A Seismic Shift

by | Feb 28, 2007 | Abroad, Literature

Hot off the presses: Germany, yes, Germany has just passed a non-smoker protection law.  Beginning September 1, there will be no smoking in public buildings, public transportation including taxis, or train stations.  Train stations?  Holy Teutonic Plates!

For those of you who have never been to Germany, a word of explanation: When the Germanic peoples gave up their old gods and sacred trees, Christianity alone was not quite enough to fulfill their spiritual needs.  The vacancy in their collective soul led to various heresies culminating in the Protestant Reformation and the Thirty Years War.  Luckily, the marauding armies of that war left behind them a taste for the new plant that was already the rage in Spain and England: tobacco.  The ancient hunger to acknowledge the holiness of the plant world was stilled, the psychic wound left by the cutting down of the sacred groves healed.

In America, people smoke.  In Europe, smoking is a religion, and no more so than in Germany.  Artistic representations of Gemütlichkeit never fail to include a tobacco pipe and pouch among the other accoutrements of the good life.  I have a classic beer stein that depicts a well-dressed and contented burgher sitting with a foam-topped liter mug in one hand and a pipe as big as a saxophone in the other, who is clearly unimpressed with the exhortations of a second figure, standing, tight-collared and tight-assed, shaking an admonitory finger.  The rest of the stein is decorated with a running design of hop vines and beer mugs, tobacco plants and pipes.  The legend:

Der Tabak und der Alkohol sie sind des Menschenfeind,

            Doch in der Bibel steht geschrieben deine Feinde sollst du lieben.

or (and unfortunately my translation loses a happy internal rhyme):

Tobacco and alcohol are the enemies of man,

But in the Bible it is written that you should love your enemies.

Hitler was hydrophobically anti-tobacco, and we know what that led to.  Luckily, the people behind the Nazi anti-smoking propaganda campaign were found guilty during the Nuremburg Trials, and executed.

I fear for the future peace of Europe.

And they say this is just the beginning.  The federal government now expects that the states will extend the smoking ban to restaurants, bars, and workplaces.  Oh; and they’re raising the legal age, too, from 16 to 18.

On the other hand, this is a golden if dangerous opportunity for a non-smoking Germanophile such as yours truly.  A smoke-free Germany would be a heaven on earth.  I need to get back over there to enjoy it while it lasts, traveling light and driving a fast car so I have a chance to get out when they take to the barricades.

And what about literature?  I can’t imagine German literature without characters jonesing for cigarettes, scrounging to come up with enough change to get, say, one of the five-packs that they sold after the war.  In the final scene of Ansichten eines Clowns, which I wrote about just yesterday, when Hans Schnier sets himself up on the train station steps, he is at a disadvantage because earlier he had foolishly thrown away his last Mark.  It is always best, he lets us understand, when busking, to have a few small coins and a cigarette already in the hat, for priming the pump.  Fortunately, he he is a professional, and so has saved one last cigarette, which he arranges in his upturned hat not exactly in the middle, not on the edge, but just so, as though it had been tossed in from above.  Sooner than he expects, someone drops him a Groschen.  It knocks the cigarette too far to the side.  Hans sets it carefully back in place, and keeps singing.