Situatonal national identity

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To schedule an all-or-nothing World Cup match Germany vs. Sweden on Midsummer of all days is adventurous, I thought. To watch it with all my Swedes on the most crowded German party street in town is risky, I thought. I can change my situational national identity to Swedish for that night, I thought.

Let me tell you this: after Germany had scored their goal, I spent 50 agonizing minutes hoping nothing else would happen. How fun is it to watch a football match, that happens to be eventful, hoping for it to just be over before anyone does anything to change the balanced outcome of 1:1? I was terribly torn, sitting there in my Swedish jersey, being insulted by German fans (“All you can do is IKEA” [Eh, well, IKEA is pretty awesome.]) while slowly the feeling started creeping up that I really don’t want Germany to be kicked out of this tournament. But at the same time, Sweden fought so hard and come on, don’t we all love an underdog, and I was rooting for Sweden tonight, wasn’t I. Nerve-wracking! 

When the match was over, at least it was safe to go outside into the crowd. People patted our shoulders sympathically, giving us pitiful looks. “But my other team won!” I wanted to reply. It’s easy to be Swedish any other day but when it comes down to football, I guess I am still The German Girl.

Thou shalt not dance

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At regular intervals, the German media, internet or quiz shows like to inform about „the craziest U.S. laws“. Like you are not allowed to drive in a bikini in Iowa, or that cutting a cactus gives you 25 years in prison in Arizona. Aren’t the Americans funny with their ridiculous laws, the German laughs. But as we are approaching Easter, I would like to say: review the German law and think again.

Good Friday is a so called ”silent holiday“ in Germany. In 12 out of 16 of German states, this means dancing is forbidden. It seems to be that in North-Rhine-Westphalia, where I currently reside and which is especially Catholic, the laws are even stricter. The dance ban  already starts on Maundy Thursday at 6 p.m. and last still Saturday 6 a.m.. On Good Friday, is is prohibited to do circus performances and to swap stamps at stamp collection gatherings. All stores must close and it is not allowed to hold sport events, putting the German soccer league on hold. Movies may only be shown if the ministry of culture has deemed them appropriate. The state law also asserts that radio stations should in their choices be considerate of the serious nature of the day. And: you are not allowed to move house. I think that rather inconvenient, considering how all your friends would be free on this holiday to help you relocate.

So what do law-abiding Germans do during Easter? They hang out with their friends and family at home (or maybe they go to an art gallery or zoo because those are actually allowed to open). For those gatherings, they might stop by the bakery in the morning and get freshly baked rolls or braided yeast buns that are a popular Easter food. But you can only do that until Sunday – after that, there is a bake ban.

 

 

Idyllic beyond words

034 (2)Ascension Day this year is spent in a small town in the South of Germany. I was not aware of how idyllic this place is when I decided to go here and now, I’m just wandering around gazing at the charming environment in amazement. The town is a medieval one with two lakes, half an hour north of Lake Constance. In its city center, there are lots of small little shops and no chains. Instead, there is a store selling only nightwear and swimwear, a shop selling socks and stockings exclusively, a real butche shop that has German solid Hausmannskost for lunch, a book shop where they play the piano on Saturday mornings for customers.

There is the Spätzle museum, the art museum and the mobile home museum. The little movie theater by the lake called Seenema (See means lake in German) shows a good and high quality selection of films. The sun spoils the town with 28 degrees which makes people jump into the lake or get a paddleboat that looks like Herbie. Then there is the swan who also lives on the lake but I’ve heard reports that he’s friendly.

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People keep getting married in the beautiful church overlooking the village, it seems, two brides already passed me by as I was sitting on one of the squares marvelling at the fairy tale setting. It reminds me a tiny bit of Sweden, of Strängnäs or maybe Gripsholm. I would not be entirely surprised to see Kalle Blomqvist dash out of one of the tiny streets with names such as Rabbit Street or Lord’s Lane. Maybe the nicest thing is that there is a cafe, restaurant or pub wherever you turn to – but not in the touristy way. Even though this is a spa town, there are lots of young people hanging out on the squares drinking Most, and occasional obvious foreigners melt into the crowd that seems so relaxed as if there were on an endless vacation. I live in a house from the 14th century and the floor is not straight at all. At night the half-timbered walls make tock-tock sounds and to go to the bathroom, I have to climb over a 30 centimeter difference in floor level. It’s all so romantic, I might even consider coming back.

