In the last century, originality has killed one once-flourishing art form after another, by replacing variation within shared artistic conventions to rebellion against convention itself.

I blame the Germans.

It was the German Romantics who introduced the idea of “original genius” to modern society. The artistic genius, according to 19th-century romantics, is a special kind of human being with unique visionary powers. In ancient Greece and Rome, poets had sometimes claimed vatic powers; the “bard” sometimes posed as a quasi-prophetic figure, not a mere versifier, though this pose was usually not taken seriously. It was only in the 19th century, however, that the notion of this kind of visionary genius was generalized outside of poetry to what became known as the “fine arts,” including painting and sculpture and even architecture. Earlier, all of these arts had been classified among the utilitarian “crafts,” like textile-making and tile-making. More… “Originality Versus the Arts”

Michael Lind is a contributing writer of The Smart Set, a fellow at New America in Washington, D.C., and author of Land of Promise: An Economic History of the United States.

In a letter to a friend, Alexander von Humboldt (1769-1859) recalled how, as a child, he enjoyed “charming, graceful nature in such abundance” in the vicinity of Tegel Castle. Tegel, the Plattdeutsch word for “brick,” was still a small town northwest of Berlin on route to Hamburg in Alexander von Humboldt’s times. Here he spent the warm seasons of his childhood with his brother Wilhelm. Besides the castle, the family owned a townhouse in the center of Berlin, which was three hours carriage ride along sandy paths.

If you walk through the castle’s surroundings today, you can imagine him as a boy strolling around this romantic setting, perhaps listening to the hammering of a woodpecker, then walking over to the lake to enjoy the scenery. Nature made him curious and open to the world. This is where he started to collect plant specimens, stones, and insects, earning him the nickname “the little apothecary.” Objects of nature were his favorite toys. “Both brothers withdrew into their own worlds — Wilhelm into his books and Alexander into lonely walks through Tegel’s forests, great woods that had been planted with imported North American trees. As he wandered among colorful sugar maples and stately white oaks, Alexander experienced nature as calming and soothing. But it was also among these trees from another world that he began to dream of distant countries,” writes Andrea Wulf in her biography of Alexander von Humboldt The Invention Of Nature.

More… “Bricked In”

Bernd Brunner writes books and essays. His latest book (in German) is When Winters Were Still Winters: The History of a Season. His book Birdmania: Remarkable Lives with Birds will be published by Greystone Books in 2017. He is a fellow and nonfiction resident of the Carey Institute for Global Good in Rensselaerville, New York. His writing has appeared in Lapham’s Quarterly, The Paris Review Daily, AEON, TLS, Wall Street Journal Speakeasy, Cabinet, Huffington Post, Best American Travel Writing, and various German-language newspapers. Follow him on twitter at @BrunnerBernd.

Dogs were “the first large creature who would live with men,” Barry Hulston Lopez writes in his classic of wolf-literature, Of Wolves and Men. But there are different theories as to when wolves and humans came together and how exactly the transition from Canis lupus to Canis familiaris came about. Did shy wolves approach humans because they found out that there was always something to feed on in their surroundings and slowly got used to their company? Or did humans find lone wolf cubs and rear them? Do our dogs derive from a line of wolves that no longer exists?

We don’t know. It probably took the wolves, now in the company of humans, thousands of years to slowly change their appearance. There is a big difference between tamed wolves and the dogs we know today — without selective breeding the genetic makeup wouldn’t have had a chance to change. While some wolves developed into dogs, possibly at different places on earth, the wolves in the wild continued to exist. Especially during extreme winters when game was harder to find they are known to have come close to human settlements to prey on their livestock and to attack humans — although this is extremely rare. A study by the Norwegian Institute for Nature Research, compiled by a number of leading wolf experts across Europe, states that from 1950 to 2002 there have been nine deadly attacks of wolves on humans in Europe and the same number in Russia.

