Thoughts on the German national fragrance
Sauerkraut and Hazelnut

Sauerkraut, German shepherd and Hazelnut, Collage

If you were to distil Germany into a perfume, what fragrances would be essential? Are German forests and German wines indispensable ingredients? And how would a German shepard bark upon smelling the scent?

For some time now you can wear the city of Nuremberg on your skin. Not as a tattoo – as, for instance, a picture on your biceps of the famous imperial castle – but as a scent behind the ear. Frank Wesnitzer, yoga teacher and Ayurvedic cook, has mixed the aura of the place in a perfume. It smells lemony, because Wesnitzer holds Nuremberg to be open and progressive; woody, because he ascribes stability to the inhabitants; and like gingerbread. The city quarters of Nuremberg smell of this speciality when the Christmas season begins and the bakeries stoke their ovens.

Black forest needles – Ruhr Valley smoke

German cities appear to have no problem with their smell. Berlin has claimed its air has a “sweet fragrance” since it was besung by a hit song of the 1920s. Perhaps Sissel Tolaas and Geza Schön know whether the capital city really smells “sweet”. The two scent experts drew up after all a kind of “olfactory map” of the metropolis for the 2004 Berlin Biennale. But can a scent be from the whole of Germany? What olfactory substances would be mixed into the perfume? Does the Federal Republic secrete its very own, specific molecules into the air? For that is what makes up the smell of a thing. Do typically German gases hover over typical German landscapes? Can you sniff that you have crossed a national border? For example, at Basel. Does the Swiss smell of cow and alpine pasture remain behind and does the German Black Forest send forth the tingling odour of pine needles? Or at Venlo. Does the Dutch bouquet of cheese and tulips fade and do clouds of Ruhr Valley brown coal mordants rise up? Or does everything now smell of Europe’s one-size-for-all seasoning?

The German nose won’t give up so easily. A bit of national smell is a matter of national honour! All people around the world carry their homeland in their mucous membranes into old age. The scent of childhood: lovely nostalgia. But how should one heraldically mix the shimmer of Black Forest ozone with the dance of coal particles over the Rhine and Ruhr Valleys? Can you create a distinctive German olfactory coat of arms? The eagle, Germany’s traditional heraldic beast, bears rather unpleasant olfactory associations. It is a bird of prey and scavenger. That really won’t do.

The lingering note of the GDR

It used to be easier. Between 1945 and 1990 at least one half of Germany smelled just like itself. Even the blind could sniff out the German Democratic Republic as soon as they crossed the inner German border. The precipitate of coal heating overcame the traveller, strongly underlain by the charm of a cleaning agent from the laboratories of the Chemiekombinat Bitterfeld. The fluid was called Wofasept. And Wofasept unfolded its aroma not only in the cars of the East German Railways but also in nearly all public buildings under the rule of Walter Ulbricht and Erich Honecker. Sensitive noses still twitch today in the shock of recognition when they board a cruise ship plying the Russian rivers. This fleet was built in the 1980s in the GDR. And the scent of East Germany is remarkably sustainable.

But what is the fragrance of all Germany after the turnaround and reunification? Some would say there would have to be a note of hazelnut in it. The Germans will never be rid of their history and the folk song, misused by the Nazis, is ur-German and, with its play of political colours, deeply entangled in history: Schwarzbraun ist die Haselnuss (Hazelnuts Are Dark Brown). The smell of hazelnuts is tart. The nose must confront history. The tart-German scent has long been multiculturally corrected and differentiated. The core smell of the hazelnut is now distinctly coated by that of garlic. After all, the Turkish kebab is considered Germans’ most popular fast food.

The Bavarian bouquet

The song of the hazelnut is an example of German song. The Deutschlandlied, written by Hoffmann von Fallersleben, praises “German song” along with “German wine”. Now song has no smell. But wine is the great olfactory challenge. You have only to observe the ecstasies experienced by the noses of connoisseurs hovering over a glass of wine. Consequently, the aromas of German wine are essential to the national bottle of perfume – with a lot of tannin in Franconia and rather semi-sweet on the Mosel. If German wines are typically German in their spread, they are not so easy to get under one roof in their diversity. And then they are strongly countered in their delicacy by the scents of the German South, which especially people from abroad like to take for the whole of Germany. I mean the aroma of beer and sauerkraut: the bouquet of Bavaria, the odeur of the Oktoberfest. Germany doesn’t smell like this everywhere. But everywhere people believe Germany smells like this.

Unfortunately, we cannot ask him whose fine sense of smell must make him the true expert: the German shepherd. It therefore remains mute what role is played in the final national mixture by the exhalations of German industriousness and German football. In order to determine the national scent, perhaps we have to have recourse to a national campaign that was carried on a few years ago in all the media. It was addressed to each and every individual on Germany territory and its slogan was: “You are Germany”. I daresay that is probably on the mark: Germany smells like all its citizens. Sometimes good, sometimes less so.