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Rebecca Schuman | Longreads | June 2019 | 15 minutes (3,962 words)
Would you like to know if you’ve gained weight? If you’re annoying, or too talkative, or not as smart as you think? If you’re doing something, literally anything, the wrong way? Just ask a German and they will tell you immediately. Germans do not do this to hurt your feelings. There isn’t even a single long word in German for “hurt feelings,” they just translate the English directly (verletzte Gefühle), and everyone knows that direct translation from the English is how Germans demonstrate their disdain. There is, however, a common and beloved expression for an individual who makes a big show of having hurt feelings, and that is beleidigte Leberwurst, or a perennially “insulted liver sausage,” because hurt fee-fees are for weak non-German babies.
After all, Germans are just being direct: unmittelbar, or literally translated, “unmediated.” Their assertions are simply unverblümt, or “not putting a flower on it.” They’re not mean, they’re freimütig, or “free-hearted.” They’re just being forthright: offen, “open,” which is a good thing, ja? Germans couldn’t even begin to imagine why being brutally honest would hurt someone in the first place! If the truth hurts you, isn’t that more your fault than the truth’s?
The German word for truth is Wahrheit, and with the notable exception of the years 1933–1945, a study of the Teutonic peoples appears to read like a history of truth obsession. At no time is this more apparent than during the late Enlightenment, the alleged golden age of German literature and thought. In 1808, Goethe’s Faust traded his soul to the devil because he was despondent over the paltry fruits of his Earthly Lust nach Wahrheit, or “lust for truth.” In the Critique of Pure Reason, first published in 1781, Immanuel Kant sought to answer the “old and famous question with which the logicians were to be driven into a corner and brought to such a pass that they must either fall into a miserable circle or else confess their ignorance, hence the vanity of their entire art,” and this question was none other than: “What is truth?” Then, in a grievous misreading of that very Kant treatise, the writer Heinrich von Kleist was so taken by the “fact” that apparently there was no such thing as truth — we could all be wearing green glasses and claim the world was green, man! — that in 1810 he was inspired to write the novella Michael Kohlhaas, one of the greatest works in the history of German literature. (Of course, the “Kant Crisis” also likely contributed to the dramatic suicide pact Kleist carried out on the shores of Lake Wannsee with a lady friend a year later, but hey.) From Goethe to Kant to Kleist, from Gottlob Frege to Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Germans have been openly obsessed with the truth — striving for it (streben); grasping it (fassen) — since anyone began listening to what Germans had to say.
The Middle High German reht is a single word meaning truthful, just, and right. When they tell me my shirt is unflattering, Germans are simply being honest, an adjective for which that vernacular has at least eight direct contemporary translations: ehrlich (“sincere”), aufrichtig (“straightforward”), rechtschaffen (“right-doing”), redlich (“true to one’s word”), anständig (“decorous”), brav (“well-behaved”), ehrenwert (“worthy of honor”), and bieder (“upright”).
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Yet there is but one contemporary direct translation from the German for to lie. The most memorable time I heard it from an actual German was in the context of “thou shalt not,” and it served as a vehement reminder that Germans might not be the most overtly religious people, but boy oh Mensch, do they take a certain commandment seriously.
It was 2006 and I was leaving a Kaiser’s supermarket (now a REWE supermarket) in the Friedrichshain district, once a rough-around-the-edges outpost in East Berlin but since gentrified into a hipster destination neighborhood. A diminutive guy who appeared to be in his early 40s, with wild bloodshot eyes and epically chapped lips, asked me for some change. I told him I didn’t have any — this was technically true, because I’d paid for my Kaiser’s groceries with a debit card — but he glared at my bulging sack as he followed me to the crosswalk.
“You say you DON’T HAVE ANY MONEY,” he barked in German, his alto voice piercing the crisp pale blue of the late-evening dusk. “But you have a FULL BAG FROM KAISER’S. Do you know the BIBLE?”
“Um,” I said.
“Because in THE BIBLE,” he said, “it says ONE thing. VERY! CLEARLY!”
