In bed with Ida Hattemer-Higgins

Ida Hattemer-Higgins is no stranger to insomnia and vivid dreams. The premise for her well-received debut novel “The History of History: A Novel of Berlin” came to her in a nightmare.

In bed with Ida Hattemer-Higgins
Photo: Sigrid Malmgren

Her book follows the fantastic journey of an American woman who, after awaking from a state of amnesia, is haunted by the ghosts of WWII-era Berlin and the Third Reich. She spoke with Exberliner magazine’s Cara Cotner.

Like your character Margaret, you left the US and moved to Berlin to study at the Freie Universität, worked as a tour guide and live in Schöneberg. Why did you choose to insert all of these autobiographical details?

Basically out of insecurity. I was writing a first novel, and I didn’t trust myself to dream up radically new or farfetched material. However, that said, the book is a fantasy of what my life might have been had I been a significantly more disturbed, isolated, and troubled individual than I am.

What was it like to work as a tour guide?

To be honest, giving tours is extremely repetitive and quickly becomes very boring. But the job had a very powerful effect on me. I ended up becoming really angry about the way history is not only reduced, but transformed into mythology.

Can you give an example?

For one, people strongly identify with those who resisted the Nazi regime and with its victims, although statistically, almost all of us would have been perpetrators. And the problem is that everybody puts a lot of effort into thinking about what it must’ve felt like to be locked up in a concentration camp, but they’re very slow to try to understand what was happening psychologically to the people who committed these atrocities.

Do you feel that your book romanticizes history?

I feel like the book’s subject is the romanticization of history, in other words, the process by which history is transformed into myth. So the book is performing what it’s critiquing, and I think that’s the reason it’s being widely misread by critics. They see it as only taking part in a certain discourse on the Holocaust rather than critiquing that discourse. There’s an ironic stance, not an enthusiastic involvement in that narrative.

Do you feel it’s impossible to write a novel about the Holocaust or World War II without adding to the mythology?

It is. I think that if you’re going to write a novel, you have to seduce the reader into identifying with a certain romantic way of thinking, because if you don’t, the reader won ’t have any way of understanding what exactly is problematic in the thought patterns presented. If you manage by the end to have come to a point where you’ve deeply unsettled the reader, so that the seduction has proven to be in some ways a trap, then I think that the work has vindicated itself.

The book deals with German cultural amnesia. Do you not feel Germany’s reconciliation with its past has been achieved?

I feel it has. I was very interested in the process by which a person or a society wakes up from a state of amnesia, not the amnesia itself, but the process of remembrance. When thinking about how to describe what Margaret should be going through, I was definitely thinking a lot about what Germany went through as a nation.

What keeps you awake at night?

There’s always something keeping me awake at night: cooking up a new plan for my life; thinking about China, where I used to live. Recently my mind has been churning over critics’ misreadings of my novel. That keeps me up.

Ida Hattemer-Higgins will read from her novel at EXBERLINER’s Wednesday

Night at Kaffee Burger on May 25 at 9pm.

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What’s behind Germany’s obsession with roundtable politics talk shows?

Forget the Bundestag. If you want to understand German politics - and see how lively it can really be - turn on your (almost nightly) talk show.

What's behind Germany's obsession with roundtable politics talk shows?

It may well be one of the most German things imaginable – a roundtable discussion designed to give a fair amount of time to a wide range of viewpoints before (maybe) achieving some sort of consensus.

Failing that, viewers – theoretically anyway – walk away better informed and open to changing some of their opinions after a, again theoretically, respectful discussion.

Welcome to the German political talk show circuit – a collection of moderated roundtable discussions.

Whether its Anne Will on Sunday nights, “Hart aber fair” or “tough but fair” on Mondays, or Maybrit Illner on Thursdays and Markus Lanz on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays – you can tune into several political panels a week if you fancy.

If you have politically-minded German friends or co-workers, you might ask: “Did you watch Lanz last night?” Anecdotally, at least as many people who watch will have strong opinions about why they don’t.

Ukrainian Ambassador Andriy Melnyk makes a video appearance (left video) on the Markus Lanz show on 10 March 2022. Photo: picture alliance/dpa/ZDF | Cornelia Lehmann

“Lanz is a disgrace!” and “I don’t watch Anne Will out of principle!” are both phrases I’ve heard myself more than a few times over the years.

But if you are a fan and you miss an episode, don’t worry – many news outlets will run summaries of what happened during said roundtable the next morning.

“Newspapers regularly publish these recaps almost as if they were relevant parliamentary meetings,” says Peter Littger, a columnist on language and culture in Germany. “It’s super relevant politically. It can increase your voting base and certainly your book sales if you appear there.”

READ ALSO: Tatort to Temptation Island: What do Germans like to watch on TV?

