The Future of German Studies

On the occasion of the inauguration of Prof. Henrike Lähnemann as Chair in Medieval German Literature and Linguistics at Oxford University, a round table discussion on “The Future of German Studies” was held on Friday, 22 January 2016. OGN’s coordinator, Nicola, gives her thoughts here…

Arriving for an event about “The Future of German Studies” I was curious as to what awaited me. This title suggested a whole series of questions: “What is the future of German Studies?”; “How do we make German Studies fit for the future?” or even the more provocative “Is there a future for German Studies?”

The panel was chaired by Prof. Ritchie Robertson (Taylor Chair of German Studies) and featured OGN’s Director Prof. Katrin Kohl, alongside Prof. Dr. Hans-Jochen Schiewer (University of Freiburg), Dr Wilhelm Krull (VolkswagenStiftung), Dr Dorothea Rüland (DAAD) and Dr Carsten Dose (FRIAS). It was part of a series of events to mark the Inaugural Lecture of Henrike Lähnemann, Chair in Medieval German Literature and Linguistics at Oxford University. More on these other exciting events in a future post…

Given the credentials of the panel it will come as no surprise, though perhaps still something of a relief, to hear that all of them believe there is a future for German Studies. As to the question of what this future may look like, two broad themes emerged: intercultural learning and exchange, and interdisciplinarity. In a globalised world there is a role for the humanities in helping us to better understand and integrate different cultures, and within the academic sphere there is much to be gained from a transfer of academic cultures through initiatives such as summer schools or joint degree programmes hosted by, for example, German and British universities. Many of the speakers noted that German Studies is by nature interdisciplinary – perhaps explaining why it can prove such a hard term to pin down! – and suggested too that more can be done to strengthen links with other fields and to better articulate these in existing projects.

But for me the future of German Studies is perhaps to do more with the who than the what. This is arguably where the Oxford German Network fits in. Prof. Kohl summed up a key part of OGN’s mission as providing a “dimension to German that goes far beyond what it is in schools”. Generating enthusiasm for German now – whether language and literature or Lebkuchen and Laugenbrezel – is fundamental to the future of German Studies. A former teacher who shared her experiences during the Q&A section summed this up by saying that for German teachers “getting pupils to Germany equals job done” – whether visiting a Christmas market, eating Currywurst or crossing Checkpoint Charlie – pupils are excited and enthralled by what they discover when they are given the chance to really experience German culture.

My reflections on the event, and this topic as a whole, can be summed up in just one word: ‘youth’. A youthful spirit and open-minded approach will ensure that German Studies is fit for the future, and young voices, able not only to speak German but to see the world through someone else’s eyes, are in themselves the future.

                                                                                                                                                Nicola, OGN Coordinator

Einen guten Rutsch ins Jahr 2016!

Our student ambassador, Thea, reports on her Silvester experience in Berlin!

New Year’s Eve in Berlin can be startling for anyone who subscribes to the stereotype of the orderly, law-abiding German citizen. Perhaps because it’s only legal to set off fireworks on December 31st and January 1st, Berliners go all-out, cramming a year’s worth of explosives into less than twenty-four hours. There are probably still some rules governing exactly where and how residents are permitted to set off their fireworks, but you wouldn’t know it from the scenes on the streets, which have drawn complaints from pensioners for whom the explosions are an unwelcome reminder of the war. Ambulances and fire brigades are put on high alert, visibility reduces to mere metres as smoke fills the sky, and every year brings a renewed round of hand-wringing about unregulated explosives illegally imported from eastern Europe. The Oxford-based friends who visited me during my year abroad in 2014 weren’t convinced they would make it back to the UK with all their limbs still attached.

German officials, meanwhile, see things somewhat differently. The firework-related concern this year had nothing to do with the startling number of explosives being let off in the streets – rather, after November’s Paris terror attacks, the authorities were worried about the prospect of a similar assault on the official festivities at the Brandenburg Gate. Revellers on the ‘party mile’ between the Gate and the Victory Column were searched at the entrance and forbidden from carrying rucksacks and large bags, while the nearby Tiergarten was fully fenced off for the first time, after being searched for unsanctioned explosives.

