Travelling to Germany’s heart of darkness

In the latest installment of Portnoy’s Stammtisch, The Local’s column about life in Germany, Portnoy ventures into the country’s heart of darkness.

Travelling to Germany’s heart of darkness
Photo: DPA

We were already onto our second bottle of wine when the fight broke out.

My sister-in-law said the Negerküsse – “negro kisses” that is – tasted really fresh. I cringed and said I preferred the nomenclature used by my German friends for the sweet made of chocolate-covered sugar fluff: Schokokuss, or chocolate kiss.

As a former East German, my sister-in-law opined her whole childhood had been wiped away by insensitive Wessis the moment the Berlin Wall fell. And, she told us loudly, she would not now have one of her favourite childhood treats renamed because of spineless political correctness from some Yankee interloper.

Admittedly, the German Neger isn’t linguistically identical to the English N-word, but I just wanted to drink my wine and not have to listen to her waxing poetic about how delicious the “darkie kisses” were while growing up in her non-racial socialist utopia.

The dispute about commie chocolate-covered marshmallows quickly lurched towards US slavery, the Third Reich and Apartheid. It ended an hour later with me declaring her uninformed and her steaming mad at me. My wife and her brother had been all but silent during the argument, and we agreed we should all go to bed – especially since we’d also run out of wine.

This was just the first evening of a three-day visit to what a friend of mine refers to as “Dunkel Deutschland” – how Wessis once derogatorily referred to eastern Germany. But the term has since come to refer to the “dark” interior of the country that is the equivalent of the “Flyover Territory” in the middle of the United States.

This is the part of Germany that finds Stefan Raab’s brand of humour hilarious, the Bild newspaper’s polemic is considered spot on “analysis” and jaywalking is tantamount to paedophilia. It’s a place where people diet by substituting butter with margarine, rather than removing or replacing generous helpings of pork at every meal.

Though I have great admiration for my adopted home of more than a decade, nowhere do I feel more of a foreigner than in my wife’s childhood village. These trips are part of our marital cultural exchange – at least once a year I drag her to forgotten parts of the Midwest where Fox News is always blaring in the living room and the current US president is considered “uppity.” And so, as part of that nuptial bargain, I had come along on an autumn vacation for our kids to see their grandparents, cousins and other relatives like their Negerkuss-loving aunt.

The next day we left my brother- and sister-in-law behind to visit my wife’s grandmother, who shares a house with her son and family. Barely out of the car, my wife’s uncle said he and her cousin were taking me to the town’s Gaststätte, or pub, for a bit of Frühschoppen, a euphemism for boozing early in the day. I was nervous about leaving the safety of my wife’s vicinity, but am also loath to turn down a beer, so off we went.

The pub is named after the family that runs it and I’d been to its party hall for buffets at various occasions – communions, birthdays and even a wedding. I’d been through the wood-panelled bar but had never stopped for a cup. On that day, I didn’t even have to order. The barkeeper tallied up the number of men coming through the door and quickly plopped down what I learned is a Männergedeck, a man’s table setting of a beer and a shot of schnapps.

Occasionally, my hosts would pay for a round and then deposit the change in tiny piggy banks nailed to the wall with the Sparkassen logo painted on the front. I was told the banks are opened at Christmas for presents for the family by keeping patrons from spending all their cash on booze.

Another oddity awaited in the men’s room. It looked like a wide-mouth urinal. I didn’t dare ask. A German friend would later tell me it’s what’s known as a Papst, or Pope. It’s for praying to the porcelain pontiff when you’ve had one too many. I might have gotten to try it had my hosts not suddenly announced it was time to go home for lunch – and more beer. I had a nice nap as my wife piloted us home later.

The next afternoon was my mother-in-law’s 60th birthday party. The focus was a card table piled high with confectionary masterpieces – the kind of cakes I didn’t know anyone even knew how to create anymore. Whipped cream. Cherries. Chocolate. Baroque dairy flourishes I can’t even describe. My wife laughed when I asked where they bought them all.

“All the guests made them,” she said.

My mother-in-law began carving the cakes with skill and reverence, handing out perfect triangles of sugary joy. An elderly woman with hair the colour of an Irish Setter suddenly drew everyone’s attention.

“Oh heavens!” she said. “Who made this Negerkuss cake? It’s delicious!”

My sister-in-law quickly raised her hand proudly. “I did,” she said, grinning over at me with her head cocked sideways in glee. There was nothing for me to do but ask for a piece of my own.

Since a good German Stammtisch is a place where pub regulars come to talk over the issues of the day, Portnoy welcomes a lively conversation in the comments area below.

