What Does It Mean to Be 'Bourgeois' in Contemporary Germany & Poland?
Two people, Michaela and Jacek, two mid-sized cities in today’s Germany and Poland, Kalisz and Erfurt, and an experiment: what does it mean to be 'bourgeois'? Culture.pl presents an academic paper by Barbara Thériault & Anna Kurpiel that touches upon: people's sense of belonging, men/women relations, life conduct, children’s upbringing, (Socialist) past, politics, societal diagnosis, celebrations, and marriage.
Ten Principles of the ‘Bourgeoisie’ in Erfurt and Kalisz
Authors: Barbara Thériault (Montréal) & Anna Kurpiel (Wrocław)
In his 1928 satirical text, Principles of the Bourgeoisie, Berlin journalist Kurt Tucholsky (1890-1935) outlines principles or dogmas of the bourgeoisie. Because it is not possible, he argues, to describe all strata of the bourgeoisie, he takes two cases, or, in his words two ‘specimens’, out of a herbarium: Mrs. Emmi Pagel and Mrs. Margot Rosenthal. After presenting some of their social and personal characteristics to the readers, Tucholsky produces 10 sentences the two women repeat as something evident, axiomatic, to give insight into a fragment of the bourgeoisie. For him, ‘what characterises someone is what is natural to him or her’.[1 ] Having presented the principles, he ends by enjoining his readers to pick other specimens.
Anna Kurpiel and I decided to take up Tucholsky’s invitation and to pick specimens in two post-socialist cities, Erfurt and Kalisz. Yet, instead of creating fictive characters, we draw principles of the ‘bourgeoisie’ from empirical material, based on an ethnographic study we have both been conducting: myself in Erfurt, a 210,000-inhabitant city on the territory of the former GDR, and Anna in one of its partners or twin cities, Kalisz, a city of 100,000 inhabitants in the centre of Poland. The participants are city dwellers and all have at least one child; we have met them on several occasions. Rather than using, as Tucholsky does, the principles as a means of critique, we use them as a means to observe rules of everyday life and make them visible.
• • •
From our herbarium, we have chosen two specimens with whom we had more contact and whom we define as bourgeois: Michaela from Erfurt and Jacek from Kalisz. Tucholsky defined the bourgeois as ‘(…) the people who earn more than is required to cover the basic needs, and less than what would be necessary to live according to certain class standards, to which they subscribe, without understanding them (…)’. By ‘bourgeois’ we, however, understand people who are connected, inscribed in networks of relations, each with their own conventions, obligations, and expectations. ‘Bourgeois’ are, we argue, more connected than other people. While Michaela and Jacek do not know each other, they share the experience of living all their lives in medium-sized cities, the experience of being married, of having children as well as having lived through socialism and radical political changes. Of course, their cities are different, the national context too; and the question of gender makes us expect different formulations.
The principles you are about to read are based on field notes from observations, interviews, and correspondence with Michaela and Jacek. They are distilled, amid talks and complaints—about schools, children’s future, married life—from what they said when asked about particular subjects such as school choices, photo albums, family celebrations, and children’s upbringing. Those principles were so evident that Michaela and Jacek did not think much about them. When uttered, the ‘I’ disappeared and made way for an impersonal ‘one’ or to the passive form, thus pointing to the transformation of prescriptive and more general sentences into life maxims. This is what gives those sentences—beyond all individual idiosyncrasies—a typical character. And once people perceive the sentences as principles, something happens: they relate to others, take positions, talk.
Let’s have a look at the principles, the contexts in which they were expressed and how they relate to other people we met in both cities.
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Michaela is a determined woman. She was 42 years old when I first met her in May 2015. She has a solid handshake and is open to my questions. She is a doctor and wears a white coat when we meet for lunch in the cafeteria. She is married to Wolf, a self-employed computer programmer; they have two daughters and live in a well-to-do-neighbourhood in the south of Erfurt. Michaela is friendly; her mind is as quick as her body movements. She is organised, efficient, controlled, yet selfless; she is confident, yet somewhat worried about the future, more so than Wolf and the girls. She drinks coffee.
Here are 10 of Michaela’s principles or dogmas
I: When one is born in Erfurt, one dies in Erfurt.
Michaela understands why a common acquaintance moved away from Erfurt when she hears that the latter was born in another city. This sense of causality was evident for the people met in Erfurt but not for the woman who moved (not far) away.
II: My husband would like to have a rich woman, but he would have to be richer than her.
This principle burst out of Michaela half-jokingly as I was telling her about a man who did not like the idea of his wife earning too much money.
III: When doing a photo album, one should treat children equally.
While talking about photo albums, Michaela said that she took more photos of her first child than she did of her second; yet, she doesn’t want to make anyone of them feel less valued. When both children are in one photo, she puts a copy of the photo in both of her children’s album.