Now his soliloquy echoed off the Warschauer Straße train depot, as he shrieked for all of the former Eastern Sector to enjoy. “DO YOU KNOW WHAT IT SAYS? DO YOU?”
I tried to hustle, but I was stuck at a red light, and Germans do not jaywalk. So instead, I got a remediation in theology:
“DU SOLLST. NICHT. LÜGEN!”
This wasn’t because I didn’t give him change. It was a crowded intersection and a lot of people weren’t giving him change. I was the only one who’d lied about it — though, to be fair, I’d said I didn’t have any Geld, or money; what I meant was that I didn’t have any Bargeld, or cash, not mendacity so much as linguistic imprecision, which I suppose in German amounts to the same thing.
Americans assume that Germans hate small talk because they’re not nice. This is incorrect. Germans hate small talk because small talk requires you to lie. How are you? Asks everyone you meet at any time in the U.S., ever. How are you? How are you? How are you? Imagine if you answered every one of those queries with the un-flower-put-upon-it truth. Instead, we are expected to smile and say, “I’M GREAT!” If you are to ask a German that same question (Wie geht’s dir?), they expect to be able to tell you the truth — which will always, without exception, be terrible, their country’s high quality of life be damned.
It is more important to a German to be honest than liked, honest than professionally successful, honest than rich.
This reputation is a large part of why, when Volkswagen was caught in a massive worldwide scandal in 2015 — in which it was discovered the auto giant had fabricated emissions test results — it was, as the Germans would say, ein Schock. The VW fraud was a maneuver as ingenious as it was devious, a multitiered long con which required numerous individuals to devote a large part of their professional lives to duplicity — and not just regular duplicity, but duplicity in the name of destroying the atmosphere for profits, thus swiftly eviscerating two more sacred Alpine cows of Germanness: the environment and disdain for excessive material wealth. It was the literal automobile (Wagen) of the literal German people (Volk), embodying the precise inverse of the contrite, somber, über-upstanding national consciousness that postwar Germany had labored to create.
Germany’s reputation somehow recovered from the VW scandal, perhaps because Donald Trump was elected U.S. president a scant year later, and suddenly a few nitrogen tweaks weren’t looking so bad. For whatever reason, everyone seemed shocked all over again when — just before Christmas in 2018 — Claas Relotius, a superstar reporter from the venerable newsmagazine Der Spiegel, ended his meteoric seven-year career in disgrace for fabricating stories. The German word erfinden means “to fabricate,” sure, but also “to invent,” “to devise,” “to make up,” “to fake,” “to forge,” and “to trump up,” and I suppose it’s a credit to Relotius’s considerable prowess in subterfuge that his reportage managed to encompass every denotation at once.
According to The New Yorker, Relotius’s coauthor Juan Moreno grew suspicious of the details in a profile of a member of an American border militia — an unemployed father whose daughter spent months in rehab, the sort of thing someone with socialized medicine would make up — so he examined the rest of the Relotius corpus, which subsequently imploded like so many East German tinderbox housing complexes in 1993. (Perhaps the most egregious example for American readers was a meticulously debunked profile of “Trump Country.”) Despite the presence of the Spiegel fact-checking department — some 60 presumably very anal-retentive individuals — Claas Relotius had finally brought some truth to the ugly term Lügenpresse.
Relotius had gotten away with this for years, for just as the VW perpetrators had exploited public assumptions about the automaker’s German precision, craftsmanship, and, yes, honesty, the duplicitous Spiegel scribe preyed upon the Teutonic presupposition that another of their most vaunted institutions, i.e., the free press of a country famous for telling it like it is — the motto of Der Spiegel is literally “say what it is” — would be as forthright as the purple-haired granny who yells at you for loading the yogurt into your shopping cart wrong.
But, of course, honesty is only synonymous with Germany if you don’t know much about its storied history of prevarication. In a country famous for having no sense of humor because everyone in it takes everything literally — whose dedication to truth fealty is literally thought to preclude it from having any fun — somehow, beginning many centuries before the Third Reich, and in fact in most of Germany’s defining moments, someone has always told a very large lie. The Relotius and VW scandals are not exceptions. They are accordances with the rule in a country obsessed with them.