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Selfie-proof I am here and the butchery exists. #wurstsalat

Del 34 i citatsamlingen

Man börjar ju undra: varför är inte jag så sympatisk som Kim Källström?

Mein Bewerbungsbild kann ich nicht nehmen. Auf dem Foto sehe ich aus wie ein Indianer!

Jag är kissnödig. – Sa du quiznödig? Jag har gjort ett quiz om Lil’ Pesto!

Har alla i Båstad alltid Ralph Lauren skjortor?

Jag tänker mina barn kan ha tre faddrar. – Vad blir det, en gudmor, en gudfar och en gudhen?

Swedes reacting to German tax law

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My mom, who is rather up to date with the digital world, once introduced me to “Kids reacting to…”  It’s hilarious to see the kids’ faces when they are shown a rotary phone or Donald Trump’s speeches. It’s pretty much equally hilarious to see my co-workers’ facial reaction to German tax law. This all started a while ago when I campaigned for doing one’s taxes and since then, the tax topic has always been ongoing. Finally, we decided that we should host a seminar for our young professionals on how to do your taxes in Germany, deklarera mera!

On Thursday night, we invited a bunch of Swedes and Germans to a tax adviser’s office and I got to see “Swedes reacting to German tax law” in real life. Like when the tax adviser told us that you can fill in your declaration handwritten and then someone at the tax office will sit down and type it all in. The Swedes, a digital nation, burst into laughter. Or when the speaker showed us the taxes that exist in Germany and we learned that the German state generates 449 million (!) euro per year through champagne. The champagne tax, it’s a thing. That fact that 98 % of all literature on tax is about the German tax system was also met with the suitable reactions.

We crammed tax curios that night: If you have a child in Germany, you need to fill out a separate special form called “Attachment Child”, but the state might not believe you actually are a parent, the adviser informed us. “Sometimes they’re thinking, ‘Anyone can say they have a child!’ and request a birth certificate”. Because who doesn’t consider cheating on your taxes by making up a child, right? Guffaw among the attendees. We also came to know that several fields in the declaration form are without purpose (“it has no effect if you fill that in”) or serve simply to satisfy the tax office’s curiousity (like line 14 on the general form). And did you know that the amount of church tax depends on where in Germany you live? In the two most Catholic areas in Germany, you pay one percent less. I don’t think that’s very fair given that they probably get much more church service there than in the diaspora where people pay one percent more.

Also, if you have a secondary residence in Belgium you need to state that in your declaration. But only if it is in Belgium, nobody seems to care about, say, the Netherlands. In Germany, you can set off your way to work again tax liability – so far so logical. But you must state the one-way distance and multiply it by 0,30 cents. I keep wondering why you can’t get 0,15 cents for the whole distance instead.

For every job application you send by snail mail (hello, 2016…) you can set off 8,50 euro. And generally, you can just state that you spent 110 euro per year on paper and nobody will ask you for receipts. If you need to buy your own computer for your work, you can set that off. However, if your employer refuses to buy you work equipment, I fear you have bigger problems than your tax declaration, just sayin’.

Something that was new for me was that I can put down the money I have to spend for the gardener my landlord employs. It’s a service close to home and thus tax-relevant, or as a Swede next to me said, “Det är som RUT fast jättekomplicerat”.

Despite all these oddities of German tax law (and the entertaining reactions to them), all participants were very satisfied with the evening. Lots of questions were asked and I think and hope the city of Dizzel will get to feel that we have educated a bunch of tax payers that will now take back all the money the state owes them. Because if you don’t declare your taxes, they just keep your money. Yay for tax refunds 2017!

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Passed this poster this week, “Düsseldorf makes every dream come true”. Ingrid’s reaction: “Yeah, in 1981 maybe”.

 

 

Zero women

“I myself have never been able to find out precisely what feminism is: I only know that people call me a feminist whenever I express sentiments that differentiate me from a doormat.”  Rebecca West

I remember three or four years ago, I cut out an advertisement from the Swedish newspaper. It said, “These are the 100 stock-exchange companies in Sweden that believe the best women’s movement is the one in bed”. It listed the 100 companies that had, despite 47 % of graduates at the Stockholm School for Economics being female, not one woman in their board room. The advertisement was promoting the AllBright Report by the foundation of the same name. AllBright is a politically independent, non-profit foundation that promotes equality and diversity in senior positions in the business sector. The foundation works continuously with reviewing how gender is represented in the business sector. Every year they release two reports.

