500 Years of the 95 Theses Celebrated in Germany

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Magdeburg Cathedral, one of the places where Martin Luther spread his influence. Photo taken in 2011

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BERLIN/ERFURT/ LUTHERSTADT-WITTENBERG- You see me, and we see you. The slogan for the 36th annual Day of Christianity (Kirchentag), which ended yesterday with an open-air church service on the field along the Elbe River in Lutherstadt-Wittenberg.  Located between Leipzig and Berlin, Wittenberg was the central stage for Martin Luther, who was a professor of theology 500 years ago- a revolutionary who posted the 95 Theses on the doors of the church in the city with its present-day population of over 30,000 inhabitants. It is this city, where the two-day event commemorated the historic event, which reshaped Christianity and created the church that still bears its name.  Over 400,000 visitors participated in the four-day event, which started in Berlin, but also featured regional events in cities where Luther had its strongest influence: Leipzig, Erfurt, Weimar, Jena, Eisleben, Halle and even Magdeburg had festivities from Thursday to Saturday for Christians, tourists, families and people wanting to know more about Luther and his interpretation of the Lord Jesus Christ.

In Wittenberg alone, roughly 120,000 visitors converged onto the field along the Elbe River and at the city center, to take part in the evening light show and open air reflections on Saturday, followed by an open-air church service on Sunday. Despite the sweltering heat, people had an opportunity to listen to the sermons as well as the discussion forum, one of which involved newly-elected German president Frank-Walter Steinmeier, who took over for Joachim Gauck in February this year.

In Berlin, where over 245,000 visitors took part in the festivities, especially at Brandenburg Gate, the events marked the welcoming back of former US President Barack Obama, who, together with Chancellor Angela Merkel, criticized Donald Trump’s policy of isolation with his plan for building the Wall to Mexico and isolating the country from its international obligations.

And as for the regional places, according to reports by MDR, the numbers were much lower than expected. In Erfurt, Jena and Weimar alone, only 42,000 visitors attended the events from Thursday to Saturday. However, the events were overshadowed by warm, summer weather, the Handel festival that began in Halle, the relegation soccer game between Jena and Cologne, where the former won the first of two games, and lastly, the Luther events at the aforementioned places in Berlin and Wittenberg.

This was noticeable during my visit in Erfurt on Friday with my wife and daughter. There, despite having over a dozen booths, podium discussions in several churches, tours of the churchs’ chapels and steeples as well as several plays and concerts and a pilgrimage from Stotternheim to the city center, the majority of the visitors took advantage of the beautiful weather for other activities.  It had nothing to do with attempts to recruit and convert people to become Lutheran on the spot. One should not interpret Luther and his teachings like this. In fact at a few sites that feature plays and musicals for children, such as Luther and Katharina as well as the Luther Express where children learned about Jesus during each of the four seasons, the layout and preparations were simple but well thought out with no glorifying features and some informative facts presented, which attracted a sizable number of people in the audience (between 50 and 60).

The lack of numbers might have to do with the fact that despite Christianity dominating Germany at 59%, only 28% consists of Lutherans in general. In the US, over 46% consists of Protestants, of which 26% are Evangelicals. 71% of the population are Christians. Given the low number of people belonging to the church, the United Lutheran Church Association of Germany (EKD) and other organizations worked together to make the Luther festival informative, attracting people from different denominations so that they know about Luther’s legacy both in Germany as well as above. It doesn’t necessarily mean that membership is obligatory. Much of the population are sceptical about the beliefs in Jesus, which is one of the reasons of why a quarter of the 41% are aethesists or agnostics. This leads to the question of why Christ is not important to them while at the same time why people in Germany elect to join the church. This question I had touched on in a conversation with one of the pastors of a local church, which will be brought up in a later article.

Nevertheless, when summarizing the events of this weekend, it was deemed a success in many ways. It provided visitors with a glimpse of Luther’s legacy, especially in Wittenberg, where his 95 Thesis was the spark that started the fire and spread to many cities in the region. It also brought together friends and strangers alike, Christian and non-Christian to remember the 500th anniversary of the establishment of the Lutheran Church we know today, branches included. Exhibits on Luther can be found in Wittenberg but also at the places where Luther played a key role. For more, please click here to see where you can visit the sites.

