Fun and games in the Fatherland

In the latest installment of Portnoy’s Stammtisch, The Local’s column about life in Germany, Portnoy muses on the Teutonic penchant for deriving pleasure from other people’s pain.

Fun and games in the Fatherland
Photo: DPA

I couldn’t help but feel a little schadenfreude that Germany’s big Oscar hope this year, Michael Haneke’s dark period drama Das weisse Band, came up short at the Academy Awards.

Have you seen this movie? It lays the blame for two world wars at the feet of barbaric, turn-of-the-century German parenting.

Beside the fact that it seems a bit rich to have an Austrian director pointing a fat finger at the Germans, I don’t think childhood elsewhere in the world was all fun and games back then. At least not according to my grandparents, who didn’t start any wars, or, in fact, even fight in them.

Unlike Haneke, I refuse to presume what caused the worst conflicts of the 20th century. But I do have my own theory about what may be wrong with modern Germany. It’s one I’ve developed after observing my German wife’s difficult relationship with her father, and my own children’s interaction with their grandfather. He spent his entire military career in the kitchen feeding the Bundeswehr. But as Opa never fails to mention, he was still trained to kill – if he had to.

Early on in our relationship my wife told me of her troubles with this man. It was based around a game of conquest, violence and humiliation. And that childhood pastime recently turned 100: Aggravation. Or Mensch Ärger Dich Nicht in German.

If you ask me, this Teutonic invention, coming as it did at the end of Germany’s tenure as the world’s think tank, is one of the greatest ills plaguing German society. As the daily Berliner Zeitung recently pointed out, Aggravation has but one compelling element – schadenfreude. Of course, this is such an inherently German trait that other cultures have simply adopted the unwieldy German word rather than coming up with their own to describe it.

Think about it for a moment: This game is all about chasing down and knocking your opponents back to the beginning, where they can only start over with great difficulty. This is because you have to roll a six to free a gamepiece from its homebase. The aim of the game is to not only win, but ruin your opponent’s chances at the same time. A classic scorched-earth approach to life.

My father-in-law loves it. When my wife was was little, he often goaded his reluctant daughter into playing Mensch Ärger Dich Nicht with him. But the game always ended prematurely with her in tears. Every time he knocked one of her players off the board, he sang this little ditty:

And they carried,

Another dead one,


Just some nice father-daughter quality time in Germany. And he still does this. My kids aren’t old enough to appreciate the pressure he’s putting them under. They just think he’s a funny old guy with funny old tunes. My wife fumes. I go get my hair done or pay fictitious bills.

And I can only imagine that this scene repeats itself hundreds, if not thousands, of times a day in Germany. My father-in-law isn’t the kind of guy to have made up that song by himself – someone has to have taught it to him, probably while playing Aggravation.

Germany’s love of this game brings up some disturbing questions. What do children – my children – learn from it? Hunt your opponents down, knock them back to the start, and revel in it? That not only is winning important, humiliating your opponents is a key part of the game of life? The game’s German name speaks volumes – the onus for not getting upset when someone pees in your cornflakes lies squarely on the victim.

This may not sound like modern Germany’s approach to world affairs, but have you tried commuting to work here in your car? It often seems all anyone cares about is getting through the next intersection – first. Or on my bike the other day I had a guy not only overtake me, but also dangerously rub his rear tyre on my front wheel. It wasn’t about simply passing me, he was trying to aggravate me in the process.

So happy birthday, Aggravation! Perhaps Haneke had you in mind while making his other rather disturbing film “Funny Games.”

Since a good German Stammtisch is a place where pub regulars come to talk over the issues of the day, Portnoy welcomes a lively conversation in the comments area below.

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EXPLAINED: Berlin’s latest Covid rules

In response to rapidly rising Covid-19 infection rates, the Berlin Senate has introduced stricter rules, which came into force on Saturday, November 27th. Here's what you need to know.