This year, they started a German branch of the foundation – and gee, that’s needed! I am thrilled that AllBright now works in Germany as well and my co-worker sent me a picture yesterday morning of the first report on Germany that had been delivered to us. “You want to get to work early today!”, she wrote.

The report, which is very well designed I think, states that the best way to get to the top is being called Thomas. You should be born 1963 and should have studied economics or engineering.

Currently, there is one German stock-exchange company with 40 % women on their board. One. Then there’s 37 that have one women without coming up to 40 %, 122 companies do not have a single woman. There are even 18 companies that don’t have a woman on their board or directorate. The foundation sent out the reports to the companies in question, too. 76 %, that is 122 companies, got its report in a black envelope because they’re on AllBright’s blacklist.

If Germany proceeds at the current speed, we will reach almost-equality in work life in 2050. So shortly before I become a pensioner, I might experience 40% women in boards.

The smaller the company, the less likely/willing they are to take in women, their reasons being crystal clear: “We don’t need new board members”, “There are no competent women in our specialised field” and “Qualifications and competence are more relevant than gender to us”.

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In Sweden, companies that have 40 % of women on their boards (that is, just to be clear, not even half of the board) are twice as profitable. If you don’t believe in equal opportunities, shouldn’t you at least believe in economic effiency?

By the way, it was a man who founded AllBright. An old, white man. But his name is not Thomas.

 

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“Are you a quota woman or competent?” “Are you an heir or someone’s buddy?”

Hustysk Helen svarar: Am I a man?

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It has been a while since I last had a question to answer in this category but today your Hustysk is back! The reason is the German tax system. I know, that sounds really boring but trust me there is a lot of money to pick up from the German tax offices. Since my friend Kerstin who is a total tax pro helped me with declaring my taxes, I’ve become the person who peptalks everyone into filing their taxes, too. Actually, I started suspecting that the German state spreads the rumor that doing taxes is extremely complicated and super difficult in order to a) prevent people from demand their tax refund b) subsidize tax advisers. I mean, if half of the Germans, panic-stricken when just looking at the tax forms, decide to not take back what the state owes them, then the state has a lot of money left.

I’ve gone on about how awesome tax declarations (or rather refunds) are forever toward my co-worker so eventually, she was convinced and sat down to do her taxes. And this is where my role as your personal German comes in. She came back to work and sat, “I can’t do my taxes, there is no form for me because I am not married!”

How do I do my taxes if I am an unmarried woman?

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The German forms for tax declaration only two fields: A – the subject to taxation/husband and B – wife. The whole system assumes that you are married and that it is first and foremost the male spouse who has an income. And of course, the couple is taxed together, not separately.

German tax law also supports the houswife marriage with its Ehegattensplitting law from 1958. I find it complicated, but I guess in a nutshell, it means if one spouse earns more (which in Germany is almost always the husband), tax law rewards the couple if the wife does not work at all. It’s literally financially better for the couple if the lesser earning wife just stays home. Welcome to 2016.

If you grew up in Sweden, like my co-worker, this all is rather puzzling. Do I need to change my gender identity to declare my taxes? Am I a man now? Should I be a man to pay taxes? Are all working Germans men? The answer is, kind of, yes.

If you are a single working woman, German bureaucracy is implictly asking you why are you not married and explicitly asking you to identify as a husband until you get married and then you get to move to position B, regardless of the fact that you might be the person who has the higher income that is interesting to the tax office. Congrats, Germany just made you a husband!

***Hustysk Helen svarar – we answer your questions about Germany***book your Germanification today and receive a free Brezel***

Go East

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Leipzig’s Skyline, photo: Leizpig Tourismus

I should really be sleeping now instead of writing this. But a) I have to wait for my laundry to be done and b) I can’t fall asleep anyway. I know that. It’s been going on for weeks.

