4703: The rise and fall of Haus Ullstein and the German Press

4703: The rise and fall of Haus Ullstein and the German Press

The number 4,703 echoed in my mind for several months before I finally made the trip down to the Kreuzberg neighborhood of Berlin on a sunny afternoon last April. I was supposed to meet a friend after work at Markthalle Neun for a street food happy hour but I, unexpectedly, had a few hours beforehand free. Needing to pass the time, I decided to finally search for the famed “Ullstein Haus.”

I had been wanting to find the building ever since I had read “House of Ullstein” in December. Online –I could see that at one point–there was a press museum there and that it had an exhibit documenting the deterioration of the press under Hitler. I tried to get in touch with who curated it. I emailed and called. Nobody responded.

Maybe I’d just go down and see if I could find it. Maybe it would be easier to navigate my terrible German in person.

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ANALYSIS: Twitter, Facebook and the Fake Follower problem

The New York Times reports that Twitter will “begin removing tens of millions of suspicious accounts from users’ followers on Thursday, signaling a major new effort to restore trust on the popular but embattled platform.”

This comes after a January investigation by the Times that I think is worth your time to read. It explains how fake accounts work, the types of bots you may see in your feed, and how to spot a fake account. It’s an excellent piece of journalism that I think is both educational and extremely newsworthy.

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Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of David Hasselhoff

Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of David Hasselhoff

The final night of David Hasselhoff’s “30 Years Looking for Freedomtour through Germany closed where everything began… Berlin.

Inside the Friedrichstadt-Palast, the crowd was an odd mix of Germans, expats and tourists with an energy like nothing I saw in the other concerts where I trailed “The Hoffthis year. The seats in the historic venue wrap around the stage in a way that offered the audience intimacy with the “Knight Rider” star that was only enhanced by the auditorium’s acoustics. The German audience, normally known to be stoic, had turned into a joyful, dancing crowd. 

On that night, Hasselhoff, himself, is on fire as welldoing more high kicks than a man his age really should. At one point, I’m seriously concerned he could break a hip.

Like most Americans, I’m puzzled by the German obsession with David Hasselhoff and so, during the final months of my fellowship in Berlin, I took the train to different parts of Germany to investigate. And since we’re celebrating 4th of July this week, it seems like a good time to talk about Germany’s complex history with liberty and its relationship with the United States.

And honestly, though my German colleagues would be mortified by this, my quest to follow him through different parts of Germany told me a lot about the country’s ongoing search for freedom and about the relationship between our two countries. We align so often on values and hopes for the world that it becomes rather jarring when we reach a point where we suddenly don’t seem to understand each other.

We’re at one of those crossroads right now.

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Indictment Monday and some thoughts on FARA

Indictment Monday and some thoughts on FARA

With the indictments coming down against Paul Manafort and his partner, Rick Gates, I turned on CNN just in time to see Mr. Manafort’s attorney, Kevin Downing, stating that few people have been prosecuted by the Department of Justice for failing to file under the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA).

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The somber re-election of Angela Merkel

The somber re-election of Angela Merkel
Results of exit polls released on German television after polls close

The headlines of American newspapers today will read, “German Chancellor Angela Merkel decidedly wins fourth term.” I saw tweets boasting the re-election of the “leader of the free world” from liberals in the United States.

While that accurately depicts the results of the election, it doesn’t convey the undertone of that win. To give you an idea, when the results of exit polls were released at 6 p.m. Sunday night, the Social Democrats watch party I attended went silent.

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Germany Decides: An American view of the German election

Germany Decides: An American view of the German election

In my cab on the way home the other night, my cabbie and I started talking about the upcoming German election. It’s quite unusual for the normally private Germans to speak frankly about politics — so it was incredibly interesting to hear his view.

Martin Schulz speaking at an SPD rally Friday night in Berlin
“They’re all the same,” he told me. “They’ve promised so many things and broken their promises. Like pensions. I’ve worked for 30 years and I should have a good pension, but they’ve not raised the pension amount.”

