Genre of the Week: Three and a Half Hours

Probstzella: The memorial using the remains of the border control building. The train station complex is in the background. Photo taken in 2010

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This week’s Genre of the Week is in connection with the 60th Anniversary of the Construction of the Berlin Wall. On August 13th, 1961, the East German government sealed off the border with its western neighbor, West Germany- first by constructing the Berlin Wall, a 155-kilometer long wall that encompassed all of West Berlin. In addition, the border was fenced off and walled from a point east of Lübeck, going south then east before terminating at the border with Czechoslovakia, located east of Hof. It separated the eastern states with the like of Shcleswig-Holstein, Lower Saxony, Hesse and Bavaria. The walls remained for 28 years until the fall of the Berlin Wall on 9 November, 1989 and the reopening of the border along the state borders days later.  While Germany has remained a unified country for 30 years, the scars of the divided Germany, which started after the capitulation of the Nazis on 7 May, 1945 still remains and serves as a reminder that events like this must never be repeated anywhere.

The next genre I’m presenting is a book that I’m reading at present but one that has been converted into a film, which one can (and should also) see when talking about the Berlin Wall.  Three and a Half Hours (German: Dreieinhalb Stunden) is a historic fictional book that has its roots to those who were in fact forced to decide between East and West, capitalism and socialism, freedom and supervision. The idea came from author Robert Krause, whose grandparents and parents both were caught in that line of fire on 13 August, 1961. Krause (*1970), who originates from Dresden, mentioned that his grandparents had traveled on that day when the border closed, his father was with a friend in West Berlin.  It looks at a situation which can be used in a classroom on history, German or other classes that focuses on governments, foreign languages and culture in a form of “Make a Decision:”

Imagine this situation: You are traveling on an Interzone Train from Munich to Berlin on 13 August, 1961 and you learn that the border between East and West Germany would be closed off to ensure that no one flees the Communist state. If you have three and a half hours time, before crossing the border at Probstzella, and you had a choice between entering East Germany or staying in West Germany, what would you do?

Keep in mind that you have a residence in the East and you wish to return there.

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The book and the film have a set of characters that want to travel to East Germany because they either have homes there, have concerts there, want to escape the laws in Bavaria in two cases or in one case, want to return one’s remains home because that person died in Munich. At the train station in Probstzella, a train conductor, who falls in love with a camera person from DEFA in East Berlin, also is faced with a difficult decision. Each character has his/her past and ideas behind their decision.  The book has a lot of suspense especially when the passengers learn of the construction of the Wall and the closing of the border, which amps up the temperatures of each of the characters for the decision they make would be the one they have to live with for a long time- even for the rest of their lives.  The pages go by as fast as the characters who are face with the decisions, which makes sense to divide up the chapters based on each of the affected characters. One by one, the puzzles fall into place, yet the decision impacts families, friendships and lastly, their futures.

The book was converted into film in 2020 and both have received a mixture of praise and criticism. Krause is considered a great storyteller and placed emphasis on history based on personal experience, while getting the readers involved in the suspense. He himself escaped to the West at the age of 19 to start a new life in Munich, so some of the stories he collected as a child can be related to what happened. It opens the wounds of the past to find out the motives behind people making the most important decision of their lives, and the construction of the Wall served as that testament to deciding between the continuation of their normal lives and starting a new life.

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Photo by Raka Miftah on Pexels.com

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It brings up a game which teachers and students can put together based on this story. It’s called Stay or Go.  You need different colors of pens as well as different colors of index cards, preferably the smallest available. Then you do the following:

  • Divide the index cards up by colors into the different categories that should read the following: The Characters, Their Lifestyle, Their Career, Their Family Status, Their Satisfaction with their Lives, Their Motives for being in West Germany, and Their Motives for being in East Germany.
  • Minus the characters in the story, for each category, make as many points as possible. They don’t have to be stuck solely on the book or film themselves but one can add some points from their own ideas and thoughts. Please make sure a color is assigned to each category.
  • Each participant is assigned a character.
  • The participant must choose from each category one card. The cards in each category can be stacked or mixed in a pile.
  • As soon as the participant chooses each card from all of the categories, he/she must decide whether crossing the border would make sense, keeping in mind the following points:
  1. If you go from West to East, you may not be able to escape back into West again
  2. If you go from East to West, you face the risk of getting arrested or shot
  3. The conditions of both East and West Germany must be mentioned prior to playing the game, both as positive as well as negative aspects
  4. You must provide reasons for your decision. This can be done in a short presentation.