It is, for example, the direct result of a substantial act of deception that German King (and later Holy Roman Emperor) Otto IV fed Pope Innocent III at the turn of the 13th century, that “Germany” as we know it looks like it does today, instead of, say, covering half the continent of Europe, like it very nearly did. (What, you think Hitler thought of that idea all by himself because he was such a smart dude?)
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Indeed, the Holy Roman Empire might have remained in German hands for a millennium, had Otto not promised His Holiness not to invade papal lands, then gone and done exactly, precisely that. After losing the Pope’s backing and making a pathetic end run through France, Otto was deposed by rival Frederick II — who did a bang-up job, getting himself excommunicated, like, 50 separate times (all right, four, but still) before he literally shat himself to death, and the whole operation dissolved into interregnum.
And it’s not as if Otto IV didn’t know any better because Germans were a bunch of barbarians who rooted about in their own filth all day then died in childbirth at 12. Not only did the Catholic Church and its various Shalts control medieval Germans’ every moral maneuver, let’s not forget their other foundational text: the Nibelungenlied. This interminable poem laid bare the carnage that ensues as a result of skullduggery. You see, if the dragon slayer Siegfried hadn’t swiped Brünnhilde’s jewelry and underwears whilst hiding under his invisibility cloak, making it look like he took Brünnhilde’s virginity when he didn’t, then he wouldn’t have gotten all stabbed! The lessons of Medieval German literature were about the natural consequences of human deceit — and yet the real-life kings were intent on not learning them.
If empire was the defining institution of the medieval German lands, in the subsequent major epoch, the Protestant Reformation, that defining institution was obviously religion. Germans abjectly loathe exaggeration with the fire of a thousand Sonne (like that one!), but it’s not hyperbole to suggest that Martin Luther’s translation of the Bible into German essentially created Germanness as we know it, by legitimizing German as something other than the base vernacular of troglodytes who drank beer from the skulls of their vanquished enemies. So, given the breadth of his influence, I guess it’s too bad that Luther is also famous for a monstrous 1543 essay of pernicious, violent second-order untruths, entitled “Von den Juden und ihren Lügen,” or “On the Jews and Their Lies.”
Among this opus’s 65,000 mendacious words are the assertion that my people are “nothing but thieves and robbers who eat no morsel and wear no thread of clothing which they have not stolen … from us by means of their accursed usury,” and the suggestion that righteous Christians “set fire to their synagogues or schools and … bury and cover with dirt whatever will not burn, so that no man will ever again see a stone or cinder of them.” Reformation theology stipulated that faith in Christ alone was enough to enter the Kingdom of Heaven — and that, apparently, left a lot of wiggle room for lying your ass off about Jews. (Thanks for legitimizing all those centuries of blood libel accusations and pogroms, Martin Luther!)
It’s no coincidence that Jews were basically not considered fully human in the German lands until the late Enlightenment — which also happened to be the only major era in German thought not defined by mendacity. However, while such luminaries as Kant and Goethe were never themselves caught red-handed in a massive whopper, their two most influential works hinged directly on the role of subterfuge in an enlightened society.
The title character in Faust, for example, gets his immortal soul tossed ’twixt God and the Devil — and the Devil almost wins, after the geriatric professor takes the form of a handsome young man, wins Gretchen’s heart with his duplicitous lewk, and then promptly gets her knocked up. Meanwhile, the only thing most people can remember about Kant is the categorical imperative: the obligation to “act only according to that maxim whereby you can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law.” This comes from the Grundlage der Metaphysik der Sitten, or the Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals, and one of the ways in which Kant illustrates the imperative is in disabusing us of the idea that it’s OK to spin a yarn if it’s for good enough cause — to the proverbial murderer at the door, say, or when it gets us something we want: more cars on the assembly line; more bylines in Der Spiegel; encircling the Papacy; whatever.