The tone he used felt rather familiar — he just wanted a way to say to the “elite” that they needed to stop ignoring the problems facing him.

Tomorrow, Germans will head to the polls to cast their vote. I’ve been attending some of the debates and political rallies and, thus, thought it might be interesting to share what I’ve seen so far.

CDU exhibit in Berlin
For instance, check out this crazy exhibit that Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU) has in Berlin. You go from room to room learning more about the party’s platforms… like this giant beating heart attached to statistics about what Merkel has achieved over her time as chancellor.

I’m not sure how something like this would go over in America, but as one friend said, Merkel’s party can afford to take risks. Pundits have called the election season “boring” as Mrs. Merkel is widely expected to remain chancellor because the CDU/CSU is significantly ahead in the polls.

Yet, there’s still a lot to watch here in my opinion, but it might not be exclusively on election night. The German election system is fascinating because the voters get two votes. On one ballot, they decide which party they want. On the second, they vote for specific candidates. It’s kind of complicated to explain but the number of seats a party gets in the Bundestag is dependent on their percentage of the vote. The first seats are filled by those directly elected and then the party decides who fills in the other spots up to the amount of seats determined by the percentage won during the party ballot.

A party needs 50% of the vote in order to form a government. If they don’t get that amount, they must form a coalition with other parties until they get 50% to form a government.

SPD chancellor candidate Martin Schulz at a campaign event in Berlin Friday
For the past few years, Angela Merkel’s center-right party, the CDU, has formed what’s called the “grand coalition” with the center-left Social Democratic Party, or SPD. These are the two most popular parties in Germany.

From a distance, as an American, it feels refreshing to see two opposing parties getting along to do the will of the people.

But many believe it has caused a weakening of the mainstream parties — especially SPD — because people generally think the two parties are the same and hold both responsible for decisions made by the government. In addition, it’s hard for the SPD to criticize Merkel’s policies because their party was part of the decision process and thus, if the decision is so bad, why didn’t they stop it?

That has led to an opportunity for fringe parties to recruit voters as people look for ways to voice their displeasure with the status quo.

Deutsche-Welle debate between the parties last week
As you’re watching the results, I think there are two important things to observe. First, the percentage of the vote the fringe parties receive — notably the Alternative for Deutschland, or AfD. The AfD is the nationalistic/populist and far-right party. They’ve had some pretty offensive, sexist and Islamophobic campaign ads and when I was at the Deutsche-Welle debate a few weeks ago, the representative’s rhetoric sounded very Trump-like. (The debate is in English if you care to watch.)

They’ve also had a fair amount of Russian bots and trolls pushing their message through social media, though Germans don’t use social media as prolifically as Americans and generally are more skeptical of news reports. (One German suggested to me that is the legacy of East Germany propaganda media.)

Couple guys taking an AfD sign that was on the ground to the trash
AfD needs 5% of the vote to be allowed in the Bundestag (German Parliament) and they’ve failed to get that in the past, yet, now they’re polling at 10%. I think it is possible that number could be higher as you see a “Trump effect” of people not admitting to how they’re planning to vote as well as those who will want to use their vote to send a message the main parties that they are unhappy.

The second thing to watch is which party Merkel’s CDU/CSU, which will likely get a large percentage of the vote but not 50%, will choose to form a coalition government. SPD has said there is no chance of another “grand coalition,” so which fringe party will CDU team with to form a government? The Economist had a great explainer about the several options.

Finally, it’s impossible to compare the political parties here to the political parties in the U.S. But if you want to see which party your views would align with there is a “Wahl-o-mat” where you can answer questions and see which parties represent you. “Wahl” in German means “choice” or “election.” (Tip: Put it into a Google chrome browser so you can get it to translate the questions. Some questions may not make sense because they deal with internal German politics.)

I’ll be watching the results with one of the parties tomorrow and heading out to a polling place. If I get some time, I’ll post here again after the results.