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October 4, 2010
 by Steven Hill

OKTOBERFEST: A “STAMMTISCH” OF THOUSANDS; SKEPTICISM OVER U.S. TRAVEL ADVISORY IN EUROPE...The German language has a word, “Stammtisch,” that really has no English equivalent. The closest translation is something like “regulars’ reserved table” or "regular get-together." Literally speaking, Stammtisch means a table in a bar or restaurant which is reserved for the same guests at the same time every day or every week, and no one else is supposed to sit there even when the regulars aren't present. In the most traditional German beer halls there is a large brass plaque above the table with the word Stammtisch printed on it in bold lettering, which conveys "don't sit here." When I visited the Hofbräuhaus in Munich for the first time, which is a massive beer hall that also has no U.S. equivalent, I made the mistake of sitting at someone else's unoccupied Stammtisch, raising eyebrows and eventually glares until I figured out my transgression. In the US, if a table is empty, it's fair game to occupy it, but not in traditional Germany.

There can be all kinds of Stammtisch, whether for friends who drink together on a regular occasion, or those for specific interest groups, such as a "philosophy discussion Stammtisch" or a "stamp collectors Stammtisch," or a “learn to speak German or English Stammtisch,” etc. This is what US sociologist Robert Putnam (of Bowling Alone fame) once called “social capital.” Adolph Hitler, who got his start by learning the art of oratory in Germany's large beer halls, had his own Stammtisch of sorts -- it became known as the Nazi Party.

Understanding this word/concept is one way to appreciate Munich’s annual rite of beer swilling known as Oktoberfest. It's like a massive Stammtisch of hundreds of thousands of people who have a regular annual date in Munich. I had never attended Oktoberfest before but when the organizers of my lecture in Munich invited me to be their guest at Oktoberfest, it was too attractive an offer to turn down. Oktoberfest celebrated its 200 year old anniversary this year, and over the two-week period in which it unfolded approximately six million people passed through the gates. A large number of attendees were wearing the traditional Bavarian costumes, men in Lederhosen shorts and feathered caps, the women in the low-cut, cup runneth over, St. Pauli girl Dirndls. And just about everyone is holding an enormous flagon full of the specially made yellow lager beer known as Märzen (nearly two million gallons of which are consumed during the two-week festival). In other words, these Stammtischers (can I use this word as a noun?) are pounding down serious quantities of beer.

Besides the amusement park atmosphere around the fairgrounds, they have enormous beer halls on the fairgrounds where the Stammtischers mount their libational assault on Kantian reason. Just in the beer hall in which I “stammtisched” (can I use it as a verb?) with my friends, I shared the revelry with about 10,000 other people in a single hall. It was an enormous structure and everywhere you looked there was a sea of people hoisting high their yellow flagons, singing along in thick, throaty tones to the oompa band in the middle. The more people drank, the more they climbed on their stools and benches, I suppose trying to get as high physically as they were getting blood-level wise. The singing too grew increasingly loud and paradoxically on-key, as the volkgeist found its harmony in both German- and English-language songs rolling over the crowd. Next thing you know, they are standing on the tables, higher still, and the singing by now was thunderous, bellowing like elephant seals. There's something about singing in large crowds that has always been appealing to humans, something about the communion that occurs when each individual joins with like-others to produce something harmonious; it's the exact opposite of politics, which is often one long argument that one can never win, except temporarily, and frustrates this innate need for agreement and consensus. Three voices joined in harmony is a delight, but ten thousand in unison is a wall of uplifting sound. Think of the magnificent chorus of dozens in Beethoven's "Ode to Joy," and multiply that by, oh, about a thousand. While I'm not particularly religious, I suppose there is something God-like in this pursuit, a sense of climbing higher and higher onto the stools, the tables, in beer content, in our attempts to reach some divine summit. Perhaps I had drank too much beer myself, but this loud bellowing mass suddenly seemed like something life-affirming and even sloppily beautiful, a Stammtisch of Thousands within this beer hall. Yet as I realized later (once the effects of the beer had worn off?), the flipside is that these sorts of rituals can and have been abused, whether during the patriotic "rally around the flag"-fest that occurred after the 9-11 terrorist attacks (when the number of Americans who were willing to support the use of torture spiked in the opinion polls) or during the Nazi mass rituals that used symbols and, yes, song to unite a people's will around a perverse destination.

