PsychoGeography #48: Springtime for Hitler

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The Independent Online

I always feel just a little bit gay when I'm in Germany; it's probably a way of dodging the fact that I'm half-Jewish.

I always feel just a little bit gay when I'm in Germany; it's probably a way of dodging the fact that I'm half-Jewish. It's an old sawhorse for Jews travelling to present-day Germany, but it does take a good few visits before the horripilation dies down, and you don't feel the whistling of a - figurative - axe about to descend on the nape of your neck. Walter Abish, the great Austrian Jewish novelist, summed it up in How German Is It?. The protagonist of this tale returns to an unnamed town where he lived before the Holocaust. Looking at the map of the town outside the station, he becomes transfixed by the very Germanness of it, the sheer fact that every little rivet, every wire graticule, is German right down to its atoms, and that - preposterously - He Is There.

Well, I've travelled to Germany a fair bit in the last decade, and with each successive visit, marked only by kindness, civility and aching formality on the part of my hosts, the Germanness of it has ceased to be quite so egregious. I've stayed in kitsch hotels in Berlin with engraved-glass doors, lacy pillowcases and sportive putti on the ceiling rose; and hung out at minimalist ones in Munich. At the Hopper Hotel I asked which one it was named after, Dennis or Edward? The desk clerk thought for a while, before answering thoughtfully: "Both, I think." I've marvelled at the colonic terror inspired in me by the sight of the mighty, calcified spire of Cologne Cathedral, and I've given many, many literary readings.

Readings in which the German version of my text has been declaimed by - among others - a famous classical actress (Hamburg); a woman who does a hit TV show with a chimpanzee sidekick (Hanover); and an orotund chain-smoking literary critic (Berlin). This last outing, at the Literarisches Colloquium, is where I'm aiming for, but first the matter of my German gayness.

Arriving a couple of years ago in Munich, I found myself settling into the Hotel Olympic on Hans Sachs Strasse with great ease. The staff were all very friendly, neat-looking young men. Right next door there was a café-bistro, where the barmen and the patrons were all very friendly, neat-looking young men. Wandering the streets I encountered many finely turned out young Bavarian men in tight, tight lederhosen and immaculate loden jackets. I remarked on all of this to my publicist, Martin. "Oh yes," he replied in faultless English, "we call this part of town 'Gayvaria'." I liked Gayvaria just fine, but I couldn't ascertain whether its gayness vitiated or enhanced the How German Is It? effect. Did I feel better there because we were all in it together? Or was it that a certain camp quality is intrinsic in German militarism, so that it's gayness was merely of a piece?

The next day we entrained for Hanover, where I found myself giving a seminar in a very hot room on the top floor of the brutalist university. Over the roofs of the city lowered three enormous, gently belching power-station chimneys. "They're quite something," I remarked to Martin. He smiled quizzically and laid a hand on my arm. "Yes," he replied, "in Hanover they're known as the 'warm brüder'. It's a pun you see, because this is also slang for a ... "

" ... Yes, yes, I know," I beat him to it, "a homosexual."

"Quite so."

Two days later we were in Berlin. I usually travel alone on book tours, so as not to succumb to the drone-like feeling which comes with having all your arrangements made for you. But Martin was not to be shaken, and so effective was he that I'd long since relapsed into a semi-comatose state, allowing Germany to become a species of wallpaper spooling past my tired eyes. There was this soporific, and there were also the continual discussions on arcane aspects of linguistic philosophy. In Germany almost everyone under the age of 35 is writing a thesis on Schlick, Jaspers or the Vienna Circle. Martin, being a bit of a rebel, was doing his on Theodor Adorno.

So immersed were we in the jargon of authenticity, that I didn't realise where we were until the cab pulled up in a street lined with opulent mansions, and through a break in the trees I saw the bright-blue waters of a large lake. "Blimey!" I expostulated, "this is ... this is Wannsee, isn't it?"

"That's right," Martin was imperturbable, "and that's the Literarisches Colloquium right over there."

"But this is ... this is where the Nazis planned the ... "

" ... The Final Solution, that's quite correct. The house where they held the conference is right over there, across the lake. I think you'll find that it's now a rather excellent museum." I felt a surge of gayness and pushed Martin hard on his Frankfurt School shoulder. "Get away with you!" I cried.

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