anecdote

From Merriam-Webster: a usually short narrative of an interesting, amusing, or biographical incident. Synonyms: story, tale.

The artful placement of an anecdote is key to being persuasive in the American culture. Stories are convincing. They speak to our experience. Storytelling. Great leaders in business, politics, culture know how to speak to the imagination of their audience. Listen to former President Bill Clinton speak at the funeral service for Aretha Franklin:

The Byzantine official Procopius wrote three historical works in Greek. In the first two, he dealt with wars and public works projects, but the third was something of a departure from this kind of history. Referred to as “Anekdota,” from the Greek a-meaning “not,” and ekdidonai, meaning “to publish,” it contained bitter attacks on the emperor Justinian, his wife, and other notables of contemporary Constantinople. 

Clinton’s nominating speech at the 2012 Democratic Convention nominating Barack Obama for a second term as president is considered a masterpiece in persuasion. It is full of fascinating anecdotes.

A German strength

Bonn. I remain standing. Ten or fifteen minutes. I imagine as best I can a summer day back during one of those years. What was life like in any of the houses, the homes, in that neighborhood? Just around the corner is the Karthäuserplatz, a small square, where I lived from 1991-95. In a three-room apartment on the third floor. 

On the first two floors lived three sisters, all in their 80’s, never married. Born in the early 1910’s they would remember the last years of the First World War, and most certainly all too well the entire Second World War. I imagine what it was like for them. Did they have brothers? Did those men/boys fight, kill, die? Catholics in the German Rhineland.

I imagine, see the pictures move by in my mind‘s eye. Three brothers. Second World War. Wehrmacht. The one dies in the early days of the invasion of Poland in September 1939. The second survives the 1944 Ardennenoffensive – what Americans call the Battle of the Bulge – only to then die in Vienna in early 1945, not long before the end of the war. 

The third brother survives the war, including several years as a prisoner in Russia. Their mother (the father had died in 1918 on the Western Front of WWI) and the three sisters pick him up one summer day in 1949 upon his arrival in Bonn by train via Berlin. Within a year and a half he would die of gangrene.

I am fifty-five years old. All of my brothers – two older, two younger – are still alive. None of us has killed or been killed. My son, Daniel, was born in May 1998. His mother is German. He is a German-American boy, more German than American. A school project in History. The fourth grade. 

The children are asked to find in Bonn the evidence, indications, the signs that once, many centuries ago, the Romans had lived in what became Bonn. He and his mother take a long walking tour. Bonn is a small town. Daniel is excited. He soaks it all in. My son, my boy, is growing up in Germany. My own flesh and blood. He is learning to think historically. He is learning to understand his present. He is being prepared to deal with the future.

This brief video is about the Romans in Bonn.

“For the first time I understand the Germans”

The history of Germany, as well as the historical consciousness of the German people, continue to impress and attract me. Today, just as strongly as a quarter century ago. You need only to go into a bookstore in Germany. Their books are not only solid, well bound and have great covers. The Germans have a very special relationship to books. There are always many older and newer publications about history, about their history. For those Germans who want to know their history there will never be a shortage of opportunities.

Every city in Germany, large and small, has museums in which history, but not only theirs, is told, is kept alive and relevant. In my early years in Berlin and Bonn I was astounded by how many fascinating and well-made documentary films were shown on German television. There was never a day without at least one in the evening. The German language is worth learning if only to read their books, to visit their museums, and to watch their documentaries. Although not a documentary, but one with the look and feel of one, was Heimat, by Edgar Reitz.

It was the summer of 1992. I watched episode for episode of Heimat. My eyes were glued to the television, my mind racing to understand every word, to pick up on as many nuances as possible. What an opportunity for me to gain insight in Germany of that time period, between the world wars. Time and again I had to turn to my then German wife to get the meaning of this or that word, for the dialogue was in the dialect of that region of Germany, the Hunsrück, along the Moselle River, between Trier and Koblenz. After every episode I was in a kind of trance, reflecting about what I had just taken in.

Then another time. I was in the car. Driving through Bonn. Evening. I turned on the radio. Deutschlandfunk. A book review was being read. It was about the immediate post-war years in then West Germany. The first sentences grabbed my attention. They flowed: complex, clear, rich, full of substance, critical, analytical, yet elegant. That feeling had come back, from when I was a student at Georgetown. History. German History. The history of another people. In another part of the world. And when I read the books by John Lukacs. Trance.

The reader continued. I was captured, drove further, but as if on a soft cloud just a few inches above the road. I think of the many war memorials in Germany. When I walk or ride my bicycle down the hill from the Venusberg in Bonn to the former government quarter on the Rhine, I pass through Kessenich where there is such a memorial.

