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This article originally appeared on The Point and has been republished here with their kind permission. David Kretz is a German-born Austrian and a BA 2016 alumnus.

Philipp Ruch (front left) in the action Center for Political Beauty’s action “Lethe Bombs” in front of the Reichstag, 2009. (Credit: Lara Wilde via Wikipedia)

The most compelling political performance artists in Germany do not like to be called “artists.” Nor do they prefer the label of “activists”—a term they reserve for gradualists, clicktivists, and the letter-writers of Amnesty International. Founded in 2009 by the philosopher Philipp Ruch, the Center for Political Beauty makes its base of “operations” (Aktionen in German) in Berlin, with changing groups of volunteers and partners throughout Europe. Its members, who wear suits and charcoal war paint, are organized into “assault teams” aiming to establish “moral beauty, political poetry and human greatness [Großgesinntheit].” They call themselves “aggressive humanists.”

The Center initially made a name for itself when it launched a campaign in the style of “Wanted” posters promising a reward of twenty-five thousand Euros for information leading to the arrest of the von Braunbehrens and Bode families, who share ownership of the arms corporation Krauss-Maffei Wegmann. Controversially, the company had proposed exporting several hundred Leopard 2 tanks to Saudi Arabia. One member of the board stepped down from his post after the exposure, and eventually the deal was abandoned on account of public pressure.

The Center has risen to new national prominence during the recent refugee crisis. In May 2014 the German Ministry for Family Affairs, headed by center-left secretary Manuela Schwesig, announced on a new website that it would offer asylum to fifty-five thousand Syrian children—1 percent of the five million who would need it according to UNICEF. This was in the build-up to the peak of the refugee crisis in 2015, months before Merkel’s exhortation “We can do it.”

The website, which offered online forms for Germans to register as host families, went viral on social media. A video showed happy, grateful children in Aleppo thanking Secretary Schwesig for her initiative. Large crowds spontaneously assembled in front of the offices of the Ministry for Family Affairs in Berlin, celebrating and leaving an ocean of flowers and teddy bears. Such is the political beauty that the Center imagines. It was they who had created the website, as well as a complete Federal Emergency Program, including IT infrastructure, a ready-to-implement legislative framework, extensive PR materials, active hotlines with actors answering questions about the program, and contacts with schools and other organizations inside Syria—a hyper-real theater performance. The Ministry could have played along but chose not to. Embarrassedly and awkwardly, they declared a day later that, no, they would not save the children.

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Wafa at a student artwork exhibition on campus (credit: Tamar Maare)

Wafa at a student artwork exhibition on campus (credit: Tamar Maare)

Wafa was arrested in 2011. The protests against the Assad regime had begun to heighten in frequency and intensity, with riots regularly breaking out in different Syrian cities. The Syrian authorities launched a nationwide crackdown on protesting in an effort to quell the rising dissent against the government, arresting many civilians. Amongst these were students who were dragged into prison for their activism, including Wafa Moustafa, now a BA1 student in the HAST program at BCB. “It was hard,” she says to me. “At this point, they didn’t arrest girls very often, so they had no idea how to deal with us appropriately.” After being beaten many times for disobedience, she decided that she would go on a hunger strike. But that, combined with serious asthma and an undiagnosed stomach condition, didn’t end well. “They summoned a doctor who force-fed me with syringes. Doctors here don’t help you, they’re all a part of the regime.”

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Die Glühbirne: the lightbulb, literally the “glowpear”

Die Glühbirne: the lightbulb, literally the “glowpear”

After about four months of classes and 5 months in Germany,  I find myself in German A2, well aware that German — with its random articles and various cases, not to mention the seemingly impossible sound that lingers in the gap between ‘sh’ and ‘ch’ — is a difficult language to learn. But there is good to be found in the language learning process. German relies heavily on compound words, which anyone can invent and use whenever they so desire, while still remaining grammatically correct. This allows for amazing specificity and has resulted in many odd, whimsical sounding names for various objects and ideas.

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Berlin, Again (Credit: Ronni Shalev)

Berlin, Again (Credit: Ronni Shalev)

[hupso_hide]

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Berliner Dom

Berlin Cathedral sits like a crown atop the Museum Island, resplendent in the dying light of day (photo by the author)

I arrived in Berlin from South Africa on the 8th of August – a day that was very memorably the kind of hot that had sweat droplets budding from one’s pores seemingly instantly after they were wiped away – in the same fashion I believe most Euro virgins do: unbathed, unslept, unattractive, and excited. Ignoring the prodigious weight of my suitcases, crammed with what then seemed like the most ludicrously inappropriate (warm and fluffy) apparel, I stumbled enthusiastically through Tegel Airport to meet the Bard College Berlin staff member that would guide me to my new home for the next four years.