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Fireworks and smoke above Neukölln!

My Berliner friends were not so much sanguine about as entirely disinterested in the possibility of a terror attack, dismissing the Brandenburg Gate party as an irrelevance attended only by tourists. Why would you want to go to a state-sanctioned celebration full of bad music and extortionately-priced Currywurst when you could be out on the streets with your own fireworks? As usual, the true spirit of Berlin – a mixture of drink, drugs and good-natured lawlessness – wasn’t to be found anywhere near its officially-controlled centre.

Several hours – and pints – later, I found myself rushing from the bar we’d taken up residence in to Hermannstraße, the main road of the trendy Neukölln district, in time for midnight to strike. The sky was misty gold from all the smoke, strangers were embracing, and the explosions were so loud that I couldn’t even hear my friends wishing me a happy New Year. We strolled along Hermannstraße to take it all in, dodging the firecrackers thrown into the road and under the feet of passers-by, ducking explosions that gave the impression that the sky was falling in, and pausing briefly to film a photo booth that appeared to be on fire. Turning back towards our bar, I was just in time to witness a man light a rocket from (what looked like) the joint he was smoking.

While my first experience of a Berlin New Year terrified me, my second made me a convert. Sure, I wouldn’t want to drive one of the taxis that Berliners seem to take as targets for their rockets and firecrackers, but successfully wandering the explosion-filled streets without injury didn’t just make me feel happy about the new year: it made me feel immortal. If I had to venture a hypothesis about the psychological underpinnings of the apocalyptic New Year’s celebrations, I’d say it has something to with Berlin’s crisis-ridden history. For a city that has consistently embodied the notion of a party at the end of the world, what better way to celebrate continued survival than this deliberate, strangely life-affirming collective chaos?

Thea, OGN Student Ambassador

In der Weihnachtsbäckerei… mit OGN!

German traditions have influenced how we celebrate Christmas in the UK, from the appearance of Christmas trees in English homes in the nineteenth century, to the Christmas markets which have been popping up in towns across the country over the last few years. Even tinsel comes from Nuremberg (in German it’s called Lametta)! What better time, then, than Christmas, to celebrate German culture in English schools?

On 1st December 2015, the Oxford German Network held its annual Weihnachtsplätzchenbackwettbewerb, or Christmas biscuit baking competition. Around thirty pupils from Years 7-9, representing five schools, came to the event – and some schools even held bake-offs ahead of time to select attendees. A local primary school also held a similar event, in which fifty Year 6 pupils baked and decorated German Christmas biscuits at school. For the OGN event, each pupil baked their own biscuits in advance, and three OGN judges (including two of the three OGN Student Ambassadors who had come to help with this very serious task) then had the near-impossible task of choosing between a host of marvellous entries, and awarding prizes on the basis of appearance, taste, and originality. From an impressive Lebkuchenhaus (gingerbread house) to a beautiful three-dimensional Christmas tree, and from Zimtsterne (cinnamon biscuits) to Kringel (ring-shaped biscuits), almost all varieties of festive German biscuits were represented. You can see some of the entries – including some of the winners below!

Seasonal baking was not the whole story, though. The participants made further use of their creative skills by making German Christmas decorations in order to decorate the OGN tree. They then formed teams and took part in a quiz – the theme, of course, was Christmas in Germany! And then it was time for prize-giving. The (by now rather full-up) biscuit judges awarded their prizes first, followed by prizes for the best tree decorations. These awards took the form of large Schokonikoläuse (chocolate Santas). After all, St Nicholas’s Day was coming up at the weekend, and as German-speakers know, those who have been well-behaved during the year will find their shoe filled with sweets on the morning of 6th December!

The Oxford German Network is grateful to all the staff and pupils who took part so enthusiastically, and wishes all the participants Frohe Weihnachten und ein glückliches neues Jahr!

Mary, OGN Student Ambassador