‘Consensus-oriented political culture’

If the nationally-focused ones aren’t enough for you, there’s a good chance you can find a show on a regional broadcaster focusing on issues in your federal state, again in – you guessed it – roundtable format.

As you might have gathered, the show’s name is often the same as its host, who functions first and foremost as a moderator there to facilitate and mediate a discussion between guests who are chosen specifically to balance a panel.

For a discussion on Ukraine, for example, you’ll regularly have people from every political party, from ministers and high-ranking parliamentarians who chair important Bundestag committees to pro-Russian voices from the German Left Party and far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD).

And no one is too high-ranking not to make at least the occasional appearance. Chancellor Olaf Scholz himself joined a Maybrit Illner roundtable on July 7th this year.

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz appears on the Maybrit Illner show on 7 July 2022. Photo: picture alliance/dpa/ZDF | Svea Pietschmann

Both European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba have also made appearances on Anne Will this year.

In characteristically German fashion, state broadcasters have extensive written regulations to ensure a panel also has a balance of people from relevant expert disciplines. For instance, a coronavirus panel may well feature a notable doctor alongside a civil liberties lawyer.

“Germany has a more consensus-oriented political culture than you might see in a country like the UK, for example, which is more confrontational and even adversarial,” says Sebastian Ludwicki-Ziegler a PhD researcher at the University of Stirling’s Department of Communications, Media, and Culture.

“You’ll still get some invited guests who are very contrarian and even aggressive – like Thilo Sarrazin (a former politician who wrote a controversial book in 2010 about Muslim immigration to Germany) for example. But even then, the moderator often tries to maintain a softer, more civil tone.”

Ludwicki-Ziegler says that while the roundtable format reflects German political culture, it also reflects its institutional setup. A show producer can simply get more obvious ranges of political opinion in a country with Germany’s proportional representation, which has seven parties in parliament.

Historic roundtables

Unlike the often subdued German Bundestag though, German talk shows can certainly get lively, or even historic.

Perhaps the most notable TV roundtable happened right after the 2005 federal election. With then incumbent Social Democrat Gerhard Schröder having finished only one percent behind Christian Democrat Angela Merkel when all the votes were counted, party leaders gathered in the traditional “Elefantenrunde,” or yes, the “Elephant’s round,” to discuss the results.

READ ALSO: Talking elephants and grumpy politicians: Four things that will happen after the German elections

With the final election result having been so close, observers still discuss whether Schröder lost his chancellorship at the ballot box or during the 2005 Elefantenrunde. In contrast to a calm Merkel, Schröder insisted he would stay on as Chancellor.

Brash and arrogant, some observers have asked whether he was drunk at the time. German media outlets ran anniversary pieces looking back at his disastrous roundtable performance 5, 10, and 15 years later. One such anniversary piece from 2020 called the roundtable “Schröder’s embarrassing end.”

The 2005 post-election roundtable, or “Elefantenrunde,” is considered by many German political observers to be the disastrous end to former Chancellor Gerhard Schröder;s political career. Photo: picture alliance / dpa | ZDF/Jürgen_Detmers

Mastering the roundtable appearance is a big plus for a German politician, or anyone else looking to move the needle of German public opinion.

Satisfying a particularly German impulse, you can certainly also walk away feeling like you’ve considered all sides. But are there drawbacks?

On 8 May 2022’s edition of Anne Will, social psychologist Harald Welzer appeared to lecture Ukrainian Ambassador Andriy Melnyk that 45 percent of Germans were against delivering heavy weapons to Ukraine because of German war history. Many observers criticised Welzer for patronising the Ambassador of a country at war about the need to have weapons for its own self-defense.

The exchange, and a fair few others, lead some experts to wonder whether the roundtable format so many German political talk shows seem to love gives too big a platform to pro-Russian voices or to controversial writers like the aforementioned Thilo Sarrazin.

“If we take Germany and Ukraine as one example, you can get some great guests who come on and really set things straight with facts, data, and plain talk,” says Benjamin Tallis, a Fellow in German Security Policy at the German Council on Foreign Relations.

“But you can get false balance. You’ll get people on with rather fringe opinions given a platform against people who have a lot more experience and evidence. That’s true in a lot of places now, sure, but this talk show format really lends itself to that because of the amount of guests you need on a nightly basis,” says Tallis.

“Unfortunately in Germany, many guests are invited on based on their opinions about an issue rather than the level of their expertise, in order to try and achieve balance,” says Minna Alander, a specialist in German foreign policy who recently joined the Finnish Institute of International Affairs after more than a decade working in Berlin.

“When you start equating opinion with knowledge, it makes it way more difficult to have a fact-based debate. On matters of life and death, like in Ukraine, that can have a polarising effect.”