Still searching? How to find that elusive first German flatshare

So it’s time for your year abroad or you’re moving abroad for your first job. The thought of trying to find somewhere to live in a foreign country – and then also having to grapple with that country’s bureaucracy can be pretty daunting, especially if you’re having to do it on your own. Knowing that you can’t open a bank account or do anything else involving a contract for services until you have registered a local address with the Einwohnermeldeamt or Bürgeramt (citizens’ registration office) only adds to the pressure. So, following on from Francesca’s post earlier this summer, we (OGN Coordinators Madeleine and Nicola!) have got some tips for making the process easier and at least more predictable, if not actually completely stress-free. The experience of finding somewhere to live will vary from place to place and your options will depend on your own situation. So we aren’t going to be able to cover every eventuality or permutation, but we hope these hints and pieces of advice will provide some good general starting points for your search!

  1. Getting started – when and where to look, and what to look for

Now, of course, you may already know people in your destination country, or know people who know people – that’s great! Spread the news of your upcoming move, let them know that you are looking for somewhere to live so that they can ask around as well. Even in the age of the internet – or perhaps most especially in the age of the internet – word of mouth is a valuable tool.

If you’re a student, then the most obvious thing to look at is university accommodation. The Studentenwerk (also more inclusively known as Studierendenwerk) in a university town provides a range of rooms at cheap prices for students, as well as meals, kitchens, laundry, and socialising facilities. As soon as you know that you’ve been accepted by a university, check the incoming international student and staff pages of its website for contact details and the application process.

Nicola View WG Abroad
The view from Nicola’s WG room on her year abroad

However, you might prefer a flatshare (Wohngemeinschaft or ‘WG’) or even living on your own, although of course the latter option will be more expensive. This might go without saying, but it is infinitely easier to persuade somebody of your cleanliness, friendliness, reliability, and general viability as a potential housemate or tenant in person. You may well find that any enquiries you make via email while still in your home country fall on deaf ears. Nevertheless, it is advisable to start your search early – if only because it will give you a reasonable idea of what is available, where, and for how much.  Try also to balance the desire to have everything organised in advance with having somewhere you’ll be comfortable living for a year – having found a year abroad WG online, OGN Coordinator Nicola had a beautiful fully furnished room, but  this came with a whole string of flatmates during the year, including a very large dog called “Kaiser”….

Online listings are plentiful, so here are some sites that we’ve found most useful:

For general searches:

Mitwohnzentralen and Mietwohnzentralen offer a free search service for long and short-term lets of furnished rentals to a range of tenant types, including families and businesses.

For flatshares:

Demand in some cities (e.g. Munich, Stuttgart, Vienna) is exceptionally high, so be prepared to send a lot of enquiries and not get very many responses in return. Decide what requirements you have (location, rent range, amenities in the area, etc.), but be prepared to be flexible.

Do also check listings in local newspapers (many will also have an online presence). Many will simply contain listings already advertised on the main online search sites, but are worth checking nonetheless.

  1. Temporary accommodation

It isn’t always possible to find somewhere to live before you’ve arrived in your destination country. If it looks like you’re going to find yourself without a home when you arrive, plan ahead and set up temporary accommodation for yourself so you have a place to lay your head while you hit the internet and the streets hard in your ongoing search. OGN Coordinator Madeleine spent six weeks in places varying from a hostel dorm to an Airbnb sublet before she found a flat to move into when she recently moved to Germany. Or maybe you’re only going to be in the country for a relatively short period anyway. Fortunately, there are plenty of inexpensive options for finding temporary accommodation in addition to the usual youth hostels, youth hotels, and couchsurfing.

  • Student dormitories may hire out rooms during vacation periods for short lets. Check university pages and the Studentenwerke.
  • Kolpinghäuser. There are a few hundred of these organisations spread throughout Germany, Austria and Switzerland. Originally set up by the Catholic Church to cater for the needs of apprentices, they are open to all regardless of religious or political affiliation. In addition to providing support and accommodation to young trainees and apprentices, many also offer short-term accommodation at reasonable prices to all comers.
  • Airbnb is now widely used in Germany, Austria and Switzerland and can offer options for stays of a few nights to a few months. Airbnb lists subletting options (Zwischenmiete), and many similar Zwischenmiete listings can be found on the other flat-hunt sites, as well. One of the benefits here is that many of the additional costs of renting (heating, electricity, etc.), will be covered in the fee for your stay.
  1. (Online) safety first!

Although most adverts will be from genuine landlords and tenants, online accommodation search sites are a perfect hunting ground for scam artists, many of whom are operating outside Germany, so be vigilant at all times. Good accommodation search sites do monitor for hoaxes, but may not be able to react fast enough to remove suspect adverts.

If an offer seems too good to be true, then you’ll probably be best advised to give it a wide berth. Poor German or English in their written communication is often a good indication of a scam, but is by no means a certain identifier.

Under no circumstances comply with any requests to pay money as a deposit or rent through a third party or if you are not given bank details (e.g. scams frequently use Western Union and similar money transfer services). Make sure you have met your landlord, viewed the room or flat (or asked a trusted friend to do this on your behalf) and signed a valid contract before you hand over any money. The reverse is equally true: landlords in Germany, Austria, and Switzerland generally won’t make contracts with people they haven’t met and whom they know nothing about. So although you should never give out any personal information (the same naturally applies to any copies of your passport and your bank information), being able to name an institution or official person to whom they can turn for more information or a reference may be useful.

