Monday, September 6, 2010

Potsdam-Honolulu-Bordeaux: A Musical Arc

The “Father of Hawaiian Music” was a Prussian military bandleader


What did Germans export before Mercedes-Benz cars were invented? Well, princesses, an old adage will have you believe. Actually, Germans enriched the world with another product too: musicians. One of these left a lasting impact on Hawaiian culture.

Some Anglo-Saxon linguists claim that there is something oddly Germanic about certain Hawaiian words. The consonant “w” is often pronounced like a “v”. According to George Kanahele, author of “Hawaiian Music and Musicians,” this seems to be the “fault” of one Heinrich August Wilhelm Berger (1844-1929) who taught folks in Honolulu to sing their songs that way. He was a Prussian, hand-picked by Kaiser Wilhelm I to whip the Royal Hawaiian Band into shape. Berger did this so well that his friend, Queen Lili’uokalani (1838-1917), later proclaimed him the “father of Hawaiian Music.”

A musical father he is for Hawaiians to this very day. When they chant “Hawaii Ponoi,” their state’s anthem, they sing a tune Heinrich (“Henry”) Berger has written for them, borrowing heavily from “Heil dir im Siegerkranz,” the hymn of imperial Germany, which sounded exactly like “God save the Queen” and the national songs of assorted other countries, including the principality of Liechtenstein.

How Berger, the former bandleader of the Second Guards regiment in Potsdam, came to be the premier musician in the history of Hawaii, is a wonderful tale, for it is the high point in the love affair between 18th- and 19th-century German speakers and the people of this faraway cluster of Pacific islands. This love affair had its origins in the South Sea romanticism, which gripped some of Central Europe’s most significant thinkers and poets of that time, including philosopher Immanuel Kant and poets Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Friedrich Schiller and French-born Adelbert von Chamisso who visited Hawaii on the Russian brig “Rurik” in 1815-16, and then wrote the first grammar of the Hawaiian language – written in German and published 1838 in Leipzig.

As Niklaus R. Schweizer related in his book, “Hawaii and the German Speaking Peoples,” cultured Germans poured into Hawaii in the early 19th century, founding companies and serving the public upon whom they made such a favorable expression that King Kamehameha III wrote King Friedrich Wilhelm IV of Prussia in 1846: “No foreigners in Our realm are more orderly and behave more correctly than Your Majesty’s subjects and other Germans.”

The romance between German speakers and Hawaiians took a distinctly melodious turn when in 1869 the Austrian frigate “Donau” (Danube) limped into Honolulu harbor with engine trouble. Being an Austrian military vessel, it had of course an excellent orchestra on board. So as the ship was waiting for engine parts to be sent from Europe these musicians delighted the public with brilliant performances around Honolulu and particularly on Emma Square. But when the “Donau” finally left in 1870, Hawaiians became disgruntled with the comparatively low quality of their own royal band. So the people petitioned King Kamehameha V to “revitalize” his own band, directed by a German by the name of William Merseburgh but consisting of merely 10 instruments, including a flute, a clarinet, a bassoon, a French horn and drums, according to “The History of the Royal Hawaiian Band,” an MA thesis by David Wayne Bandy.

And Kamehameha V obeyed his people. He asked Wilhelm I, Emperor of newly united Germany and King of Prussia, to send him a conductor, and so Wilhelm loaned him for four years Heinrich Berger, the bandleader of one of his favorite regiments, a tuba and double bass player by training but also a brave veteran of the Prussian wars against Denmark (1864), Austria (1866) and France (1870-71), a man who had played with orchestras led by Johann Strauss, the “king of the waltz.”

On June 3, 1872, Berger arrived in Honolulu on board the steamer “Mohongo” and one week later conducted his first public concerts. It took him just two months to receive this accolade from the “Pacific Commercial Advertiser”: “The Band, under the able direction of Mr. Berger, has resumed the practice initiated two years ago by the band of the Austrian frigate Donau… The neighborhood of Emma Square looked quite lively for an hour or so on Thursday afternoon where lots of people in carriages and on foot had assembled to hear the really fine sounds of the ‘Hawaiian Military Band.’ As was remarked by one of the Honolulu delegation in the Assembly when the appropriation for the support of the military was under discussion: ‘The band is by far the best part of the army.’”

After four years, Berger returned to Germany, had himself released from his duties in the Prussian military and then came back to Hawaii for good. He gave 32,000 concerts, composed 250 Hawaiian songs, some of which are still being sung around the world, and 1,000 other tunes. He wrote down indigenous hymns that had until then only been passed on orally. And on Sundays, taking turns with his friend, Queen Lili’uokalani, he played the organ in Kawaiaha’o Congregationalist Church. Lili’uokalani was a formidable composer in her own right. Her song, “Aloha ‘Oe” (Farewell to Thee), became world-famous. Berger had arranged it for her.

Henry Berger was by no means the only high-ranking German in Honolulu in his day. Queen Lili’uokalani’s finance minister, Hermann Adam Widemann, was German, as were her attorney-general Paul Neumann, and Maj. Henry Bertelmann, her adjutant. But she was so fond of Berger that she made him commander of the Royal Order of Kapi’olani and commanded her subjects to honor him on his birthday every year, an order their descendants are following to this day. Every year, the Royal Hawaiian Band still gives concerts in his memory.

Berger died in 1929, three decades after the former kingdom of Hawaii had been annexed by the United States. But the musical arc he has created between Europe and Hawaii is still there. In Coswig near Wittenberg where he once lived, a school of music has been named after him. And in Bordeaux, France, an American classical guitarist and composer by the name of Mark Billam-Walker, is trying to emulate him. He is the great-grandson of Henry Berger and his wife Leilehua, a New Zealander. Reached by telephone in Bordeaux, he said he was in awe of the way his ancestor composed. “He did not actually write complete scores for his compositions, but instead jotted down the notes for each musician individually. Then he handed every player his notes, raised his baton, and they all played. This is brilliant. I could not do that.”

Billam-Walker is now editing his second symphony. He says he hopes that the Royal Hawaiian Band, his great-grandfather’s old ensemble, will one day accept and play this work.

(From the September 2010 issue of The Atlantic Times)

Monday, August 9, 2010

An Audacious Hope Became Joyful Reality

Commemorating the Demise
of the Iron Curtain


For students entering college this autumn, the Berlin Wall might seem like distant history. But to those in mid-career, who are still young from this writer’s perspective, the hope that this monstrosity would ever come down appeared audacious. Yet it happened. Twenty years ago, Germany was reunified. The Iron Curtain disappeared. To commemorate this exhilarating event, and to keep its memory alive among the next generation, the League of Faithful Masks and Concordia University Irvine are offering a unique Celebration of Freedom.

We will celebrate this anniversary with a variety of events on the campus of Concordia. There will be a German Film Week. There will be a month-long exhibition of artifacts, documents and works of art pertaining to Germany’s division, to life in East Germany and to reunification. And there will be, on October 6, a rich conference featuring classical music and jazz, a brand-new documentary and, most importantly, the historical witness of fascinating persons who have experienced reunification from a variety of perspectives.