You can also read up on the pilgrimage of six people, who marched on Lutherstadt-Wittenberg for the events by foot, bike or even boat, camping along the way. Each pair started their tour from Erfurt, Eisleben and Dessau-Rosslau, respectively. Here you can find their stories.


In School in Germany: Is President Obama too American?

Frage für das Forum:  Is President Barack Obama too American or too International?

Two years left until he finishes his second and final term as President of the United States and soon, we will be looking at the legacy of President Barack Obama. Once loved by many Americans and Europeans alike because he was a symbol of hope in the midst of the second worst economic crisis in the history of the US, he is now a target of criticism from the same people who voted him into office.

Here’s a latest example which will provide room for discussion at home over the Fourth of July weekend and latest when social studies teachers talk about his legacy in the classroom:

During the final exam at the Gymnasium where I’m doing my practical training, also known as the Abitur Exam, as it is the key exam needed for entrance to college, one of the students took part in the oral portion of the exam (consisting of both written and oral parts) in the subject of English, and was asked about how she thought of Barack Obama and his presidency. After mentioning the positive aspects, such as health care, employment programs and stricter environmental policies, the negative aspect she pointed out was the fact that Obama was too “American” because of his support of the NSA activities- Spygate- which has damaged relations between the country and Europe.

Too American?  And on the US side, he is considered too much of a socialists, something that is common even on the international scale, if we look at some of the countries that have socialist-like governments, like France, Greece, etc.

In the past five years, President Obama has tried to bring the US and Europe closer together, which includes trade policies, adopting health care and environmental policies, and the like. This has made many Americans feel that he is too international and demand that the US return to the policy of Exceptionalism- every man for himself, no matter the circumstances. Yet from the European perspective, American is trying to exert its influence on the European front, which goes beyond the NSA-Spygate scandal. One of the hottest issues at the moment is the American’s attempts of importing genetically modified foods, which is banned by the EU and rejected by Europeans who have been used to eating organic foods. In other words, the Europeans do not mind what America does as long as they are not forced to do what they want them to do.

This leads to the question worth considering and even talking about: Is President Obama a true American or an Internationalist? Or even better if one wants to criticize his policies and the effects on US-European relations: Is Obama too American or too European, and what are your reasons? Speaking from an expatriate’s point of view, there are enough arguments supporting both criticisms although Obama should keep focusing on the policies at home, as they are still in need of being addressed. This includes the policies involving education, environment, food, and even health care, for the policies passed so far still need some improvement.

But seriously, if you want to judge his legacy and criticize him, which side would you take? Is he too American or too European? Maybe he is just a one-man show? What do you think?  Think about this and consider this question for your next meeting or even social studies class. You’ll be amazed at the different opinions you’ll get.

The Flensburg Files and sister column The Bridgehunter’s Chronicles would like to wish the Americans both at home and abroad a Happy Fourth of July. Enjoy the fireworks and the celebrations honoring the declaration of independence and the creation of a new nation, which took 13 years of blood, toil and tears to make.

We have our man for the job! Now let’s get to work! Thoughts on the US Elections

A replica of his office when he was president located at the Truman Presidential Library. Photo taken in August 2011

What does it take to become the President of the United States? And what does it take to ensure that the man you voted for is elected to office?

These are the questions I’ve been asking myself ever since watching the elections this morning at 4:00am in the comforts of home in central Germany. After voting by mail a few weeks ago, watching the TV debates and then the climax of President Obama taking the swing state of Ohio and with that the elections, all I can do is breathe a sigh of relief and say that it’s finally over. We have the right man for the job. We chose one who will continue his path of patching up ties with our neighbors, fixing a series of systems that are broken down and in dire need of reforms (health care, Medicare, education, social system, just to name a few), and providing Americans and people abroad with a sense of hope in the form of job growth and trade, improving the environment and saving what is left of our cultural and historical heritage, and providing peace and good will both within America and to the rest of the world.

The 2012 elections will go down as the most expensive in modern history, but it will go down as the most vulgar and in the end, the most unpopular among the people both in the States and around the world. Hundreds of billions of dollars were spent to overwhelm the public with ad campaigns, slamming each candidate and providing promises that were empty, miscalculated, and irrelevant to the real problems we are facing. Even the debates between Obama and Romney and between Joe Biden and Paul Ryan depicted a professional wrestling match with each person throwing barbs and flies toward each other. Comparing that to a real wrestling match with the likes of Sara Del Ray and Awesome Kong, they were anything but entertaining.  While Main Street was being plastered with the campaign signs on every building and Rush (fatso) Limbaugh engulfing the radiowaves, it made us feel that we were being forced to vote against our will, when in all reality, we just wanted the facts: Who will handle the issues that affects us? Who will take us out of the worst crisis since the Great Depression? And most importantly, who will make the United States the world superpower like it should- setting examples for our European, African and Asian counterparts to follow?