Hoax landlords often claim to live abroad and that it is impossible for them to come to the country of their property (Madeleine saw a lot of versions of this story – frequently using almost identical phrasing and layout, the difference between them was often only in the quality of the English or German!). Note that genuine landlords living abroad would usually have an official agent working on their behalf. So keys should not be sent in the post to you, but should be given to you in person by the agent on behalf of the landlord.

Madeleine Brook & Nicola Deboys, OGN Coordinators

Psst… More tips to come next week – stay tuned!

In the beginning: navigating the labyrinth of ‘WG-Gesucht’

About to embark on your year abroad and it’s the first time you have to look for somewhere to live? This week German student, Francesca, gives us her experience of landing in Germany and flat-hunting during her year abroad. Next week, some tips on where to look and what to expect…

If you are capable of briefly forgiving me my narcissism, then allow me to present my year abroad in Germany as a kind of story; a tragicomic tale of intrigue (over disappearing yoghurts) and swashbuckling encounters (with German bureaucracy)!

Remembering my secondary school tutor’s fascination with the seven basic plotlines, I would place my year abroad into the following categories: The Quest, Overcoming the Monster, and, (it goes without saying really) Voyage and Return. The object of an initial arduous month-long quest? A place to live. The monster to be slain? Well, I’m using the term monster very, very liberally here. Shall we say, the monster of reluctance? The monster of impatience? The monster of defeatism?  (Sorry for making you endure that awful metaphor.)

I think these pesky creatures crop up in everyone’s day at some point, and having spent my first week(s) in Germany crying over various housing rejections, it’s safe to say that defeatism had a rather significant role. Everyone says ‘persistence is key’, but no one mentions exactly how many weeks you will have to be persistent for, how much of your Erasmus grant will be spent on air b&b, how frustrating it feels to turn up to a house visit and see a queue of seven other people outside the door- all interested in the one room on offer.  At least, however, I had been warned that the monster of impatience would put up a fight when it came to dealing with bureaucratic necessities, so the queuing up outside the town hall at 7:30 a.m. to register was to be expected. But eventually my quest was fulfilled: I had a room, I was officially a registered citizen, I had a bank account, several different university cards, and had signed and sent various forms that I pretended to understand.

However, the challenges of finding somewhere to live and the challenge of living with four people you’d never met before are very different. I am sure that most people, when asked, would consider themselves to be good at sharing. I had lived alone at university, I was independent, oder? Oder indeed. There is very little about living inside college accommodation that requires or promotes independence. I shared a communal hoover, an iron, laundry appliances and a couple of microwaves at best (to this day I have never used that iron). Now I share a whole living space, shelves, cupboards, a garden, chores, and, very pertinently for Germany, recycling.

Wohngemeinschaft kitchen sinkHowever, a house-share isn’t just called a house-share here, but a Wohngemeinschaft (or ‘WG’ for short), which literally  and very roughly translates as a ‘community that lives together’. Whilst house-sharing is by no means a unique concept, the German variation of it did seem unique to me in some aspects: The word ‘community’ seems to imply more than just sharing – there is also the expectation of harmony. Many WGs that I applied for seemed to run ‘auditions’ for potential Mitbewohner (housemates), and I seemed doomed to fail with my hesitant German and lack of persuasive powers to convince them that I was clean, tidy, responsible, fun and friendly all at the same time (probably because I’m not).

However, the aptly named Zweck-WGs operate on the basis that there are no expectations of particular friendship between housemates, but rather you just all live your separate lives under the same roof (a Zweck is a function, a purpose, an objective etc.). Even though my room was advertised as within one of these, it turns out that we do get along pretty well after all. Of course, learning to share is always going to be difficult. I woefully endure one housemate’s over-tidiness whilst inwardly bemoaning the other’s untidiness, yet I do sometimes lament that emptying the dishwasher seems perpetually befallen to me, and I sometimes think wistfully back to living alone and being able to walk around in my pyjamas all day free from judgement!

Wohngemeinschaft kitchen sinkHaving said that, gradually I have come to realise that washing up someone else’s plate won’t kill you, chores are an unfortunate necessity of life to be shared, there’s no need to turn into Gollum over a yoghurt and it is actually nice to have people to talk to, especially when those people are nice themselves. The WG world can be hard to navigate for any newcomer, and I am only qualified to talk about one, but to any prospective year abroad student in Germany I would really recommend it. You may have gone from talking about newspaper articles at university to talking about who last watered the plants in your flat, but language practice is language practice nonetheless. The whole point of year abroad is supposed to be about gaining an experience of the country, and there’s nothing like your landlord making you potato soup with sausages on your first night to confirm your preconceived notions about Germany, and nothing like your bus home being three and a half hours late to confute them.


Very creative and a little bit crazy – German poetry for young learners

Along with the Oxford German Olympiad Prize-giving, throughout the month of June OGN ran a number of other events, all designed to offer an introduction to interesting pieces of German literature in as accessible and attention-grabbing a manner as possible.  This post looks at the first of these sessions, aimed at younger learners, and includes resources that teachers can use for their own lessons.