You will find a wealth of details about our German Days, including programs and sidebar stories, on the “front page” of a special edition of The Mask. ( The point of the present article is to explain why The League of Faithful Masks is doing this. The League’s stated mission is to champion the worldview of vocation, a worldview strongly shared by Concordia University. It holds that all humans are called to serve each other altruistically. It is hard to imagine any good-neighborly service more urgently needed than providing witness to history, for as the old adage has it: no history, no future.

Five anecdotes of recent weeks might illustrate the exigency of a return to the appreciation of history and its twin, geography, to assure the survival of our civilization in this age of information, an age whose principal mark seems to be that it renders our contemporaries increasingly uninformed. For the sake of trans-Atlantic evenhandedness, I am taking my examples from four different countries.

United States: As I was preparing the German Day program, a well-meaning American acquaintance with an M.A. degree cautioned me against referring to Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832), arguably the most brilliant mind in German cultural history. She insisted that a direct line linked Goethe to Hitler, and that the proximity between Weimar, Goethe’s place of work for decades, and the Nazi extermination of Buchenwald was “no coincidence.”

France: At a dinner conversation, the name Martin Luther came up. Said a local politician at my table: “Martin Luther? Wasn’t that the black guy from Switzerland?” She confused Martin Luther with Martin Luther King, the U.S. civil rights leader, and with reformer John Calvin who, though born in northern France, spent the most important years of his ministry in Geneva.

England: Again at a dinner, a British friend told me of a teacher he knew who had taken a class of English grammar school (high school) students to Dover. The teacher pointed to the English Channel and asked his pupils: “What lies beyond this body of water?” Some opined: “Perhaps the United States?” Others said, “No, no, it must be Africa.” It was news to all of them that by crossing the Channel they would soon reach France on whose shores perhaps their great-grandfathers had died.

Germany: The features editor of a well-known newspaper proposed to his editor-in-chief producing a special issue commemorating the 450th anniversary of the death of Philipp Melanchthon (1497-1560), Luther’s most significant associate. The editor-in-chief, a man in his early thirties, rejected this idea outright. It turned out that he had no idea who Melanchthon was, the man educated Germans have venerated since the late 16th century as the “Praeceptor Germaniae” – Germany’s teacher.

USA again: In a recent journalism class, students interviewed a 15-year old girl of Vietnamese descent. “What publications do you read?” they wanted to know. She mentioned The Economist, a British weekly magazine of high quality. “Why The Economist?” they asked. “Well,” she replied, “I don’t want to be a moron like the other kids in my class who don’t even know who the current President of the United States is.

When Dietrich Bonhoeffer spent a postdoctoral year at Union Theological Seminary in New York in 1930, he was horrified by the cluelessness of the students he had to listen to in seminars. “They talk a blue streak without the slightest substantive foundation and with no evidence of any criteria,” he wrote. This clueless verbosity Bonhoeffer observed 80 years ago has now become an all-Western property, much to the detriment of the young people who are so often deprived of the basic historical guideposts for their journey through an in increasingly dangerous and inscrutable world.

The most tragic aspect of this is what has really been stolen from the younger generation: a historically grounded basis for hope. What happened in Germany in 1990 provided such a footing. Being hopeful seemed audacious for many of us. But then hope became a reality. This is why The League of Faithful Masks, Concordia University and their partners are inviting you to celebrate with us. The demise of the Iron Curtain, which looks like just a fact of distant history to some, has given all of us cause for courage.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

A Warning from a Grave


I have arrived at a period of my biological and professional life when rummaging through my archives and library seems in order. And so I am rereading books that were of formative value for my career as a journalist, especially as a war correspondent. The following passage I found on page 113 of The Two Vietnams by my late friend, the historian and social scientist Bernard B. Fall, probably the world’s foremost expert on the French and the American debacles in Indochina. Referring to Hanoi’s brilliant Gen. Vo Nguyen Giap who developed North Vietnam’s victorious strategies against France and subsequently the United States, Fall wrote:

“Giap’s own best contribution to the art of revolutionary war was probably his estimate of the political-psychological shortcomings of a democratic system when faced with an inconclusive military operation. In a remarkable presentation before the political commissars of the (Communist) 316th Division, Giap stated:

The enemy will pass slowly from the offensive to the defensive. The blitzkrieg will transform itself into a war of long duration. Thus, the enemy will be caught in a dilemma: He has to drag out the war in order to win it and does not possess, on the other hand, the psychological and political means to fight a long drawn-out war….

“In all likelihood, Giap concludes, public opinion in the democracy will demand an end to the ‘useless bloodshed,’ or its legislature will insist on knowing how long it will have to vote astronomical credits without a clear-cut victory in sight. This is what eternally compels the military leaders of democratic armies to promise a quick end to the war --- to ‘bring the boys home by Christmas’ – or forces democratic politicians to agree to almost any kind of humiliating compromise rather than to accept the idea of a semi-permanent anti-guerilla operation.”*

The Two Vietnams was first published in 1963. It lay on the bedside table of most respectable American and European reporters, diplomats and senior officers I met while working in Saigon. I have never ceased to wonder why so few of my illustrious colleagues took Bernard B. Fall’s warnings to heart. When I first met Fall, this Austrian-born Frenchman was a professor of Howard University in Washington, DC. Having fought valiantly in the French Resistance, he proceeded to record the West’s follies and blunders in dealing with Vietnamese Communism with greater penetration than any scholar whose work on this subject I am familiar with.

Fall must have added the paragraphs cited above to the original 1963 edition of his seminal work on Vietnam shortly before his last journey to that country. On Feb. 21, 1967, while accompanying a platoon of U.S. marines in Thua Thien Province in the northernmost part of South Vietnam, 40-year old Bernard B. Fall stepped on a landmine and was killed along with Gunnery Sergeant Byron B. Highland.

Thus Fall did not live to see the day when his warning and Gen. Giap’s prediction became bitter reality in America’s self-inflicted defeat in 1975 – self-inflicted precisely because many media stars and political leaders ignored Gen. Giap’s insight that the democratic system is not psychologically equipped to fight a protracted war, irrespective of how evil the foe’s designs. In The Two Vietnams pilloried the fallacious notion that Ho Chi Minh was but a righteous nationalist. To Fall, Ho was a Bolshevik. “The fact that this was not understood by naïve outsiders was certainly not his fault; his career as a Communist has been on record since 1920,” wrote Fall.

Before me lies a Newsmax column by Edward I. Koch, the former mayor of New York. He cites a statement by Michael Steele, chairman of the Republican National Committee, referring to the war in Afghanistan as “unwinnable.” This echoes CBS anchorman Walter Cronkite’s description of the Vietnam War after the 1968 Têt Offensive, a statement prompting President Lyndon B. Johnson to day, “We have lost Cronkite, we have lost the Midwest.”

