Leipzig Book Convention 2018: No Record but Lots of Suspense

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LEIPZIG-  If there is one theme that would sum up the 2018 Leipzig Book Convention this past weekend, it would be suspense. While members of the committee had expected another record year with a possible 300,000 visitors, that mark was missed by a long shot and for the first time in six years, the number of visitors at this year’s convention had decreased. 271,000 visitors went to the convention that took place from 15th to 18th March, a decrease of 14,000 from last year’s number of 285,000.  But despite the decrease, there was a lot of suspense in this year’s convention, which goes beyond the theme of Romania as the guest country. Here are some examples based on the author’s annual visit together with family members:

Snow and Cold- The decrease in numbers had a lot to do with Old Man Winter’s last grasp. Snow and blowing snow, combined with extreme cold temperatures brought vast parts of central and northern Germany to a near standstill, with parts of Saxony-Anhalt, Saxony and Thuringia taking the brunt of the storm.  Frozen overhead lines and crossing points were additional factors that led to the shut down of the main railway stations in Leipzig and Halle (Saale) and the cancellation of train services spanning seven German states and points to the east. This led to overfilled streetcars and buses to the Messe Convention. Adding traffic jams on the major highways also because of blowing and drifting snow and many who wanted to go to the book convention decided to stay home- at least until the sunniest day of the convention, which was the last day (Sunday). But even then, the one critique point that seems to be the problem in Germany is snow removal, where much of the parking lots were still unplowed when guests arrived on Sunday, undoubtedly the peak of the four-day long convention.

Fighting the Right- Another factor affecting the numbers is the increase in the number and influence of the far-right media. Several publishing companies producing such propaganda in newspapers and books were present, mostly in Hall 3. This included Compact and Neue Stimmen, a pair of most prominent magazines that have ties with the far right groups including the Pegida, National Party (NPD) and Alternative for Germany (AfD), the third of which is currently in the German Federal Parliament as an opposition to the newly created Grand Coalition with the Christian Democrats and Social Democrats.  Especially on Friday and Saturdays clashes broke out between the far right and far left, resulting in police involvement and arrests. As they wanted to avoid massive conflicts like it happened at the 2017 Book Convention in Frankfurt/Main, it was met with partial success for despite measures to prevent violent outbreaks, the far right, with its anti-democratic and anti-European policies kept many away because of their strive to commit strife. On the flip side, several prominent authors who have written about right-wing terrorism and its threat to democracy were on hand. One of them, Norwegian author Åsne Seierstad, won the European book prize for her work on Anders Breivik, a far-right terrorist who killed 77 people in two separate attacks in 2011. People like Seierstad believe that right-wing extremism has been on the rise since then, including her home country.

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Peaceful Co-existence- While the snowstorm and the far-right made waves in the media, one aspect that was seldom touched was religion. In Hall 3 there was a section where Christianity and Islam were in peaceful co-existence of each other. At least four booths with publications and newspapers on Islam and another seven on Christianity were found clumped together with people gathering to both sides of the aisle. Interesting was how the two religions attracted the people. On the side of Islam, people came in droves because of their interest in the religion and the literature that pertained to it. This is disregarding how it was written- which was either German or Arabic with a couple English examples.  This included the Islam Newspaper in German, which judging by my observations, has a lot of culture and history, but go along the mentality of the Native Americans as described by historian Dee Brown: “We are still here.” Why? Because of attempts to suppress their culture by the domination of Christianity and the western way of life, one can see that Islam still exists and the impression is that they are open to anyone wishing to learn at least a bit of the religion. There had been fears that the religion would dominate the European landscape. That is not true. The people of Islam wish to have a sort of peaceful co-existence that has not existed for a long time, for many since the time before the Arab Spring of 2011 which led to millions fleeing the war-torn areas. On the other side, Christianity was presented in a marketing fashion. While on the way to the main entrance of the convention, we were greeted by hippie-style Christians who gave us a free coupon to one of the booths that was giving away books dealing with stories involving Christ, philosophy and the existence of God. Another booth was continuing the Martin Luther celebrations of 500 years ago by illustrating the printing press used to produce the 500 Theses written by Luther. And then there was Christianity in the form of music and schools that offer both. Target language was both German and English and they attracted a fair number of people. Yet despite the moderate increase of younger people joining Christ, the numbers have decreased on a global scale thanks to corruption, sex abuse scandals and attempts to associate Christianity with far-right figures, such as US President Trump. One can see the desperate attempts to convince people to join by giving away books upon leaving the Buch Messe- and seeing tons being discarded in garbage cans in the parking lot. It does appear that if Christianity was to regain its original form, it may need to separate itself from politics and reinvent itself by adapting to the needs of today’s generations, a step that has been taken in some aspects, like homosexuality, but in others- like tolerance- it’s having problems doing.