There is hardly an animal that so often produces conflicting emotions as the wolf. The many stories about humans and wolves span the whole range from attraction to revulsion; they are inspired by both facts and fiction. The story of Romulus and Remus, for example, plays with the idea that there must exist a secret bond between the two species. Then there is the story of Little Red Riding Hood, which probably goes back to the Middle East. The girl walks across the forest to visit her grandmother and finds herself in bed with a wolf dressed up as her grandmother (he has devoured her). There are countless variations of the tale: some crueler, some tamer. There is the curious case of Misha Defonseca, who claimed to have run away from the home of her foster parents in 1940 during the German occupation of Belgium because she wanted to find her parents who had been abducted to Ukraine. To hide from the Nazis, she lived with a pack of wolves. In 1997, she published her memoir, Living with Wolves, which became a bestseller. Around the time it had been made into a movie ten years later, the story was uncovered to be false. Monique de Wael, her real name, was in fact enrolled in a Brussels school during the time.


The wolf remains a mysterious creature. Barry Hulston Lopez also mentions some of the most common misconceptions about wolves: “Whenever I have spoken with people who have never seen a wolf, I’ve found that the belief that wolves are enormous is pervasive. Even people who have considerable experience with the animal seem to want it to be, somehow, bigger than it is.” But even where the biggest wolves are found in Alaska, a wolf weighing more than 120 pounds is uncommon.

Completely extinct in this country for about 150 years, wolves have reappeared in the lesser-populated regions of Northern and Western Germany since the year 2000. Genetic examinations have proven that they came into the country on their own from neighboring Poland and Austria. Ten years earlier, in 1990, a federal nature protection law came into effect that protected wolves from hunting. In fact, since this point in time, wolves have profited from the highest possible protection standard, which helped to pave the way for a return of these animals.


As long as they find enough food, wolves have proven they can adapt easily to a new environment; they don’t need complete wilderness. On the other hand, they avoid areas that are developed or where they cannot find enough game (or livestock like sheep and goats), causing the population to always be rather uneven from region to region. And overall numbers are still so low in Germany — currently there are about 31 packs — that they are threatened with extinction in this country. More wolves from other populations are necessary to secure genetic variability and long-time survival, but whether or not they can be considered part of the greater eastern European family of wolves is debated. Scientists are surprised and even overwhelmed by some of the questions now coming up.

Wolves hunt the animals that are easiest to reach. Occasionally, there are reports about wolves killing flocks of sheep when game is not readily available. The examination of saliva samples, and sometimes video footage, then helps to determine the gender and origin of the wolves, data which is then passed on to the National Reference Center for Genetic Examinations of Lynx and Wolf. Farmers receive financial compensation for their killed livestock. In some instances, the predators were proven to not have been wolves actually, but dogs — as could be determined in an incident that occurred in late February this year in North Rhine Westphalia.

The return of wolves to Germany remains a challenge on several levels. In some areas of Germany, scientists, conservationists, hunters, foresters, and representatives of public authorities are developing concepts for how to best deal with the occurrence of wolves. There are various efforts to teach people how to deal with wolves when they appear in their neighborhood. While many people welcome the animals as an enriching environmental factor, others are uneasy, especially with regard to the danger to children. A tool called “flock protection set” has been devised by the Nature and Biodiversity Conservation Union. It costs a few thousand euros and comprises a motion-sensitive camera and electric nets with white ribbon that can be installed quickly when necessary, in places where no permanent protective fences that reach all the way to the ground have been built. Wolves are able to jump over ditches easily, which is another challenge for keepers of livestock. Some shepherds are getting donkeys, because their shouts are said to drive wolves away. Then the dogs whose task it is to keep wolves at bay can be dangerous to humans, too, which complicates the situation further. There are 500 so-called “wolf ambassadors” in Germany who try to help overcome prejudices, and there is educational material for use in kindergartens and elementary schools. There are 140 wolf ambassadors in Lower Saxony alone, who are also in charge of monitoring the tracks of wolves. That’s two ambassadors per wolf.


Friends and enemies of the wolves face each other — there is the full range from naiveté to hysteria. Some exaggerate the numbers of wolves and attacks, some play the risks down. The discussion about wolves in Germany reached new heights recently when there were observations of an animal that behaved in a way it was not supposed to. The wolf attacked the dog of a family and by doing this already overstepped a boundary. How had he become so fearless? An expert called from Sweden was commissioned to explain the situation, to find a way to correct his unacceptable behavior — to no avail. There was a report of an incident where this wolf is said to have followed a young mother with her four-year-old daughter sitting in a stroller. However, this doesn’t mean that the animal would have attacked, and there is no way to know. Everybody involved in the process of “managing the wolves” realized that there was a lot at stake, because killing the wolf would mean the first such case of more than a hundred years in this country. A brief discussion on whether the wolf should be confined was responded in the negative — a wild wolf in a cage wouldn’t have made any sense at all. It was ordered to be shot. There is a commonly accepted rule that wolves that become habituated to people must be quickly removed.