In his column, Mayor Koch goes on to suggest that the United States and its allies declare defeat in Afghanistan and get out. Here again, I discern echoes of the Vietnam era. Without any consideration of the disastrous geopolitical and strategic consequences a Taliban return to power in Kabul will have, Koch concludes: “We have sacrificed enough dead, wounded, and treasure in a failed cause. Enough is enough.”

Reading this and Bernard B. Fall’s warning from his grave on the very same hot summer afternoon in my home in southwestern France made my blood curdle. Surely, the Taliban and Al Qaida must have studied Gen. Giap’s analysis, which could have only led them to one conclusion: The way Western democracy has evolved since the mid-20th century, it is driven by suicidal urges. None other than the former Mayor of New York and the RNA chairman have just confirmed this just now.

* Fall, Bernard B. The Two Vietnams. London: Pall Mall Press, 1963, 1964, 1967.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Divided by Clichés

A transatlantic tragedy: ignorance in an age of instant information


As the Western world wallows in multiple crises, prejudice dominates the airwaves. Exasperated by a talk show star’s malediction on American television that it was time for the plague to afflict Europe (population: almost 500 million), our correspondent found solace in a simple Paris bar.

Phew! What a relief it was to plunk down at a small table outside a very modest Paris pub called Le Train de Vie, meaning train of life. Fourteen grueling hours in the air lay behind us. More than that, we crossed a transatlantic information gap rapidly dividing our continents.

We came from southern California where we now live pleasurably and surrounded by friends. But as lovers of the United States, we feel increasingly uneasy, more so than ever before in the more than four decades in the country. What troubles us is having to listen every day to televised invectives against our home continent, to hear slurs spoken by stars who know nothing about Europe yet opine against it venomously nonetheless.

This is what we mulled over as we comforted ourselves with fresh red wine from the Côtes du Rhône region served in half-liter carafes. Our minds wandered back to the latest apex of Europhobic hyperbole we had heard on Fox. “The problem with Europe is that there are too many Europeans,” one smart aleck quipped crudely, adding that a new plague would solve this problem. This prompted hilarity among his co-panelists but reminded us of the mindless things British bigots like to say about the French.

This was supposed to be funny. Granted I am German, and for Germans, humor is no laughing matter, according to another Anglo-Saxon inanity. But then my wife, Gillian, is an Englishwoman, and she did not get the joke either. “Imagine the international hullaballoo if a French talk show host told his audience at prime time, ‘The trouble with America is that there are too many Americans; may they be decimated by an epidemic,’” she said. We needed another carafe of wine.

At this point an inebriated Frenchman in his 60s stopped at our table. Staring distractedly above our heads, the stranger said, “I am wondering if I should have a nightcap before returning to my hotel room.” We invited him to sit down but no, he preferred to return to the bar. Bidding us farewell, he reached into a shopping bag and handed me a fistful of cherries, explaining, “They wouldn’t do me any good tonight after all the drinks I have had.” Then he staggered off.

Ah, echoes of the France of our youth! So she is not dead, thank God! Our thoughts then focused on the daily dose of venom emitted against the French by American commentators lumping all Europeans together as a moribund bunch of unreconstructed socialists. Before I continue, let me come clean: I am not a left-winger, neither is my wife.

In some respects, we are as conservative as TV hosts Bill O’Reilly and Sean Hannity. We affirm the sanctity of life and the institution of marriage; we prefer government to be small and defense to be strong. As Europeans, we might be forgiven for being less engrossed with the Second Amendment right to keep and bear arms but surely that’s forgivable.

The ceaseless prattle on American airwaves about “European Socialism” is getting on our nerves, though. Do American radio and television commentators not know that all major EU nations have currently conservative-controlled governments? Perhaps their daily abuse is just tit-for-tat, paying Europe back for eight years of anti-American agitation in the Bush years? Probably. If so, this would be childish given the contemporary condition of the world.

We requested another carafe of Red.

It seemed strange to us that televised American bile is focused first and foremost on the French and the Germans. Until now, the British have been spared such outbursts. Still, British pundits are also given to utter “tedious snobby sneers against the United States,” to quote Alex Singleton, a leader writer of The Daily Telegraph. Then Singleton labeled President Barack Obama “an idiot… hell bent on insulting [America’s] allies.”

I have never been an Obama enthusiast but I didn’t write that; an Englishman did.

On the following evening, Gillian and I returned to Le Train de Vie. At the table next to ours a solitary man ate his dinner. He turned out to be a middle-aged French journalist equally concerned with the state of the international media. Together we lamented the fact that biased postulations are increasingly taking the place of properly researched articles, and that rank prejudice is in the process of superseding fair and balanced reporting.

We were both old enough to have learned a different kind of journalism than is often practiced now, he at a provincial newspaper in eastern France, I with the Associated Press in Frankfurt. We became journalists in an era filled with lingering memories of a fratricidal war. We thought that we had learned the principal lesson of that war: Never let stereotypical thinking govern your pen and your lips.

We were taught as young men that our opinions were irrelevant. What mattered was the need of our readers to be comprehensively informed. This required legwork on our part, and it was precisely the excitement of this legwork that had made us choose our craft in the first place. We learned foreign languages. We were trained to go to enormous lengths to trounce clichés.

In those days, all major American media outlets had posted foreign correspondents in France and Germany. These men and women were driven by the same professional ethos as we, and spoke our languages well. They knew our literature, our art, our strengths and foibles. They were wonderfully curious reporters. I am still corresponding with some of these colleagues who are now in the 80s and retired, and I know that they are just as troubled as we with the way many of today’s media foster ignorance.

It told the Frenchman about a recent acrimonious discussion with the executive editor of the new breed in the United States. He could not understand my distress over the statement by a majority of journalism students that they had chosen this career to “make this a better world.” This, I explained to the editor, was what had motivated propagandists of totalitarian systems. In free societies, journalists had the calling to research and write, just as bakers had a vocation to bake. Wanting to “make this a better world” by telling their readers what to think reflects ideological hubris.

The French reporter nodded gravely and ordered another carafe of Red.

We then lamented the evident increase of ignorance as a product of our age of instant communication. I told him about a woman with a Master of Arts degree trying to persuade me recently that a direct philosophical line led from the German poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe to Hitler, and that therefore the proximity between Weimar in Thuringia, Goethe’s place of work, and Buchenwald, the Nazi concentration camp, was no coincidence. She had clearly never read anything by Goethe but watched a program linking the 18th-century Enlightenment to 20th-century totalitarianism.

There exists a serious school of thought making this connection, but it is much more complex, running via the anthropocentrism of the French Revolution; the German theologians Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Jürgen Moltmann argued that way. However, Goethe was neither an Enlightenment philosopher nor a revolutionary; he was a poet of classicism, a literary period that coincided with the French Revolution. He also told his friend Johann Peter Eckermann toward the end of his life that Christianity was the ultimate religion. Sadly, such details count little at an age of instant information dispersing ignorance in the form of packaged formulae.

