Welcome to European Tribune. It's gone a bit quiet around here these days, but it's still going.


by DoDo Sun May 29th, 2016 at 07:42:40 AM EST

ET first heard of German satirist Jan Böhmermann during the austerians' showdown with Greece's new government, in particular, when he trolled the entire German mainstream media with Varoufake-fake, a video claiming that a YouTube video used by them against then Greek finance minister Yannis Varoufakis was manipulated by his team. Recently, he earned international notoriety when he provoked a lawsuit from Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan with an intentionally offensive poem. But Böhmermann refused to be defined by the Erdoğan affair and returned on TV with an undercover piece exposing the malpractices of a trash TV show.

In this diary I attempt to give a more in-depth picture of the Böhmermann phenomenon, and give my view of what he's about.

Frontpaged - Frank Schnittger

Neo Magazin Royale

Jan Böhmermann's thin stature and fast-talking energetic style gives him a youthful look, but he is actually 37 years old, and – after a decade of trying – only rose to lasting fame recently, after the 2013 start of the weekly half-hour comedy show Neo Magazin Royale. The show runs late in the night on ZDFneo, a secondary cable TV channel run by public television ZDF, meaning that it's a niche product, achieving ratings in the 1% range. However, the show has its own Youtube channel which achieved a wider following.


I recount the Varoufake-fake story as a case study on some aspects of Böhmermann's modus operandi.

Last year, in the most heated phase of the austerians' fight against Greece's new government, Yannis Varoufakis was invited to the political talk show of top TV personality Günther Jauch. Jauch followed the rest of the German mainstream media in throwing any pretence of journalistic objectivity aside and acting as an attorney of "us Germans" (meaning, the consensus of the political establishment). This peaked in the showing of an out-of-context excerpt from a one-hour video of a lecture Varoufakis gave on the European crisis years earlier: Jauch only showed the part where Varoufakis talked about the debtor governments' option to defy demands from Germany and default, illustrated by showing his middle finger, and Jauch showed this with a manipulative voice-over, prompting Varoufakis to cry "fake".

In the ensuing media storm, the German mainstream media didn't bother with what Varoufakis said in the rest of Jauch's show, nor with what Varoufakis said in the rest of that one-hour video, nor with Jauch's manipulations, but, in the most superficial fashion, wasted an incredible amount of time and energy analysing whether the middle finger in the video could have been an image manipulation.

And then came Böhmermann. A year earlier, Böhmermann pranked the uncrowned king of German-language trash TV, show host Stefan Raab, by uploading an alleged unlicensed Chinese copy of Raab's own show on YouTube. Raab fell for it and played the video in his own show without checking anything (his team didn't even notice that the actors were speaking gibberish rather than real Chinese). Böhmermann wanted to play a similar prank on Jauch (surely also peeved by the fact that he found the video with the middle finger weeks earlier). This time, his team created a manipulated version of the Varoufakis video with the middle finger erased, and made up a halfway plausible back-story for how the real video (with the middle finger) was a manipulation they created. The result was spectacular: practically the entire mainstream media fell into disarray for a whole day, falling for the fake and trying to spin it.

What's really noteworthy about the whole Varoufake-fake affair is the ending of the video and its treatment. At the end, Böhmermann dropped the comedians' mask and explained that the finger doesn't matter and the real scandal was Jauch's superficial, biased and manipulative conduct as a journalist; half-admitting that his claim of video manipulation was fake. The mainstream media fell into disarray due to the same superficiality Böhmermann bemoaned: they failed to watch the video until the semi-admission at the end. The sad irony is that ultimately, Varoufake-fake had little practical effect due to the same superficiality again: to this day, many self-important mainstream commentators accuse Böhmermann of having made a pointless joke over a serious subject.