The game can be played in small groups but also in classroom size where the teacher can make a buffet of categories and students can choose one from each category on the buffet.  

This game not only helps a person better understand the history of Germany during that time but also provides a chance to discuss with others regardless of which foreign language you use.

The book and the film, based on the events that happened 60 years ago, serves as a remembrance of the events that must not be forgotten. Many of us have a tendency of forgetting about history before it’s repeated again somewhere else. Yet such stories exist because we want to remember the events and share them with the next generation for them to understand. Three and a Half Hours is one of those books turned films that fulfills that purpose and then some.

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The border station Probstzella at the Thuringian-Bavarian border is in one of the stories and you can read up on my visit there by clicking here. The border station was shut down on December 12th 1961 and remained closed until 1989, thus forcing trains to cross into the West through Gutenfürst near Hof.

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Dresden: 13 February, 1945

Dresden Old Town

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75 years ago on this day, the beginning of the end came for Adolf Hitler and Nazi Germany. It was on this day, February 13th, 1945 when the city of Dresden, with over 640,000 residents, plus tens of thousands of refugees who had fled bombed out cities, was reduced to rubble thanks to the air raids by British and American troops. While a total of 15,000 tons of bombs were used, many of them were advanced technology designed to destroy blocks and entire buildings. Fires raged throughout Dresden with thousands of people fleeing, most of them burning. Between 30,000 and 200,000 people perished during the air raids that lasted through the 15th. 90% of Dresden’s city center was destroyed, including many known landmarks- Semper Opera, Church of Our Lady, the Castle, many buildings dating back to the Baroque Period. The attack could be compared to the atomic bombs that would later be dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the two that would end World War II in its entirety.

In commemoration of the tragedy, there are two films that feature the attack in its entirety. In the short clip produced by Pathé, the film looks at the strategy behind the attacks and the plan to drive Hitler out of the places he wanted to hide his government in the event Berlin falls. Dresden was option number two until the events of February 13-15. When Germany surrendered less than three months later, it was Flensburg, but not before the Führer and much of his cabinet (and their families) had killed himself.

The second one features a recollection of the events, which included the motives behind attacking Dresden and the survivors who told of the horrors of the events. Basically, it looks at Dresden from all aspects, both in black and white as well as in color.

The purpose behind this is to serve as a reminder of what wars can do to civilizations and that such events should not be repeated again. When looking at what happened to Germany in the final year of World War II and the current situation facing (for example) countries in the Middle East- in particular Iraq, Yemen and Syria, we can see the experience the countries have dealt with, especially when they have to rebuild their cities and the livelihoods of their residents. We also see the standpoint and the drive never to let this happen again. Yet others who have not paid attention to the effects of war on others but focus on their interest, maybe watching such films will garner questions regarding the legitimacy of war and the impact it has on both the instigator and the victims. After all, after watching this, one thing is certain: We all lose in a war.

 

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Berlin Wall: Keeping the Memory Alive

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Germany has had some problems keeping the memories of the past alive. This goes back to the end of World War II and the topic involving the German Question: “Who are We?” and “What can History teach us from this ordeal.”  While we struggle to keep the memorials devoted to the Holocaust alive to remind ourselves of what happened during Hitler’s Reign of Terror, others elect to eradicate it- either because it was too traumatizing to even talk about it (the German Population suffered as much as the Jews and Minorities that were persecuted and suffered in concentration camps) or because it is considered  “harmlos”, something that is a typical genocide because other countries have witnessed it and the people who lived through this have long passed.

The same holds true for the time after the War, as two Germanys were divided for another 45 years, 21 of which was through a series of concrete walls, barbed wiring and border guards, ordered to shoot escapees on site, who wanted to flee to the West. During the time of East Germany, the people were under surveillance by the Stasi and tortured if they were suspected of not behaving like a communist.

While many of the people living during that time are beginning to pass, we’re being confronted with keeping the memories of 1989 alive. It was an iconic moment, for the Walls that cut Germany and its capital Berlin into two have come down, yet thanks to the increase of development through urbanization and modernization, much of the memories of the Wall and the Events that led its the Fall are starting to fade, being pushed into the backburner. People born on or after 1989 have little recolection of the events that ushered the new republic of Germany and with that, the new world order, as far as Democracy is concerned.  For many, they have the mentality of “History is History; It’s the Future we’re concerned with.”

In this documentary, Richard Quest of the American news network CNN looks at the Berlin Wall in the present and two generations with different mindsets: those who have experienced it and those who were born afterwards. The goal is to bridge the gap between the two so that this important event is passed down to the next generations in order to understand the significance of the event. This was produced in 2012 as part of the series Future Cities.