My drinking partner and I found some comfort in the discovery that at least some of our readers were wiser than we. In the recent Franco-German tiff over bailing out bankrupt Greece, the Berlin correspondent of the Paris daily Libération charged German Chancellor Angela Merkel with scheming to forge a “Holy Germanic Euro Empire.” Going through the readers’ blogs of the Parisian press, though, we discovered the emergence of a different consensus: If France had followed the German example of frugality and industry since the rise of the new and reconciled Europe following World War II, we might all be better off. That’s what French readers are writing.

We left Le Train de Vie telling ourselves that the wall of clichés dividing nations and continents must not necessarily be permanent. If it has stopped separating France and Germany there is still hope, we thought, that the age of the instant media might also bear transatlantic fruit. The force that renders readers and listeners uninformed is the same that can make them wise. No, we do not need a plague to exterminate us. What we need is a wiser use of the gift of instant information.

from The Atlantic Times, July/August 2010 edition

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Witness to History at Concordia Irvine

Witness to History

Twenty years ago this October, a momentous development in Europe stirred the world. Germany and the entire Continent were peacefully reunified after four decades of bitter division. The League of Faithful Masks (LFM) and Concordia University Irvine (CUI) will commemorate this anniversary with three inter-related presentations on CUI’s campus, bearing witness to history, culture and current affairs:

1. German Day at Concordia – A Celebration of Freedom on October 6. The public will experience a fascinating array of historical witnesses. They will discuss political, economic, military, artistic, religious, journalistic and personal aspects of Germany’s reunification. A brand-new documentary film will be shown; there will be superb music and a forum discussion between the presenters and the audience. Our partners in this venture include the German Consulate-General in Los Angeles, and the Wende Museum of Culver City, which specializes in the art and artifacts of the Cold War.

2. Images of Oppression and Liberation: a German Film Week on October 2, 3, 4, 5 and 7, offered by the Goethe-Institut Los Angeles. Five feature films relating to the Christian resistance against the Nazi regime, to life in East Germany and reunification will be shown.

3. Traces of Division -- Signs of Unity, a rich exhibition of East German and Reunification memorabilia from October 2-31 presented by the Wende Museum on the CUI campus.

For further information, please check lFM’s website or the blogsite in regular intervals.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Of Foreboding and Forgiveness


This column reaches you from France. It is written with a sense of foreboding. Just before leaving California, I called a friend in New York. He is a native Berliner of Jewish descent. In the early Nazi years he fled to Paris while still a teenager, and then fought in the French Resistance. “Make the best of your stay in Europe,” he counseled me. “By the time of your return we might be living in a totally different world.”

This sounded plausible. You would have to be blind and deaf not to realize that a new era is upon us, and that this era is unlikely to be agreeable. We discern the bitter fruit of human hubris all around us – in the Gulf of Mexico, in economics, finance, in the shaky condition of governments on both sides of the Atlantic; in the deplorable failure of most media outlets to inform their audiences responsibly about world affairs; and in the state of the Church many of whose branches have either slid into rank heresy kowtowing to sexual deviance, or are offering feel-good fluff as a tonic to soothe the apprehension millions share with my New York friend.

This morning I telephoned a former German government minister about the future of dollar, the euro and other currencies. He is a statesman with a reputation of financial wisdom. He said, “I frankly cannot predict where we are heading. I have just bought Norwegian bonds because the Norwegian money appears to be relatively healthy, but who knows? Tomorrow I could be proven wrong.”

It cannot be the purpose of this column to list the plethora of indicators leading a neighbor of mine in France to compare the current time in history with the situation that prevailed in Europe just before World War I. “An insignificant event in an insignificant placed triggered that calamity,” she said, referring to the assassination of Archduke Franz-Ferdinand of Austria in Sarajevo in 1914.

As the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod approaches its convention in Houston in July, it must consider the present perils in national and world affairs. Confessional Lutherans know of course that theirs is not to offer amateurish advice in worldly matters. Bicker though they might among each other, the various parties within the LCMS have generally resisted the temptation to emulate other denominations in poaching in alien territory, meaning the secular realm.

In fact, the opposite extreme is true and equally deplorable – an ostrich-like inclination not to concern itself at all with the likelihood of impending catastrophe. You don’t hear much from Lutherans about the Church’s role if and when disaster strikes. Four years ago, I taught a doctoral-level seminar at Concordia Seminary St. Louis on precisely this issue and received some brilliant papers from my students but could not find anybody prepared to publish them; they did not appeal to prevalent Lutheran tastes in America.

But then how is the Church to react in the event of terrorist attacks with nuclear or biological devices; how will it function when the supplies of food and energy are disrupted, and when communications have broken down? How will it respond to severe persecution perhaps even in America and Western Europe? How will it minister to its faithful when they are cut off from their sanctuaries, and when pastors have lost contact to their scattered flocks?

Are these unthinkable scenarios? It would be foolish to assume that they were – even in the United States. Take the word of a septuagenarian for this, a man who has spent his childhood in a country that used to be the most civilized in the world and was reduced to an antechamber of hell almost overnight.

The time might soon come when there will be no mega churches with thousands of happy-clappy congregants; whoever among Lutherans believes that in periods of woe bestselling guidelines to a purpose-driven life can be put into action will be egregiously disappointed. What sustained me in air raid shelters and during months of starvation were not expressions of religious enthusiasm but the words and tunes of the Scripture-based liturgy I had memorized since Sunday school, and the unshakeable message that, whatever happened, I was a forgiven sinner and would therefore live eternally by virtue of Christ’s vicarious suffering, death and resurrection.

This basic Christian truth is most clearly formulated in the Lutheran Confessions. However, they are a treasure sometimes too well kept by the LCMS; it makes no sense to hold these treasures jealously in reserve when millions of troubled Christians realize that they are staring at the abyss. I know of Lutherans outside the Missouri Synod praying that the LCMS will emerge from Houston “as a robust church ready to allow the treasures of its own tradition to bear fruit.” The man who said this was Thomas Schlichting, a canon lawyer and high-ranking official in the state-related “Evangelical Lutheran Church of Saxony.”

Rev. Albrecht-Immanuel Herzog, a pastor in the regional Lutheran Church in Bavaria, told me about sizable groups of Lutherans in Germany who are not in communion with the LCMS but are yearning for confessional clarity. “Missouri could provide this clarity if only it surfaced and opened its treasure chest,” he said adding that particularly younger pastors and theologians felt that way.

It is comforting to know that none of the major factions in the LCMS is inclined to follow the mainline Protestant trend toward apostasy. Yet even among Missourians the liberating Lutheran message is diluted by corporate numbers games, and drowned out by sets of drums that have replaced altars in many of our sanctuaries. And this message is: “You are forgiven. Now go and roll up your sleeves and engage this dangerous world.” This is what the Lutheran Church must proclaim more urgently than ever in times of foreboding, and this is why I have endorsed Rev. Matthew Harrison’s candidacy for the office of LCMS President. In my estimation he is the most likely man to open the Lutheran treasure chest for all to see. The moment to do this for the benefit of the whole Church of Christ is now.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Masks Asking Vicarious Questions


From The Mask (

My meeting with the executive editor of a regional newspaper did not go well at all. He very kindly gave me much of his time but then took strong exception to something I had written in the syllabus of my journalism course at Concordia University Irvine. I had pilloried the reason given by most contemporary journalism students for wanting to make a career in the media. They wish to “make this a better world.”

