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Germany Q&A - Regionalism

This is part of the Germany Q&A series.

Is there much nationalist feeling in Germany for the states that Germany was made out of? (Ex. Prussia, Bavaria, etc.)

Do the various regions of Germany still not get along? Like Bavarians vs Rhinelanders? There used to be a lot of that 100 years ago or so, when Germany was recently unified.

Also, is it now considered "bad" to be of Prussian descent? Or are they all Polish these days?

OK, backstory time.

Historically, Germany wasn't really a nation, but an argument. At one point there were more than 200 individual and largely independent fiefdoms in what could be considered Germany at the time. The reason for this is that inheritance worked different in Germany than in, say, France or England - instead of all property going to the eldest son, everything was divided between all sons equally. The result was that land was split up again and again between the different heirs - until the fief was absorbed by their larger neighbors, either through force or convoluted arranged marriages. Sure, in theory everyone answered to the throne of the Holy Roman Empire. But in practice, one's immediate liege lord commanded far more power - and the Emperor was often weaker than the regional lords. Thus, these fiefs had plenty of time to establish their individual power base - and character. And this has effects that have lasted until the present day.

Take the Thiry Years' War. It wasn't just about Evil Marauding Swedish Mercenaries terrorizing the German countryside - it was also a religious and political conflict. Local lords decided whether they supported the Emperor and the Pope - the Catholic faction - or the Protestant rebels. And the lords, in turn, decided whether their subjects were Catholic or Protestant - and the distribution of Catholics and Protestants in Germany still maps very well to those ancient regional boundaries. Sure, the population has become more mixed since then, especially in the cities - but the basic distribution remains.

Germany only really became a "nation" in the modern sense in 1871 (almost a century after the United States were founded!) thanks to the German Unification instigated by Prussia (an earlier attempt at a more democratic, bottom-up unification of Germany in 1849 failed, with tragic results). This established the various "states" or "Länder" of Germany in a form not too dissimilar to those currently existing in modern Germany, although there were significant changes again after World War II, with various states (most notably Prussia getting broken up and rejoined into different states. The final reorganization came after German reunification, when the "Fünf Neue Länder" ("five new states") were established out of East Germany, with East Berlin combined with West Berlin (which actually wasn't a part of the Federal Republic of Germany, but an independent territory under the supervision of the American, British, and French authorities - which was the reason why the city was so popular among draft dodgers) being combined into Greater Berlin (although there is talk about combining it with Brandenburg, the state surrounding it). However, all those reorganizations of state boundaries have not erased previous identities and seperations - while the boundaries may have shifted, people's attitudes have not.

So what does it mean for the "cultural identity" of Germans? Well, it's fractal.

Let's start with an example - me. I was born in the city of Erlangen, which lies a bit north of Nuremberg - in Bavaria. Which makes me a Bavarian.

Actually, no - I am Franconian. Franconia might be part of the territory of the state of Bavaria, but only because those filthy Wittelsbachers first allied with Napoleon (thus getting lots of territories when he overran Germany - and making the Wittelsbachers into a line of kings) and then stabbing him in the back when his fortune waned (thus allowing them to keep much of their new territories, including Franconia). Franconia and Bavaria "proper" are still divided by different regional dialects, denominations (Franconia has quite a large number of Protestants, while Bavaria itself is almost entirely Catholic), and what kind of sausages should be preferred ("Bratwurst" in Franconia, Weisswurst in Bavaria). There is still an identifiable boundary between the two regions.

But regional identity is going down even further. Erlangen, Nuremberg, and Fürth (the birthplace of Henry Kissinger) form a small group of cities in the middle of Franconia - and each city is sure to emphasize its uniqueness and superiority over the other two. In Erlangen, there is the saying:

"Wer nichts ist und wer nichts wird, kommt aus Nürnberg oder Fürth."

Roughly translated, this means: "People who never have and never will amount to anything come from Nuremberg or Fürth". And I am sure that people from these cities have similar sayings about people from Erlangen...

And going down even further, I grew up in Uttenreuth - one of the villages surrounding Erlangen and functioning as its suburbs. There was, of course, a strong rivalry between Uttenreuth and the surrounding villages, such as Spardorf...

And all of these states, regions, cities, and villages have their own histories (often stretching back a thousand years or more!) and cultural traditions. All of this adds up to a lot of a lot of diversity - which might be surprising to foreigners who think of Germany as one monolithic culture (but then again, which country is monolithic?).

But let's get back to the larger regions of Germany. What are the stereotypes about them? Here are some I know about:

- Bavarians: Largely seen as back-country hicks and farmers. However, this is mitigated somewhat (much to the annoyance of other Germans) by the fact Bavaria tends to rank very high in various statistics - lowest unemployment, best education system, highest standards of living, etc.. Bavaria also tends to be very conservative. This is best seen in the existence of the Christian Social Union - the conservative party of Bavaria. It is allied with the Christian Democratic Union, the conservative party active in the rest of Germany. Since the CSU almost always gets at least 50% of the vote in Bavarian elections (though this has changed recently...), it tends to hold disproportionate influence in any federal government that includes the conservatives, which has caused a lot of resentment elsewhere.

There are a lot of "dumb Bavarians" jokes in the rest of Germany (Bavarians tend to tell pretty much the same jokes about East Frisians for some reason). This has probably not been helped by Edmund Stoiber, the previous prime minister of Bavaria, who had ambitions for becoming the German chancellor and who had some... rather famous speeches (which you simply must listen to if you understand German). I've read some comparisons between Bavarians and Texans, and they don't seem to be far wrong. Bavarians even have their own silly hats...

For the record, Franconians just love to collect jokes about Bavarians...

