Sunday 21 December 2014

Germans are good at much more than just football

Published 13/07/2014 | 02:30

German fans enjoying themselves at the World Cup
German fans enjoying themselves at the World Cup

GERMANS, good and bad, are my theme this week. Naturally I am nudged by their riveting role in the World Cup and the prospect of their support in sucking back some of the billions we spent bailing out AIB and associates. But I have two other reasons.

First, I am a co-producer on Gerry Gregg’s Close to Evil which premiered at the Galway Film Fleadh last Friday. The film follows Tomi Reichental, one of only three Holocaust survivors in Ireland, as he tracks down one of his former jailers, Hilde Liesewicz, a convicted war criminal, who lives in Hamburg.

Tomi reaches out to Hilde in the hope of closure. But she rejects reconciliation, insisting she is a blameless “victim of victor’s justice”. This prompts Tomi to probe into her claims of innocence with interesting results.

Tomi’s relentless search for reconciliation finally takes him back to his native Slovakia. He embraces a German woman who is directly related to a man who played a role in the liquidation of his family. A small light in a great darkness.

My other reason is that last week, an old friend, Esther, an Israeli living near Jerusalem, as well as a former German student of mine, Stefanie, now a young Bavarian publisher, sent me texts and emails which reminded me of what is good in both the German and Israeli character. And also sent me back to Amos Elon’s book on the once high hopes of German-Jewish history, The Pity of it All, whose title sums up the tragic ending.

Esther, married with two young girls, is at the extreme end of a bloody chain of events begun by the bad side of Germany. Some of her people perished in the Holocaust. Even after emigration to Israel, there was no escape.

She was born in Eilat in June 1969. As missiles rained down from Jordan, the hospital took her cradle down to a shelter. Today, she is still sheltering — from Hamas rockets, in her home outside Jerusalem.

A few weeks ago, she wept for the four teenagers whose murders began the current chain of conflict. “I cried quite bitterly. Any parent immediately feels the burden of raising a kid in this country. It takes so much effort to raise a child — and so little effort to end his life.”

Last Tuesday, as Germany took Brazil apart, she sent me a deadpan bulletin as Hamas rockets reached from the sky to destroy her daughters and Amos, her football-mad husband, risked death to watch the World Cup.

“Sirens just went off 20 minutes ago in Jerusalem. So I pick up the girls from bed and run for the common shelter. Heard the boom of the Iron Dome system hitting the rocket in mid-air and returned home.”

But with the practical stoicism fostered by centuries of coping with pogroms, neither Esther nor her husband Amos allow their cruel circumstances to affect their attitude to ordinary Palestinians. To cope, they tap into the deep Jewish well of dark humour fostered by centuries of pogrom and persecution.

“The girls are extra-cute, giving us practical advice to turn off the gas connections and take down a wooden ornament from the wall. ‘Don’t you know, Daddy, that it can fall on us if a rocket hits the house?’ And Amos insists on going out to find a pub that defies security rules and airs the Germany-Brazil game.”

At the same time, Stefanie, who is touring Ireland with her father, had stopped in a Dublin pub to watch the World Cup. After her country had cast Brazil into the abyss, she sent me a text which contained a wonderful new word and told me much about the sweetly serious side of many modern young Germans.

Stefanie wrote, “Brazil gave reason for Fremdschamen. It was very cruel indeed. I watched the game with two Germans in a pub. Eventually we felt so sorry, we started shouting at Neuer to let the ball in. Poor fans!”

Like me, you may wonder what the word Fremdschamen means. Stefanie explained that it literally means “external shame”, the feeling of embarrassment we feel on behalf of others, even strangers, and even if they themselves are not aware of their shameful situation.

Fremdschamen is the feeling that many of us get when we cringe watching Ricky Gervais in The Office. It’s the first cousin of schadenfreude, the feeling of pleasure we take in the bad fortune of others. And, of course, watching The Office, we feel both emotions at the same time.

Not surprisingly, German researchers have done most of the work on digging into why we feel shame on behalf of others. And researchers at Philipps-University Marburg, who studied a group of 619 Germans, believe it is connected to the parts of the brain which produce empathy, the ability to experience the feelings of another.

But the brain parts which produce empathy also contain pain receptors which light up when we watch another’s humiliation. This happens even if they themselves are not aware that a piece of toilet paper hangs from the back of their trousers as they deliver a public speech. And the more empathic we are, the more we feel embarrassment.

American researchers reached the same conclusions as their German colleagues.

“We are wired for empathy,” says Dr. Marco Iacoboni, professor of Psychiatry and Biobehavioral Sciences at UCLA. “Human instinct is to be empathic. We can’t help it.”

Stefanie’s feeling of Fremdschamen for Brazil gives me great hope for the future of Germany. She belongs to a generation which bears the guilt of a Nazi past, for which it had no responsibility. Unlike our trendy Sinn Fein politicians, they accept the responsibility of remembering.

But bearing this burden brings a moral bonus. Stefanie’s sympathy for the beaten Brazilians — and the way the German team consoled the Brazilians after the match — echoes the determination of Israelis like Esther and Amos not to hate the Palestinian people, to hold on to both their decency and their daily routine.

These efforts to exercise empathy may seem small in the great historical scheme of things. But they are what matters most. Political morality begins with an individual refusing to put the boot into a fallen foe.

Finally, a word of appreciation for the good German attitude to apprenticeships. Unlike Ireland, Germans have

no snobbery about working at a trade. This is pointed up by a stark statistic. Ireland has only 29 recognised trades, compared to 342 in Germany.

As I have repeatedly called for the adoption of the German apprenticeship system, I was glad to see the Oireachtas Committee on Education and Skills, chaired by Joanna Tuffy TD, get stuck into the subject last week, taking submissions from trade unions and employers

The ICTU sensibly submitted that childcare be upgraded to a trade. But it funked the fundamental issue of sour social attitudes to apprenticeships. Ironically, it was the employers’ body, IBEC, which belied that particular prejudice in a robustly worded preface.“We also have to acknowledge the reality that apprenticeships, and vocational education in general, tends not to enjoy the parity of esteem, in a society that defines education achievement in terms of CAO points.” Ouch.

Eoghan Harris

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