It’s round, cement, encircling a lovely oak tree. Six pillars about eight feet high. Plenty of space between them to step in and out. The tops of all eight crowned – or held together – by a cement ring providing the tree with space to stretch out its branches. Just below the top each of the eight the face in cement of a German soldier with the iconic German steel helmet from the World War I.

Chiseled into the pillars, from the top to just about the bottom, are the names of the men who died in the two world wars. Six pillars, three sides each. Longs lists. Names. Of men, and boys, from that part of Bonn, from the neighborhood. Yes, boys, many no older than seventeen or eighteen years old. Sad. Especially sad for me, as one of five Magee boys, to read the same last names. Meyer. Schmitz. Leyendecker. Two, three, sometimes four of the same last names. Brothers. Cousins.

Imagine the deep, deep sadness of the mothers and fathers who saw their boys go off to war only to kill and be killed. 1914. 1915. 1916. 1917. 1918. Four long years for an entire continent. Then on the other sides of the pillars. 1939. 1940. 1941. 1942. 1943. 1944. 1945. Many of the same names. The sons and nephews of those fallen between 1914 and 1918. The Germans suffered, too.

“For the first time I understand the Germans.”

Home is where the WIFI is

“I wonder if Germans think their WiFi-issues are a global thing”. That’s how one of my friends from the USA recently expressed his opinion towards the WIFI situation in Germany. They alluded to the impossibility to find free public WIFI in big German cities.

No wonder, since you can even find free mobile internet in the middle of the Israeli desert, in Estonian forests, on top of lonely Georgian mountains and along the highways in California. However, you won’t be able to find it in German pedestrian areas. 

One reason for this lack of WiFi access is a legal situation. The provider of the free Wlan is legally responsible for the inevitable misbehavior of the users; the so-called “Stoererhaftung” (liability for disturbance).

But there is more behind it: The term “Neuland” (unknown territory) circulated a while ago, used by Angela Merkel at a meeting with President Obama, in context with the Internet. However, she did by no means mean the invention “Internet” itself, but rather figuratively the Internet as legal terrain. 

The existing German legal status is just not sufficient to regulate the Internet, which is a contradiction in itself. Simultaneously, legislation works slowly and thus is even less able to keep up with such rapid changes. 

Therefore, the basic dilemma becomes clear: Many Germans (The German institutions, for one) appreciate changes to be clear, regulated and with obvious roles and responsibilities. And in the event of doubt with distinct legal liability. 

In general, changes are usually dealt with slowly but thoughtfully. Thus, if this attitude applies to an uncontrollable and rapidly spreading phenomena such as the Internet, conflict naturally develops. 

German reservation does not solve such conflicts until an explicit and waterproof regulation has been found. But, this manner leads to satisfactory results of the changing process most of the time because „gut Ding will Weile haben“ (“Good things are worth waiting for“).

Front-loading

Once Germans have made a commitment, they begin immediately doing their part. And because they work independently, including little communication with the other parties to the agreement, it is essential that they have as much information upfront as possible.

Anecdote: Friendly interrogation. I take the train up the Ruhr Area. A meeting with one of Germany’s largest multinational companies. Thus far they are satisfied with my work. A new contact, high-level engineer, perhaps a new client.

We meet in his office, sit at a round table, drink tea. We talk. His questions are direct, precise, bordering on penetrating. The tone, however, is friendly, probing. Before I realize it an hour has gone by. The questions keep coming, one after the other. About my background, methodology, how I execute seminars and specialized workshops. Then about my content, my research approach. What? How? Why?

Question after question, almost like an interrogation. He wants to understand. I become a bit fatigued, but remain fully focused, maintain eye contact, respond as precisely as my German will allow. The meeting is tiring, he keeps me on my toes. At the same time the atmosphere is friendly, respectful, at a high level.

The German manager is above average in height, slender, his eyes sensitive, curious, listening. Not distrustful, skeptical but careful. In the weeks thereafter we would meet several times more. Each talk of lesser intensity. Then the decision. Positive. I went on to serve him and his organization for several years without interruption. Front loading.

Infant in a Pouch

Our son was only a few months old, but big enough to place in one of those pouches which hang over the shoulders with the child resting against your chest. It was a beautiful autumn day in Germany. Sun, blue skies, not even a light breeze. We headed out for a walk. Around the corner, up the street, then a turn into a wooded area with a maze of different walking paths.

From the opposite direction comes a woman, early 60s, alone, with her walking stick. Before we pass each other she makes eye-contact with me, says Guten Tag. We stop. She then offers her opinion.

The pouch my son was resting in was not good for him. Ungesund. Unhealthy. I looked at her. Surprised. Already a bit irritated. Another German offering their wisdom. Controlling myself, I asked why. The design cuts off the circulation to the upper part of the child’s legs. Das sollten Sie nicht nutzen. I shouldn‘t use the pouch. The woman continued on before I could react. It would not have mattered anyway.