Germany's shooting gender star

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Dear Reader,

Today we are discussing the plight of both male and female-run businesses, many of which are skating on thin ice.


Jörg & Axel

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Four Things

  • The Green party have worked for years to rid themselves of the tag of Verbotspartei given to them by sections of the media for suggesting a vegetarian day once a week in school and state canteens. While hardly a radical proposal, it won them the reputation of kill joys. Critics have once again pulled out the old nickname after their Bundestag faction leader Anton Hofreiter told a newspaper this weekend that he favoured a ban on building new detached homes due to their impact on the environment.

  • Around 2 million Germans don’t have enough money to keep their apartments warm in the winter, new government figures revealed. Single parent households were particularly likely to be cold in the winter months. On the plus side, the number of Germans who can’t heat their houses adequately has been almost halved over the last decade.

  • Police in Berlin drove people off a frozen lake using a helicopter on Saturday, something people at the scene said was weirdly aggressive and even dangerous. Authorities in the capital claimed that by going onto the ice people were putting their lives at risk. I (J.L.) saw a similar police operation at a Berlin canal, where people left the ice for as long as the cops were around and then sauntered back on when they left. Apparently I wasn’t the only one who suspected that the warning of “Lebensgefahr” was a pretext for stopping people gathering in one place.

  • Austria is so angry at the German decision to close its border to the province of Tyrol that it's taken the unusual step of calling in the German ambassador. The action, normally associated with relations with Russia and China, came after Germany started turning away anyone who didn’t have proof of residency at the border on Sunday. Yesterday there were long tailbacks, with police turning every second car back.

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The gender star is coming!

If you watch German TV news, you might have noticed a slight change during the last year: the occasional glottal stop when news anchors talk about doctors, renters or taxi drivers. What you are not hearing is the gender star. Die Journalisten are now referred to as die Journalist*innen and die Zuschauer (viewers) as die Zu­schaue­r*in­nen, to emphasize that they are talking about journalists and viewers of any gender (the star is supposed to include transgender people too).

Whereas languages without grammatical genders can just introduce a third personal pronoun when a person's gender is not known or is unimportant, the German der-, die-, das- (loathed by non-natives) complicates things. Still, gender-neutral language is in fashion, even in Germany.

The arguments for gender-neutral language are simple. Language doesn’t only describe reality, it shapes it too. German language purists have long hidden behind the generisches Maskulinum, a device which claims that the masculine form can be used generically to include people of any gender. 

Try it yourself: what do you think of when you read der Polizist, der Lehrer or, der Pilot? As Karin Kusterle of the University of Graz showed in her doctoral thesis, even the plural form of words that should have limited gender connotations such as die Studenten lead to male associations. Surprise, surprise…

In particular, in a country that is not always top of the class on gender equality, shouldn’t gendered language be a simple step in the right direction?

Not everyone sees things that way. Sabine Mertens, of the Verein Deutsche Sprache, had this to say in an interview with die Zeit:

“The engineer is the engineer, whether woman, man or hermaphrodite. It doesn't matter at all, everyone is meant.” 

Her derogatory ‘hermaphrodite’ slur proves the point that many opponents of gendered language are ideological.  

Nonetheless, a host of renowned authors, including Peter Sloterdijk, Uwe Tellkamp, Cora Stephan und Wolfgang Thierse, have warned that the German language will be destroyed by gendering. Even the liberal-left Die Zeit agrees, arguing that its texts would become unreadable if they were to start gendering everything. 

Die Zeit has a solution, which they call guerrilla gendering. The first time a term is mentioned, the double form such as Lehrerinnen und Lehrern (teachers) is used, thereafter they alternate between the two forms. When possible they use a neutral form such as Feuerwehrleute.

Another option is to introduce the generisches Femininum, as suggested by Luise Pusch, one of the founders of feminist linguistics. She urges everyone to see what it feels like by saying for example: “Sagen Sie bitte der Taxifahrerin, dass Sie einen Kindersitz mitbringen soll.”

Now, Germany’s largest dictionary, der Duden, has started removing the generisches Maskulinum from its online edition. Die Mieterin is no longer “the female form of a renter” but “a female who rents”.

"My son is 25, and he says that it’s a matter of time. Opposition mainly comes from older men. It's far more natural for young people to gender. Language changes with each generation and is not set in stone,” Kathrin Kunkel-Razum, editor in chief of der Duden, told the FAZ.

And when even the youth association of the German Catholic Church is talking about Gott* as “there are outdated images and ideas of God* that we would like to break out of,” one can be inclined to agree that the times are changing…


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The missing billions

Another week, another summit. We’ve had the vaccine summit and countless lockdown summits. Today it’s the turn of the economy summit.

Economy Minister Peter Altmaier has been in the firing line in recent days over the slow pay out of financial support to businesses that have had to close during the lockdown.

According to business newspaper Handelsblatt, just €5.6 billion of the €9.6 billion that shuttered companies applied for in November and December has arrived in companies’ bank accounts.

Tattoo artists have been stripping off on Instagram to draw attention to their plight; companies in the retail and gastronomy sectors have said that their futures depend on getting the money ASAP.

It’s all turning into something of a debacle for Mr Altmaier, who promised in early November that “we won’t leave our companies and their employees in the lurch in this serious situation.” The promised payments were generous enough: 75 percent of turnover from the previous year.

Try and get to the bottom of why the money hasn’t been paid and you quickly realise just how byzantine the system is. 

There are separate financial help packages for November and December, plus three rounds of so-called Überbrückungshilfe. In other words this sorry tale has more sequels than a ropey Hollywood horror movie.

The federal states are responsible for paying the money, but it comes from federal government coffers. Initially, the Economy Ministry (run by the CDU) told the states that they would have to take responsibility for processing applications. But the states refused, saying they didn’t have the necessary know-how, and won the backing of the SPD-run Finance Ministry. 

The Economy Ministry decided to bring in a private company to develop the online application procedure, while the Finance Ministry set about fiddling with the entitlements on the various rounds of payments (November was based on lost income, January on covering fixed costs).

The result has been a mess, with the left hand evidently now knowing what the right hand was doing.

What has emerged has been an unseemly blame game both between the states and the federal government and between the SPD and the CDU.

Hamburg’s finance minister (an SPD man) has blamed Mr Altmaier for “a catastrophic organizational failure."

"No one is more responsible for the chaos surrounding the aid than Peter Altmaier himself," chimed in Volker Wissing, finance minister in Rhineland-Palatinate.

The Economics ministry accused the Finance Ministry of showing too little interest in the issue, while the Finance Ministry insinuated that Mr Altmaier’s office deliberately slowed the project down.

The states, by the way, were reluctant to take on the job of assessing applications after they had their fingers burned during the first round of state aid in the spring. A report in Welt am Sonntag this weekend claimed that 24,000 fraudulent applications were granted in the first weeks of the pandemic, with the money handed over to such scammers amounting to hundreds of millions of euros.

In one particularly egregious case, a 31-year-old man is now on trial accused of cashing €67,000 after making 91 different applications in six states.

As for today’s summit, business associations have warned that it is the last chance for many companies if their doors are ever to open again.


Who we are:

Jörg Luyken: Journalist based in Berlin since 2014. His work has been published by German and English outlets including der Spiegel, die Welt, the Daily Telegraph. Formerly in the Middle East. Classicist; Masters in International Politics & Arabic from St Andrews.

Axel Bard Bringéus: Started his career as a journalist for the leading Swedish daily Svenska Dagbladet and has spent the last decade in senior roles at Spotify and as a venture capital investor. In Berlin since 2011