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Ask Hans-Torsten: Spießer and the city’s water problems

Hans-Torsten Richter answers your questions about surviving and thriving in Berlin, like the confusing German term Spießer and the city's water problems. Write to [email protected] with all your queries.

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Hans-Torsten Richter answers your questions about surviving and thriving in Berlin. Write to [email protected].

Dear Hans-Torsten:

I’ve lived here for a bit over a year, and am able to follow German conversations better and better. In my circle of friends, mostly Germans in their thirties and forties, the word Spießer comes up again and again – but I can’t figure out what a Spießer is exactly. Is it a petit-bourgeois, a square, a conformist, a yob, white trash? It seems to be all of the above but at the same time none of them…

– Claire

Thank you for this question; it is one that has troubled me for decades. Some might call my predilection for tidiness and order spießig. So what if I like to keep my sock drawer well-organised? No really, Spießer is a short version of Spießbürger – a positive term dating back to the Middle Ages denoting citizens who defended their cities with Spieße (long pikes or spears), usually the poorer ones who couldn’t afford a horse.

But by the 1800s, lefty students from well-off homes like Heinrich Heine and Karl Marx began to use Spießbürger as an insult to describe the reactionary petit-bourgeois. For the 1968 generation, the Spießer was the slave-to-authority who had remained silent and conformist in the Nazi era. In the 1970s and 1980s the Spießer was still clearly identifiable: a bland, closed-minded bloke who drove an Opel Corsa, voted for the CDU, lived in a suburb, watched the Abendschau every night and spent his holiday reading Bild and chomping schnitzel in Mallorca – in short, the sworn enemy of every alternative subculture from punk to tree-hugger.

But by the 1990s, commentators began to notice that anybody could be spießig – even punks and eco-warriors. Now there are metalhead Spießer and gay and lesbian Spießer. You can be spießig and have your face and genitals literally full of metal spikes. Compared to that, keeping your sock drawer in good order is pretty edgy if you ask me. 

Dear Hans-Torsten:

I have a four-year-old daughter who goes to a bilingual outdoor Kita where they spend most of the time frolicking in the forest. Unsurprisingly, they get plenty of eco-brainwashing there, which I am not opposed to. But when I leave the tap running while brushing my teeth, she now screams “Wasserverschwendung, deady!” Apart from her pronunciation of “daddy”, I wanted to know from you whether water scarcity was actually a problem for Berlin.

– Francis

Good that you bring this up, Francis. Berlin does have a water problem: too much of it! Much of the city is built on a former wetland; “Berlin” comes from an ancient Slavic word for “swamp”. Industrialisation in the 19th and 20th centuries required lots of water to cool factory turbines and so on, but since the fall of the Wall, water-intensive factories have been shutting down. That combined with water-saving showerheads, the German-invented dual-button toilet flusher, waterless urinals and effective propaganda in schools means less and less groundwater is being pumped into the water network.

The result: the groundwater has been rising in Berlin for the past decade and is beginning to threaten basements and foundations in low-lying areas near the Spree. So while your daughter is exemplary in her passion for the environment, I wouldn’t worry too much about running your tap for one minute. 

Originally published in issue #132, November 2014.