- Berliners: Berliners have a reputation for being very quick-witted and direct - the so-called "Berliner Schnauze" (Berlin Snout). As they live in the largest city of Germany, it is very hard to shock or impress them.

- Prussians: Prussians, as a distinct group, no longer exist in recognizable form. This is considered a good thing by some people, especially among Bavarians (I once heard a junior member of the CSU rant about at length that the destruction of Prussia after WWII was the best thing to ever happen to Germany). Prussians were generally considered to be highly stratified and obsessed with order, efficiency, and all things military - you know, like the stereotypes foreigners tend to have about Germany.

The reason why Prussia no longer exists as such was that much of its territories were handed over to Poland after WWII (which in turn had to give much of its territory to Russia). The Germans living in these territories were driven out and resettled throughout the remaining territories of Germany. While initially the locals were very hostile to these "newcomers" (despite all the horrors these people had been through during their flight), by now they have throughly assimilated into the mainstream of their new homes, and by and large only a few street names exist as a reminder where they came from.

- Rhinelanders: Rhinelanders are generally considered a bit slow and prone to cling to Gemütlichkeit - relaxing with good food, good beer, and good friends. This is exemplified by the Carnival in Cologne - while the one in Rio de Janeiro might be more famous (presumably because of the warmer weather and the more scantily-clad dancers), it is still a huge and spectacular event over there.

- Ruhris: The people living in the Ruhrgebiet - the most densely settled regions of Germany, if not of all of Europe - are shaped by the region's history as the mining and industrial heartland of Germany. They tend to be very blunt and direct, with very "lower-class" patterns of speech and humor. While the region is no longer covered in ash and coal dust, many Germans who haven't visited the region still assume that to be the case...

- Saxons: People from Saxony are mostly known for their thick dialect, which is possibly the most widely parodied dialect in all of Germany. Back in school, we had a secretary from Saxony who made loudspeaker announcements, and they were often the highlight of the day - especially if they involved the "Archäologie-AG" ("archeology club"). She pronounced that as "Arschologie-AG" ("ass club"). As you can imagine, it took the teachers at least a minute to calm us down again after these announcements.

- Swabians: Swabians have in common with the Scots that they are widely regarded as frugal and stingy. However, while the Scots make up for that by being badass highland warriors who paint their faces blue and scream defiance at the enemy, the Swabians also have a reputation for being extremely stuck-up (the German term for this is "spießig", which is hard to translate). This is not entirely unwarranted, as a friend who moved there told me. For example, when an ambulance drove through his neighborhood with sirens blazing, apparently several people living there called the hospitals to make sure that it actually used those sirens for a valid reason, instead of merely "for fun"... Generally, Swabians will resent it fiercely if they think they are "not getting their rights" - whether that is silence at the appropriate hours, fence posts at the right positions - or the right amount of sausages in their lunches in the cafeteria...

Ossis: Short for "East Germans", Ossies are often regarded by "Wessies" (see below) as dumb and not up-to-date with the latest technological developments, too fond for the life and times of old East Germany ("Ostalgie"), and generally in need of help with joining modern civilization.

Wessis: Short for "West Germans", Wessies are often regarded by "Ossies" (see above) as smug know-it-all smartasses ("Besserwessis") who want to tell everyone what to do despite not having a clue themselves.

So how does all this regionalism affect Germany today? Well, it's always present, but it's not too much of an issue these days. Forty years ago, when by mother moved to Erlangen, she was regarded as a "Prussian" by the locals merely for being from a more northern part of Germany. These days, these sterotypes and differences are mostly a matter of jokes (and German comedians get an amazing amount of jokes by emphasizing the various regional differences and dialects), but ultimately, we do realize that we are sitting in the same boat.


( 7 comments — Leave a comment )
May. 26th, 2009 03:48 pm (UTC)
Really not all that different from how things are in the U.S. Regions joke about other regions (West vs East vs Midwest vs South). Every state has its differences and attitude and traditions and we make jokes about other states. Then there are divisions among parts of states (Northern vs Southern California, the New York City area vs the rest of that state), counties and towns or cities in counties.

True, we don't argue about sausages like you Germans do, but if you want to get a food based argument going, ask folks how they like their pizza, barbecue or hotdogs (ok, so there is a sausage argument).

Where would we humans be without all those little divisions?

May. 26th, 2009 03:56 pm (UTC)
Ah, right. I remember that argument between "New York Style Pizza" and "Chicago Style Pizza" (at least, I think it was "Chicago Style"...).

In Germany, we pretty much exclusively eat Italian-style pizzas thanks to our numerous Italian immigrants - these seem to be similar to the New York pizzas. Pretty much the only place which offers the other variant is Pizza Hut...
May. 26th, 2009 04:14 pm (UTC)
Where do Hamburgers come into all this? Hamburg's the only place I've been in Germany! :-) Interestingly, very few of the people I met were natives - instead they were from all over but had settled in Hamburg because it was their favourite German city.

PS the Scots weren't the only people to wear woad. ;-)
May. 26th, 2009 04:17 pm (UTC)
Being from the opposite end of Germany, I can't really say much - but people from the region have a reputation for being rather quiet and withdrawn. They are also supposed to have quite a few similarities with the British in character. Possibly because of that shared nautical heritage...
May. 26th, 2009 08:54 pm (UTC)
Of cause, being an evil barvarian, Jürgen conviniently "forgets" to mention the Palatinates, brave defenders of germany against the evil french and their colony, the foolish Saarland. Anyone up for a round of Hessen jokes?
May. 27th, 2009 05:00 am (UTC)
Sure, I'm game.
May. 27th, 2009 03:22 am (UTC)
Thanks for posting that, Jurgen! I think it's neat finding out this kind of info.
( 7 comments — Leave a comment )


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