Photo: Friedrich Böhringer

Many of our local schools start teaching German around Year 8 or 9, so I decided to run a one-off session for pupils in Years 9 and 10 looking at ‘Modern German performance poetry’.  Having advertised the topic as “very creative… and a little bit crazy” I hoped the poems would live up to expectations!  The opening poem auf dem land by Ernst Jandl certainly provoked a good deal of surprise and laughter amongst the group, and already offered a sense of just what it can mean to “perform” a poem.  Trying to name all of the animals mentioned proved a challenge in some cases (see how many you can get!) so this film from a Berlin primary school gave some helpful hints.

The main focus of the session was the poetry of Nora Gomringer, who has won a number of prestigious literary prizes including the Jakob-Grimm-Preis Deutsche Sprache (2011) and the Ingeborg-Bachmann-Preis (2015).  Ursprungsalphabet is a fantastic poem for younger learners because the idea of an alphabetical poem going “Ich bin Ariadne… Rilkes Panther Tier-Pfleger… X-Men…” is easy to grasp and identifying familiar characters provides a great way in to closer analysis.  This video shows Gomringer’s performative skills and her ability to truly entrance her audience, whether through her incredibly S-L-O-W rendition of “Ich bin die L-A-N-G-S-A-M-K-E-I-T” or the quirky inclusion of “X-Men” near the end.

Having experienced these poems, along with Gomringer’s Daheim (written with no spaces and performed at breakneck speed) the pupils were let loose to prepare their own performances or write short German poems in the style of Gomringer or Jandl.  The results were impressive!

I think it’s safe to say that all the attendees left feeling that they had experienced a creative and crazy side to the German language and had an interesting first taste of German literature.  Look out for my next post giving a roundup of our Year 11-12 reading groups…

Nicola Deboys, Oxford German Network Coordinator

Viel zum Lächeln – Awards at the Oxford German Olympiad

After hundreds of entries from schools all across the UK, heated discussions amongst judges and the final seal of approval from head judge Professor Henrike Lähnemann, the Oxford German Olympiad 2016 finally came to a close on Thursday, 16 June with a prize-giving ceremony in Oxford.

Rosie Goldsmith OGO2016
Rosie Goldsmith speaking at the Olympiad prize-giving

OGN was delighted that Rosie Goldsmith, award-winning journalist and freelance broadcaster for the arts and current affairs, was able to come and award the prizes to the winners of this year’s Oxford German Olympiad.  She is a champion of international literature and language-learning, and founded the European Literature Network in 2009. She has lived in many countries, including Germany.  As many of you will know, the theme of this year’s Olympiad was Deutscher Humor – nichts zum Lachen?  Accordingly, we set Rosie the somewhat daunting task of speaking on the topic of German humour.

Rosie retraced her experiences of visiting and living in Germany and her personal encounters with German humour, or indeed her search to find something that met her definition of ‘humour’.  By all accounts this was an often fruitless search, but with glimmers of wit shining through.  She recalled that with the fall of the Berlin Wall those in the West suddenly had access to a whole new wealth of jokes, those popular amongst citizens of East German, often political satires directed at leaders such as Honecker.  In later years she also came to appreciate the quality of German TV comedians.

As many Olympiad entrants will have found this year, what is funny in one language may not be particularly amusing at the end of the translation process – perhaps the grammar and vocab in the target language are too long-winded, perhaps some wordplay goes astray, or perhaps it is a question not just of translating words, but also of cultural transfer. Take a look at the winning entries in the category “Years 5/6 Illustrate a Funny Phrase” for some examples.

Chatting with some of the prize-winners

Despite all these difficulties, Rosie is continuing on her quest to unlock the secrets of German humour, and is a fervent supporter of the arts.  She encouraged the prize-winners to keep exploring the mysteries of German, whether literature, language or just everyday life.  Hopefully the prizes, provided by our partners, the German Embassy, Goethe Institut, Penguin, and OUP, will help these budding Germanists do just that.

To see all the winning entries, as well as further photos of the event, visit the OGN website.

Of course, a blog post about German humour wouldn’t be complete without a punchline… in this case it’s more of a cliff-hanger… On 26 September 2017, European Day of Languages, we will announce the theme for the 2017 Oxford German Olympiad!

Nicola Deboys, Oxford German Network Coordinator

Learning to see: Rilke’s Neue Gedichte

The last of our mini-series of literary posts also heralds the last of this year’s OGN reading group sessions: here, Rey Conquer introduces us to aspects of Rainer Maria Rilke’s poetry.
Stephen Emmerson’s ‘translations’ of Rilke’s Neue Gedichte, at the Austrian Cultural Forum’s Kakania festival in London, involved, among other things, turning the book into pills, into seed bombs, into a cake, even into the audience’s own excrement.  We might think this nothing more than a provocative stunt, an act of exuberant irreverence. After all, Rilke was serious and high-minded, one of the most important poets writing in Europe in the last century, and his poetry has influenced not just other poets but also philosophers and critics (not to mention nuns). But the idea of transformation was central to Rilke’s work, and Emmerson’s desecrations are a helpful caricature of some of the things Rilke himself was particularly interested in at the time he was writing the Neue Gedichte (New Poems).
459px-Paula_Modersohn-Becker_016 Rainer Maria Rilke 1906
Portrait of Rilke by the Expressionist painter, Paula Modersohn-Becker, 1906.