The decision today marked a turning point. We#ve turned away from the billions of dollars spent on the campaign (almost all of it came out of our own pockets), all the vulgar language that alienated many people regardless of background, and the issues that have cut families into pieces and destroyed friendships and voted for someone who really will get the job done- one who started the process and will finish the job by the time he leaves in four years. We found someone with a great track record, despite the shortcomings, and especially one who is honest and patient, and willing to work with the people on the many issues that we have yet to settle.

The lists of tasks to be completed may be a mile (or 2km) long but if there is one piece of advice to give to the president it’s this: Aim high and let the Heavens take care of the rest.

The Flensburg Files and its sister column, the Bridgehunter’s Chronicles would like to congratulate President Barack Obama on his victory and wish him the best of luck in the next four years. No matter how different our views may be, we are right behind you all the way to the end. Let’s hope the opposition will do the same.

Did Sandy push the presidential elections back? I hope so.

There is a proverb that I want to start this column on: It is about disaster. When disaster strikes, people chip in to help. When politicians help, disaster strikes again. Therefore, people go first over politics.

No one really thought that we would have a storm that was as similar as the one seen in a Hollywood film, such as “The Day After Tomorrow,” filmed in 2004 and depicts a fictitious scene where the northern hemisphere of the world witnesses another Ice Age, as a result of a combination of a super hurricane, snowstorm and cold fronts. The storm closest to what was filmed was Hurricane Katrina, which turned New Orleans into a bowl of stew and the coastal areas into a scene resembling Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945.  Superstorm Sandy may not have matched the storm in the film, but the combination of a hurricane from the south, a snowstorm from the west and the Arctic front from the north bore down on the eastern seaboard, dropping 3-4 feet of snow in the mountains, producing record-breaking waves in New York City that flooded most of the city, and turning many coastal areas into islands of destroyed houses surrounded by water.  While 31 people in North America were killed by this storm (as of this entry) the storm will surely set records in terms of economic losses, while at the same time, it will take months for people to return to normal.

The disaster caused many delays and postponements throughout the area. Wall Street was closed for two consecutive days, the first since 1888, even though the terrorist attacks on 11 September, 2001 resulted in the closure of Wall Street for four days. And while New York City is still preparing its city marathon, one should ask if it is appropriate to delay the presidential elections, scheduled for 6 November but coming up fast. Insane and absurd? Not quite so. Other countries throughout the world have witnessed elections that were delayed by months, more because of political reasons than because of a weather disaster like this.  Tunisia delayed their first democratic presidential elections since the fall of their dictator in the Arab Spring of 2011. The elections were held in October last year instead of July due to concerns with developing the political system and parties. Iraqi elections were delayed due laws being debated in 2009. Nigerian elections were delayed by two days last year due to lack of organization. In the United States, there has never been a delay in elections for any reason. Yet it is possible that the president could use his executive powers to enforce that measure, but only in disasters of catastrophic proportions, such as a nuclear war.

Given the degree of disaster Sandy provided to the people in the northeast, it would be unlikely that such a delay would take place. The area is densely populated, people could go to the polls by foot and the polls are more accessible than in rural areas. Yet eight million people are still without power, and as mentioned in an article provided by sister column, the Bridgehunter’s Chronicles, the infrastructure is crippled thanks to downed trees and power lines on train tracks and streets, bridges washed away by flooding and areas that are still underwater. The two presidential candidates have delayed their campaigning, although they have traded jabs at how the federal government should be involved in disaster relief. Many Americans are not too keen to vote right now, for if they are not directly affected by the disaster, they know many people who are affected and are finding ways to help them. President Obama and other politicians have announced that public safety goes first before the elections. Public safety not only includes getting people to safety, but it also means helping them rebuild, no matter how long it takes for the job to be done, so that there is a functioning, coherent and safe community.  While the people affected by the storm are digging their way out of the rubble, other Americans living outside the disaster area are still undecided about who to vote for, for there are many issues at stake, from environmental policies, to education; health care to infrastructure- you name it, they are there, and there has not been much effort on the part of both Obama and Romney to address these themes and make the promises that will satisfy the Americans and others abroad.