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Blocks at the Manga–  While the Manga exhibition, located in Hall 5, attracted its typical individuals, which included superheroes, waitresses in short skirts, aliens, and people dressed up in outfits dating back 125 years ago, one has to look more carefully at the trends that a person can find. While the theme from last year  was lighting in Japan, this year’s theme seemed to be boxes and its several shapes, designs and sizes. No matter whether they were lunch boxes, jewelry boxes or even mini-storage boxes or even designer boxes  found at booths like the Sega games, it was a real treat just to see these boxes while looking at the products typical of Japan, which include stuffed animals, sweets, games, books and even dishware, just to name a few.

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Thinking Scandanavia- To round off our tour of the Buchmesse, we have some literature recommendations worth noting. One of the unique aspects of the convention was found at the international book section in Hall 4 and in Scandanavia. Consisting of Denmark, Iceland, Norway, Sweden and Finnland, the themes most commonly written by authors in the region  consists of mysteries, tourism, mental well-being and lastly photography. Two books that represent fine examples of such works is a Danish work by Meik Wilking entitled The Little Book of Lykke: The Path to being the Happiest People in the World, which focuses on the Danish secret to being the happiest society in the world. This includes the way of life, physical and mental well-being, mentality towards materialist items and money as well as the power of the bicycle.  Another is a collection of night-time and sometimes underwater photography by Finnish author Petri Juntunen entitled “At the Heart of It All,” where he brings the new meaning of photography to light, as he focuses on relicts and other non-life forms that are shone down by a ray of light, showing the interest from above.

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To sum up the visit and the highlights, the 2018 Leipzig Book Convention may have not set any records this year, yet judging from the news and my own observations, one could not get enough of the suspense that was presented, both positively as well as negatively. Still, as themes, such as religion, extremism, social and cultural issues and current affairs (such as environment and climate change) become the everyday norm, such book conventions like in Leipzig and also in Frankfurt/Main will need to adapt in a way that these issues are addressed and people understand them and take action. This action should also include putting an end to hate and violence, a commodity that has always been a burden to society but one that seems to become a universal problem on all fronts, especially since the end of 2015. It is only hoped that the next book convention will bring about constructive themes and discussion instead of propagizing hatred and inequality based on things we don’t like.

The next Leipzig Buchmesse will take place  from 21st to 24th March 2019. To see more photos of the Buchmesse, please click here as it will take you to the Files’ facebook page and its photo album. Please feel free to add your photos and impressions of the Buchmesse. We love to see them. 🙂

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Germans and Demonstrations: What We Want is Color; What We Don’t Want is a Union

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Protest, the right to express our opinion, our objection, our own dismay to something that does not fit. Derived from the Latin word meaning to testify for something, protests are designed to deliver a message, whether it was objecting to a decision of a local mayor to demolish a historic landmark in favor of a shopping mall, demanding a change in government because of a corrupt leader, putting pressure on companies to increase wages and improve working conditions or as seen in the pics here, rejecting certain people because of their threat to their societal infrastructure.

Germany leads the way in the number of protests and their variety of themes. No matter when the politicians speak, no matter if it is spontaneous or planned, no matter how many policemen are involved, and no matter how extreme, when a demonstration takes place, the entire city is shut down and isolated from the rest of the world. The demonstrations take place in many forms. We have the May Day demonstrations and with that, also demonstrations by workers’ unions, demanding better pay and working conditions. This form occurs most frequently, no matter where. Then we have the most popular, which are the environmental demonstrations, featuring sit-ins, blocking and chanting for no nuclear storage facilities, international trade deals harming the environment and no pollution, period.