Our disagreement on this point was generational and hence evidently insuperable. I am 73, and he was about two decades younger. If I were American, I would be considered a pre-baby boomer. He on the other hand was a post-boomer. Having been exposed to the calamitous consequences of ideological thinking, the axiom that the road to hell is paved with good intentions still resonates with me strongly. His view of good intentions, however, was evidently less jaded -- to the extent that he ended our collegial relationship there and then. I never heard from him again.

Well, what Rudyard Kipling observed about East and West seems to apply even more forcefully to the rapport between “pre” and “post”-boom media people: ‘Ne’er the twain shall meet.” When I was a cub reporter half a century ago, my seniors told me that my opinions on any given matter were immaterial. My job as a reporter was to research and write as fairly and factually as humanly possible. In other words, as a journalist, I was to ask questions vicariously in the original sense of this word, which is rooted in the Latin vocable, vicarius, meaning: “in the place of…” A reporter is inquisitive in the place of his readers. Therefore, a reporter must not arrogate upon himself the role of “making this a better world,” as little as a baker would bake bread to “make this a better world.” He bakes to nourish. Period.

Like bakers or plumbers or physicians or lawyers, journalists have the calling to serve their neighbors, and journalists do this by being relentlessly and – here we have that word again – vicariously curious. Tragically, this vicarious sense of wonderment that has lured me to journalism in the first place, and has remained with me ever since, has gone out of fashion in much of today’s journalism. Most reporters, though thank God not all, have had this sense of wonderment lobotomized from their souls by liberal arts professors, I expect. It is of course easier to “hit the beat” as a 22-year-old trying to tell his readers and listeners what to think, than to keep wondering on their behalf. I pity self-important media people of that ilk. They have no concept of what a tremendous vocation journalism can really be.

Then again, perhaps by remaining relentlessly inquisitive, journalists could actually help protect this world from getting worse. In an email, I politely offered this notion to the editor as a compromise of sorts. He did not reply.

*Dr. Uwe Siemon-Netto, an international journalist, is the executive director of The League of Faithful Masks.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

East Germany by the Pacific

Twenty years after the Berlin Wall perished, a museum in California evokes the land that lay behind it


(From the June 2010 issue of The Atlantic Times)

Twenty years ago, Germany was reunified, and soon the remnants of the Berlin Wall disappeared. So did many of Communist East Germany’s weird features, it’s uniforms, banners, slogans and snooping gadgets. But there is one curious place where they have been amply preserved: the Wende Museum building close to the film studios of southern California.

As I entered “Suite E” of the bleak office building on 5741 Buckingham Parkway in Culver City I was perplexed. There on a platform I spotted three rows of wooden jump seats reminding me of rural movie houses in decades past. It turned out that these chairs once accommodated the rears of East Germany’s leaders as they pondered political matters. They were part of the furniture of the now-defunct country’s “Staats­ratsgebäude,” or building of the Council of State, according to Cristina Cuevas-Wolf, the Wende Museum’s program director.

“Wende” is the German word for turning point. The turning point this museum’s name evokes was the collapse of the East German Communist regime in November 1989, and then the creation of a unified Federal Republic of Germany on October 3, 1990.

Wandering through this museum triggered diverse sensations in me; I remembered my childhood escape from Soviet-occupied Leipzig, my coverage of the construction of the Berlin Wall in 1961 as an Associated Press reporter, my banishment from entering East Germany for many years, and then my return immediately after this hideous structure was breached.

I imagined smells that weren’t there. As I stared at some of the museum’s 120,000 Cold War artifacts, the inimitable odors of the “German Democratic Republic” (GDR) seemed to return to my nostrils, odors that once hit me even before I handed my passport to GDR border guards whose uniforms, badges and medals are now on exhibit in Culver City. It was a peculiar cocktail of emissions from cars with two-stroke engines, of industrial disinfectants, of chickens broiled in stale oil, and lignite-fired stoves.

Of course all of this was only in my mind, for even a young genius like Justinian Jampol, 32, the Wende Museum’s founder, would not have been able to ship the stench in containers across the North Sea, the Atlantic, Caribbean, the Panama Canal and up the Coast to Los Angeles. But the sight of a poster bearing the image of a helmeted East German soldier and the inscription, “Der Befehl ist Gesetz” (The Command is the Law) was sufficient to give me a dose of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.

I know what that slogan meant. I remember standing on the Western side of Bernauer Strasse, a Berlin street sealed off by men following a “command” elevated to “law.” I watched people jump out of windows just a few feet away, desperately trying to evade men executing this “law.” Some jumped to their deaths. I watched East German workers’ militiamen shoot over the heads of a family of nine escapees until a French military jeep with a mounted machine gun raced right up to the border and fired over the militiamen’s heads until they quit executing the “law.”

Jampol, a Californian completing his doctorate in history at Oxford University, told me that a former border guard at “Checkpoint Charlie,” the key crossing point for non-Germans, donated the construction and maintenance plans for the Berlin Wall. I remember the early days of this checkpoint well; for a while I had my reporter’s observation post in a bedroom above a sleazy beer bar in the last building on the West Berlin side before the official border post.

This wasn’t a pretty period in recent German history, but a memorable one it was nonetheless, and so it was a brilliant idea by Jumpol to preserve so many of its relics ranging from a 2.6-ton piece of the Wall to a “Minol” gasoline pump of the kind in front of which East German motorists sometimes lined up for hours to fill up their tiny “Trabant” cars whose bodies were made of plastic containing resin strengthened by wool or cotton.

The Wende Museum’s exhibit is breathtaking, ranging from rows and rows of busts of Communist luminaries to the straw hat and last private papers of Erich Honecker, East Germany’s penultimate Communist Party chief, and his secretary’s office furniture; from Stasi (secret police) listening devices and other snooping paraphernalia to an impressive collection of oil paintings in the style of “Socialist Realism;” from artfully embroidered flags and banners of party front organizations to films concerning personal hygiene, and a collection of “Das Magazin,” a state-owned popular soft-porn publication.

After the “Wende,” East Germans found out that Honecker himself preferred more salacious materials, as evidenced by his personal film collection. He also had grand architectural visions, namely the “Palace of the Republic” he had built in downtown East Berlin where the Kaiser’s castle once stood. East German wags called this glittering structure, which was razed two years ago, “Erichs Lampenladen” (Erich’s lamp store). It housed the country’s rubberstamp parliament, a cultural center and elaborate restaurants. Guess where their silverware and china marked with the letters “PR” (for Palast der Republik) in gold, and where their menus have ended up? Indeed: in Culver City.