Despite the lack of sleep, I felt electrified. I had resolved to make a conscious effort to remember my first impressions of the city. From inside the airport, already I attempted to piece together a profile of the Berliner population. There were all sorts there: Young and old, families and businessmen, the practically dressed and the stylish. What struck me most was the variety of skin tones: creams gave way to toffees, toffees to chocolates, chocolates to coffee. All were on the move. Their footsteps resounded in the low ceilinged hall. It was a buffet for the senses. I knew that airport goers would not necessarily be representative of city goers, but I nonetheless took pleasure in observing the ebb and flow of the multihued people. There aren’t many places where one can find such diversity.

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The opening of the 8th Round Table on Higher Education (from left to right: Prof. Dr. Thomas Rommel, Prof. Dr. Geoffrey Harpham, Prof. Dr. Catherine Toal and Prof. em. Micha Brumlik)

The opening of the 8th Round Table on Higher Education (from left to right: Prof. Dr. Thomas Rommel, Prof. Dr. Geoffrey Harpham, Prof. Dr. Catherine Toal and Prof. em. Micha Brumlik)

The Round Table on Higher Education was inaugurated in 2010 by representatives of German and U.S. educational institutions in order to define and advance the role of liberal arts in the higher educational practices of Europe. Both countries have a unique approach to higher education, whereby American universities cultivate exposure to an assortment of disciplines such as the sciences and humanities, and German universities foster research-oriented study along with teaching. The round table serves to acknowledge these differences whilst tackling an issue that confronts these two systems, that is: how should a university envision its education in lieu of the demands its graduates face?

The 8th Round Table was hosted by Bard College Berlin in cooperation with the U.S. Embassy on the 30th of January. Thomas Rommel, Rector and Provost of Bard College Berlin, commenced the event by quoting the German writer and Salon hostess Rahel Varnhagen, who noted that where disposition of talents divide us, we are united by friendship, understanding, tolerance and true education that go beyond borders. This was fitting for the transcontinental affair of the round table, where both representatives attempted to diagnose the issues they face of contemporary times, in particular the challenges that the labour market puts forth to the universities.

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An Aquatic Warbler perches on a reed (photo by Paul Gale)

An Aquatic Warbler perches on a reed (photo by Paul Gale)

While its name sounds like a creature Luna Lovegood might have made up, this small bird is in fact real, and in need of our help. To date, the Aquatic Warbler is the rarest migratory songbird in Europe and may be the first species to become extinct since the 1900s in Germany. Throughout Europe, the Aquatic Warbler occupies only forty sites in six countries and only four of those sites contain eighty percent of the entire population, with only 10-14,000 males in the entire world.[1] With breeding territory in Germany and Poland, the Aquatic Warbler, a habitat dependent species, has disappeared mainly due to habitat loss and degradation. Being “habitat dependent” means that the species is a specialist and can only survive in particular conditions, unlike a generalist species which can thrive in many different environments. Because of this particularity, the change in environments for the Aquatic Warblers has made them human dependent as well as classified as endangered. Having previously thrived in Germany/”Pomerania” (the border between Germany and Poland), the Aquatic Warbler male population dropped to 55 by 2011. The “Aquatic Warbler LIFE Project”, a project dedicated to “conserving Aquatic Warblers in Poland and Germany” has begun to inform people about the importance of conserving the species and to implement the necessary changes to save the species.[2]

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Berlin has begun transforming itself into a much more environmentally friendly city. (© berlingoesgreen.de)

Berlin has begun transforming itself into a much more environmentally friendly city.
(© berlingoesgreen.de)

There are many ways to study the world around you: through science, mathematics, literature, anthropology, philosophy etc. Environmental Science is one of those ways–a way to study the earth’s past, its present, its future, and our relation to it. When I originally thought of Environmental Science, I imagined a lot of graphs and statistics depicting levels of CO2 in the air, but while that is a part of it, there is so much more to learn. I could never have been passionate about graphs or statistics, but when I began to study Environmental Science in my senior year of high school, I learned about how I personally could have an impact on the world and this is what interested me most. The graphs of methane bubbles in the earth didn’t motivate me to become more environmentally friendly as much as learning how to identify birds did. Learning Environmental Science is about finding what connects you to the world around you and why you should protect it. After all of the information and class and lectures and vocabulary, something that has stuck with me most from my studies was the case of Germany.

This past decade, Germany has produced the most ambitious environmental plan the world has ever seen.

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