Rainer Maria Rilke was 26 when he turned up in Paris in 1902 to write a book on the sculptor Auguste Rodin. He had written and published poetry, plays, short stories, art criticism (he went on to write a novel, based on his experiences in and of Paris, Die Aufzeichnungen des Malte Laurids Brigge (The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge) which was published in 1910). That is, he was no novice; but when in Paris, he set himself the task of learning, first from Rodin and then from Paul Cézanne—and this second encounter, in which he visited an exhibition of Cézanne’s paintings daily, is documented in a series of letters to his wife, the sculptor Clara Westhoff. What did he hope to learn from these ‘apprenticeships’? For an answer we might turn to the protagonist of his novel, Malte, who writes, “Ich lerne sehen.”

Why might a poet want to learn to see? It seems obvious why a painter or sculptor would want to see, because the finished artwork is something that has to be seen (and in the case of both Rodin and Cézanne, the artwork is *of* a real thing that itself had to be seen). If we read Rilke’s earlier or later poems, seeing seems often less important than hearing or indeed thinking, remembering, imagining, and so on. But in the Neue Gedichte many of the most striking poems are like paintings or sculptures, or are about paintings or sculptures (one of the most famous, ‘Archaischer Torso Apollos’ is about a statue, for instance), and they pay a lot of attention to looking, and use techniques such as repetition and sound patterning to create a sensory ‘portrait’ of an object or scene. The very first to be written was ‘Der Panther’:
Der Panther
Im Jardin des Plantes, Paris
Sein Blick ist vom Vorübergehn der Stäbe
so müd geworden, dass er nichts mehr hält.
Ihm ist, als ob es tausend Stäbe gäbe
und hinter tausend Stäben keine Welt.
Der weiche Gang geschmeidig starker Schritte,
der sich im allerkleinsten Kreise dreht,
ist wie ein Tanz von Kraft um eine Mitte,
in der betäubt ein großer Wille steht.
Nur manchmal schiebt der Vorhang der Pupille
sich lautlos auf -. Dann geht ein Bild hinein,
geht durch der Glieder angespannte Stille –
und hört im Herzen auf zu sein.
Rainer Maria Rilke, 6.11.1902, Paris
Even at a first glance we can see the ways in which parts of the visual world are turned into poetic language: for instance, the repeated word ‘Stäbe’ in the first stanza mimics the bars of the panther’s cage. Not only does this help us see the panther, it also helps us see that poetry, like painting and sculpture, is made out of something: words. Neither Cézanne nor Rodin hid the marks of their tools, and the very visible and audible use of  assonance and alliteration in this poem (‘Stäbe gäbe’, ‘Kreise’/‘Kraft’) is a way of making clear that this is something that has been worked, and worked on. For while working with Rodin, and while spending time with the paintings of Cézanne, it was not just looking and seeing that he was learning; he was also learning to work. In a letter to Clara, he reported Rodin’s advice: ’Il faut travailler, rien que travailler. Et il faut avoir patience.’ (‘You have to work, nothing but work. And you have to be patient’).
Emmerson turned Rilke’s poems into a ‘seed bomb’ that would be planted and produce, from the words, flowers. Rilke did the opposite: he turned flowers (and carousels, and swans, and fountains, and parrots) into words, into poems. These are poems that are at times linguistically difficult and dense, but with some patience, they open out.
Rey Conquer, Somerville College, Oxford