While we have never been in any nuclear war (and will most unlikely have one), the disaster we see in the pictures, caused by the Superstorm can be compared to any town being destroyed through war. Many people are not ready to vote as they are putting their lives back together. And there are so many loopholes open that could result in the elections going wrong, as we saw in 2000 between Al Gore and George W. Bush. Therefore, if I was Barack Obama, I would strongly consider delaying the elections by up to two months to allow people a chance to pick up the pieces first before going to the polls. It will buy the president and Mitt Romney time to do any last minute campaigning to win the final votes. And lastly, it will buy us more time to consider the issues that will tip our vote in favor of one or another.  A January election and an inauguration in March will be most unprecedented, but it makes sense, given the situation America is in right now. To proceed as scheduled on 6 November, next Tuesday, given the current circumstances would be inappropriate and it could cost Obama the presidency if he stays the course.

Information about Superstorm Sandy and ways to donate can be found here through the Bridgehunter’s Chronicles:

Bridgehunter Chronicles Supports The Victims Of Superstorm Sandy

Education should be encouraged, not denied

Painting by an unknown artist. Taken at a gallery in Geneva Switzerland in September 2006

8:10 on a Wednesday morning in a lecture hall, waiting for the first class of the day to start. It is one of the introductory classes which provides students studying English with an insight to literature in Britain, Canada and the USA. Hundreds stream into the lecture wishing to take the exam and be done with it and have it checked off the list of classes to visit as part of the requirements for their studies- for those pursuing their teaching degree, it is of utmost importance to pass the course for failing it could delay their finish time by up to a semester. Many students take this class for their interest, their curiosity, knowing the likes of Shakespeare, Faulkner, London and the like, although the readings of Mellville, Fitzgerald and Miller are awaiting them. The numbers are getting bigger as the lecture hall is filled to the brim, and many students have to stand along the aisles in order to listen to a German professor trying her best with Canadian English, and this despite the fact that students only have to pay a small tuition fee per semester in order to attend college. These are the students of a university in Germany, all wanting a Bachelor’s, Master’s and a Teaching (in German, Lehramt) degree, all wanting a job in the future, as linguists, researchers and professors and English teacher, just to name a few.

At about that time across the Atlantic Ocean, a classroom of 30 students is halfway full, some students trickle in half-tired from working the night before. The professor teaching the class, American Literature in the Depression Era, looking at the works written by John Steinbeck, Langston Highes, Ernest Hemmingway and John Dos Passos is displeased with the fact that half of the 15 students in a class where 30 students are needed, could not complete the homework assignment in time, one of three essays- a requirement to pass the course, along with the final examination. Many of these students cannot concentrate because they are worried about the debts they have accrued during their studies, either individually or through their parents. Some are thinking about transferring to a smaller college, where tuition is lower than the $20,000 they have to pay at this university- per semester! All of them do not know what to do with their lives after their studies, as they have not done any internships nor collected practical experience, as they should have done. The exception to the rule is if you are pursuing a degree as a teacher, then you need three months of experience before you can become a licensed teacher, but even then, the requirements to obtain a license varies from state to state. These are the students of a university in the United States of America, getting four-year degree in something, but not knowing what to do next.

Education is the key to a successful life. One needs all the theoretical skills and practical experience required by each institution in order for them to get a proper job with high pay and benefits. The most important goal is to have a permanent career without having to change careers. Yet, many professions have died off in the past 10 years, compensated by others requiring more precise experience- out with the manufacturing but in with information technology and green technology, out with jobs in the industries that produce the pollutants that had harmed the environment for decades, but in with the demand for teachers to teach math, languages and humanities, as the understanding of society is lacking and many people want to understand more about it and embrace whatever culture is there. Yet, have the politicians paid attention? And why are universities are jacking the prices up for education, especially in the United States?