Tomorrow I have to leave the house at shortly after 5 a.m. Maybe I won’t go to sleep at all? And perhaps I will survive anyway (even though I’ve learned there is such a thing as co-morbid insomnia and I am not even too surprised.) because adrenalin will keep me awake. Why? Because I am flying to Leipzig tomorrow! It’s a business trip and I’ll look at lots of locations but I am still psyched because I have been wanting to go to Leipzig for many years. Leipzig is the ‘other city’ (besides beautiful Dresden) in the East, it’s the ‘new Berlin’ and it’s where the Fall of the Wall started with the Peaceful Revolution.

It is a university city and a city of commerce, the largest city in the state of Saxony and home to one of the most important book fairs. It’s more than a thousand years old, Bach was active in Leipzig for many years, leading the Thomaner Choir , an internationally renowed boys’ choir from Leipzig that has been around for 800 years. Eight-hundred years. Switzerland hasn’t even been a country for 800 years! That choir also produced the famous German band Die Prinzen that my generation grew up with (Du musst ein Schwein sein, anyone? Ich wär so gerne Millionär, remember? Küssen verboten, huh? Or Alles nur geklaut?)

Leipzig is young, old and different, they say. I am looking forward.

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Leipzig’s trade fair – so cool! photo: Leipzig Tourismus

Intransparency International

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Everyone is on holiday. I am just warm. Very warm. The annual heat wave (36 degrees Celsius) has come to Dizzel and like last year, 20 % of a day’s energy go to simply surviving in the heat. Like last year and the year before, I promise myself that next year, I will also take that three-week-vacation everyone else seems to be having. At least everyone who I am trying to call. Argh!

At least my intern is keeping me company and suggests daily trips to the ice cream store. He also drew my attention to an interesting cultural phenomenon, the cultural take on sharing information.

Sweden is notorious for its offentlighetsprincip, the principle of public access to official documents.  The idea of transparency is quite present in the Swedish culture and you can actually look up people’s salaries in the library in a catalogue. Of course, you can find anyone online with their full address, marital status and birthday. As well as a picture of their house. Creepy? The Swede does not think so.

Germany, on the other hand, is quite the opposite. Certainly also due to historical reasons, Germans are freaked out if someone can find out too much about someone else. That’s also the reason why Germans on Facebook choose extremely ridiculous names like “Ne Le” instead of their real name, Nele Schmidt, because they are so scared that the NSA will find out they attended the open air cinema last night or have their employer realize they like The Pet Shop Boys’ fan page.

As usual, the perfect world would be the one where the Swedish credulity would be paired with the German scepticism.

Some we have had contact with, though, take the secrecy to a whole new level. Like a large furniture store that also sells food and decoration (on a scale of 1 to 10 with 1 being extremely easy to find out and 10 being ridiculously simple to guess, how hard is this one?). We called them to find out if they still had enough princess cake in stock so that the intern wouldn’t go there for nothing. “Unfortunately we do not comment on our stocks regarding food and plants”. Eh, what? What is so mysterious about just those two categories? “I am just wondering if you still have eight boxes of the cake in stock”. “I am afraid I cannot release information on food and plants”. Deutschland, deine Geheimnisse.

 

 

Germany’s secret capital

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Everyone knows Berlin, history-conscious people know Bonn – but do you know the secret, would-be capital of Germany? I went there last weekend.

The city, located quite centrally in Germany, is one of the most underestimated: Frankfurt. The largest city of the federal state of Hesse (and not even there it gained the title state capital) is known for being the financial center of Germany, it’s where the stock exchange has its home, the European Central Bank resides here and literally every bank imagineable has an office in the town by the river Main. Most people think of Frankfurt as the grey bank place I guess. It’s important to call it Frankfurt/Main because there is also Frankfurt by the river Oder which is east of Berlin, bordering Poland. Apparently, we had so many cities in Germany we ran out of names so some have to share now.

Frankfurt is also the airport of Germany. When we approached the city on the Autobahn, I caught sight of a – for Germany very unusual – skyline of modern skyscrapers to the left, the reason for Frankfurt’s nickname Mainhattan. As I looked back to the front, five planes were flying towards us at the same time. Like in a movie! The planes go down right next to the cars, it’s quite a view!

Speaking of views, I was rather surprised by the landscape on the way between Düsseldorf and Frankfurt – it’s so scenic! Rolling hills show off their green colors, every now and then a little river meanders through the land and you pass by some picturesque castles. The route, however, is much longer than I thought. For some reasons, my distance perception is really off: it takes the same time to drive to my parents or to Brussels but those places feel much farther than Frankfurt.