IV: Warm meals are to be taken at the cafeteria.
Eating at the cafeteria makes sense for most people encountered in Erfurt: the infrastructure is there; it provides one warm meal a day and thus more time to do other things. (This principle was not expressed as such, but derives from observations).
V: One has to make decisions for one’s children.
This principle applies to various situations, from deciding childern should take part in the Protestant confirmation to having them attend a Gymnasium (‘We forced her to do it. It was for her own good, she will like it’). There is a second part to the principle: ‘there is no use in waiting for children to make choices’. Things are more complicated when the time comes for an older child to choose a profession. Going over the quotations on this topic, I noted that Michaela talks—as the other parents do—using the pronoun ‘we’.
VI: The Jugendweihe—the socialist civil consecration ceremony reintroduced in the GDR to replace the confirmation—is a moving ceremony.
Although Michaela insisted on her daughters doing the Protestant confirmation when they turned 14, one of them also did the Jugendweihe like all the children in her class. Only a minority of children do the confirmation in Erfurt. Doing both allows for being different, being member of a distinguished network, and like all the others. Michaela attended a Jugendweihe ceremony when one of her daughters was invited to play the clarinet. She comments: ‘I did shed a tear or two, and that even though I didn’t have a child doing it; I must say it was quite moving’.
VII: One should not worry too much about others’ political positions.
We discussed how one is to deal with different positions regarding the arrival of refugees in Germany in 2015. Michaela remarked sharply: ‘when granddad says something we do not like, say something racist, we just say “shut up granddad’”.
VIII: Children should not use Facebook and the like.
I was telling Michaela about the Facebook page I set up for the present project and we got talking about social media. She showed some resistance, saying ‘we don’t all need to be on that’ (This principle was a mystery to me. Was it referring to children’s protection? To a societal diagnosis?).
IX: Celebrations are OK.
There are a lot of celebrations and birthday parties to attend; they are an intrinsic part of the life of connected people. Whereas most people in Erfurt think celebrations are somehow a drag (one participant said, for instance, when talking about her summer plans: ‘We have to face two weddings’), Michaela seems to find celebrations quite all right.
X: The couple is important, but there is no need to be married.
Michaela and Wolf got married when she was pregnant with her second child. When coming together, the Erfurt parents talk about other people’s divorces. Although the divorce rate is not that high—or precisely because it is not as high as, say, in Canada—they fear it. It is more important to stay together than to be married (p.s.: some couples from the Erfurt sample got married in secret to avoid celebrations and the expectations that weigh on them [See principle IX]).
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That was Michaela; now moving on to Jacek. He was 43 when Anna met him in 2015. He was born in Kalisz and has spent all his life there. He began studying different subjects at university, but never completed any programs; he does not currently hold a fixed-term contract. He works as an antique dealer, an activity that bodes well with his interest in history. He entertains conservative views on politics, history, and society; he likes to express them as often as he can, but tempers them with statements such as ‘I have nothing against homosexuals’. Jacek has many friends and is open to new acquaintances. He is married to Justyna, a well-paid engineer, and has two children. They live in a one-family house at the periphery of Kalisz. Jacek seems serious; yet, has a sense of humour. He is warm-hearted and helpful. He loves animals.
Here are 10 of Jacek’s principles or dogmas
I: It’s hard to move from a city where your family has lived for generations.
Jacek often stressed this principle in the course of his conversations with Anna. It refers to a sense of destiny, pride, and a feeling of normality linked to his life in Kalisz. Jacek’s family roots go deep in Kalisz history: ‘I’m very close to my family that’s why I can’t imagine living in another place than Kalisz’.
II: My wife is the love of my life.
It was one of the first things Jacek told Anna when they met—perhaps because he feared she would try to hit on him? He has known his wife since primary school.
III: One has to live according to principles.
Principles are important as a general rule, especially when children’s education is concerned.
IV: Everything should be exceptional and unique.
Jacek told Anna this when they met at the end of November—he and his wife had already started preparation for Christmas the previous month—buying presents and sending Christmas cards. They give each other a lot of presents, and each card they send to family members and friends has to be unique. Jacek stresses that everything should be well-prepared.
V: Children should have a well-ordered mind.
Jacek told Anna he decided to enrol his son in the Catholic primary school so that he learns to be reasonable and have the right frame of mind. He believes that the traditional education and discipline one receives at this school will be beneficial for his child’s future: ‘[The Catholic school] I believe it was the best decision of my life—when it comes to my children’s education’.
VI: One has to be aware of the past.