Donna Clara – Heinrich Heine’s Bad Romance

We were a bit voreilig with our posts – oops! Heinrich Heine’s work is at the centre of the second of OGN’s reading groups – this week, Alex Marshall gives us an insight into some of the complexities of Jewish life and literature in nineteenth-century Germany.
Donna Clara‘ (Buch der Lieder, 1827) is Heinrich Heine’s most direct and probably funniest commentary on antisemitism. In lush, mock-epic verse, Heine describes the courtship of a fair maiden, tired of the false promises and empty flattery of the court, by a handsome young knight, almost the very image of St George, interspersed with the sudden, gratuitous and frankly bizarre outbursts about Jews she subjects him to. When she asks the gallant knight his name, we instead hear his father’s: “Rabbi Israel von Saragossa“.
Lancelot Bears Off Guenevere, Tales of the Round Table, Andrew Lang (1908)
The relish and pride with which the young knight reveals this secret is matched only by the tolerance he shows, sitting patiently through no less than three antisemitic rants and only revealing his ancestry when asked about his identity. We’ve all indulged someone we fancied more than we would someone else, but is the knight’s superhuman patience that far away from the flattery of the other suitors in the court? Did he deceive poor Donna Clara by letting her fall in love with him, and can we blame him for it?
Since Heine based this poem on “personal experience” his readers might wonder just how long he spent, sitting at a dinner table, while the pretty girl opposite alternated lingering eye-contact with anti-Jewish tirades. Did Heine ever reveal his own roots to her, or is Donna Clara, like much great humorous writing, the product of a case of Treppenwitz?
Jews burned alive for the alleged host desecration in Deggendorf, Bavaria, in 1338, and in Sternberg, Mecklenburg, 1492; a woodcut from the Nuremberg Chronicle (1493)
The mock-epic form adds greatly to the humour, but also expresses the underlying tensions between Heine’s German and Jewish identities. While German Romanticism loved to, well, romanticise Medieval Europe, Heine reminds us that, for Jews, the Middle Ages were not just a time of courtly love and shining armour, but fear, persecution, and ritual  humiliation. These myths that were the life-blood of German romantic nationalism, but for Heine, a German romantic nationalist who was also a Jew, they were what you might call problematic. As the poet imagines himself chivalrously winning the heart of a fair damsel, he wryly asks what the damsels in those days would have really thought of him.
But other questions come up. Has Donna Clara ever met a Jew before, or is she merely repeating what she heard elsewhere? Why does he not give his own name, but the obviously,Jewish name of his father, Israel? Is that really his father’s name or is he merely a “son of Israel”? Why does he stress his father’s rabbinical learning, unlikely to impress your average antisemite? Is he more proud of the scholar’s blood in his veins than his own knightly status? Has he, like many Jews in the nineteenth century, Heine included, had to convert to Christianity to get the job? And why St George, the Christian martyr and slayer of monsters who, although usually portrayed as a European knight, has his origins in Palestine?
Alex Marshall, University of Oxford

How to start reading Kafka?

This week, ahead of the third OGN reading group, Karolina Watroba thinks about how to tackle one of the most famous German writers of the early twentieth-century: Franz Kafka.
Franz Kafka in 1906

Franz Kafka is probably the most famous German-language writer, and he has certainly been one of the most influential authors of world literature in the twentieth century. His unique style has even given rise to a brand new adjective, ‘kafkaesque’ – so if having one’s name turned into a common word is anything to go by, Kafka has really become an inseparable element of our culture. It might seem overwhelming to actually have a go at reading something written by a literary legend like Kafka, which is why I want to share five ideas for how you can start reading him!

1. Translations of famous opening lines – different every time!
The first of Kafka’s texts I read in German, and in fact one of the very first pieces of literature written in German that I decided to tackle in the original language, was a novella called ‘Die Verwandlung’ – ‘The Metamorphosis’. It later turned out that I would study this story in my first year at Oxford – it is one of the prose set texts for first-year students here. ‘Die Verwandlung’ was originally published in 1915, and it begins with one of the most famous opening sentences in the history of literature:
‘Als Gregor Samsa eines Morgens aus unruhigen Träumen erwachte, fand er sich in seinem Bett zu einem ungeheuren Ungeziefer verwandelt.’
In Ian Johnston’s translation: ‘One morning, as Gregor Samsa was waking up from anxious dreams, he discovered that in his bed, he had been changed into a monstrous verminous bug.’
You’ll find eight other English translations of the opening sentence to compare in this fun article from The Guardian. Kafka’s works are in the public domain, so you can find them online for free. Check out this bilingual edition of ‘Die Verwandlung’.
2. Expect the unexpected!
Perhaps the best-known, and the most influential of Kafka’s texts, is his unfinished novel Der Prozess The Trial. He wrote it at about the same time as ‘Die Verwandlung’, but it wasn’t published until 1925, a year after his death, when his lifelong friend, Max Brod, decided to go against Kafka’s will and start publishing his hitherto unpublished texts, rather than burning them. Der Prozess boasts another unforgettable opening sentence:
‘Jemand mußte Josef K. verleumdet haben, denn ohne daß er etwas Böses getan hätte, wurde er eines Morgens verhaftet.’
In John Williams’s translation: ‘Someone must have been spreading slander about Josef K., for one morning he was arrested, though he had done nothing wrong.’
Even in this opening sentence, it is already evident that, in many ways, Der Prozess is written like a detective story. So if you like suspense and investigations, you’ll find Der Prozess very interesting – partly because it reverses the conventions of this genre and constantly challenges your expectations of it.
3. Short forms for the short of time
If both ‘Die Verwandlung’ and Der Prozess seem too long to start with, why don’t you try one of Kafka’s many shorter pieces? He wrote numerous little texts that range in length from just one line to one or two pages. Those published during his lifetime are conveniently collected in one volume, Ein Landarzt und andere Drucke zu Lebzeiten (Frankfurt am Main: Fischer Taschenbuch Verlag, 1994). There you’ll find such little gems as ‘Wunsch, Indianer zu werden’, or ‘Der neue Advokat’, as well as ‘Die Sorge des Hausvaters’, which will be the text for our reading group next week. These texts are very brief (‘Wunsch, Indianer zu werden’ is just one sentence, six lines!), but also incredibly intriguing – and simply unlike anything you’ve ever read.
4. Get an introduction to the critical debates
While having a go at reading Kafka is definitely the best way to get to know his works, at some point you might feel like having a look at some secondary literature on him. A great starting point would be Kafka: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford: OUP, 2004), written by Oxford’s own Ritchie Robertson. This little book is accessible and thought-provoking, which makes it an ideal place to start exploring broader themes and concerns running throughout Kafka’s work.
5. Get an introduction to the critical debates (Teil 2!)
Another place to go if you’d like to discover new ways to approach Kafka, is a series of documentaries and drama called In the Shadow of Kafka, produced by BBC Radio 3 in May 2015. You’ll hear there, among others, German poetry expert Karen Leeder talking about meaning and communication in Kafka’s works, or Margaret Atwood – a famous Canadian writer – reflecting on what Kafka’s texts have meant to her since she was a teenager.
I hope that this post has given you plenty of ideas about how to approach Kafka yourself. Go explore!


