Germany is the most popular country in the world – and I can see why

Glosswitch has always had a love for all things German, so she's happy to learn that everyone else agrees.

Perhaps my love of all things German started out as form of teenage rebellion. Age 16, I was packed off on a school exchange with the parental exhortation to “tell them who won the war”. Over twenty years later, I’ve still not done it. To be honest, I suspect “they” already know. 

My family’s attitude towards Germany – a kind of knee-jerk, pseudo-moralistic xenophobia – is neither original nor amusing, but it’s one of those “jokes” that certain people of a certain age feel obliged to keep on making. Ever since it was granted cultural legitimacy by that episode of Fawlty Towers, comedy German-hating has felt less wartime throwback, more timeless British tradition. We don’t really mean it (at least, one hopes not; “one world cup” has started to sound increasingly pathetic as the years go by). But we do it all the same. 

Or at least we have done up till now. Perhaps the recent news that Germany is the “most popular country in the world” should give us pause for thought. According to a poll conducted by the BBC World Service, which involved interviewing a random selection of people across 25 countries, Germany’s influence is viewed more favourably than that of any other nation. German-bashing is starting to look stale. Gut gemacht, Deutschland! I knew you had it in you!

I can’t help but feel a sense of personal vindication in this. I’ve always been down with the Germans, me. Ever since my first visit to the country – when my school was partnered with one in the newly “former” East – I’ve felt we had a special relationship (regardless of whether or not the Germans appreciate my devotion). I studied German at university, spent a year teaching English in Sachsen-Anhalt, wrote a doctoral thesis on German literature, edited several German textbooks for schools – none of which is the same as actually being German, I know, but it demonstrates a degree of commitment. What’s more, it’s not been easy.

We teutophiles have been through lean times in the UK. Uptake of German as a foreign language at Key Stages Three and Four has now been overtaken by Spanish. University German departments have been closing down. I remember sitting with a friend of mine – a lecturer in a slowly dying faculty – and discussing ways to make German more attractive to the young, who might not have remembered the war but still believed the words were in the wrong order and the food was too sausage-heavy. “Franke Potente and Daniel Brühl – they’re cool, right?” we’d say desperately, in the hope that some semi-alternative actors would save the day. “And what about Love Parade? That’s a good one! And maybe if he says a few more surreal things in the commentary box at Wimbledon, Boris Becker could become a national treasure!” Then we’d look up German text-speak, deluding ourselves that words like N8 (N + acht = Nacht – geddit?) were so unbelievably witty and happening no one would be able to resist. Funnily enough, none of these things have actually worked. 

Maybe we don’t need to do this now. I’ve always thought we should tug on the heartstrings – play up the Dichter und Denker, the fall of the Berlin Wall, maybe even Guildo Horn’s 1998 Eurovision entry – when all along it seems relative economic strength and “tough love” are the order of the day (what kind of masochists are we?). In what appears, on one level, to be a world playground popularity contest – life imitating Peppa Pig’s International Day – Germany are doing okay, danke. I’m starting to feel a bit redundant. But then again, perhaps I that’s all I deserve.  

It’s very hard to love an entire country without patronising every single inhabitant, whether this be on the grounds of their humour, their spirituality, their fine beer-making skills etc. It also feels ever so slightly self-serving, a declaration of intellectual superiority disguised as open-mindedness. Look at me, look at how cosmopolitan I am, better than all the narrow-minded cultural pygmies who don’t go anywhere if English isn’t spoken. Then there’s the historical airbrushing, the rather presumptuous decision to come to terms with a country’s past regardless of whether those more affected by it are ready. All of these things put would-be foreigners – those who’ve never lived the lives they fetishize – on shaky moral ground, at least when no space is left for curiosity and qualification. 

But anyhow, Germany, as my father would say, you may have lost the war, but you won the BBC World Service poll. Good für Sie (or dich, if I may be so familiar). Now, about the next stage of the popularity plan – I really think ultra-extended compound nouns could be the next big thing…

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of three who works in publishing.

Calvert 22/Courtesy of the artist, Danila Tkachenko
Show Hide image

Ruin porn: the art world’s awkward obsession with abandoned Soviet architecture

Deserted fairgrounds, disused factories and forgotten military bases may look cool, but are we fetishising the remnants of such a cruel history?

Armenia, where one side of my family is from, was one of the first members of the USSR, annexed by Russia in 1922. A few years ago, when I visited this little country that perches precariously in the south of the Caucasus, I was struck most by its Soviet architecture.

Although its landscape is a hotchpotch of medieval Orthodox churches, a smattering of Persian-era domes, and brutalist concrete, it was the latter that particularly stuck out. From unfelled statues of Stalin to giant tower blocks spelling out the letters “CCCP” from a bird’s-eye view (well, half spelt-out – construction stopped partway through, with the fall of the Soviet Union), I’ve never forgotten it.

Perhaps it was so compelling because such stark physical symbols make recent history all the more tangible. A history still profoundly affecting the country of my ancestors (and all post-Soviet and communist states). But also, it just looked really cool.