Having watched several Neo Magazin Royale videos since, I see some patterns there:

  • Böhmernann is fiercely liberal and uses his show, including almost all of his calculated provocations, to make political points. For example, stuff like a sensual on-air kiss with an also hetero male guest.
  • He often drops from the role to denounce those he satirizes. Especially the neo-xenophobes of the AfD party and the Pegida protest movement, who feature in practically every show.
  • Although that's not always apparent (say due to under-the-beltline jokes), Böhmermann's satire is very intellectual and layered. For example, in his gangsta-rap parody titled Ich hab Polizei ( = I have [the] police), I counted four layers of meaning: he simultaneously argues that the police trumps small-time ghetto gangsters in every field of macho posturing, elevates law enforcement above the culture of lynch justice, decries police violence, and also the petit bourgois who want police to beat up the poor in their stead.
  • Böhmermann thinks his talents would deserve much more prominence, to the extent of self-parody.

Be Deutsch

Here is another of Böhmermann's more recent stunts: the bizarre song video Be Deutsch.

The inspiration for this video was the mis-appropiation of the 1989 East German protester slogan "Wir sind das Volk" ("We are the people") by the Islamophobic-xenophobic Pegida protest movement. Böhmermann's idea was to take away that slogan by claiming it for all the aspects of modern Germany not in line with the Pegida people's völkisch vision of German-ness, from the imagery of German rock band Rammstein through same-sex unions to birkenstock shoes. He mixed that with history lessons to other countries where demagogues with bad hair rise high. (I could write a whole diary just about all the associations in this one video.)

The snide poem against Erdoğan

In March this year, a satire show on north German regional public TV channel NDR made a song listing all the anti-democratic policies of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, which led to an official protest from Turkey, which in turn led to public outrage in Germany at an attempt to limit domestic press freedom.

Böhmermann commented that the press freedom discussion was too limited: Erdoğan claimed to be insulted while the NDR song wasn't really insulting (it mostly listed facts, while showing actual news reels in the video), but satirists are allowed to actually insult. To demonstrate, he prepared and read a provocation titled "Snide poem" which was deliberately meant to be on the edge of the legally permissible.

While I understand and approve of the intent, I must say I think he made a major mistake in its implementation. The central smear he used was the accusation of carnal relationships with goats, which is a common anti-Muslim stereotype, and contributed to the darkly ironic situation that the Pegida crowd (clueless about his earlier attacks against them) championed Böhmermann and his poem for a while. (To  his credit, he allowed just-retired Left Party leader Gregor Gysi to admonish him for using an anti-Muslim stereotype in his first post-Erdoğan show.)

Böhmermann also mis-calculated the scale and nature of the reaction:

  • Although the video of the 'snide poem' was quickly put off-line by ZDF, Erdoğan did launch a lawsuit, and could do so on the basis of a long-forgotten but still in effect German law criminalising insults against a foreign sovereign (lèse-majesté in English-language law).

  • The application of the above-mentioned law is dependent on the approval of the German federal government. However, chancellor Angela Merkel, who wants Turkey's cooperation in "solving" the "migrant problem" (that is, blocking the stream of refugees), publicly denounced Böhmermann and let the lawsuit go ahead.

  • An attempt in parliament to abolish the lèse-majesté law with immediate effect was also blocked by Merkel's CDU.

  • Böhmermann's family received death threats and was put under police protection, prompting Böhmermann to disappear from the media for one month.

  • A CDU backbencher, claiming to want to support Merkel's take on Böhmermann by putting the subject of the controversy on record, read the entire 'snide poem' in parliament.

  • The first instance court granted Erdoğan an injunction against 95% of the 'snide poem'; the legal fight will go on.


When Böhmermann ended his media abstinence and came back on-air in Neo Magazin Royale, everyone wondered how he will react to the Erdoğan affair. Well, he basically didn't. Instead, he dropped a bombshell on a wholly different subject: trash TV shows exploiting people with problems.

