Carnival: When Cologne expresses its difference

COLOGNE, Germany — Prior to this past weekend, I'd not yet seen residents of any German city gather densely by the thousands in a central square for the purpose of sharing a sincere, if awkward, communal dance to live a capella music.

And though Berlin, where I make my home, offers plentiful tableaux of young people lined up outside of clubs, shivering to stay warm while they wait to enter, I'd never, prior to last week, had the opportunity to see that sort of anonymous line transform spontaneously into a swaying, singing conga line.

What changed so suddenly? I decided, for the first time since moving to Germany four years ago, to join the “Carnival” celebration in Cologne.

Carnival is an unlikely cultural artifact: a week-long alcohol-infused costume party that traces its roots to medieval Catholic society and functions as an annual bucket of confetti dropped over Germany's long, gray winter. Like New Orleans' Mardi Gras, Carnival functioned as an organized release of steam before the onset of the traditional Catholic period of asceticism, Lent.

Of course, traditions acquire new meaning over time. Today, Germany's Carnival celebration is most essentially a celebration of local pride for the Rhineland region, an annual declaration of cultural independence from the rest of the nation. Residents of Cologne, Duesseldorf and Bonn insist that negative stereotypes associated with Germany — impersonal demeanor, strict adherence to rules, exaggerated respect for hierachies — are products not of their own intrinsically cheerful neighborhood, but rather of a mentality that's bled over from Berlin. The residents of the Rhine cities use Carnival to plead thee case that they've been made guilty by association with the brusque, standoffish culture of their nation's capital.

Indeed, fueling the party is not only an undercurrent of cultural pride, but also political irony. Many standbys of the modern Carnival celebration were devised in the early 19th century to express the formerly independent Rhine region's discontentment with its having been absorbed into the kingdom of Prussia, of which Berlin was the capital. During that era, the residents of the cities began marking the annual celebrations by mocking their erstwhile imperialist oppressors: Common people began eschewing traditional costumes for uniforms that resembled those of the Prussian soldiers stationed in their cities, while towns organized parades on “Rose Monday” — two days before Lent begins on Ash Wednesday — that explicitly skewered political authorities.

Those traditions have carried on into the present. The multiple “Carnival societies” that organize festivities throughout the Rhine region still dress in military costumes that hearken back to the Prussian soldier of the 19th century. And the “Rose Monday” parades have, over time, only gotten more ribald in their political commentary.

It's the region's good fortune — and a testament to its authentic good cheer — that a festival of such political and religious origins takes the form of such excessive frivolity and mirth. Fun was foremost on the agenda this week in Cologne. Clowns commandeered street corners to roast sausages and sing along to recorded folk music. Strangers who wanted to start a conversation could do so simply by declaring “Koelle Alaaf!” — a bit of doggerel dialect that means something like “Cheers to Cologne!”

On Rose Monday, the crowds enthusiastically greeted floats raunchily making fun of Angela Merkel and other European leaders. And ubiquitous throughout the entirety of the festival was the regional beer, Koelsch, which, while just as alcoholic as the beer elsewhere in the country, somehow seems less dangerous by virtue of its being served in tiny cylindrical glasses, rather than the enormous mugs familiar from Munich's Oktoberfest.

In Berlin, the valences are indeed usually switched: Entertainment is ironic and distanced, while politics are infused with anger. In the capital, it's the unions who march the streets, blowing whistles and causing a ruckus, or left-wing anarchists who stage battles with the police every year on May 1, while it's the crowds at rock concerts who often cling to the walls as if at a junior high dance, for fear of finding themselves the first on the dance floor.

Perhaps, though, the excesses of the Rhineland's Carnival are themselves the expression of an inferiority complex. Though Cologne was for many hundereds of years the most important city on German territory — it was a major outpost of the Roman empire, long before Prussia even existed — it is Berlin that has played such a fateful role on the world stage in the 19th and 20th centuries. The residents of the Rhine may be cheerful the whole year round, but it's only for one week a year that the rest of the country, and the world, can be made to pay attention.