Karolina Watroba, Magdalen College, Oxford

The Nibelungenlied, or Making a Medievalist

Ahead of OGN’s annual German literature reading groups, we’ll be introducing the texts that will form the basis for each of the four sessions over the coming weeks. Dr Mary Boyle will be leading the first group on 8 July. Here, she ‘macht uns für den Startschuss bereit’ by introducing our first text: the Middle High German epic poem, the Nibelungenlied…

Uns ist in alten mæren wunders vil geseit

von heleden lobebæren, von grôzer arebeit,

von fröuden, hôchgezîten, von weinen und von klagen,

von küender recken strîten muget ir nu wunder hœren sagen°

[In ancient tales many marvels are told us: of renowned heroes, of great hardship, of joys, festivities, of weeping and lamenting, of bold warriors’ battles–now you may hear such marvels told!*]

Nibelungenlied Manuscript C, Folio 1r, about 1220-1250
A page from the Nibelungenlied, Manuscript C  (ca.1220-50)

I was first given the Nibelungenlied in English translation when I was sixteen or seventeen. I used to read it in the car on the way to and from guitar lessons. Perhaps my seventeen-year-old self would be disappointed that it was the Nibelungenlied I kept up with, and not the guitar, but after another twelve years of medieval studies, I think it was the right call.

The Nibelungenlied was written down by an anonymous poet around the year 1200. The story was not of his own creation; he wove together centuries’ worth of legends about the hero Siegfried, his betrayal and murder, and his wife’s bloodthirsty and comprehensive revenge. These myths and half-forgotten histories were not just popular in German, but also circulated in Old Norse.  Medieval gore is not exclusive to twenty-first-century fantasy film and TV!

Siegfried's murder Nibelungenlied Manuscript K 1480-1490
Siegfried’s murder, as shown in Manuscript K (1480-1490)

I am going to use an extract from the Nibelungenlied for my Oxford German Network Reading Group session, as an introduction to the literature of the German Middle Ages. The text as a whole covers almost everything that a twenty-first-century reader might expect to find in medieval literature: castles, romance, knights, queens, quests, dreams, and lots and lots of blood. It provides fodder for any number of conversations you might equally have about modern literary texts: gender politics, the role of religion, the use of violence, space and place, narrative construction, love and loss, and many more. It wasn’t the first medieval text I encountered, but it fixed itself firmly into my mind.

It’s not a ‘perfect’ text, but it is never less than compelling. At times we see how the poet struggled in combining these semi-connected myths into a single narrative. Characters remain inexplicably youthful for decades. There are abrupt changes in the figures who are expected to attract our sympathy. We hear conflicting accounts of backstory, and characters behave in ways which can appear illogical. On top of that, we have inherited three distinct versions of the text. But the Nibelungenlied has taken hold of the imagination of generations of readers (and, initially, listeners). The reception of the text is a branch of study on its own. It has been reshaped and reinterpreted: used by the Romantics, refashioned by Wagner, and, unfortunately, co-opted by the Nazis.†

I began by quoting the famous opening stanza of the Nibelungenlied with its promise of heroes and of wonders, of toils and of weeping. I will close with the final stanza, when all of those things have been laid bare. The wonders have passed, and all that remains are consequences.

Ine kán iu niht bescheiden, waz sider dâ geschach:

wan ritter vnd vrouwen weinen man dâ sach,

dar zvo di edeln knehte ir lieben frivnde tôt.

hie hât daz mære ein ende: daz ist der Nibelunge nôt.°

[I can’t tell you what happened afterwards there, except that knights and ladies were seen to weep, and noble squires, too, for the death of their dear friends. Here this tale is at an end–that is The Nibelungs’ Doom.*]

Mary Boyle, University of Oxford


° Karl Bartsch and Helmut de Boor (eds.), Siegfried Grosse (trans.), Das Nibelungenlied (Stuttgart: Reclaim, 2002, repr. 2006).

* Cyril Edwards (trans.), The Nibelungenlied: The Lay of the Nibelungs (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010)

† For more information, see Werner Hoffman, ‘The Reception of the Nibelungenlied in the Twentieth Century’ in A Companion to the Nibelungenlied ed. by Winder McConnell (Columbia: Camden House, 1998), pp. 127-152.

Dr Faustus – German man, international myth

Later this week, the O’Reilly Theatre, Keble College, Oxford will host a production of Christopher Marlowe’s play, Dr. Faustus. The endlessly fascinating legend of Faust has German origins – and a real man behind the myth, as OGN Coordinator, Madeleine Brook, explains.