On German-language private TV channels, there are dozens of fake reality TV shows using common people as de-facto lay actors: some of these shows accompany policemen, others go into courtrooms, still others 'help' farmers seeking a wife. Böhmermann's target was among the lowest of the low, a show titled Schwiegertochter gesucht ( = Looking for a Daughter-in-Law) on biggest channel RTL in which moderator Vera Int-Veen is (or pretends to be) trying to find a match-up for unattractive people.

Böhmermann hired two actors to play a mentally deficient fan of plastic turtles and trains (sigh...) resp. his alcoholic father, rented an apartment "decorated" as the run-down home of a broken family on social benefits, put hidden cameras and microphones everywhere, and had his actors apply as candidates for Schwiegertochter gesucht. The result was beyond their wildest imagination. Vera Int-Veen's people haven't just taken the bait, but exposed all kinds of improper conduct: they easily flouted the requirement to check the applicants' documents, the "moronic boy" had to sign a declaration that he is not mentally deficient, the "father" was marked not an alcoholic in spite of claiming to drink eight beers a day, the two were offered a pittance of €150 for 30 days of filming, the actors weren't given copies of the contract until after the end of filming, all the boy's and father's lines with Vera Int-Veen were scripted by her production team, and the production team also re-arranged the house to make the boy look even more moronic.

This piece of investigative undercover journalism framed as satire (presented with the hashtag Verafake, a hint at Varoufake-fake) drew almost universal acclaim (even from commentators who resent Böhmermann ever since Varoufake-fake) and led RTL to fire the production team (though the show itself wasn't cancelled).

Insulting Old People

In his latest show, Böhmermann did it again. On the surface, he delivered a hateful 7-minute monologue against old people who are ugly, worthless, cause problems and suck up tax money. What he quite obviously did (this time leaving hints at the start already) was to present the hate speech of the Pegida crowd, but with Muslims/immigrants replaced by old people. To add insult to injury, he titled the segment Bewusst Verletzend ("Intentionally Insulting"), which was how Merkel characterised his anti-Erdoğan poem.

:: :: :: :: ::

I don't approve of everything Böhmermann does (for example, he allows his guests to smoke in the studio). Even in terms of showman professionalism, he isn't perfect yet (for example, he has a tendency to cut short interview partners). However, I think he will become an (even more) influential figure in the German media, and probably an influence for good.

I saw Verafake ten minutes after it was uploaded and wanted to write this diary ever since, but only found the time now. I have two more non-rail diaries in store, hopefully to be posted soon...

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.
by DoDo on Sun May 29th, 2016 at 07:48:31 AM EST
Curiously, Böhmermann is from Bremen, so I know people who went to school with him, or at least were aware of his earlier history. I find him preposterously entertaining, and insightful... though I only watch selected videos, and none recently.

I thought (because mein Deutsch in not perfect?) that Böhmermanns team actually did create the fake finger, in the original song.

A sad commentary that Merkel chose to side with the Turkish Dictator-n-Waiting.

Böhmermann sure knows how to press German buttons. In the Varoufakis song, where he pokes a finger in the eye of German culture, he claims a predilection for incest, though only in Saarland. When i first saw the original, I split my sides. It was so well done.

Ich Hab Polizei is equally brilliant.

I thought it was goats (Ziegen) in the Erdo poem.

"Life shrinks or expands in proportion to one's courage." - Anaïs Nin

by Crazy Horse on Sun May 29th, 2016 at 12:47:08 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Thinking it was goats, my joke was to be incensed that Böhmermann had insulted such a noble species.

"Life shrinks or expands in proportion to one's courage." - Anaïs Nin
by Crazy Horse on Sun May 29th, 2016 at 12:50:22 PM EST
[ Parent ]
sheep->goats corrected...

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.
by DoDo on Sun May 29th, 2016 at 03:32:24 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Another great one that probably doesn't translate well is this parody on a Til Schweiger film:

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.

by DoDo on Sun May 29th, 2016 at 04:14:23 PM EST
[ Parent ]
His demeanor is a bit too juvenile and eager for me. It's not at a Harald Schmidt level of slickness yet (but that guy is a total cynic who gives zero fucks). It's a difficult balance to strike in that part of the business. Do you still care when you make fun of everybody and everything?