A sign in front of a waxing studio in Berlin indicates the rule of the 2G system
A sign in front of a waxing studio indicates the rule of the 2G system with access only for fully vaccinated people and those who can show proof of recovery from Covid-19 as restrictions tighten in Berlin. STEFANIE LOOS / AFP

The Senate agreed on the tougher restrictions on Tuesday, November 23rd with the goal of reducing contacts and mobility, according to State Secretary of Health Martin Matz (SPD).

He explained after the meeting that these measures should slow the increase in Covid-19 infection rates, which was important as “the situation had, unfortunately, deteriorated over the past weeks”, according to media reports.

READ ALSO: Tougher Covid measures needed to stop 100,000 more deaths, warns top German virologist

Essentially, the new rules exclude from much of public life anyone who cannot show proof of vaccination or recovery from Covid-19. You’ll find more details of how different sectors are affected below.

If you haven’t been vaccinated or recovered (2G – geimpft (vaccinated) or genesen (recovered)) from Covid-19, then you can only go into shops for essential supplies, i.e. food shopping in supermarkets or to drugstores and pharmacies.

Many – but not all – of the rules for shopping are the same as those passed in the neighbouring state of Brandenburg in order to avoid promoting ‘shopping tourism’ with different restrictions in different states.

2G applies here, too, as well as the requirement to wear a mask with most places now no longer accepting a negative test for entry. Only minors are exempt from this requirement.

Sport, culture, clubs
Indoor sports halls will off-limits to anyone who hasn’t  been vaccinated or can’t show proof of recovery from Covid-19. 2G is also in force for cultural events, such as plays and concerts, where there’s also a requirement to wear a mask. 

In places where mask-wearing isn’t possible, such as dance clubs, then a negative test and social distancing are required (capacity is capped at 50 percent of the maximum).

Restaurants, bars, pubs (indoors)
You have to wear a mask in all of these places when you come in, leave or move around. You can only take your mask off while you’re sat down. 2G rules also apply here.

Hotels and other types of accommodation 
Restrictions are tougher here, too, with 2G now in force. This means that unvaccinated people can no longer get a room, even if they have a negative test.

For close-contact services, such as hairdressers and beauticians, it’s up to the service providers themselves to decide whether they require customers to wear masks or a negative test.

Football matches and other large-scale events
Rules have changed here, too. From December 1st, capacity will be limited to 5,000 people plus 50 percent of the total potential stadium or arena capacity. And only those who’ve been vaccinated or have recovered from Covid-19 will be allowed in. Masks are also compulsory.

For the Olympic Stadium, this means capacity will be capped at 42,000 spectators and 16,000 for the Alte Försterei stadium. 

3G rules – ie vaccinated, recovered or a negative test – still apply on the U-Bahn, S-Bahn, trams and buses in Berlin. It was not possible to tighten restrictions, Matz said, as the regulations were issued at national level.

According to the German Act on the Prevention and Control of Infectious Diseases, people have to wear a surgical mask or an FFP2 mask  on public transport.

Christmas markets
The Senate currently has no plans to cancel the capital’s Christmas markets, some of which have been open since Monday. 

According to Matz, 2G rules apply and wearing a mask is compulsory.

Schools and day-care
Pupils will still have to take Covid tests three times a week and, in classes where there are at least two children who test positive in the rapid antigen tests, then tests should be carried out daily for a week.  

Unlike in Brandenburg, there are currently no plans to move away from face-to-face teaching. The child-friendly ‘lollipop’ Covid tests will be made compulsory in day-care centres and parents will be required to confirm that the tests have been carried out. Day-care staff have to document the results.

What about vaccination centres?
Berlin wants to expand these and set up new ones, according to Matz. A new vaccination centre should open in the Ring centre at the end of the week and 50 soldiers from the German army have been helping at the vaccination centre at the Exhibition Centre each day since last week.

The capacity in the new vaccination centre in the Lindencenter in Lichtenberg is expected to be doubled. There are also additional vaccination appointments so that people can get their jabs more quickly. Currently, all appointments are fully booked well into the new year.