I was there to attend my former roommate’s housewarming party. We met back when we were both studying in Stockholm, now a long time ago. Her guests, knowledgeable about Frankfurt, recommended museums to me because my original ambition was to visit one. (Yeah, that never happened.) One gentleman phrased the difference between the Commmunications Museum and the renowed art museum Städel as, “You need to decide whether you are looking for an aha!-experience or a wow!-expierence”. This actually made me very curious so I will probably have to return. The party continued into the early morning when one of the Frankfurters saw me sitting in an armchair and said, “I can see you are feeling dapper, you are feeling Waterloo”. What sounds like a line of out some indie band’s song came to him spontaneously and I could not find out what he meant by that. It’s a matter of perspective after all: if he was French, he’d mean I feel defeated, if English, I’d be feeling victorious and if he was a Swede, he’d just mean I was having a great party in weird costumes.

St. Paul’s: German Democracy’s Birthplace

Anyway, the next day after recovering,  I set out to join the Alternative Walking Tour. It lasted 2,5 hours which I found too much, especially since one hour was about drug addicts and prostitution. Apparently, Frankfurt is the German crime capital (“but that is counting the bank crimes in the skyscrapers as well”), has the most frequented central station and 18 spidermen statues hidden in the inner city. It also used to be the city with most Jewish inhabitants, Anne Frank was born here, and famous poet Goethe’s birthplace is also located here (he was not Jewish though). They have an active Freemason Lodge and “Batman begins” was filmed here because the director needed a skyscraper street and New York, Tokyo and Chicago were too expensive to close off for a movie shooting.

Frankfurt unites old architecture with the modern bank towers and some typical after-war ugliness. The market square should make any tourist’s heart miss a beat: Germany just how you imagined it! Half-timered houses, traditional apple wine and churches. Actually, it was one church I was most interested in: Saint Paul’s. This building is the birthplace of German democracy where in 1848, they formed the ‘Before-parliament’ which prepared the election for the National Assembly, the first publicly and freely-elected German legislative body. As a historian, you can’t but marvel at the church in awe-stricken silence. Spoiler alert though: after a year of working on a first constitution for Germany, the resistance of Prussia, Austria and some smaller German states put an end to the dream of democratic Germany, with the Prussian king rejecting the crown offered by the German people as “coming from the gutter”. It’s sad because imagine what Germany could have been if we had steered toward a solid democracy already then…

The market had some very interesting signs. Sorry, only funny if you know German.

But back to Frankfurt where I got lots of Southern-German vibes. Somehow it reminded me of Heidelberg with its red-ish sandstone buildings, sunny weather and cheerful dialect people. What’s with the capital stuff then, you wonder. Well, because of its central location and economic significance, Frankfurt considered itself to be the natural choice for Germany’s capital when it became clear that Berlin would be divided. Their post-war-mayor had the town rebuilt rapidly to present an intact city ready to house parliament.

But – this is how the legend goes – the first chancellor Konrad Adenauer who was from Cologne didn’t want to move and made Cologne’s neighboring town Bonn the capital. Bummer for Frankfurt! Historians would, by the way, argue that Bonn was chosen because of its temporary character, a small town not really fit to be the capital, the institutionalized “We will never give up Berlin”- statement. Some say Frankfurt still suffers from this missed opportunity, but I’d disagree: Frankfurt’s thriving!

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In former times, Frankfurt had a tax on each window you built (See the three-windowed half-timbered house above.) They should have kept that tax when the skyscrapers came!

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Good to know the next locomotive is only 5 metres away!

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This fancy house is actually a club. Like, a disco.

Five things I (and you) didn’t know about the Last German Kaiser

Last night was my first night without Wilhelm. It was an unaccustomed feeling indeed. Every night the past weeks, I would take up the three-kilogram-book and continue to learn about the last German emperor. Sadly, my assistant co-worker who had borrowed the book for me from the library had now renewed the loan three times and now I had to give it back because you cannot keep it longer than that. I haven’t gotten to the end of Wilhelm’s fascinating life but I followed him into young adulthood at least. And I learned lots of things I didn’t know (and while those evoke sympathy for Wilhelm, I still believe he was a catastrophe as Kaiser.)

