Misha Aster: A cultural historian

The Local's series "Making it in Germany" presents Misha Aster, a Canadian cultural historian in Berlin.

Misha Aster: A cultural historian
Photo: Sabine Devins

Name: Misha Aster

Age: 31

Originally from: Hamilton, Canada

What did you do before coming to Germany?

I was going to university. I did semesters in London, McGill in Montreal and couple years in the States and a semester in Russia to get my Masters in Dramaturgy, which is a kind of theatre degree. After finishing university, I came to Europe to work in small theatre companies, just bouncing from city to city, project to project.

What brought you to Germany?

I came to Berlin for the first time in 1990 on a family trip and I remember we arrived by train at the Zoologischer Garten station, and walking out of the train station to be confronted by this extraordinary image of the Gedächtnis Kirche. I thought this is an extraordinary place. This is an important place. I need to get to know this place better. I was 12 at the time, but it was one of those events and experiences that leave a lasting impression. When I finished high school in 1995, I was looking for something to do before starting university and it was around the same time that there was a Leonard Cohen song of which the refrain was about taking Berlin. So in 1995 to 1996, I was here for eight months and fell in love with the city the first time and left and went to university. But I always wanted to come back and was always searching for an excuse and eventually that materialised in 2006.

What do you do here in Berlin?

That question is the bane of my existence. You could say I’m a dramaturge, but no one knows what that means. I spend my time in and around theatres and musical institutions working on productions. I’ve also carved out a niche for myself as a type of historian writing the histories and studies these cultural institutions.

How did you get started with that?

Essentially, I was asked. During my first stay here, I was fortunate to have been befriended by a musician who played with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra. We met on a train and had a lot of time to kill so we had a long, involved and quite fascinating conversation. One of the topics that popped up was the experience of the Berlin Philharmonic during the Third Reich. This friend of mine found it bizarre that he, as a member of the orchestra, had no idea what had happened to his colleagues 60 years ago. Our conversation went on from there, but we both agreed that this was something worth investigating. Around 2002/2003, this friend called me up and said, ‘OK, now is our chance. Come to Berlin and lets find out the story.’

He introduced me to some people and let me into the archives. It was more to satisfy our own personal curiosities at first, but I started and as I got into the research, I realised there was a really fascinating story here, and more over, one that hadn’t been told yet. Then we decided that maybe more people would care about it than just us, so it became a book. I accumulated and researched through various visits to Berlin over a few years until 2006, when I finally made the move to Berlin and sat down to actually write.

Now that book has been translated from the German into French, Spanish, Japanese, Italian and will soon be coming out in English.

How much German is involved in your day-to-day work?

I write in English, but I use German sources and write for a German audience and the books are translated into German for publication, so I use the original German sources in my materials in order to maintain authenticity rather than having the work translating back and forth.

What were some of the challenges you faced when you moved here?

When I first came here, I didn’t speak the language. It was 1995, just six years after the Wall came down and English wasn’t yet as widely spoken here as it is today. Once I had a grasp on the language, I had to come to terms with the German attitude toward work and how they categorise people by the work they do, so how I categorised my own role and how I’m cast in people’s social networks. It was easy to connect to people through work, but I found it difficult to make friends on a casual basis. There is a more rigid social structure that what one is used to encountering in North America.

What do you love about living here?

I love the fact that I have a specific set of passions and interested relating to culture, music and theatre and any night of the week, there is the most wonderful array of cultural experiences to choose from. I love that about Berlin, but even more is the fact that there are other people in this city that are equally passionate about there sets of cultural interests and they also have this immense selections of experiences to choose from and we will actually overlap, despite living in the same city and always being busy with things. Its an incredible diversity of experience to offer. The sense of openness, the sense of plurality in that regard. It’s a city that doesn’t try to be like anywhere else. It doesn’t emulate other places and in that way, is very comfortable in its own skin and in that way, people here can then too feel very comfortable and confident in who they are and what they can contribute to the city.

How has Germany changed you?

You’re expected to be forthcoming about what you value here. Becoming aware of that and being able to be more forthcoming and more expressive about what I value and recognising that other people have that same opportunity, that its part of the culture. Coming from a Canadian perspective where we’re always so polite and concerned with making sure that no one could take offense, it was an adjustment. Here you make your case, and don’t have to apologise for it.

What advice do you have for someone who is looking to ‘make it’ in Germany?

Go to the theatre. The theatre is one of the best ways to take the pulse of a society. You can often tell how a society functions and how people feel in relation to each other in how they communicate.

Know someone who’s “made it” in Germany? Email us at: [email protected]

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What’s behind Germany’s obsession with roundtable politics talk shows?

Forget the Bundestag. If you want to understand German politics - and see how lively it can really be - turn on your (almost nightly) talk show.

What's behind Germany's obsession with roundtable politics talk shows?

It may well be one of the most German things imaginable – a roundtable discussion designed to give a fair amount of time to a wide range of viewpoints before (maybe) achieving some sort of consensus.

Failing that, viewers – theoretically anyway – walk away better informed and open to changing some of their opinions after a, again theoretically, respectful discussion.

Welcome to the German political talk show circuit – a collection of moderated roundtable discussions.

Whether its Anne Will on Sunday nights, “Hart aber fair” or “tough but fair” on Mondays, or Maybrit Illner on Thursdays and Markus Lanz on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays – you can tune into several political panels a week if you fancy.

If you have politically-minded German friends or co-workers, you might ask: “Did you watch Lanz last night?” Anecdotally, at least as many people who watch will have strong opinions about why they don’t.