American Stammtisch of fear? Must be election time. On this same day I heard on the news that the US State Department had issued an extremely rare travel advisory telling Americans to beware of potential terrorist threats in Europe. The State Department warned that a small cell of potential terrorists from Pakistan is preparing an attack. Plotters could be planning to use "a variety of means and target both official and private interests," the State Department said, adding that Americans in Europe should be careful on trains, subways and other transportation systems, and in visiting hotels, restaurants and tourist spots. I couldn't resist asking some Europeans, as well as Americans living in Europe, what they thought of this warning. Without exception they all shook their heads and smiled. "There go the Americans again," said one. "This is nonsense. How are the terrorists supposed to distinguish between an American and other Europeans? Why would Americans be in more danger than anyone else here? Yet you don't see the German and French governments raising their threat levels." Indeed, the German and French governments downplayed the alleged threat, though the British government -- the usual American ally in these matters -- did raise its level.

One German friend offered a rather unflattering explanation for the American government’s over-reactive posture. "It must be election time again," she said. "Your politicians always try to scare voters into voting for them." She pointed out how the Bush administration had excelled at using fear to rally voters’ loyalty, and wondered why the Obama administration would be tearing a page out of the Bush playbook. "They really must be worried about the November elections." The Americans I talked to, all of whom live in Europe, for the most part agreed.

That got me to thinking. Another meaning of Stammtisch is “regular get-together,” and her comments caused me to wonder if terrorist warnings around election time have become an American Stammtisch, a regular ritual around which Americans all get together, using symbols, stories and "protect the family/fatherland" emotions to stoke electoral passion. Of course, if the Obama administration did not issue the travel advisory and something horrible did occur, they would be accused of negligence and/or incompetence. That charge would hurt their electoral prospects this November more than the charge of being overly cautious, or even over reactive and engaging in overkill. Is this then perhaps an example of "defensive medicine" practiced in the electoral arena, not taking a chance in case something worse might happen? Or…is it something else?

Regardless of which it is, people here are scoffing, and that tells you a lot. After American warnings about weapons of mass destruction that didn't exist, after missing an $8 trillion housing bubble that did exist, after Abu Ghraib, kidnappings, renditions, Katrina, and more, America’s credibility is lacking. Even with Obama as president, who remains popular among Europeans but who they increasingly see as having continued a number of Bush policies in this arena, Europeans use their own compass and do not immediately take the word of the Americans.

That gave me a lot to think about when about 5 p.m I had to cut out of the Oktoberfest to catch a train to Strasbourg, France (a relaxing four hour trip through the German countryside, passed farms, green fields, pastures, many church steeples, solar panel arrays and windmills -- the trains really are a marvel here). I have to give a lecture the next day in Strasbourg, but Oktoberfest would continue throughout the afternoon and into the evening, and when it closed down for the evening at 10 p.m. it would roll into the streets and into the local bars. German Romanticism at work, a Stammtisch to remember.

Steven Hill 9:12 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (5)

Yet you don't see the German and French governments raising their threat levels."
In France we have a threat levels planning called vigipirate (Vigilance Pirate) it exists since 1991 the first gulf war, and since 2005 the bombing in London we are at red level, the second highest level.

Posted by: JLS on October 4, 2010 at 2:56 PM | PERMALINK

the German language officiially does not offer the words "Stammtischer" or "stammtischen", but as a creative approach they work great.

Good blog post again, though I hate the Oktoberfest. Mostly because I loathe Bavarian Volksmusik.

Posted by: Vokoban on October 5, 2010 at 2:22 PM | PERMALINK

Have to say I'm not a great fan of Oktoberfest, or of the Bavarian Volksmusik and Lederhosen nonsense. But then I live in Berlin, where Bavarian peasant culture meets with disdain. If you tell a Berliner you are heading to Munich even for a short business trip, she will shoot you a look of pity that says, "Hurry back to civilization soon."

But as annoying as I find the Disneyfied nostalgia of the Bavarians, there is little doubt that Germany, much less so than the U.S., is a forward-looking country run by reality-based politicians who care much more about delivering the goods for the people who elected them than for their corporate sponsors.

After living in Berlin for most of the 1990s, I moved to the UK and then Boston, only to decide to return to Berlin a couple of years ago. Why? When I visited Germany, I could see that conditions were steadily improving. The investments in infrastructure that had been made in Berlin over the past couple of decades were truly astonishing in scale and in quality. A combination of public and private money had utterly transformed my old stomping grounds of Prenzlauer Berg and Mitte. It was clear to me that Berliners, and Germans in general, care about their communities, and take a reasoned approach to developing and maintaining their institutions.