The outlines of the popular legend of Faust are relatively simple. He is the man who, ambitious and hungry for knowledge, practises magic and sorcery, eventually making a pact with the devil: in return for knowledge and power, he signs a contract in his own blood, promising his soul to the devil after a period of twenty-four years has elapsed. In general, these years are filled with success for Faust, but his death is inevitable and gruesome, as he pays for his hubris and the devil claims his due. It is a story that has been retold and reimagined in numerous permutations across Europe ever since the sixteenth century: from Marlowe and Goethe to Rembrandt, Wagner, Bulgakov, and more, the Faust material has been an inspiration in all the art forms.

Title page of the first edition of Historia Von D. Johann Fausten (1587)

However, the story in its earliest surviving written and printed form – and the version on which Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus is largely based – claims to be more than just a work of fiction. The anonymous Historia von D. Johann Fausten, published in Frankfurt am Main in 1587 by Johann Spies and intended as a stern warning to Christians (and Lutheran Christians in particular) against falling away from God, claims that it contains more than just a passing reference to historical fact. And, indeed, although the shaping of the literary figure of Faust across the ages owes something to aspects of antique, early Christian, and medieval myth in the figures of Prometheus, Simon Magus, and St. Theophilus, among others, behind it all there is documentary evidence of a man calling himself Faustus in the late fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.

Admittedly, there are only a very few sources that allow the historian to draw reliable conclusions about the historical Faustus, his biography, and his character. This, of course, contributes to his modern day fascination, and indeed the scholarly search for the ‘real’ Faustus goes back to the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. The discovery of new documents in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries has resulted in a re-examination of the previously known sources from the sixteenth century, though opinion is still divided on a number of aspects to do with the Faust story, the historical Faust and his development into a legend.

Frontispiece to a late edition of Marlowe’s Dr Faustus (1620)

Recent research suggests that the historical Faustus was born Georg (or Jörg – although Johann and Johann Georg have also been suggested by earlier work) in a town called Helmstadt, not far from Heidelberg (again, earlier research has suggested Knittlingen, also in southern Germany, but there are some grounds for mistrusting the source on which this is based), in the mid-1460s, and so for some time he went by the name Georg Helmstetter. In 1483 he began studying at the University of Heidelberg (itself founded only a century earlier) and four years later had achieved his Master of Philosophy degree. It was in this period that he developed an interest in astrology, which lies at the foundation of his chequered legend. It is worth noting at this point that astrology was not a debunked area of knowledge at this time, but was taken seriously as a scientific discipline by many in society and was practised alongside other fields of scholarship, such as astronomy, philosophy, alchemy, and mathematics.

Rembrandt A Scholar in His Study 1650-1654
Rembrandt’s 1650 work is commonly entitled either ‘A Scholar In His Study’ or ‘Faust’.

Scholars were active in these areas and present at the courts of rulers across Europe. It is known that Helmstetter prepared horoscopes in this early stage of his career and the correlation of certain details in the documents surrounding these prognostications and the claimed qualifications of a certain ‘Magister Georgius Sabellicus, Faustus iunior’ against whom the abbot Johannes Trithemius railed in a polemical letter to the astrologer Johannes Virdung von Hassfurt in 1507 indicate that these two men are the same. This letter shows Faustus as an astrologer with patrons in high places, but Trimethius also emphasizes the man’s wide-ranging interest in the occult, heavily suggesting that he went beyond the bounds of licit natural magic.

This suggestion of the practice of darker magic and consorting with the devil is, as Frank Baron has pointed out, not an accusation that is repeated in other sources concerning Faustus’s life until much later, and these should be seen in the context of the Reformation – and most especially in the reception and development of the legacy of Martin Luther by Philipp Melanchthon and subsequently internal conflicts in the Lutheran Church in the late sixteenth century. The historical Faustus appears to have died sometime in the 1540s – in old age, rather defying notions of a twenty-four-year contract, though the exact nature of his demise is uncertain. Nevertheless, the accusations of sorcery and a diabolical death were taken up in Spies’s and Marlowe’s renderings of the legend and resound to this day.

Madeleine Brook, OGN Coordinator

Interested in reading more? Here are some tips:

Frank Baron, ‘Faustus of the Sixteenth Century: His Life, Legend, and Myth’, in J.M. van der Laan & A. Weeks (eds), The Faustian Century: German Literature and Culture in the Age of Luther and Faustus (New York, 2013). Baron has also published a version of this online.

Urs Leo Gantenbein, ‘Converging Magical Legends: Faustus, Paracelsus, and Trithemius’, in van der Laan/Weeks, The Faustian Century.

Leo Ruickbie, Faustus: The Life and Times of a Renaissance Magician (2009).

Der Mai ist gekommen, die Bäume schlagen aus!

OGN Coordinator, Madeleine, has recently moved to Germany. Here, she reports on a typical German springtime custom…

Und aus den Flammen steigen
Viel lustige Geister hervor,
Sie wiegen sich fliegend im Reigen
Und schwingen sich singend im Chor.

Die Hexen schweben hernieder
Und dreh`n sich im feurigen Kreis:
Da fährt es auch uns durch die Glieder,
Wie ein Taumel, fieberheiß.