There was consensus on the decision to shoot him, because otherwise the chapter of the return of the wolves in Germany might have been closed before it had really come under way. His fans called him “Kurti” — a diminutive of the somewhat old-fashioned German first name “Kurt,” and it may just be a strange coincidence that “Kurt” means “wolf” in Turkish. Just the fact that the animal has been quickly given a human name may be understood as indicating that it cannot be dealt with on its own terms, as an animal. Ten years ago, a somewhat similar case of a free-roaming brown bear in Bavaria — quickly dubbed “Bruno, the problem bear” — spurred similar fears before he was shot. He is now on display in Munich’s museum of natural history.


The age-old story of wolf, human, and dog hasn’t come to an end yet. The relationship of humans and wolves remains a vexed one: Because it can never be totally free of conflict, it constantly tests humans’ understanding of what wildness means and how far it may go. If humans take up the challenge and discard the myths, this may teach people a more realistic and more honest understanding of nature. The return of the wolves to Germany is both spectacular and controversial. The animals are beautiful, smart, and usually extremely shy of humans. Europe would certainly be poorer without them. New cubs are expected to be born this month. New packs, new territories, new controversies lie ahead. •

Feature image courtesy of Bukowskis via Wikimedia Commons. Article images courtesy of Codex, Robert Ramsay, Philippe, Wellcome Images, Hartmann Schedel, and Granville via Wikimedia Commons and Robin Fabre via Flickr (Creative Commons).

Bernd Brunner writes books and essays. His latest book (in German) is When Winters Were Still Winters: The History of a Season. His book Birdmania: Remarkable Lives with Birds will be published by Greystone Books in 2017. He is a fellow and nonfiction resident of the Carey Institute for Global Good in Rensselaerville, New York. His writing has appeared in Lapham’s Quarterly, The Paris Review Daily, AEON, TLS, Wall Street Journal Speakeasy, Cabinet, Huffington Post, Best American Travel Writing, and various German-language newspapers. Follow him on twitter at @BrunnerBernd.

When Günter Grass died earlier this year, it brought back memories of 1991, my first year in New York City. I sometimes think of this period in New York as its last dangerous days, when the city still had that anxious, patched-together sensibility, which is just another way of saying that once I lived in a New York City different than the New York City of today, a New York City that was romantic because I was young then. I lived that first year alone, in a single room on the upper floors of the 92nd Street Y. The 92nd Street Y was better known as a point of call for Manhattan sophisticates, who likely had little idea that, as they listened to the wisdom of celebrities in the great lecture hall, dozens of men and women were residing, like me, in tiny rented rooms on the floors above them.
More… “Being Oskar Matzerath”

Stefany Anne Golberg is a writer and multi-media artist. She has written for The Washington Post (Outlook), Lapham’s Quarterly, New England Review, and others. Stefany is currently a columnist for The Smart Set and Critic-in-Residence at Drexel University. A book of Stefany’s selected essays can be found here. She can be reached at stefanyanne@gmail.com.

A pig sits in the middle of the hall. But is it just a pig? Millions like it are raised and slaughtered each year in countries around the world. And yet this pig is different. First of all, she has a name: Donata. Photos usually show her from behind, since this angle reveals the flames climbing up her spine. A snake slithers along her flank, winding its way past barbed wire, crucifixes, and red roses. And a “tramp stamp” composed of an eagle and an American flag spreads across her lower back. That’s right — Donata has tattoos. For a few weeks now, she has been on display at the MGK — Hamburg’s museum for fine and applied arts — as part of an exhibition on the cultural history of tattooing. Donata and other pigs like her are the work of Belgian artist Wim Delvoye, who achieved his initial breakthrough with Cloaca: an installation mimicking the human digestive process, down to a remarkably lifelike representation of the end product.
More… “Guinea Pig”