Kant may or may not have been thinking of poor doomed Otto IV when he asked himself: “Would I be content with it if my maxim (of getting myself out of embarrassment through an untruthful promise) should be valid as a universal law (for myself as well as for others), and would I be able to say to myself that anyone may make an untruthful promise when he finds himself in embarrassment which he cannot get out of in any other way?”
If this were the case, Kant argues, “there would properly be no promises, because it would be pointless to avow my will in regard to my future actions to those who would not believe this avowal, or, if they rashly did so, who would pay me back in the same coin; hence my maxim, as soon as it were made into a universal law, would destroy itself.”
Some people took the categorical imperative seriously, though it stood in direct rebuke to the “faith alone” doctrine of hard-line Lutheranism. Others, however, read it and seemed to hear only the “destroy itself” part — all right, that was probably just Friedrich Nietzsche. The godfather of modernism may be famous for killing God — he meant that philosophy killed the search for God, but whatever — but he should really be famous on the basis of a little-known, posthumously published 1873 essay from his early notebooks called “Über Wahrheit und Lüge im außermoralischen Sinn,” or “On Truth and Lying in the Extramoral Sense.”
Quite unlike Kant, Nietzsche was unconcerned with our motivations for lying or the moral repercussions thereof, so much as he was concerned that we don’t know what truth is. This is because, he argued, our language is arbitrary, and words are little more than a “moving army of metaphor, metonym and anthropomorphism,” a currency whose coins have been in circulation for so long that the faces have worn off and yet they’re still passed around like they mean something. Not only did Nietzsche later argue that morals were a social construct, but the very concept of “truth” was, too.
This would eventually be called “language skepticism,” and it helped define the second heyday for literature in the German language: Karl Kraus, Rainer Maria Rilke, Robert Musil, Hugo von Hofmannsthal, Franz Kafka — German modernism gleefully destabilized such passé conceits of the Enlightenment as “meaning” and “narration that makes sense” and “books with endings.” In Kafka’s Der Prozess (The Trial), for example, an official painting of a judge — arbiter of what is true and right — depicts him alongside a bizarre amalgam of the Goddesses of Victory, Justice, and the Hunt at once. So not only does truth belong to the victor, but the victor will ensure victory, and thus his version of the truth.
The climactic moment of The Trial takes place in a parable (don’t they all?) called “Before the Law,” wherein a man from the country asks to get through a door to the Law, whereupon a Doorkeeper tells him: Not right now. “The man thinks it over and asks if he might be able to come in later,” writes Kafka, to which the Doorkeeper answers: “It’s possible, but not now.” The man waits outside the door for years, until eventually he dies — and in his last moments, he asks the Doorkeeper: “How does it come to be that in these many years nobody besides me has requested entry?” The Doorkeeper, Kafka writes, “recognizes that the man is at his end, and in order to be heard with the man’s fading hearing, shouts: ‘Nobody else could have been given entry here, because this entrance was assigned only to you. Now I’m going to go and shut it’.”
A priest tells Josef K. this story instead of answering any of his questions directly — and then mocks K. for his allegedly facile interpretation, which is that the Doorkeeper lied to the man by creating a door specifically designed not to admit him. “Correctly understanding something and misunderstanding the same thing aren’t mutually exclusive,” explains the priest, which, of course, explains nothing.
It should be unsurprising that some nefarious actors took full advantage of modernism’s radical skepticism of conceits such as truth, honesty, and meaning. Ergo the Barmat scandal, otherwise known as the scandal that toppled the Weimar Republic. Julius Barmat was a Russian Jewish businessman who made his fortune importing Dutch foodstuffs to Germany during the food shortages of the Great War. Barmat was able to gain the Weimar government’s trust, then a considerable amount of its fundage for “investment,” only to fritter it away on currency speculation and essentially bankrupt a cash-strapped country. The Barmat scandal branded the Social Democrats as the party of corrupt fraudsters — Jewish corrupt fraudsters, that is — and surrendered the moral high ground in Germany’s ever-so-brief flirtation with a democratic republic to the fledgling NSDAP. This gave the Nazis carte blanche to resurrect (pun intended) Martin Luther’s old lie about Jews — and we all know how that turned out.