So schrieb Christoph von Mickwitz im 19. Jahrhundert in einem Frühlingsgedicht. Aber… Hexen und Hexentanz? Da denkt man doch an Oktober, amerikanische Halloween-Traditionen  und geschnitzte Kürbisköpfe – und nicht an Frühling, wo alles ja viel heller und bunter ist, wo die Schäflein auf der Wiese herumtollen und flauschige Entenküken in den Bächen plantschen.

Aber nicht in Deutschland, Österreich und der Schweiz, denn am 30. April ist Walpurgisnacht! In der Nacht vom 30. April zum 1. Mai – sagen die Legenden – halten die Hexen ein großes Fest, einen Hexensabbat, mit Tanzen, Feuerspringen, und anderen teuflischen Bräuchen, an unterschiedlichen hochgelegenen Orten ab. Der Blocksberg (eigentlich ‚Brocken‘ genannt) in der Harzregion in Sachsen ist ein besonders wichtiger Standort in dieser Hinsicht, aber es gibt auch andere sogenannte ‚Hexenberge‘ in Deutschland, z.B. den Kandel im Schwarzwald und den Staffelberg in Franken.

Johannes Praetorius Blockes-Berges Verrichtung Leipzig 1668
Johannes Praetorius, Blocks-Berg Verrichtung (Holzschnitt, 1668)

Die Walpurgisnacht hat viele volkstümliche Bräuche hervorgerufen – man wollte sich und sein Gut in dieser gefährlichen Nacht schützen! Besen und Maibüsche wurden ausgelegt, um Häuser und Höfe gegen das Böse zu beschützen; Maifeuer wurden angezündet und Maibäume aufgestellt und rumgetanzt, um die bösen Geister zu vertreiben, dadurch auch den Frühling willkommen zu heißen und die damit verbundene Fruchtbarkeit zu feiern.

Und da die Deutschen, Österreicher und Schweizer gesellige Menschen sind und gerne feiern, wurde die Walpurgisnacht zu dem perfekten Anlass für eine Party – und zwar den Tanz in den Mai! Sicher werden noch heute Feuer angezündet und rumgetanzt, Walpurgislieder gesungen und starke Maibowle getrunken. Aber lange musst du im Internet nicht stöbern, bis du eine lange Liste von Veranstaltungen in deiner Nähe findest. Von Volksfesten und vornehmen Maibällen über allerlei Konzerte bis hin zu Kneipen- und Club-Veranstaltungen – es ist für jeden Geschmack was da, wobei du dich austoben und die Nacht hindurch bis in die frühen Morgenstunden tanzen kannst. Und – ganz klar – die Sonne in Mai aufgehen sehen kannst.

Eliszis Jahrmarkttheater Tanz in den Mai 2016 2
Eliszi’s Jahrmarktstheater

Und ich? Ich tanze leidenschaftlich gern und dazu gibt es dort, wo ich wohne – in Stuttgart in Baden-Württemberg – viele Möglichkeiten. Da könnte ich beispielsweise von einem hohen Ort, z.B. von dem Riesenrad im Cannstatter Wasen beim Frühlingsfest (das ist quasi das Pendant zum herbstlichen Volksfest, die schwäbische Antwort auf das Münchner Oktoberfest) oder vom  Fernsehturm hinaus auf die Stadt hinunter blicken. Leider gibt es an beiden Orten eher wenige Möglichkeiten, das Tanzbein schwingen zu lassen. Wohl aus Sicherheitsgründen… Aber auf dem Killesberg vielleicht? Er ist zwar nicht der höchste Berg des Stuttgarter Kessels, aber da ist oft viel los. Also habe ich im Internet kurz gesucht… Und tatsächlich – in Eliszi’s Jahrmarktstheater, mitten im Höhenpark Killesberg, haben sich die Tanzfreudigen gesammelt.

Hot Jazz Rewinders Eliszis 2016
Moderator René und die Hot Jazz Rewinders sorgen für Stimmung auf dem Parkett

Und geswingt. Zur Livemusik direkt aus den 1920er und 1930er Jahren mit den Hot Jazz Rewinders haben die Swingtänzer aus Stuttgart und auch ferneren Orts bis früh in die Morgenstunden geschwoft – fast wie Otfried Preußlers berühmte kleine Hexe. Die heißen Rhythmen sorgten nicht nur für eine tolle Stimmung und Energie – aber wem es im Zelt wirklich langsam zu warm wurde, konnte auch ein Bierchen trinken und etwas frische Luft schnappen. Rings um die Tanzfläche und auch draußen vor dem Zelt – wenn es nicht geregnet hat – haben Tänzer sich ausgeruht, munter miteinander geplaudert und zugeschaut, wie die anderen paarweise eine flotte Sohle auf das Parkett legten. Bis dann die Frage wieder kam: Magst du tanzen? – Morgen erst durften einem die Füße wehtun, denn jetzt hieß es: wieder rein ins Getümmel!

Martin & Madeleine Mai 2016
In Eliszi’s lassen die Leute das Tanzbein schwingen (und swingen).

Madeleine, OGN Coordinator

Fotos: Richard Schuster & Swingkultur Stuttgart

(Und mehr zum Hexentanz und Walpurgisnacht in deutschen Texten und Bildern erfährt ihr hier!)