I don't have to tell you what happened in the U.S. over the same two decades. In the Boston area, where I lived for a time, conditions were noticeably worsening. Even post-Big Dig, Boston was a mess. Even in this relatively prosperous city, the pockets of poverty seemed to be intensifying and expanding. Houses that were complete dumps and located in crime-ridden neighborhoods were selling for mind-numbing prices. My thought: "Who pays $600,000 to live in a crappy neighborhood with crappy schools?" Even if economists and policymakers didn't see the real estate bubble (awfully hard to believe), they should have decried this untethered price inflation for the social and economic distortions it was clearly creating.

Then, of course, there was the obvious deterioration in health care, pensions, education, transportation... And yet when I talked to people about these--to me--disturbing developments, I found that, even in relatively enlightened New England, there was little sense of outrage, at least at what I considered to be the actual sources of these disasters. Whereas ordinary Germans seem to have a basic grasp of the interplay between government and their daily lives, and appreciate the role that government plays, most Americans seem to believe that wealth is created individually, or by "small businesses," and that personal effort and ambition are all that matter in the race to "get ahead."

Most distressingly, Americans seemed to care much more about whether they and their immediate families prospered than about the overall health of the communities they lived in. I hardly ever encountered this solipsistic and incoherent perspective among Germans.

And finally, as you point out Steven, the folks in Washington appear to be utterly incompetent these days, whether it is in running the economy, building and maintaining infrastructure, crafting a fair and efficient health care system, or interacting with the wider world. The reaction to 9/11 alone suggests that some virulent strain of crazy has infected the political culture.

I will admit that U.S. politics is much more fun to follow than politics in Germany. Is it possible to imagine physicist and chancellor Angela Merkel claiming that scientists have been able to use stem cells to grow human brains in mice? How did a country that, within living memory, turned itself over to the worst possible impulses in human nature, transform itself into a nation that runs circles around the United States in providing stability and security to its citizens and neighbors?

Thank you, Steven, for exploring these questions. I look forward to hearing you speak in Berlin.

Posted by: Miriam on October 7, 2010 at 4:19 AM | PERMALINK

An interesting read, especially as I now live in Munich.

From what I gathered, the word "Stammtisch" is pretty much the table itself. The philosophy is actually pretty logical when you think of it: an inn was dependent upon keeping the regulars happy as their core income, so having a table permanently reserved for them was good from both a business sense, as well as maintaining good relations. If you remember Cheers, it would be where Norm, Cliff and Frazier would sit (German pub patrons consider barstools places to sit when you can't get a table).

As for the Stammtisch regular, I have heard the term "Stammtischbruder", giving it a fraternal air. And yes, lots of clubs now call themselves "Stammtisch" meaning they get together to talk about the hobby rather than actually engage in it. And yes, "Stammtischpolitik" is a term, referring to the sorts of political talk you get in a bar, with all of its oversimplification and whatnot. Oh, and even in German, you don't make a verb out of the Stammtisch, you go to it, were at it, talk at it, but it remains a noun.

And you capture the feeling we expats living in Europe get about post-Bush political discourse, that the bar regulars have taken over regular discourse. It's scary to say the least, especially when the insane amounts of money involved are seen.

Posted by: Marc on October 14, 2010 at 10:10 AM | PERMALINK

"“stammtisched” (can I use it as a verb?)"
Well, sure you can, and probably people will understand you. But it isn't an established verb, as has been pointed out above. Germans would say, they have been at the Stammtisch ("Ich bin beim Stammtisch gewesen") or met their friends there ("ich habe meine Freunde beim Stammtisch getroffen"). I suspect Germans aren't that creative at inventing new words as Americans.

"the word "Stammtisch" is pretty much the table itself."
Not necessarily. It can be used for describing the circle of friends, too (at least I heard it used in that way), for instance when saying "mein Stammtisch is der Meinung, daß..." ("my Stammtisch holds the opinion that..."). However, good point about "Stammtischpolitik", which is an often used word, describing a simplistic, populist view of politics. Since many Germans prefer their political leaders to be reality based ("Realpolitik") and pragmatic, if a politicians is called a "Stammtischpolitiker", that usually isn't meant as praise.

Posted by: Gray, Germany on November 14, 2010 at 7:39 AM | PERMALINK

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