After the Second World War, what remained of Germany was bombed-out buildings and decades of moral reckoning, including the Nürnberg trials — which, of course, more than a few Nazis escaped by lying their way to South America. And so, in 1954, when the soccer team from a new and allegedly reformed land called West Germany went and won the World Cup, it was considered the Wunder von Bern, second only to the the Wirtschaftswunder (“economic miracle”), Germany’s accompanying period of rapid (and largely Nazi-free) economic growth.
The West German soccer players, who defeated heavy favorites Hungary 3-2, became the symbols of Germany’s redemption. That the squad was later discovered to be almost certainly hopped up on Hitler-Speed — pervitin, a military-grade methamphetamine famously administered to German soldiers to transform them into jacked-up killing machines — almost seemed beside the point. Sure, team officials had insisted the Mach-Schnell-Juice was just vitamin C — never mind that vitamin C doesn’t need to be injected and the soccer players could have “just eaten an orange,” according to Erik Eggers, the sports historian who broke the scandal open in 2010. Of course, doping wasn’t actually illegal back then, and lots of teams did it — so, Herr Doktor Professor Kant, was it really even “lying”? Does it really taint the Miracle of Bern?
When does the lie count as a lie? When it’s told, or when we recognize it? When the fact-checker admits he didn’t actually check the star journalist’s facts and resigns in disgrace? When 10,000 automobiles have to be recalled?
The language skeptic might argue that being honest (ehrlich) and being truthful (wahrhaft) are not necessarily the same. They use different words, after all, and one is more about saying what you feel, and the other is about fealty to what may or may not be “true,” if language can even express truth at all. Another great language skeptic, the magniloquent Austrian language philosopher Fritz Mauthner, argued that the only thing keeping us from state-of-nature anarchy is Sprachaberglaube, or “language superstition.” Basically, when you say “green,” I more or less take you at your word that you mean the same thing I do when I say “green” — because otherwise, we’d all live in chaos.
And so, because of the Germans’ love of order — the German phrase for “Everything OK?” is literally Alles in Ordnung? — and the fact that hewing to rules and doing what you say you’re going to do preserves that order, most Germans are more or less truthful (whatever that means), and more or less trust one another to do the right thing. That’s why, when I left my purse on the S-Bahn in 1996, a strange older lady named Helga found it and tracked me down and returned it to me with every single Pfennig intact, and nobody was surprised.
Honesty is a shared cultural value in Germany. And that is why, earlier this year, when a 57-year-old factory machinist known as Klaus O. was given life in prison for poisoning multiple coworkers — doctoring their lunches with mercury and lead, causing kidney damage, at least one coma, and possibly being connected to dozens of previously unexplained deaths — he was able to do it for years before someone finally thought to test the weird-looking goop that had appeared on his sandwich. “Nobody believes that a colleague does something like that,” said the guy who finally took said sandwich to the authorities, “because everyone trusts in each other.”
It’s how an entire country full of the descendants of Otto IV and Martin Luther can assume the markings on an emissions test result correspond to the emissions the automobile emitted, or how a 60-year-old fact-checker can be charmed into not checking any facts.
After all, it’s easy to have a reputation for being honest if you also have a reputation for being uptight. For it’s difficult to be a successful uptight person if you’re too busy keeping track of your web of lies — or, as the Germans would say, your Lügengespinst. Being uptight, after all, means to follow all of the rules all of the time: a Kantian Universal Law of Anal Retention, and believe me, as a lifelong adherent, I should know.
But what if, as the priest told Josef K., it is not mutually exclusive to understand and simultaneously misunderstand the concept of truth? And what if, as Josef K. should have answered, perhaps instead of getting stabbed in the heart: What if one of the rules is Thou Shalt Lie?
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Editor: Krista Stevens
Fact-checker: Ethan Chiel
Copy editor: Jacob Gross