Jacek said: ‘I generally live with people who are dead. They are very close to me. The 1920s, the interwar period, the Warsaw uprising, the cursed soldiers [żołnierze wyklęci]—I’m crazy about that’. His favourite—and idealised—period is the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century. Jacek would like to be associated with the heritage of that era and with the image of the wealthy bourgeois living in a mansion, playing the piano, and going to the theatre in elegant clothes. When Anna asked about the reason for enrolling his son to the music school, Jacek said: ‘Well, as before the war, in good middle-class families, it was in good taste to have a child play some musical instrument, usually the piano, I also enrolled my son for piano lessons’.
VII: One should have stable political views.
Jacek expresses strong positions on subjects such as education, politics, living arrangement, and leisure activities. He likes to present himself as a conservative and to underscore that it was his grandfather, a staunch anti-communist, who passed these values on to him.
VIII: Today’s society is stupid, one should read more books or spend more time in the nature and less watching TV or playing computer games.
According to Jacek, people today are getting more and more stupid—this has to do, he says, with new technologies, computer, TV, Facebook, Internet. People don’t read books, don’t meet each other anymore.
IX: Costume parties are our tradition.
Every year Jacek organises a costume party for his friends and relatives. It’s always a big event for him—he loves to dress up and puts a lot of attention to his costumes. He likes to gather people around him. This year’s party was cancelled because of several funerals.
X: Marriage is one of the most important values.
According to Jacek, there is only one child whose parents are divorced at the local Catholic school his son attends. In ordinary primary schools, 70% parents are, he said, divorced. The children’s parents come together to school meetings. Jacek is married, though not religiously. This, he said, ‘is a sensitive subject’.
• • •
Let’s now briefly return to Tucholsky. Using a mocking tone, the journalist defined bourgeois as people who earn more than what is necessary to live, but not enough to sustain the lifestyle they claim for themselves. Beyond this socio-structural classification (Michaela and Jacek belong to the class Tucholsky alludes to, be it for its economic status or ambitions), we accentuate one trait particularly characteristic to them: the rules of reciprocity or sociability within networks of friends, families, and acquaintances that structure the daily life of certain individuals and, at the same time, the conventions, obligations, and expectations that weigh on them. Seen from a distance, ‘bourgeois’ create networks in which links are particularly tightly woven, more so than in Canada.
With this particular aspect in mind, let’s come back to two intriguing details from the principles distilled from interviews and observations: Michaela’s comment on Facebook and Jacek’s mention of several funerals preventing this year’s costume party from happening. Precisely because she is a nexus person, Michaela might not like Facebook and social media in general; they might imply the idea of a network, but a negative one, that she cannot control and that could affect her children. Jacek’s complaint about people not meeting each other anymore alludes to something similar. And it might be because networks with people—both alive and dead—are so important to Jacek that holding a costume party does not seem appropriate this year. It would not be respectful to people who lost someone as well as to those who died. Still, people who have had a funeral in their family would not come to the costume party anyway.
• • •
In writing down the principles, we wondered: What would happen if our specimens actually met? If city representatives of Erfurt and Kalisz were to organise a trip or an exchange that would involve city dwellers, among them Michaela and Jacek?
Michaela would probably be dismayed by Jacek’s attitude towards the past and his conspicuous efforts of being a part of ‘good society’ by alluding to the past and ‘the wealthy bourgeois living in a mansion, playing the piano, and going to the theatre in elegant clothes’. She would most likely find these attempts cliché. And we cannot imagine her uttering the word ‘tradition’, as we heard so often from Jacek. Even though he likes celebrations, Jacek on his part would probably disregard Michaela’s attitude towards the Jugendweihe, in his eyes a legacy of Communism. As other inhabitants of Kalisz Anna talked to, Jacek rarely mentioned the socialist period. Would they raise these issues as conversation topics? We suspect that they would not, at least not in front of each other. Their ideal notions of decency and expectations of respectability would probably prevent them from expressing value judgments that would be associated with a feeling of indecency.
The national context and the question of gender might, as Tucholsky put it, increase or minimise Michaela’s and Jacek’s ‘bourgeois’ features, or what is typical of their respective networks. Yet, in the spirit of Völkerfreundschaft, our fellow specimens may very well, after a few glasses of beer, Aromatique schnapps or wine brought for the occasion, and a few attempts at making toasts in English, enjoy themselves. After all, they share several concerns, such as their children’s well-being and future, as well as a general disposition towards other people.
 Tucholsky, K. [aka Peter Panter] (1993 [1975/1928]). “Die Glaubsenssätze der Bourgeoisie,” in Gesammelte Werke 1928 (6). Reinbek bei Hamburg, Rowohlt, p. 228.
 Idem, p. 228.
 See Thériault, B. (2014). “Heimlich verheiratet,” Freitag (Community-Beitrag), 12 June 2014.