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Split Awaits The Pope In His Homeland

Public Eye's Brian Montopoli is writing weekly dispatches for while living and working in Berlin as part of the Arthur F. Burns Fellowship Program. He will return to Public Eye in October.

Pope Benedict is coming to his home country of Germany this week, and most people in the capital couldn't care less.

The reaction may seem odd to casual observers, particularly since there was perhaps no country that celebrated the previous pope, John Paul II, more fervently than his home country of Poland.

While Poland is ethnically and culturally homogenous and overwhelmingly religious – 90 percent of its citizens identify as Roman Catholics – Germany is something else entirely. Many citizens here see their country as split into two separate and not terribly compatible parts.

The split is not, as one might expect, between east and west, though there are still some lingering tensions between citizens of the former communist East and West Germany. Rather, it's between north and south – or, to be more specific, between Bavaria and everyone else.

Bavaria, with its 12.4 million inhabitants, is Germany's southernmost state, bordered primarily by Austria and the Czech Republic. It has a strong and distinct cultural identity that some citizens in other parts of the country, particularly cosmopolitan Berlin, are quick to deride. One popular joke here, as noted by Spiegel Online in March, asserts that when a blond moves from Berlin to Bavaria, the collective IQ of both places goes up.

Americans who only know Germany from movies like "European Vacation" may think that beer gardens, traditional costumes, and folk music are a Germany-wide phenomenon. But these cultural touchstones are distinctively Bavarian, and not much loved elsewhere in the country. (If you show up in the north looking for Oktoberfest, you'll quickly learn you've come to the wrong place.)

Southern Germany is a deeply conservative region with its own dialect and a strong Roman Catholic tradition, a place where people say hello with "Grüß Gott!" – "I greet you in the name of God."

There are, in fact, some similarities between the way Germans look at each other and the ways Americans do. Many northern Germans see Bavarians as stupid hicks with funny accents, while many Bavarians see northerners as snotty, standoffish liberals who don't sufficiently respect cultural tradition.

Sound familiar?

The similarities have even manifested themselves in pop culture: When American films are dubbed into German, for example, characters with American southern accents are sometimes spoken with Bavarian accents.

And then there's religion. Germany doesn't have a state church, and its basic laws guarantee religious freedom. A third of the country – copmosed mostly of northerners – is Protestant, and another third is Roman Catholic. For many of the former, religion is fairly casual – useful for rights of passage such as weddings, perhaps, but not a lifestyle. (People in the former east are particularly prone to eschew or downplay religion, having for 40 years been pushed towards atheism by the German Democratic Republic.)

In Roman Catholic Bavaria, however, people are serious about, and fiercely loyal to, their faith. Pope Benedict was born and lived much of his life in the region, and, tellingly, on his visit from Sept. 8-14 he will not set foot outside of it.

Benedict Beer, "Ratzi" bratwurst, and key chains featuring a smiling Pope have all appeared in Bavaria in anticipation of the visit. (The Pope's birth name is Joseph Ratzinger, which explains the "Ratzi." You can check out some Pope products here.) Hundreds of thousands of revelers are expected at his masses and pubic appearances.

In Regensburg, where the Pope still has a home, a traditional hat maker is selling a rabbit fur felt hat called the "Benedict."

In Berlin, however, the visit doesn't seem to be on anyone's radar screen. Pope-related souvenirs are difficult to find. As far as most Berliners are concerned, Benedict might as well be visiting France.

This isn't to say there isn't some admiration and goodwill between Bavaria and the rest of Germany. Bavaria's capital is the bustling and prosperous city of Munich, the home of BMW and Siemens, perhaps greater sources of pride for Germans than any other companies. Even the most cynical Berliner has at least some measure of respect for the city and its people.

But the political and religious differences that arise from with Bavaria's strong regional identity remain – it even has its own powerful political party, the conservative Christian Social Union. And Bavarians are not passing up the chance to show off their independent streak during Pope Benedict's visit. Instead of waving the German flag in celebration, as Germans did so joyously during this year's World Cup, the majority of the faithful are expected to welcome the Pope home by hoisting aloft Bavaria's flag of blue and white.

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