Then we have the most current, which are the demonstrations involving refugees and right-wing extremism. Since the beginning of last year, the number of refugees coming into Germany, even for a temporary stay has risen above 2 million. And with that come attempts of accomodating them and demonstrations for and against the refugees. Those against the refugees, including many forms of PEGIDA, have attacked refugees and the places where they were supposed to stay, enchanting “Wir sind das Volk” and using tactics from the playbook of the Third Reich, which you can see here.  On the flip side, there are just as many people opposed to PEGIDA and have been more than open to refugees, granting them places to live and work as well as integrating them into the culture. Unlike the PEGIDA, which like the Alternative for Germany, has called for a ban on Islam in Germany, the opponents to the two groups are more aware of the social and cultural background (partly because of German history but also because of their multicultural mentality) and see the immigration of refugees as a motor for economic growth in Germany, producing jobs in many fields and learning the bright sides of religion and culture. 🙂

But when looking at German demonstrations by itself, I was asked by a German student colleague during the last protest whether or not the Germans are crazy and insane about demonstrating. When looking at the pics below and speaking from personal experience participating in a half dozen protests since coming here in 1999, the answer to that question is a resounding “Jein!” (Yes and no in German). There are two really strong arguments favoring the no portion of “Jein!” The first argument is because Germans are trained to be informed and confront controversial issues, even if means taking to the streets and express their disdain towards politicians. This has to do with the Beutelsbach Consensus of 1976, where pupils in all German educational institutions are taught how to be address all controversial topics in the classroom and express their personal opinion, without having the teacher of social studies influence their opinions. The consensus features three key points, which are:

1. Prohibition against Overwhelming the Pupil

2. Treating Controversial Subjects as Controversial

3. Giving Weight to the Personal Interests of Pupils

Learning the lessons from the past, educators and political scientists pushed the importance of pure democracy into the classrooms with the goal of addressing the themes from individual standpoints, both inside the classroom as well as in the public. This is something that has not been introduced in American classrooms but should, in order to learn how to deal with confrontations and conflicts. As of right now, the consensus is the trend where politicians make decisions behind closed doors and take haste action before the public is able to be informed about it and assemble a protest. An act of cowardice and one that goes against the ideas of American democracy.

The second argument for demonstrations is they can bring out the colorful and best of people from different backgrounds, bringing them together and encouraging time together. Be it mini-concerts, mini-tournaments or even sit-ins with beer and friends, having peaceful demonstrations show solidarity and support, encouraging others to join, even if it is for a few minutes.

The yes argument, apart from fancy outfits and some DJ-ing, the craziest is when counter-demonstrators arrive to make trouble, only to be pelted with stones, bottles and other items. This happens often when protests dealing with right-wing extremists and PEGIDA members are in the vicinity, as they are against the ideals of a modern, multi-cultural Germany. While the police try to protect both sides, they end up being sandwiched by both sides, resulting in the question of whether the German Constitution should be reformed to ban violence and certain groups deeming a threat to German society. Up until now, the German Supreme Court in Karlsruhe have not touched their fingers on this topic. With the violence increasing every year, perhaps they should…..

With more hot topics coming to the table and the politicians trying to address them, there will be more protests and demonstrations by the public expressing their concerns about them. Not all demonstrations are bad, as many people support measures that are beneficial to a multicultural Germany. However, some are deemed necessary to make the point clear: The public knows the history; the public wants a say in this; and the public wants the politicians to listen. Call it crazy, but thanks to Beutelsbach, combined with the awareness of the importance of keeping the country clean of potential dictators, the demonstrations have worked a great deal, because to all involved, listening and acting in the benefit of the majority does matter.

Perhaps the Americans should make note of this, especially those who engage in closed door deals without informing and listening to the public. We are not stupid, you know….

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Check out the photo gallery of the recent protest that occurred in Jena on 20 April, 2016 (click on the photo for a larger view). The demonstrations involved 200 Thugida (Thuringia version of PEGIDA) and NPD people celebrating Adolf Hitler’s birthday while more than three thousand condemned these demonstrations with that of their own. According to the newspaper OTZ, six cars were destroyed, 15 people were injured and over two dozen were taken into custody. While the protest was smaller than expected, local officials spoke of a new generation of violent protests. This leads to the following questions:

  1. How can society find a way to disable and eliminate such radical groups?
  2. How can society educate people about the dangers of being an extremist?
  3. What can be done to eliminate problems that spawn such protests?
  4. How can history teach society to learn and understand both sides of the story involving key events and their actors?
  5. In connection with question 4., how can the youth be taught not to be extremists?

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