Ukrainian Ambassador Andriy Melnyk makes a video appearance (left video) on the Markus Lanz show on 10 March 2022. Photo: picture alliance/dpa/ZDF | Cornelia Lehmann

“Lanz is a disgrace!” and “I don’t watch Anne Will out of principle!” are both phrases I’ve heard myself more than a few times over the years.

But if you are a fan and you miss an episode, don’t worry – many news outlets will run summaries of what happened during said roundtable the next morning.

“Newspapers regularly publish these recaps almost as if they were relevant parliamentary meetings,” says Peter Littger, a columnist on language and culture in Germany. “It’s super relevant politically. It can increase your voting base and certainly your book sales if you appear there.”

READ ALSO: Tatort to Temptation Island: What do Germans like to watch on TV?

‘Consensus-oriented political culture’

If the nationally-focused ones aren’t enough for you, there’s a good chance you can find a show on a regional broadcaster focusing on issues in your federal state, again in – you guessed it – roundtable format.

As you might have gathered, the show’s name is often the same as its host, who functions first and foremost as a moderator there to facilitate and mediate a discussion between guests who are chosen specifically to balance a panel.

For a discussion on Ukraine, for example, you’ll regularly have people from every political party, from ministers and high-ranking parliamentarians who chair important Bundestag committees to pro-Russian voices from the German Left Party and far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD).

And no one is too high-ranking not to make at least the occasional appearance. Chancellor Olaf Scholz himself joined a Maybrit Illner roundtable on July 7th this year.

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz appears on the Maybrit Illner show on 7 July 2022. Photo: picture alliance/dpa/ZDF | Svea Pietschmann

Both European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba have also made appearances on Anne Will this year.

In characteristically German fashion, state broadcasters have extensive written regulations to ensure a panel also has a balance of people from relevant expert disciplines. For instance, a coronavirus panel may well feature a notable doctor alongside a civil liberties lawyer.

“Germany has a more consensus-oriented political culture than you might see in a country like the UK, for example, which is more confrontational and even adversarial,” says Sebastian Ludwicki-Ziegler a PhD researcher at the University of Stirling’s Department of Communications, Media, and Culture.

“You’ll still get some invited guests who are very contrarian and even aggressive – like Thilo Sarrazin (a former politician who wrote a controversial book in 2010 about Muslim immigration to Germany) for example. But even then, the moderator often tries to maintain a softer, more civil tone.”

Ludwicki-Ziegler says that while the roundtable format reflects German political culture, it also reflects its institutional setup. A show producer can simply get more obvious ranges of political opinion in a country with Germany’s proportional representation, which has seven parties in parliament.

Historic roundtables

Unlike the often subdued German Bundestag though, German talk shows can certainly get lively, or even historic.

Perhaps the most notable TV roundtable happened right after the 2005 federal election. With then incumbent Social Democrat Gerhard Schröder having finished only one percent behind Christian Democrat Angela Merkel when all the votes were counted, party leaders gathered in the traditional “Elefantenrunde,” or yes, the “Elephant’s round,” to discuss the results.

READ ALSO: Talking elephants and grumpy politicians: Four things that will happen after the German elections

With the final election result having been so close, observers still discuss whether Schröder lost his chancellorship at the ballot box or during the 2005 Elefantenrunde. In contrast to a calm Merkel, Schröder insisted he would stay on as Chancellor.

Brash and arrogant, some observers have asked whether he was drunk at the time. German media outlets ran anniversary pieces looking back at his disastrous roundtable performance 5, 10, and 15 years later. One such anniversary piece from 2020 called the roundtable “Schröder’s embarrassing end.”

The 2005 post-election roundtable, or “Elefantenrunde,” is considered by many German political observers to be the disastrous end to former Chancellor Gerhard Schröder;s political career. Photo: picture alliance / dpa | ZDF/Jürgen_Detmers

Mastering the roundtable appearance is a big plus for a German politician, or anyone else looking to move the needle of German public opinion.

Satisfying a particularly German impulse, you can certainly also walk away feeling like you’ve considered all sides. But are there drawbacks?

On 8 May 2022’s edition of Anne Will, social psychologist Harald Welzer appeared to lecture Ukrainian Ambassador Andriy Melnyk that 45 percent of Germans were against delivering heavy weapons to Ukraine because of German war history. Many observers criticised Welzer for patronising the Ambassador of a country at war about the need to have weapons for its own self-defense.

The exchange, and a fair few others, lead some experts to wonder whether the roundtable format so many German political talk shows seem to love gives too big a platform to pro-Russian voices or to controversial writers like the aforementioned Thilo Sarrazin.

“If we take Germany and Ukraine as one example, you can get some great guests who come on and really set things straight with facts, data, and plain talk,” says Benjamin Tallis, a Fellow in German Security Policy at the German Council on Foreign Relations.

“But you can get false balance. You’ll get people on with rather fringe opinions given a platform against people who have a lot more experience and evidence. That’s true in a lot of places now, sure, but this talk show format really lends itself to that because of the amount of guests you need on a nightly basis,” says Tallis.

“Unfortunately in Germany, many guests are invited on based on their opinions about an issue rather than the level of their expertise, in order to try and achieve balance,” says Minna Alander, a specialist in German foreign policy who recently joined the Finnish Institute of International Affairs after more than a decade working in Berlin.

“When you start equating opinion with knowledge, it makes it way more difficult to have a fact-based debate. On matters of life and death, like in Ukraine, that can have a polarising effect.”