Mixed air corps, Mongolia. Photo: Calvert 22/Courtesy of the artist, Eric Losito

It’s a bit passé now to mock the hipster obsession with reclaimed industrial detritus, exposed pipes and bare concrete. An aesthetic – that of a post-industrial wasteland, but a chic one – which has gripped western cities for years, and crept worldwide.

But it could be this tendency to find disused stuff visually intriguing, and a morbid fascination with cruel regimes, which has led to the art world’s obsession with abandoned Soviet architecture. A whole wave of artists and photographers have been poking around the eastern bloc’s architectural graveyard in recent years.

Late last year, we saw the hugely popular disused Soviet bus stop series by photographer Christopher Herwig, echoing photographer Sergey Novikov’s equally absorbing collection of abandoned Soviet cinemas from 2013.

Following Russian filmmaker and photographer Maria Morina’s “Atomic Cities” project four years ago, London-based artist Nadav Kander explored the “aesthetics of destruction” in his exhibition, Dust, in 2014, snapping “radioactive ruins” of secret cities on the border between Kazakhstan and Russia. The same year, Moscow photographers Sasha Mademuaselle and Sergey Kostromin travelled to the disputed region of Abkhazia, capturing fragments of its deserted infrastructure.


Fighter aviation regiment, Mongolia. Photo: Eric Losito
 

And photojournalist Anton Petrus’ now iconic pictures of Chernobyl’s abandoned amusement park have long been an internet favourite, as have numerous haunting images of Pripyet – the city famous for lying deserted following the nuclear disaster.

Jamie Rann, a lecturer in Russian at Oxford University, has written that the quality and technical accomplishment of most of this photography make the style more “ruin erotica” than “ruin porn” (the tag being used by some critics), but argues: “The enormous online popularity of this genre . . . combined with their voyeuristic, almost exploitative feel, certainly has something porny about it.”

The latest exploration of Soviet society’s skeletons can be found at the Power & Architecture season at London’s Calvert 22 Foundation. In an exhibition called Dead Space and Ruins, we see abandoned military bases and formerly mighty monuments, forgotten space ports freezing in the tundra, the ghost of an entire unused, unfinished city in Armenia lying derelict.



The unfinished "ghost city" built in Armenia to house earthquake survivors (water added by artist). Photo: Calvert 22/Courtesy of the artist, Vahram Aghasyan

The works are beautiful, but do they feed in to this zeitgeisty lust for Soviet ruins?

One of its curators, Will Strong, laments this trend. “I was keen that this didn’t become like a kind of ‘ruin lust’, ‘ruin porn’ thing; this slightly buzzwordy term that there is at the moment, this kind of fetishisation of dead space,” he tells me.

“This history is incredibly loaded, and it did not end in 1991. To sort of fetishise it in the very bourgeois western way of, ‘oh yeah, look at all this wonderful Soviet architecture, isn’t it fantastic?’ Obviously a lot of people who lived in that time hated it . . . a lot of people were very miserable under these regimes, so it’s important not to forget that.”


Gym at the Independent Radar Centre of Early Detection, Latvia. Photo: Eric Losito

He adds: “It’s more a point of reflection on how buildings were designed, what their legacy is, what their narrative is, and who the people are who live with that story. This show looks at the aftermaths of when utopia hasn’t been delivered.”

This view is echoed by the Moscow artist, Danila Tkachenko, whose work is featured in the exhibition. “It is rather a metaphor for the future, not the past,” he says. “It represents an image of a possible future. When there is a visualisation of this issue [utopia], it evokes a response in people; they see this utopia in their lives . . . There is disappointment in all utopias.”


The world's largest diesel submarine, in Russia's Samara region. Photo: Calvert 22/Courtesy of the artist, Danila Tkachenko

His Restricted Areas series explores great behemoths of European communism left to lie forgotten in the tundra of remote regions in and around Russia and Kazakhstan: the world’s largest diesel submarine, like a beached whale in the snow; a giant satellite, thatched with antennae, built to communicate with Soviet bases on other planets some day; the deserted flying saucer-like communist headquarters in a region of Bulgaria. The structures hover in blank, white space, making the photos appear black-and-white.


Deserted observatory, Kazakhstan's Almaty region. Photo: Danila Tkachenko
 

Anton Ginzburg is an artist who grew up in St Petersburg in the Eighties as the Soviet Union was disintegrating. He believes studies like his film, Turo, of disused modernist constructions in the post-Soviet bloc, appeal to people’s connection to history. After all, picking through the architectural carcasses of former societies isn’t exactly a new thing:

“Russian culture is still haunted by its Communist past, and constructivist architecture is a decaying shell for its ghosts. It is an active reminder of the recent history,” he reflects. “Perhaps [its appeal] is a mixture of memento mori, with its thrill of beauty and destruction, along with a Romantic tradition of contemplation of Greek and Roman ruins.”

(Anton Ginzburg Turo teaser from Visionaireworld on Vimeo.)

The Power & Architecture season is on at the Calvert 22 Foundation, London, from 10 June-9 October 2016. Entry is free.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.