  1. Wilhelm was sure that Jesus had whiskers.

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As a child, Wilhelm had a dispute with his younger sister Charlotte about faith. His governess witnessed a discussion between the two about which of them had God in their heart. Wilhelm quickly decided that “if you have God in your heart, I will have Jesus Christ in mine”. The governess tried to explain the idea of trinity to the Kaiser-to-be and God’s power to be in all children’s heart at the same time. Wilhelm refuted the concept of Jesus and God being the same by stating, “Oh non, Mademoiselle, Jésus et Dieu n’est pas la mème chose. Jesus Christ has some whiskers, I saw it in my book, and I am sure der liebe Gott has no whiskers”. (Wilhelm was educated trilingually, obviously, with a German dad, an English mom and a French governess.)

2. He made up interesting nicknames for his relatives (including his super-famous grandma)

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The Duck

The relationship with England is one of the most intriguing parts in Wilhelm’s biography. He was fond of his British grandmother, legendary Queen Victoria. Wilhelm loved his grandma but once she had died, he started an arms race against England resulting in the First World War.

He had an ambivalent bond with his mother, British Princess Royal Victoria, called Vicky. Yeah, everyone had the same name back then which is why it was so important to obtain a nice nickname. Wilhelm’s sister Charlotte became “Ditta” for life because Wilhelm as a toddler tried to call her “dear sister”. While this nickname makes sense, he called everyone else a “pickle” and his grandmother, Empress of India, Queen of the Commonwealth, Legend of Britian, “a duck”.

3. His mother wrote awful letters to him.

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As mentioned above, the relationship with is mother was to say the least difficult. Vicky was ashamed of her son who had a disabled arm due to complications during his birth and at the same time she was determined to raise a perfect liberal emperor of Germany. (Spoiler alert: That did not go well. At all.)

Her letters to her son reflect the tough mother-son ties: Vicky writes downright cruel messages like “I fear you three oldest [siblings] will be very stupid at drawing or do you consider that an insult?” interspersed with lectures on how to formulate letters: “I cannot give you any compliment for your handwriting, dear boy, both your hand and your orthography are bad, there is not one word without a mistake or a missing letter” or “Why do you write ‘Aunt Alexis’? That is quite a major mistake, her name is Alexandrine and the abbreviation is Alex”. She even corrected his letters and sent them back and never tired of commenting, often almost hostile, on what he had written. “Also, you begin with letters with ‘Dear Mama’ which is find rather cold – don’t you think you could find a word that sounds more loving? Then I believe you should sign your letters with respect to your parents, you write ‘Your loving son’ which would be appropriate for a sibling”. Give me a break, really. And she expected more than one letter a week and wondered why his letters became more scarce the older he got.

4. He was forced to put his arm into a dead rabbit. Every day.

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Wilhelm’s arm was crippled from day one of his life. Believing that the right treatment could cure the little body, doctors subjected baby Wilhelm to futile treatments ranging from having a freshly slaughtered hare wrapped around his arm, to electrotherapy treatment and metal restraints to keep his posture upright. Of course it did not work and possibly the only result was a traumatized tormented boy.

5. Bonn used to be the finest university

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Bonn University is indeed today one of the 100 best university in the world

If you ask the average German about a renowed German university, they might say: Heidelberg. Göttingen. Marburg. Maybe Freiburg, Munich, Tübingen. They will not think of Bonn of all places. But apparently, the West German provincial village (population 50,000 back then) was a hotspot for young nobility. All the gentry sons were sent there and also the rich bourgeousie studied in Bonn. Wilhelm immediately joined a fraternity, something that was not well-established until the late 19th century in Germany. Only when the Prussian Prince became a frat boy, the student league florurished!

6. (extra one that I didn’t learn from the biography): The Hamburg Dammtor Train Station was built solely for the Kaiser

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A popular story in Hamburg is that  Wilhelm II., as an adult, decided to visit Hamburg and wanted to arrive by train from Berlin. When he heard that the central station was constructed in a way that you take the staris from the tracks up to the street level, he rejected the idea stating that an Emperor “does not crawl up to his people”. The Hamburgers, obviously desperate for this visit, started to build what is today the Dammtor, a big station almost next to the central one, but with the tracks above ground level and stairs leading down to the people. Even today it is still used to receive important guests and still bears the byname “Emperor Station”.