From an open letter written in March by Bernhard Paul, founder and director of Germany’s Circus Roncalli, to Peer Steinbrück, the Social Democratic candidate for German chancellor, who in February referred to the Italian politicians Beppe Grillo and Silvio Berlusconi as “two clowns.” Translated from the German by Natascha Hoffmeyer.
Dear Mr. Steinbrück,
I have nothing against you or the likes of you. That said, I felt snubbed by your clown comment in reference to the election results in Italy. I am at least as insulted as the Italian president. The circus as an institution has been fighting for survival in Germany for many years. It was excluded from culture by Goebbels under the Third Reich and since then has just eked out its existence, despite being recognized and supported as culture in the whole European Union. But not in Germany.
The symbol of the circus has always been the clown. A character with roots in commedia dell’arte, it has produced such great names as Grock, Charly Rivel, Oleg Popov, and many others. Clowns have inspired authors of world literature from Heinrich Böll to Arthur Miller, filmmakers from Fellini to Ingmar Bergman, and painters from Toulouse-Lautrec to Picasso. But you use the word “clown” as an insult. I thought we lived in a time when politicians, in order to be politically correct, avoid terms like Zigeuenerschnitzel [“Gypsy schnitzel”], when bakeries prefer to call a Mohrenkopf [“Moor’s head”] a “meringue with an immigrant background,” and children’s books are rewritten because certain words are no longer deemed acceptable.
Now you of all people, a top-ranking politician with plenty of experience putting your foot in your mouth, commit the faux pas of reducing the honorable artistic profession of the clown to an insult. I assume you were trying to be funny, which in principle may not be a bad thing for a politician. But there is a huge difference between saying something funny and making fun of something. Comedians are like politicians, and as my friend Johannes Rau used to say on these occasions, quoting the Bible, “Many are called, but few are chosen.”