His meta trolling is appreciated, though a little exhausting when it goes circular.

The police track ("Isch hab Polizei") caused a stir in the German hip hop world because the bourgeois son of a police officer was seen as making fun of the 'heartfealt' hip hop about the experience of the social margins. Quite the analogy to the US. Hip hop is still mostly a black business there. And a sizeable part of it is Turkish/Arab here.

Schengen is toast!

by epochepoque on Sun May 29th, 2016 at 04:21:33 PM EST
[ Parent ]
I find hip-hop artist Fler even claimed that Ich hab Polizei was Böhmermann's reaction to his verbal threats of violence, which in turn were inspired by Böhmermann's unwillingness to invite him into his show to react to earlier spoofs of his art. Overall, it's a weird impression when a rapper whines like a pussy and then issues macho threats :-) Another rapper saw it similarly.

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.
by DoDo on Mon May 30th, 2016 at 04:20:05 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Great diary and media analysis. I've recommended and front paged it because we need more of this sort of stuff and because we need to have a new front page story every day, if possible, to develop a wider readership and participation base.

Index of Frank's Diaries
by Frank Schnittger (mail Frankschnittger at hot male dotty communists) on Sun May 29th, 2016 at 02:58:43 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Anything in the pipeline about the new Gotthard?

Schengen is toast!
by epochepoque on Sun May 29th, 2016 at 03:33:03 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Switzerland to rework relations with EU at Gotthard tunnel opening - FT.com

Switzerland will lobby top European leaders attending this week's opening of the world's longest rail tunnel for faster progress on reworking the country's relations with the EU.

Renegotiation has been held up by Britain's referendum on membership in the bloc. The Gotthard Base Tunnel ceremony on Wednesday would be a "good opportunity" to discuss the challenges facing Swiss-EU relations, Didier Burkhalter, the Swiss foreign minister, told the Financial Times.

Those expected to attend include German chancellor Angela Merkel, French president François Hollande and Italian prime minister Matteo Renzi.

The 57km Gotthard Base rail tunnel, which cost SFr12bn ($12bn) to build, will cut travelling times across the Swiss Alps and is part of one of Europe's most heavily used transport corridors, connecting the ports of Rotterdam in northern Europe and Genoa in the south.

by Bernard (bernard) on Sun May 29th, 2016 at 03:45:03 PM EST
[ Parent ]
I didn't plan anything, but here are some comments on related news in the past few months:

  • Swiss Federal Railways SBB had the sense to activate the new train control system ETCS L2 on the approaches before the base tunnel opens. Turns out there were still teething problems to sort out, primarily compatibility issues. Which is rather sad, considering that ETCS L2 has been in operation for years elsewhere in Switzerland.

  • The new base tunnel won't realise its full potential for years: in long-distance passenger traffic, the new trains are still in the making; and for freight traffic, it won't be until 2020 that tunnels and overbridges along the approaches will be modified for 4 m corner height.

  • At least a solution to the other capacity problem of scheduling fast passenger and slow freight traffic, both more frequent than originally envisaged, has progressed with tests of 1,500 m long freight trains. (In practice, this means that two freight trains that arrived separately can be coupled for passing the Gotthard in a single time slot.)

  • Over the past three decades, Swiss citizens consistently supported rail projects and didn't support major road projects in referenda. But now a plan to double the Gotthard Road Tunnel has been approved. This will surly mean a safety improvement, but also a capacity increase and thus more trucks in trans-Alpine transit traffic... (I have been in the Gotthard area and the current level of traffic is bad enough for the valleys.)

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.
by DoDo on Mon May 30th, 2016 at 04:38:35 AM EST
[ Parent ]

Go to: [ European Tribune Homepage : Top of page : Top of comments ]