As a German with memories of the Nazi regime and its Communist successor I got goose bumps, though, when Jumpol told me about one of his eeriest items, the black robe of a judge in the National Socialist “people’s court” system in World War II, not the regular judiciary. This robe had a swastika embroidered to it. What makes this item so intriguing is that its owner later became a “Volksrichter” (people’s judge) under Communism, as Jampol said.

How come a youngster from America’s surfers’ paradise developed such a consuming passion for artifacts, art and kitsch from the Cold War era particularly in the eastern part of Germany? Well, it’s hard to say. But when he was nine years old he already acquired an East Berlin policeman’s uniform of the 1950s. A young man with a love for history uncommon among most of his contemporaries, he briefly studied in West Berlin’s Free University and found it astonishing that almost nobody in Germany seemed to take much interest in collecting memorabilia of the vanished GDR culture. So he started collecting, at first randomly.

“Soon people were bringing me their stuff,” he recalled. Then he found “scavengers,” as he called people scouting eastern Germany on his behalf. One of these “scavengers” was a man with perhaps a murky background making a living on flea markets. Jumpol was now a graduate student at Oxford University where things East German filled his dorm room. One night, he received a particularly urgent call from his scout, who had found an extraordinary “treasure” in the basement of a house near Dresden.

This was in 2006 at the time of the huge Dresden flood when water from the Elbe River kept pouring into people’s basements threatening the “scavenger’s” find – ledgers containing the complete collection of the daily newspaper “Neues Deutschland,” the East German Communist Party’s central organ. “My scavenger could not rescue them from the water by himself,” Jampol told me. “So, as many times before, I took the first bus from Oxford to Heathrow, flew to Berlin and raced down to Saxony to rescue the ledgers before they were soaked.”

They are now, he said, among his favorite items in his museum, which is funded primarily by the London-based Arcadia Fund whose key mission is the protection of endangered culture and nature. Peter Baldwin, Jampol’s former history professor at the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA), and the earliest supporter of his collector’s passion, serves on the Donor Board of this international charity.

And which of his artifacts renders Jampol particularly contemplative? “Well,” he said, “a former East German prison guard gave me the tools of his former trade, his handcuffs and electrical shock equipment, for example.” And how, I wanted to know, does this man earn his living in reunified Germany? Said Jampol: “He is still a prison guard.”

Monday, May 31, 2010

No Kings, No Gentlemen, No Joy

Where reality defies aphorisms, clichés about nations survive


Jabeen Bhatti, an American staff member of The Atlantic Times, recently bemoaned in this newspaper the surly service in German restaurants and shops. Our correspondent, a German living in the United States, agrees with her lament while musing about such stereotypes.

Ever since the 14th century, the heraldic badge of the Princes of Wales contained the German words, “Ich dien’” (I serve), which indicates that 700 years ago, the aspiration to be of service was recognized on the British Isles as a Germanic virtue.

When I grew up in Leipzig during World War II, the first aphorism I learned sounded uncanny given the empty shelves in our shops. “Der Kunde ist König” (the customer is king), this axiom went. Being only one generation removed from the monarchy, I knew all about kings. My parents told me that King Frederick Augustus III, Saxony’s mirthful last sovereign, was a whole lot better than Hitler or the Communists who succeeded the Nazis in East Germany, where I spent my first postwar years.

How then did the German civilization, which once prized service, slide from such exalted standards to the level of ill-tempered checkout clerks and blasé waiters? The answers are complex. Suffice it to say that inattention to the needs of customers is not really a nationwide phenomenon, though commitment to service lost some of its glamour in West Germany when the postwar economic miracle spawned the moronic maxim, “Das haben wir alles nicht mehr nötig,” meaning, “There is no need for us to stoop to that kind of stuff anymore.”

That said, surly service seems most glaring in Berlin, in particular in its eastern half and hinterland. This might be due to the German capital’s recent history. The Communists turned the noble tenet that customers were royalty on its head. Communism elevated waiters to the status of kings. They lorded over lines of guests queuing up in rain and snow outside state-owned restaurants where bland stews with red cabbage and soggy dumplings were awaiting them.

No real king would treat his subjects as contemptuously as these viceroys of socialist gastronomy abused their guests. Therefore, I posit that 20 years since the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 is not enough for the kings of the Communist era to unlearn their habits; in fact, they seem to have infected a whole new generation with their attitude. While this offers no consolation to Ms. Bhatti or me, it does at least provide an explanation.

I know that I am indulging in clichés here. The word cliché is the French term for a stereotype printing plate whose function is to reproduce the likeness of a given object over and over again. True, it never gives an accurate picture of that object but neither does it tell a lie. However, even the best stereotype is never more than a rough approximation of the real thing. As a metaphor for a particular way of thinking, clichés have sociological significance, according to Anton C. Zijderveld, a Dutch authority on these matters. “Clichés function as beacons in vagueness, instability and uncertainty,” he wrote.

Thus supported by scholarship, I shall proceed to the next cliché. It seems that every culture likes to invent self-images reflecting wannabe characteristics. Take France, “everybody’s second motherland,” according to an old chestnut to which I subscribe. France is supposedly the land of the “joie de vivre.” Come to think of it, though, “joy of life” can be an idiosyncratic hypothesis indeed.

Was it “joie de vivre” that rendered the “tricoteuses,” Parisian women knitting under the guillotine, ecstatic with joy over each rolling head during the French Revolution? And what must we think about the “joie de vivre” of France’s sadistic strikers regaling routinely in the pain they inflict on their innocent compatriots and on foreign visitors? Last summer, fishermen expressed their “joie de vivre” by blocking their country’s ports. Every year, railroad workers and truckers get their cheer from making travel hell for the rest of us, especially at Christmastime; this year, travelers thirsted on trains because the service personnel would not sell them mineral water, much less something edible.

Is it a sign of “joie de vivre” that because of lunatic labor laws charming restaurants and bistros die by the thousands? Do I discern “joie de vivre” when I watch Frenchwomen, defying their proverbial commonsense, smoke themselves to an agonizing death in alarming numbers, and grow obese on junk food because home cooking has gone out of fashion? Of course, these clichés, like all others, are partly true and partly false. Some Frenchwomen still disdain McDonalds, cook well and emit delicious scents rather than the stale stench of tobacco fumes. True, a hint of “joie de vivre” has survived in France but I fear the scale is tipping the wrong way.

England, my wife’s birthplace, has quite rightly always considered “joie de vivre” a loanword. On the other hand, “understatement” was supposed to be very British. So what are we to make of the “understatement” of British beach drunks and soccer louts spreading terror across the Continent? And how “understated” is the bigotry dished out by London’s tabloids?

Then there is this British pride in being “gentlemanlike.” A gentleman is well spoken, trustworthy and doesn’t discuss politics or religion at table. He wears brown shoes during the day and black shoes in the evening, tweeds in the countryside and well-tailored suits in the city. It so happens that I have been at the receiving end of a Ponzi scheme that had been cooked up on behalf of a centuries-old institution by well-spoken “gentlemen” dressed in Savile Row suits. I can assure my readers that compared with these “gents,” the machinations of Bernie Madoff were the handiwork of a novice.