Link: https://edition.cnn.com/videos/business/2012/03/26/future-cities-berlin-quest-urban-landscape.cnn

 

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Germany at 70: The Constitution

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May 23rd, 2019. On this day 70 years ago, the West German government, together with the western allies of the US, France and Great Britain ratified the German Consititution, a set of basic laws that are binding and foster equality, freedom of speech and Democracy. The basic laws were the basis for establishing a democratic state, the first since the Weimar Republic of 1919. And unlike the Republic, which was dissolved with the rise of Adolf Hitler, who ushered in the era of Naziism 14 years later, the German Constitution has become the solid rock, one of the examples of how Democracy works even to this day, despite going through the hardships in the sense of politics, society and the economy.  This was even adapted by the former East German government in 1990 as part of the plan to reunify the country.

While there are booklets in many languages that have the Basic Law of Germany, there are some questions that are still open as to how it works in comparison to those in other countries, the US included. This documentary, produced by a bunch of American scholars, gives you an in-depth coverage and discussion to the laws that exist. Albeit Long, one can skip to some of the laws discussed or just simply play it in ist entirety. For those wishing to live in Germany in the future, even temporary, this is rather useful.

Enjoy the documentary! 🙂

 

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Schneekatastrophe 1978/79 In Pictures

Kieler Fjorde covered in ice in 1978. Photo taken by Stadtarchiv Kiel [CC BY-SA 3.0 de (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/de/deed.en)%5D
As we look at the 40th anniversary of the Great Blizzard that crippled northern Europe and brought both Germanys to a complete standstill, one factor that should not be left out is the role of photography. Prior to the storm, the only way to get a clear picture of the storm was from the ground. There is an advantage and a disadvantage to that. The advantage is one can get a close-up of the places that are snowed in. Whether it is a house that is covered with meter-high drifts, as seen in many examples in villages in Schleswig-Holstein, or getting a sniper view of an iced-in bay as seen in the picture above, taken by Georg Gasch, one can get an at-level view to see the damages up close. The disadvantage of such an approach is the problems of obstruction of view by unwanted objects and in this case, the cold weather. But furthermore, it misses the big picture, meaning one needs a good bird’s eye view in order to see how bad it really was.

Enter Kai Greiser.

Working for the Spiegel magazine based in Hamburg, Greiser was appointed to take the camera and film the scenes from this wild storm, which was tauted as the worst of all time when it happened in 1978/79. Together with the TV crew from German public television ZDF, Greiser took off in a helicopter and took a trip north to Schleswig-Holstein. His mission was to get a bird’s eye view of the snow disaster in the region. What he got in the end was more than what he had bargained for.  Because of him and his crew, he saved many lives of those who were stranded in cars drifted in meter deep snow. Because of him and his crew, he got the best picture for the front cover of Spiegel magazine (as seen in the first picture of the gallery), which later appeared in other books on the history of Schleswig-Holstein. Because of him and his crew, his photos, combined with the filming we got a round-look at what the great Blizzard left us from a bird’s eye view. We would have many more ariel photos, but Greiser pioneered it with a series on the great disaster.

There is a video with him narrating about his experience, which can be found here:

An article on his experience, albeit in German, can be found here. And the collection of the créme de la créme can be found here. The first picture in the gallery was the one that entered the cover page of Spiegel.

 

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Winter Genre: Der große Schnee (The Big Snow)

There are several literary pieces and documentaries that focus on aspects of the Great Storm of 1978/79, and the catastrophic winter that followed, which brought the northern half of West Germany and all of East Germany to a complete standstill. The majority of the pieces have focused on the hardest hit areas of Hamburg and Schleswig-Holstein- in particular, the areas of Kiel and Flensburg.

Der Große Schnee (in English: The Big Snow), written by Helmuth Sethe of the Husumer Nachrichten (Husum News, part of shz, Inc.) focuses on both the Great Storm that started right before the New Year, plus the winter that followed, which included the winter storm on 13 February- a month and a half later. All of them affecting Schleswig-Holstein, but with a focus on the North Sea coastal area (Dithmarschen and greater Husum), as well as the cities of Flensburg and Kiel and the surrounding areas. It was originally written after the winter storm in February that same year, but has been edited and republished multiple times, with the last edition having been released in 2011.

