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Some thoughts on terror in Germany

Last week, after the series of attacks in Germany, I felt like the country was coming apart at the seams. It was an irrational, emotional response. I thought, “This is what it must have felt like during the Deutschen Herbst (German Autumn)”. It was then that I realized that terrorist attacks (domestic, foreign and by mentally unstable people) have always been a part of my German experience.

I don’t want to downplay the recent incidents or even get into a political discussion. But that thought (and a couple hours of googling and reading) helped me gain a little perspective.

The first time I really paid attention to terror attacks in Germany was in 1986 when I was getting ready to be an exchange student. In April of that year a bomb killed two soldiers and a woman at the La Belle nightclub in West Berlin (just a mile from one of my later Berlin apartments). My mom and I talked about it and dismissed it because Berlin was far from Wegberg, where I’d be an exchange student, and it clearly targeted soldiers.

Terror in Germany
Postcard of JHQ Rheindahlen thanks BAOR Locations.

I couldn’t really be less soldier material.

So we figured I’d be safe.

And also, though it’s admittedly crass and possibly insensitive, the terror didn’t seem real. Terror seemed as much a part of Cold War Europe as loose morals and bodyhair. Remember the IRA? They used to be in the paper every day (remember newspapers?). And, anyway, Chernobyl happened just a few weeks later and we had something new to worry about. My mother considered not sending me for fear of radiation.

When I finally landed in Germany, I would often ride past and through nearby British air bases on training rides. Any time the IRA attacked somewhere, the bases would be buttoned down and soldiers in camouflage would prevent me from taking my favorite route along Queens Avenue on the Joint Headquarters Rheindahlen base. It was always a strange sensation to cycle in Lycra shorts and vintage wool jerseys past soldiers hunkered in sub-terranean pillboxes with loaded machine guns.

They never waved back.

Terror close to home

My memory has convinced me I even heard an IRA carbomb explode at Rheindahlen in 1987. My guest parents played down the nearby attack by saying no one was killed but the bomb actually injured 30, mostly Germans. It must have been a bigger deal than I remember.

And then I learned about the RAF, the Rote Armee Faktion (Red Army Faction), a left-wing terrorist organization in Germany. In 1977, the RAF orchestrated a number of attacks that included the murder of CEO of Dresdner Bank (Jürgen Ponto), the kidnapping and murder of the head of the German Employer’s Association (Hans-Martin Schleyer) and the hijacking of a Lufthansa plane.

Although there was (and is) massive debate about the RAF, if you lived in Germany at the time it must have been at least unsettling. It never seemed to end. And every time I read something new about that time period, known as German Autumn, I get much the same feeling I got last Friday as attack after attack hit Germany.

Will it ever end? History says no, but it also shows me that life goes on and statistics proves the attacks, both then and now, are anomalies.

And that’s not anywhere near a complete list – they’re just the ones that colored my German experience.

terror in Germany
Thanks Datagraver.

The one I was surprised I’d never learned about was Gundolf Köhler’s 1980 attack on Oktoberfest. As famous as Oktoberfest is, I was amazed I’d never heard of it until I’d lived in Germany for nearly a decade – he killed 13 people (including himself) and wounded 211 with a home-made pipe bomb. He’s suspected of being a right-wing extremist.

I don’t want to downplay the recent attacks nor their impact, I just needed some perspective for me (especially since my family is in Germany at the moment). And I thought I could share it. Statistics show terror attacks have actually decreased.

Even if it feels like Germany – and Europe – is coming apart.

 

The coldest winter of my life

Sometimes I wonder if Germans hate warmth.

My first winter in Germany was the coldest in my life. Even though I had grown up at the foot of the Rocky Mountains, I had no idea the world could even get that cold.

Or maybe I just had the wrong jacket.

closethiswindow
Pic thanks Marcus Pink via Creative Commons

Though come to think of it, of course I had the wrong jacket. In German cold you don’t need a jacket, you need an anorak. You don’t just need clothing for that kind of cold, you need a solution.

And it seemed especially cold when I walked the kilometer to Gymnasium every morning in my wrong jacket. By the time I got there I was freezing. I was so cold, I’m certain several of my relatives were cold as well.

I would get to school and walk up the steps into my first period philosophy class and be greeted by the warmest, snuggliest heat I had ever felt. The warmth of a room that has been heated all night while no one was in it, as if it were just waiting for me.

“Drew,” the room was saying, “I understand your suffering.”

And I would get more than just warm. I would get relief. The world was going to be OK.

That is, until Thilo walked into that room. Thilo is pretty much the German version of Chad and everyone suffers when Chad or Thilo is around. They are popular, the Thilos and Chads. But they are so often misguided.

Thilo never felt welcomed by that warm room. Thilo felt offended.

Meine Fresse (My goodness),” he would announce. “Hier ist eine Luft drin! (The air in here!).“

And with that he would throw every window in the room open. Other students would file in and no one seemed happy until the temperature of the room matched that of Little Siberia outside. Apparently only then was the air repaired. They would close the windows and I would once again freeze. As would my relatives.

Perfect learning temperature.

Germans seem to often get angry at warm air. They resolve the situation through something called Stossluften (freeze everyone in the room). It involves exchanging all of the warm air for freezing air. Apparently freezing air that heats slowly while you are in it is no longer offensive.

I don’t exactly understand the science.

I’ve encountered this in my kids’ schools, offices where I’ve worked and even from maids in hotel rooms but, oddly, never in a smoke-filled bar. No, that air is not offensive, just carcinogenic. A German once told me warm air lacks oxygen and cannot sustain life. You know, like Mars. Even in rooms that have been empty for 12 hours.

Again, I’m unclear of the science.

January is almost over. Stay warm.