But to depict the accurate side of a cliché, let me tell you about my friend Henry, the Eighth Earl of Something in the Cotswolds. One evening, His Lordship nabbed a reporter from a Down Under tabloid paper attired in an ill-fitting rented dinner jacket dancing inanely with the hired staff at a polo ball in Henry’s mansion. Clearly party crashers cannot be tolerated. But Henry told the intruder: “Help yourself to another orange juice, then find yourself a kangaroo and out you hop to Australia.” Now that was indeed gentlemanly in the best English tradition: Of course, one must kick the sod out but not before offering him something to drink.

Beyond the confines of Europe, clichés clash with reality even more forcefully. When I was younger, I had always imagined that folks in the Far East were more refined than the rest of us. So it was with great anticipation that when I was first assigned to Asia as a foreign correspondent, I walked into Hong Kong’s oldest teahouse, a renowned temple of Chinese culinary culture. I was overwhelmed by the delicacies served there but found the waiters impossible to get used to. While bringing me dish after dish after dish, they aimed their sinusitic emissions with astonishing accuracy over their shoulders into spittoons that were strategically located between the tables.

To refute another cliché, I am here to say that Kipling erred. He wrote that East and West would never meet. But they did meet – in Singapore whose predominantly Chinese rulers were equally disgusted with this ancient habit of their compatriots and imposed huge fines on spitting in public. I love Singapore, which also flogs graffiti artists, a punishment that should definitely be emulated in Berlin.

It would be fascinating to move on to stereotypes in and about America. But as it has become an international sport to spread clichés about the United States, my sense of fairness compels me to refrain from doing so, except to say something nice: Unlike Berliners, Americans have not lost their sense of “ich dien”; waiters in the U.S. might become annoyingly familiar but at least they are pleasant, and this not just because they expect tips, although this is a significant factor.

When Ms. Bhatti next tries to communicate with the surly staff of her Aldi store in Berlin, she could do all of us a favor: Please tell these boors that Aldi has a sister corporation in America. It’s called Trader Joe’s. And in its outlets, you will find charming young salespeople disproving the European fib that Americans know nothing about the good things in life. Instead of snarling at their clients, they will eagerly and expertly talk about every detail of the wonderful array of wines on their shelves.

This article is from the July 2009 issue of The Atlantic Times.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Willing Tools of Divine Mummery


(From the first edition of The Mask, a web-based publication)

Above the fireplace in our apartment in Irvine, California, hangs one of my favorite works of art. It is a drawing by Josep Pla-Narbona depicting dancers hiding under masks. Narbona hails from Barcelona in Spain and is therefore unlikely to have had Lutheran theology in mind when he created this magnificent work. Still, it looks Lutheran to me.

In Luther’s imagery, human beings are themselves masks behind which God hides while carrying out His concealed purposes in this world. Luther called God’s reign in the secular realm Mummenschanz, or mummery. As divine masks, humans are called to serve their neighbors out of love in everyday life.

As we ponder our self-centered civilization, trying to remain faithful to our divine vocations is indeed a countercultural endeavor. Let it therefore be known that League of Faithful Masks (LFM) has subversive goals. LFM has the lethal narcissism of our era in its crosshairs, and LFM’s web-based publication, The Mask, is meant to be on of its weapons in this combat.

LFM is not a sect. We don’t want our fellow human beings to renounce the God-given joys of life. With the writer of the Book of Ecclesiastes we cheerfully proclaim: “Go eat your bread with joy and drink your wine with a merry heart for God has already approved what you do” (Eccl. 9:7). LFM promotes neither a redistribution of wealth, nor does it try to tell anybody, as a famous statesman recently did, that he or she has made enough money.

Instead, the League of Faithful Masks has set itself the simple goal of championing the Judeo-Christian worldview of vocation as an effective antidote to narcissism and its destructive consequences; our foe is the “Me” culture that has wreaked havoc in the Western world. It has devastated individuals, businesses and communities financially. It is threatening to unravel this country’s social structure.

The “Me” culture is killing millions of unborn children every year. It is imperiling the ethical standards in the economy, industry, education, jurisprudence, medicine, the sciences, the arts and the media. It has utterly abandoned natural law, the universal moral code of which Christians believe that God has written it upon every human being’s heart, but which has also been fundamental to any healthy civilization since time immemorial.

In a way, the “Me” culture is more problematical to fight than murderous ideologies of the past. Nazism and Communism were the creations of relatively small groups of totalitarians supported by either mindless or, more likely, terrified masses. Totalitarians could be defeated by military, political and economic means.

You cannot fight the “Me” culture with M-16 rifles, mortars, bombs, economic or political schemes, however well crafted. Like Nazism and Communism, the “Me” culture has its roots in a Zeitgeist, or spirit of time that over the last two centuries has performed an ethical lobotomy on Europeans and North Americans alike. One of its authors was Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the leading philosopher of the French Revolution, who “freed” legal thinking from internal constraints that limit vice.

In other words, redirected man’s focus away from the neighbor to himself or herself, either in a singular or a plural sense. As Lutheran theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote before being martyred by the Nazis, the French Revolution was the “laying bare of the emancipated man in his tremendous power and his most terrible perversity.” Bonhoeffer was convinced that “the liberation of man as an absolute ideal leads only to man’s self-destruction.”

This is today’s reality. The finest army in the world is powerless against it. You can’t fight moral lobotomy with helicopters and drones. To mention just one example, the best soldiers in the world can’t turn around the minds of parents who don’t discipline their kids, who threaten teachers with lawsuits if they dare to discipline their students. Even if you sent a million soldiers to the Mexican border, they won’t he able to stop unsupervised American or European kids from becoming drug addicts. This is a market-driven economy, and as long as there is a huge market for narcotics, drug dealers will find ways to supply it.

I do not mean to single out parents but am using the pervasive disregard of divine calling by so many mothers and fathers as a paradigm for the causes of generalized narcissism plaguing our society. Motherhood and fatherhood are vocations likes thousands of others, including the vocations of voters and politicians, of journalists and readers, of lawyers, nurses, physicians, scientists, civil servants, bakers, engineers, business executives and their subordinates. If their sense of vocation is absent, then the “Me” culture’s lethal trajectory will progress with ever-increasing speed.

This is why our group of Christian professionals founded the League of Faithful Masks. The only powerful weapon we possess is our determination to mentor those who have lost the yardstick by which to lead a Christian life in their own secular vocations, and this determination is of courses rooted in our faith. Our weapons are non-lethal. We counsel. We lecture. We write. We teach. We don’t intend to kick off a revolution with banners carried by marching masses. But we do hope that our message will spread, and that regional LFM chapters will spring up around in the United States and other countries. This Web-based publication will be one of our voices.

The message of the Faithful Masks is simply this: In every phase of our lives we have divine callings to serve our neighbors in love; even on our deathbeds we have vocations, for example the vocation to allow our caretakers to serve us lovingly. Again: No insurrection is planned, but we are committed to partaking in God’s masquerade by trying to be of service to others. Everybody sharing our concern is very welcome to join us.

