Spiked helmets and monocles: Germans teaching abroad

Catherine and I spent some time in Turkey this year. We met a very irritating German traveller there. This is the story of our encounter.

The movie

I watched „Gallipoli“ (1981) on DVD the other night. It’s a war movie starring Mel Gibson as a young Australian soldier. He enlists in the Australian Army at the beginning of WWI to go fight against the Turks with his mates…Well, to cut a long story short, the film isn’t exactly brilliant but it’s not that bad either. And believe it or not – young Mel Gibson is surprisingly good in it. Also, the anti-war movie features a lot of pathos manifested by cheesy early 80ies ambient synth soundscapes.

I found the film while browsing in the local city library’s DVD collection and took it home because in September, I met an obnoxious German man in Turkey whose grandfather had taken part in the Gallipoli Campaign, also known as the Dardanelles Campaign or the Battle of Gallipoli. So I became interested…

The Battle of Gallipoli

The Battle of Gallipoli (April 1915) basically was one massive slaughter in which close to 400,000 soldiers were killed. This happened on the peninsula the Turks today call Galibolu, which overlooks the Bosporus straight. Winston Churchill, back then First Sea Lord of the British Navy, had designed the Gallipoli Campaign together with his French allies.

They sent their Mediterranean fleets to the Darndelles to conquer Istanbul and gain access to the Black Sea while giving a beating to the Ottoman Empire, ally to the central powers Germany and Austria Hungary. Churchill was supported by the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps (ANZAC), which suffered severe casualties during the battle (This is where Mel Gibson comes in: In the film, Gibson survives while most of his mates die. Gibson probably used the occasion to introduce his famous sad dog look on screen for the first time. (see “Braveheart”, “American Patriot” etc., etc.)).

The invasion proved a great disaster for the Brits and their allies, whereas the Turkish military coined it a fantastic victory (although 250.000 Turkish soldiers died in the battle). The battle became the mythical birthplace of the Turkish nation.  The Germans were happy as well. The decaying Ottoman Empire had been more or less forced into the war by the central powers and German officers supported the Ottoman army with hardware and strategic advice before and during the slaughter. They supervised the efforts of their “partners”…

An old man, six feet tall and deeply tanned

Catherine and I spent some time in the Aegis on the Turkish west coast in September. One sunny day, we set out from Selçuk near Ephesus to go and see the ruins of Priene, Milet und Didyma. We were picked up at our pension in the morning by the day tour organisers’ mini bus and then drove through the city taking on other tourists. At one stop, an old man, six feet tall and deeply tanned entered the bus and said: “Günaydin! Or should I rather say „Guten Morgen!?“
I knew immediately the man was trouble.

He turned out to be a 75 –year-old German pensioner. An ex-teacher. He seemed to be somewhat obnoxious and began “teaching” us right away in the bus, informing us about everything we saw outside on our way to the ancient sights. He had been travelling Turkey for months and had repeatedly come over to do so since his retirement. He was a real Turkey buff.

Admittedly, most of the things he told us were rather interesting – but he started irritating me quickly. The guy was one of those Germans who feel that they constantly have to provide you with information about  everything. They want to teach you. They think they know everything better and they never stop talking. Our old teacher on the bus was obviously very proud of his superior knowledge of Turkish history and geography.

He was also very proud of his physical constitution. He was a lean, wiry and apparently healthy man, still full of energy. So once we had arrived at one of the sights, he would quickly scramble up the ancient hills and literally jump over fallen pillar stones and Greek theatre steps taking millions of pictures of every pebble lying around. From time to time he said things like: “What a fantastic light today. It’s a very bright and clear and hard light.” And of course he was right.

The Germans are always right

Things got a bit unpleasant when we arrived at Milet. The ancient city of Milet is a big place. It takes time to wander through its ruins. Our guide, a young, ingenious Turkish girl, gave us a quick tour of some of the ruins, the theatre, the baths, etc. and then, after about half an hour she got bored and said: “OK, lets go for lunch.” Of course the old German teacher became very upset. The tour programme had promised a two hour guided visit of Milet and now this! He made a big fuss about it and began shouting and angrily asked me (as another male German) to support his case. We finally settled for a compromise. Those who wanted to further investigate Milet were given another 45 minutes (this included Catherine and myself, the German old and now very angry guy, two middle aged German women from Saxony). The others went off to wait in the shadow (A Canadian couple, some Koreans, our Turkish guide).

Later, in the bus, Herr German ex-teacher didn’t stop complaining about the tour organizers and the „totally incompetent“ tour guide. So after the next stop we all tried to sit as far away from him as possible. He sulked for a while but then started changing seats talking to everybody who cared (or not) to listen to him. I tried to ignore him. Catherine kept her cool.

Back in Selçuk we sneaked away as quickly as possible as we saw him head for the tour office to present his complaints to the manager. We crossed him again a few hours later returning to his pension and hid behind a lamppost. This was the last time we saw him.

Teaching them

I’m sure the old man loved Turkey. But I suspect he merely loved the beautiful landscapes and the antique Turkey of Greek, Roman and Byzantine dynasties. The ancient Turkey with all its treasures Schliemann dug out a century ago. The treasures you can see today in Berlin’s Pergamom museum. The treasures Germany is unwilling to hand back to Turkey because Schliemann and all the others German merchants bought the stuff in the early 20th century. „They bought it so it’s ours„.

When I met that old man, I experienced this well-known feeling of being heavily irritated by the sometimes stupid and embarrassing behaviour of elitist Germans when they are abroad or dealing with foreigners. I feel the same irritation now when I see Merkel and Schäuble promoting German austerity as a means of saving the European Union. And when the old German teacher proudly told us that his grandfather had taken part in the Battle of Gallipolu as a German officer, I could easily picture him – the teacher – as a soldier, wearing a spiked helmet and a monocle on some Galibolu mountain overlooking the Bosporus while barking orders at advising his Turkish subordinates partners how to fortify the Dardanelles properly against Churchill. Showing the inferiors our friends how to do it right. Teaching them.


The behavior of a high-brow Germans tourist in Turkey reflects the feeling of national superiority that goes way back but is still present today.

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