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Is Switzerland’s male-only mandatory military service ‘discriminatory’?

Under Swiss law, all men must serve at least one year in compulsory national service. But is this discriminatory?

Swiss military members walk across a road carrying guns
A new lawsuit seeks to challenge Switzerland's male-only military service requirement. Is this discriminatory? FABRICE COFFRINI / AFP

All men aged between the ages of 18 and 30 are required to complete compulsory military service in Switzerland. 

A lawsuit which worked its way through the Swiss courts has now ended up in the European Court of Human Rights, where the judges will decide if Switzerland’s male-only conscription requirement violates anti-discrimination rules. 

Switzerland’s NZZ newspaper wrote on Monday the case has “explosive potential” and has “what it takes to cause a tremor” to a policy which was first laid out in Switzerland’s 1848 and 1874 Federal Constitutions. 

What is Switzerland’s compulsory military service? 

Article 59 of the Federal Constitution of Switzerland says “Every man with Swiss citizenship is liable for military service. Alternative civilian service shall be provided for by law.”

Recruits must generally do 18 weeks of boot camp (longer in some cases). 

They are then required to spend several weeks in the army every year until they have completed a minimum 245 days of service.

Military service is compulsory for Swiss men aged 18 and over. Women can chose to do military service but this is rare.

What about national rather than military service? 

Introduced in 1996, this is an alternative to the army, originally intended for those who objected to military service on moral grounds. 

READ MORE: The Swiss army’s growing problem with civilian service

Service is longer there than in the army, from the age of 20 to 40. 

This must be for 340 days in total, longer than the military service requirement. 

What about foreigners and dual nationals? 

Once you become a Swiss citizen and are between the ages of 18 and 30, you can expect to be conscripted. 

READ MORE: Do naturalised Swiss citizens have to do military service?

In general, having another citizenship in addition to the Swiss one is not going to exempt you from military service in Switzerland.

However, there is one exception: the obligation to serve will be waved, provided you can show that you have fulfilled your military duties in your other home country.

If you are a Swiss (naturalised or not) who lives abroad, you are not required to serve in the military in Switzerland, though you can voluntarily enlist. 

How do Swiss people feel about military and national service? 

Generally, the obligation is viewed relatively positively, both by the general public and by those who take part in compulsory service. 

While several other European countries have gotten rid of mandatory service, a 2013 referendum which attempted to abolish conscription was rejected by 73 percent of Swiss voters. 

What is the court case and what does it say? 

Martin D. Küng, the lawyer from the Swiss canton of Bern who has driven the case through the courts, has a personal interest in its success. 

He was found unfit for service but is still required to pay an annual bill to the Swiss government, which was 1662CHF for the last year he was required to pay it. 

While the 36-year-old no longer has to pay the amount – the obligation only lasts between the ages of 18 and 30 – Küng is bring the case on principle. 

So far, Küng has had little success in the Swiss courts, with his appeal rejected by the cantonal administrative court and later by the Swiss Federal Supreme Court. 

Previous Supreme Court cases, when hearing objections to men-only military service, said that women are less suitable for conscription due to “physiological and biological differences”.

In Küng’s case, the judges avoided this justification, saying instead that the matter was a constitutional issue. 

‘No objective reason why only men have to do military service’

He has now appealed the decision to the European level. 

While men have previously tried and failed when taking their case to the Supreme Court, no Swiss man has ever brought the matter to the European Court of Human Rights. 

Küng told the NZZ that he considered the rule to be unjust and said the Supreme Court’s decision is based on political considerations. 

“I would have expected the Federal Supreme Court to have the courage to clearly state the obvious in my case and not to decide on political grounds,” Küng said. 

“There is no objective reason why only men have to do military service or pay replacement taxes. On average, women may not be as physically productive as men, but that is not a criterion for excluding them from compulsory military service. 

There are quite a few men who cannot keep up with women in terms of stamina. Gender is simply the wrong demarcation criterion for deciding on compulsory service. If so, then one would have to focus on physical performance.”

Is it likely to pass? 

Küng is optimistic that the Strasbourg court will find in his favour, pointing to a successful appeal by a German man who complained about a fire brigade tax, which was only imposed on men. 

“This question has not yet been conclusively answered by the court” Küng said. 

The impact of a decision in his favour could be considerable, with European law technically taking precedence over Swiss law.

It would set Switzerland on a collision course with the bloc, particularly given the popularity of the conscription provision. 

Küng clarified that political outcomes and repercussions don’t concern him. 

“My only concern is for a court to determine that the current regulation is legally wrong.”