© The League of Faithful Masks, May 2010

Munich on the Monongahela

There is a new Hofbräuhaus in Pittsburgh upholding traditional standards of German food and drink

By Uwe Siemon-Netto

Authentic German restaurants have become rare in the United States. But our correspondent has found one such place in Pittsburgh. It is huge. It is brand new. It has taken the place of a steel mill. It’s a Hofbräuhaus.

When John F. Kennedy tried to smuggle a beer mug out of the Hofbräuhaus in Munich in 1937, he wouldn’t have imagined that more than seven decades later, delightful coeds from Pittsburgh’s huge student population would lug such vessels past the swaying and singing crowds of revelers in a Hofbräuhaus on the banks of the Monongahela River.

Kennedy’s attempt to be light-fingered under the stern glare of sturdy Bavarian waitresses was of course foolhardy. Who in his right mind would want to mess with muscular ladies carrying eight beer-filled mugs, each measuring 2.259 pints?

In Pittsburgh, the smiling and youthful servers are less daunting. I did not see one with more than four steins in her two hands, but, though lacking biceps, they were watchful, which is a good thing if you are a thirsty man. But try to do a “Kennedy” on the Monongahela, and you’ll probably be asked at the exit whether you would like to buy the thing or leave it behind to be rinsed.

My friend, Rev. Eric Andrae, a Lutheran campus pastor, suggested this place for a tipple. To look a little less conspicuous, he took off his clerical collar, called “Friar Tuck” in ecclesial circles, as he guided me down to the beer garden where we had soft-dough pretzels and a liter of brew while watching the traffic on the Monongahela, which west of Pittsburgh merges with the Allegheny into the Ohio River.

This scene seemed unreal because it was so unexpected. When I visited Pittsburgh for the first time more than 40 years ago, this city was just about the sootiest place in America; on the spot where the Hofbräuhaus now quenches thirst of nurses and doctors from neighboring hospitals, of business executives, scholars and undergraduates, stood the Jones and Laughlin Steel Mill, belching its fumes into the Western Pennsylvanian skies.

Steel was Pittsburgh’s business. The name of Pittsburgh’s football club, The Steelers, attests to this historical fact. The Steelers are still there and faithful patrons of the Hofbräuhaus, according to Nick Ellison. The Cincinnati entrepreneur along with two partners spent $8 million to build this enormous pub whose beer is brewed and whose food is prepared under the strict supervision of the 400-year-old Munich Hofbräuhaus.

Now that the steel mills are gone, Pittsburgh ranks among the 10 US municipalities with the least polluted air and for a second time has been voted America’s most livable city. Now electronics and education are among its most significant industries, with 145,000 students enrolled in 33 colleges and universities in the greater Pittsburgh area. Today, it is also home to a host of American subsidiaries of German corporations with sterling names such as Bayer and Bosch, DHL and Siemens.

In short, Pittsburgh is a good place to have a Hofbräuhaus.

There are other “Hofbräuhäuser” in the United States, of course. One is just downriver on the banks of the Ohio in Newport, Kentucky, outside Cincinnati. It too belongs to Ellison and his friends, and it has the same brew master as its namesake in Pittsburgh. His name is Eckhard Kurbjuhn and he is a silent partner of BrauKon GmbH, a Bavarian company that had built the brewing plants of both establishments.

“Our guests love him, he is a lot of fun,” said Ellison of Kurbjuhn who had previously worked in Japan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Nigeria and who in the past 12 months has produced 160,000 gallons of beer in Pittsburgh alone – strictly according to the recipes of the Munich “mother house,” and according to the 1516 Bavaria purity law that only permit water, hops and barley in the beer production.

Kurbjuhn sends samples of his brew to Munich in regular intervals, and the state-owned Bavarian “mother house” dispatches inspectors to Pittsburgh four times a year to make sure that its beer and dishes are up to its standards. Unless a beer aficionado’s palate is sophisticated enough to taste the difference between the waters used in the two Hofbräuhaus products, he would not be able to tell which comes from where.

This is actually a superfluous observation because you cannot buy fresh foreign beers anywhere in America where all imported brews must be pasteurized, which renders them less pleasant to German tipplers. But this makes a visit to Pittsburgh all the more exciting: No Pasteur on the Monongahela!

My friend the pastor and I finished our first mug and a basketful of pretzels that had been imported, frozen, from Germany. It was getting chilly in the beer garden, so we went up to the heated terrace where Katrina, a comely waitress of Italian descent served us what might be called a German-American combo. The German part was the sauerkraut; it was imported ready to serve from Bavaria. The American contribution was a pair of sausages from Cincinnati; they were slightly less spicy than their German counterparts. “But then,” said Kurbjuhn, “some concessions must be made to American tastes.”

Katrina, an undergraduate, was quite typical of the young people in Pittsburgh, a handsome and spirited blend of ethnicities from all over Europe – children and grandchildren of Poles and Lithuanians, Germans and Hungarians, Slovaks and assorted Mediterranean types. Here in the 1,200-seat Hofbräuhaus, they combined into a joyful lot.

As the evening progressed, they climbed onto the wooden benches of the main beer hall, inviting my pastor friend and me to join them swinging beer mugs, swaying and singing, “In München steht ein Hofbräuhaus, eins, zwei g’suffa,” the theme song of the Bavarian establishment composed in 1939 by Wiga Gabriel, a Berliner, God forbid!

You have to know the patriotic Bavarians to realize how extraordinary this is; they don’t like the Prussians, or so they say, and in Bavarian eyes, any German from north of their state border is a Prussian. But then, they have either overlooked or forgotten that their celebrated Hofbräuhaus has deep non-Bavarian roots. To be sure, its founder, Duke William V, was a Bavarian. But he imported a North German to start his brew house because he considered the locally made tipple too foul.

And now, the Hofbräuhaus brew master of Pittsburgh and Newport, Kentucky, Kurbjuhn, is also a native of Germany’s north but we won’t tell the Bavarians that, especially as Kurbjuhn had learned his craft in their state; so no bias should be encouraged.

Given that from the Bavarian perspective, “south” is good and “north” not so good, there is good news for Bavarians from Pittsburgh. The Hofbräuhaus is located on the city’s South Side, which in the days of the steel mills was its grimiest part and is now its liveliest and most attractive section. Where does Pittsburgh’s society play these days? No longer on the once-elegant North Side but south of the river. Where did Mayor Luke Ravenstahl celebrate his reelection recently? On the South Side, at the Hofbräuhaus.

Cheers! I have not been to the Hofbräuhaus in Munich for decades but it was good to have a Lutheran pastor drag me into its namesake on the banks of the Monongahela River. I am not an Oktoberfest habitué. But on that Saturday evening, not entirely sober, I found it difficult to refute Kurbjuhn’s slogan: “In Pittsburgh, every day is Oktoberfest.”