 1964 was clearly the high point of my tenuous association with German Studies, but I did visit the Vaterland again. In 1979 a sort of circle was completed as I traveled to Germany (and other countries) in the company of Herr Shurk, who thus had the opportunity to hear one of his former students actually speak passable German. In return I got to meet his wife’s family in Mainz (Gel!), including her father, a former Gauleiter (cleared during the denazification) now in his eighties. My historian’s heart was of course excited – a living relic of the Hitler government – but he was disinclined to talk about the old days. Less lofty, perhaps, was my return in 1984 with my brother, whose German was at the Bier gut! level. The Burg was now a sort of convention center, the Stanford-in-Germany program having expired from lack of student interest, yet another sign of the decline of higher education in the United States. In Munich I insisted we visit the Hofbräuhaus, since I had been there exactly twenty years earlier to the month and every beer drinker should stop in at least once in his life. Just an hour or so in the afternoon for nostalgia purposes; we staggered out after midnight, so schön ist’s im Hofbräuhaus!

Meanwhile, German had for me become less the language of literature and beer halls and more the Gelehrtensprache, as I obtained a doctorate in classical history. The language I had as an adolescent thought useful for science turned out to be along with my mother tongue the most useful for studying antiquity. It was after all the Germans who invented “scientific” history (“wie es eigentlich gewesen ist”) in the nineteenth century, better to examine the classical world they had fallen in love with in the eighteenth. Moreover, German can be just perfect for the nitpicking so dear to scholars, especially those in Classical Studies. Was the Peloponnesian League a Staatenbund or a Bundesstaat? This sort of elegance is impossible in English. It is hardly surprising that the most monumental work in classical history, at least in terms of size, is in German: Pauly, Wissowa, & Kroll, Real-Encyclopädie der klassischen Altertumswissenschaft. This was a project that lasted longer than the Second and Third Reichs combined.

My conversational ability has gone dormant in recent years, requiring a one or two week dip in a German-speaking environment to revive, and I have not returned to Germany in twenty years. But I have of late spent a lot of time in Greece, and German has frequently stood in for my non-existent modern Greek, since there are so many middle-aged Greeks (and Italians and Turks) who speak German from their days as Gastarbeiter. Besides, Germans and Austrians have the tourist Euros to spend, which more than compensates for any hard feelings left over from the forties, and many shops and restaurants sprechen Deutsch. Indeed, every summer there is a mini-Indo-European invasion, as Germans, dragging their Wohnwagen behind their Benzes, stream into the Adriatic and Aegean, seeking the sun and bargains. And if you fly into Athens, you pass through an airport built and for the next thirty years owned by the Germans.

Here in Albuquerque, the land of Karl May, my dance about the fringes of German Studies is maintained through my friendship with Peter Pabisch and Fritz Cocron, a Dolmetscher on the Ostfront (more living history) and possibly the only Wehrmacht veteran ever to be decorated by the Polish government. Our conversations are for the most part in English, but snatches of German nevertheless slip past my lips on occasion and Sprachgefühl appears with me still, ready to be awakened by a sojourn in Germany.

Mein Sinn ist in Griechenland, aber mein Herz bleibt immer in Deutschland.

One comment on “Herr Wachtmeister, Wo Ist der Dom?

  1. Mark Sprague says:

    Grade aus, dann links, natuerlich. (Der ewigen Dom zieht uns hinan…)

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