Berlin mayor unaware when World War II started
17 December 2004 , HAMBURG - Berlin's popular and flamboyant Mayor Klaus Wowereit is mired in an embarrassing scandal following a gaffe on national television when he was unable to say what year World War II started. The charismatic 51-year-old, the city's most popular mayor since Willy Brandt, also humiliated himself by being unable to spell "rhythm" correctly, prompting moans of embarrassment and howls of derisive laughter from a TV studio audience. Ironically, Wowereit had been invited onto the national
17 December 2004
HAMBURG - Berlin's popular and flamboyant Mayor Klaus Wowereit is mired in an embarrassing scandal following a gaffe on national television when he was unable to say what year World War II started.
The charismatic 51-year-old, the city's most popular mayor since Willy Brandt, also humiliated himself by being unable to spell "rhythm" correctly, prompting moans of embarrassment and howls of derisive laughter from a TV studio audience.
Ironically, Wowereit had been invited onto the nationally broadcast show on the RTL commercial TV network to comment on recent scholastic standings that showed German secondary school pupils were only mediocre compared to pupils from the rest of Europe and America.
The show host read off several sample test questions that any high school student in Europe or America was expected to answer correctly.
Several involved trains starting in two different cities with the student expected to predict when and where they might meet. But other questions involved major dates in world history.
"Here's an easy one that everybody ought to know, and the mayor of Berlin will definitely know the answer," the TV show host said. Turning to Wowereit, he asked, "In what year did Germany invade Poland, spawning the Second World War, and in what year did that war end?"
Wowereit blushed. Then he rubbed his chin. He looked skyward.
"That was, er, ah, hmm, let me see, now," he stammered.
As the viewers nationwide gawped in disbelief, Wowereit shrugged and was about to give up when a voice from the audience shouted: "It was 1939 to 1945, you dolt."
"Oh yes, it started in nineteen thirty-, er, what?" Again the voice from the audience roared out: "Thirty-nine!" "Oh, yes, it started in 1939 and ended in 1945," the visibly embarrassed politician said.
Later on, the show host offered the mayor a chance to redeem himself by giving the correct spelling for the German word for "rhythm" - "rhythmus".
"Oh, I know that," the mayor started out confidently. "It's R-Y-T- H-M-U-S."
He was crest-fallen when informed that he had left out an "h".
The show host gave him one more chance, picking out a simple arithmetic problem.
"All right, Herr Mayor, how much is three plus eight-times-two?
The mayor scratched his head and then said hopefully: "Twenty?"
As the audience groaned again, the host said he was afraid the correct answer was actually nineteen, since "eight-times-two" counted as a unit added to three.
In the aftermath, the mayor's office was forced to issue a statement saying the mayor had been under stress lately and perhaps had suffered a bit of stage fright on live television.
"He most certainly knew the answers to both of those questions," his spokesman Michael Donnermeyer said. "It is only human to forget things. We all know how that is. Something is on the tip of your tongue and you forget it at an embarrassing moment. It's human nature."
Predictably, the conservative political opposition took the gaffe as evidence that Wowereit's Social Democrats are incompetent.
"This the mayor of Berlin, of all places, and he doesn't even know when World War II occurred. That's unforgivable," said Christian Democratic whip Michael Braun.
"Here we are talking about the new Holocaust monument and the 60th anniversary of V-E day is rapidly approaching and the mayor of Berlin brings shame and ignominy on our city with his ignorance before a national television audience. I'm ashamed to be a Berliner."
Tabloid newspapers had a feeding frenzy with the mayor's embarrassment.
"What kind of a nitwit do you have to be to run this town?", Berliner Kurier asked its readers. The B.Z. tabloid issued its own report card, telling the mayor to "stay after class".
Taking a potshot at the fact that Wowereit is openly homosexual, Berliner Kurier pointed out that he had made no mistakes when he appeared on a gay TV channel and correctly answered some delicate questions about gay life in Berlin.
"Asked when the back room at Tom's Bar opened, the lord mayor knew the date right down to within an hour of the time the doors opened," the newspaper chided.
Seeking to defuse the scandal, conservative opposition politician Katrin Schultze-Berndt advised: "The mayor ought to see to it that teachers are better trained and schools are better equipped so that the next generation of Berlin schoolchildren will be better educated than the mayor is."
Subject: German news