In Germany, we tried to copy the education model in the US by introducing the 500 Euro per semester tuition as early as 2000. Fair? By US standards it is, and after talking about tuition with other foreign exchange students during my Master’s studies at the University of Jena, many claim that the tuition is nothing compared to paying 10 times as much in countries, like Spain, Portugal, England, France and Switzerland. It was split down the middle among the students, with the majority having their way with eliminating in all but two states in Germany (Lower Saxony, Bavaria), as well as the city-states of Hamburg and Bremen. The rest of the states have either semester fees not exceeding 200 Euros or have allowed students to go to the university for free. The reason: education is an opportunity for all and the state and federal government has the obligation to finance the education system. Has it degraded the quality of education at the universities? No. In fact, we have up-to-date technology that has helped us learn faster and more efficiently. We have younger teachers who are available to help students in need, despite the majority being freelancers. And the students have taken the responsibility of completing their studies themselves without having any external influence.

There is a wish that the US would do the same. In the past 15 years, tuition at all universities and colleges has skyrocketed by up to 300% on average. At my alma mater, Concordia College in Moorhead, Minnesota, for example, the total cost for the whole year is over $40,000, two and a half times as high as the amount I paid my freshman year 16 years ago! No matter which college a person goes to, tuition has gone through the roof. While financing includes tuition, housing, and other expenses on campus, it is very steep for one whose family is struggling to make ends meet especially in hard economic times. Protests broke out in large cities including those in California in 2009-10 demanding more equality for education and an easing of tuition fees to allow students to attend. And for those who attended college but was unable to find a job, the trend of going into bankruptcy has rocketed. The latest report indicated that the Class of 2010 had the highest student loan rate ever and that the rate of student loan defaults after two years also reached an all time high of 9.1%- double of what it was 10 years ago! In Germany, the rate is extremely low, thanks to the Barfög, a German student loan program where students can apply for during their studies and can pay only 50% of the amount back five years after the completion of their studies. Don’t the Americans wish to have something like that in the country? Certainly, but…..

One has to look at what the two presidential candidates have to offer on this topic, which despite Romney’s push for eliminating unions and favoring teachers and Obama’s push for reforming the education system on the elementary level (meaning K-12 grade schools), has ended in zero efforts. While it was a relief that the topic of education has been introduced during the last debate, neither Obama nor Romney has presented a basic concept for reforming the education system from the bottom up. This does not mean the K-12 education system but also the university system where tuition can be regulated, together with student loans, while at the same time, everyone would have an opportunity to attend college and either get a degree for their dream job or retrain themselves for a new profession. And while the President signed the Health Care and Student Loan Act in 2010, which provided an increase in certain grants, it still has not helped the situation that the students and college graduates have been in. And while the quality of education in academia in America could use some improvement to allow students to think and decide for themselves on their future career after college, the aforementioned aspect is of paramount of importance, as students would like to focus more on their studies instead of on their jobs to pay their students loans.

This definitely includes allowing them to do internships and study abroad in foreign countries, which the number of American students going to other countries for a semester is a fraction of their German and even European counterparts, who average two internships and at least one semester abroad during their 3-4 years at a university. During my time of my Master’s studies five years ago, I did four internships, one of which was for three months in Geneva, Switzerland, at an international organization. In order for the US to compete on the global scale, we need to veer away from testing students in schools based on their math and reading/ writing skills and focus on opportunities for them to succeed in the future, allowing them to gain the experience needed for them to compete on an international scale and not on the scale of just North America.

With two weeks away, the stakes are high for both Obama and Romney to win over the voters. The winner of the elections on 6 November will have to try harder to encourage students to go to college and not only obtain their degree, but allow them to explore society and see what they can do about the problems we have, to its benefit. It will not be done through increased tuition, and perhaps the Barfög program provided here in Germany will encourage students to find an orderly job so that they can pay off their debt with more time than with only six months after graduation. It will not be done through testing their competencies in schools but more towards interactive learning and a wider variety of humanity classes, including foreign languages, which is needed more than ever. Just a somber fact: an average European speaks four languages. The average American: one, if they can master it fluently.

I would like to end this critique with an anecdote by Ben Franklin which reads the following: “Tell me and I forget, teach me and I may remember, involve me and I learn.”  I have always been a believer of Pestalozzi who encouraged involvement of his children through practical learning, claiming that the basic education can keep them from becoming the beast of society. Can you imagine what would happen to a person who is denied an education because of money and other circumstances that put them at a disadvantage? While we have not seen that problem and Germany still remains one of the economic engines of Europe and the world, the US is infested with monsters, who were denied the basic need and will to learn. These are the people who need the help in order to succeed, for they will be the one who will bring up the next generation. I hope the two candidates keep this in mind as they campaign to win the votes needed to win and in the end, be sworn into office on 20 January, 2013.