Bernd Brunner writes books and essays. His latest book (in German) is When Winters Were Still Winters: The History of a Season. His book Birdmania: Remarkable Lives with Birds will be published by Greystone Books in 2017. He is a fellow and nonfiction resident of the Carey Institute for Global Good in Rensselaerville, New York. His writing has appeared in Lapham’s Quarterly, The Paris Review Daily, AEON, TLS, Wall Street Journal Speakeasy, Cabinet, Huffington Post, Best American Travel Writing, and various German-language newspapers. Follow him on twitter at @BrunnerBernd.
Near the Brandenburg gate

In the beginning, the Wall was made of barbed wire and soldiers. On some streets, cinder blocks had been stacked. In the Neukölln borough, on Harzer Straße, the Wall was about neck-high. East and West Berliners could look at each other over the Wall but they were not allowed to touch. In a photograph taken on the first day, August 13, 1961, two mothers stand on either side of a coil of wire that reaches to their knees. The babies they hold stretch out to each other, inches of air between their fingers. There seems to be a magnetic repulsion preventing them from holding hands. In another picture from that day, a young man in a crowd stands across from two border guards; a chest-high stack of cement is separating them. The young man appears to be asking one guard a question — both lay their hands on the Wall…. More…

Looking at looking

A few years ago, the journalist Janet Malcolm interviewed the German artist Thomas Struth in Dusseldorf. She accompanied him to a nearby factory where he photographed industrial machines. Malcolm watched from a distance as Struth worked at his meticulous and time-consuming process. At one point in this visit, Struth discussed the work and influence of Bernd and Hilla Bechers, his photography instructors at the Dusseldorf Academy where he studied art in the 1970s. The Bechers produced a huge collection of now iconic black and white photographs of water towers, coal burners, blast furnaces and factory facades gathered from the industrial landscapes of the Rurh valley near Bernd’s childhood home. The work spans nearly three decades beginning in the late 1950s. What they produced were cool and crisp images, repetitive in composition, and nearly hypnotic when viewed together. The lighting is always overcast to avoid shadows. The distance between camera and… More…

Part of Berlin's 2013 city-wide theme


In Berlin, the powers-that-be have ensured that the dead live on. I don’t mean with statues — pick any city and you’ll find a plinth topped by a notable erstwhile resident, and Berlin is certainly no exception. No, this city goes further in its national pride by naming its streets, parks, and bridges after long-deceased German luminaries. Writers, politicians, and protestors lend their names; so too — and perhaps more importantly — do the many top-drawer composers and philosophers that have enriched the world and increased the country’s cultural stock. Schubertstrasse, Brahmsstrasse, Schopenhauerstrasse, and Lessingstrasse are not tucked-away lanes but well-traversed streets. To get to one of my favorite bookstores I head along Kantstrasse (one of the city’s main arteries), turn onto Leibnizstrasse, and before reaching the multi-lane chaos that is Bismarckstrasse, branch off onto the leafy calm… More…

Chillax, everyone.

It’s become fashionable in American beer-geek circles to talk about the dire state of beer in Germany. The story is usually based on this fact: Germans are drinking less beer, about 101 liters per capita last year, down from more than 130 liters in the mid-1990s.

The story usually then leaps to questionable assumptions about why this is happening. Chief among these: German beers have become boring because the big six Bavarian beer producers make exactly the same beers. A conclusion is arrived at: What Germany really needs to regain its former glory is some gosh-darn, rootin’ tootin’ American innovation — namely in the form of American-style craft brews.

The latest appeared a few weeks ago in a Slate piece by Christian DeBenedetti titled “Brauereisterben” — literally “brewery death,” a term used since the 1990s and named after a term for Germany’s dying forests. One of the few… More…

The sleepy center of European royalty.

As in many rural German villages, the public life of contemporary Coburg plays out in the marktplatz, the main square, where locals in cafes linger over tall glasses of cloudy beer topped with two inches of head, cappuccinos, and apfel strudels. They smoke as if news hasn’t arrived yet that tobacco may not be good for you.


Between the town hall with its stucco façade and another building painted with the outline of red blocks resembling mason stones, fruit stall vendors weigh produce for a crowd of picky buyers while a queue forms at a food truck purveying the local specialty — Coburger Rostbratwurste, a marbled gray-black sausage with a cable of mustard hanging over both sides of a palm-sized roll.

I take a seat at a cafe whose specialty is gelato and waffles, and squint hard at the menu… More…