There are several photos and stories that were in connection with the great winter disaster and were graphic in detail- with reports of people and animals both freezing to death while being snowed in, collapsed roofs because of the thickness of the snow, capsized boats and people treading through icy waters along flooded streets of coastal cities. Yet there were some glaring facts that are worth mentioning about this storm according to the writer. Here are the top five worth mentioning:

  1. Power outages- Many towns and villages were without power because of downed power lines due to ice. But no area was as bad as the districts of Schleswig-Flensburg and Nordfriesland. There, as many as 111 villages were without electricity for days, many of them were cut off from the rest of the world. Many had to make due with cutting up wood and creating fireplaces to keep warm.
  2. Stranded vacationers- Many vacationers were returning from Scandanavia when they were greeted by barricades at the German/Danish borders in Krusau and Ellund. Reason: The storm forced an executive order by the West German and state governments to shut down all traffic (rail and vehicular) on the German side. Traffic jams of more than 10 kilometers on the Danish side, plus stranded drivers seeking shelter were the result.
  3. Field Landing- When the state prime minister Gerhard Stoltenberg was finally informed of the current weather situation in Schleswig-Holstein (he and his family were on vacation at that time), he did not realize how bad it was until his helicopter had to land in a nearby field and he had to go by truck and sleigh to visit the hard hit regions. Reason: The snow had drifted in at the airports and with drifts as high as 6 meters, it was impossible for any aircraft to land even.
  4. The Sleigh as Transportation- With no possibilities with the car, many people had to make do with sleds, sleighs and even skis. It was not a rarity to watch people cross-country ski in the countryside during this time as the snow was thick enough to warrant it. Sleds were not only used for downhill fun, but also for shopping. It was a site to watch people pull their groceries home on an open sled.
  5. Flensburg as Little Venice- The storms produced a series of high tides (up to four meters) which flooded much of the city center and Roter Strasse, as well as everything along the Fjorde. Many people had to use boats to get by. These tides left another mess though- erosion, especially along the areas near Wassersleben near the Bridge of Friendship at the border.

There are many more examples to mention in the book, yet these five came to mind when reading this book myself. There have been countless other winter storms afterwards that crippled the region and brought with it high snow drifts, ice and flooding, including the last big snow storm in Flensburg in early 2018. But none was as glaring and captivating as the one from 40 years ago, especially when reading the accounts written by the editor. The book did bring back some memories of snow storms that I dealt with as a child growing up in Minnesota and a snowstorm of similar proportions happened shortly after this one, which left a big drift of a meter to the door of our house on a lake. Yet for those who lived through this harsh winter in northern Germany of 40 years ago, this book will bring back some memories of how one survived one of the worst of all time. So read it, share your stories, ask others about it. You’ll be amazed at the stories they will share about this event.

You can also watch some of the documentaries that were from the last entry by clicking here.

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Documentary: Deaths in Despair: The End of the American Dream

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A while back, I wrote an essay on the American Dream and how it has changed over the past half decade to a point where it has become diverse in many ways, shape and form. In theory one can achieve the dream through hard work. In praxis, however, it is a totally different league. And especially within the last decade, this American Dream has become more and more materialistic, divided based on money, power and even social, ethnical and cultural backgrounds, and especially since Donald Trump has taken over, more dysfunctional than at any time in American history.

No wonder why these dystopian variants are leading to the breakdown of families and friendships, the rise in violence and in many cases, as we can see in this documentary below, the rise in the rate of suicides. Nobel prize-winning economist Angus Deaton, and his wife, fellow Princeton Prof. Anne Case, have traveled together with Wall Street Journal’s Jason Belini from coast to coast to find out what is leading to the disappearance of the American Dream, and how it is impacting other countries in many ways, shape and form. In this 10-minute documentary, produced by Moving Upstream, the three take a look at this and whether suicide and other social pathologies are causing this almost seven-decade long dream to become a memory.

Watch this clip and have a look at the questions you can discuss below. For the American expatriates residing overseas, like yours truly, this is definitely worth watching and discussing for elements of the American Dream are impacting other countries, including those you are living in.

 

 

  1. What has changed in the American Dream over the past decades?
  2. What variants could benefit keeping the American Dream alive?
  3. Aside from the suicide rate, what variants are contributing to the death of the American Dream? 
  4. If there was a luxury that you had growing up as a child (be it 30 years ago or more) that you miss in today’s society, what would it be and why?
  5. If you were the president of the US and had to look at the problems facing America, especially in this clip, what would you do to make the lives of Americans better and help them fulfill their happiness?
  6. How is the American Dream affecting other countries? 
  7. How is social media affecting American society?
  8. Is it true that the high rate of suicide in the US is negatively affecting the American Dream? If not, what other factors are contributing to its demise? 

 

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