Monday, 5 September 2016

"Teutonic Chronicles" 6: München, Leipzig, Dresden, Erfurt, Weimar, Halscheid

Links to Parts 1, 2, 3, 4 and 5.

I’ll briefly gloss over the rest of my time in Munich - the course continued apace, the sun shined more often than not, and I had a great visit from a friend or two, including Matt Hines from the year below me at Oxford who’s just now starting his year abroad - but most of the time it was more of the joyous same: Hofbräuhaus and Hans im Glück (I must have mentioned that before? The München burger chain that’s dressed up as a fairytale so when you walk into the restaurant you’re surrounded by silver birch trees?); churches aplenty; the constantly surprising yet nonetheless enjoyable Pinakothek der Moderne, the last of the Pinakotheken triumvirate and mostly covering modern or contemporary art; and, you know, food and lots of it.

I really want to skip over toward the latter end of August because my time then in Leipzig was enjoyable, stuffed, and worth recounting, and I rather underserved Leipzig in one of my previous blog posts because I’d written so many words on Munich (unfairly, but there it is; here’s a chance at karma). I spent a week there this time round, and got more of a feel of this elegant city, a city of fascinating arts and culture… canals run through it, green spaces surround it, markets and pedestrian passages jostle for space in its centre, former-Stasi-listening-halls squat on its corners… once the city of publishers, it was also home to much trade by normal burghers, so much so that they famously told a prince who wanted to build a castle there that he could sod off… now it houses the huge radio/TV company MDR, the spire of which soars blasphemously into the sky, and offers an excellent view of the Leipzig sprawl…  famed too, of course, for its music: for any classical music enthusiast, Leipzig is seventh heaven, since almost all of them (apart from Mozart) spent time in Leipzig in one way or another - Bach, Mendelssohn, Schumann, Beethoven.  The particular part I was staying in with our old family friends Gerlinde and Rainer was just gorgeous: the Musikviertel, full of lovely old elegant houses and apartments. You can still spot its East Germany heritage - cracked or uneven pavements; the East German ‘Ampelmann’ traffic lights also found in East Berlin; rather dim and energy-saving street lighting - but to my mind this flotsam and jetsam enhances its history rather than detracts from any post-1989 modernity: history is a palimpsest, after all, with each new tale written on top of the faded ink of another, and the flourishing middle-class young families who swarm to Leipzig’s booming house market today will one day be a new layer of dust to settle on top of older, greyer bits of grit that once, put together, formed Stasi operatives who locked up subversive playwrights.

Forget nothing, even that which is painful. I’ve been told more than once before that regret is one of the most futile of all emotions - it sours like milk and its smell lasts longer, yielding nothing but a bitter, rotten heart. This is probably true 90% of the time. But regret can help; regret can look forward rather than backward. And the deep and profound regret felt in Germany for so many events of the twentieth century - regret mixed with shame and something almost approaching, but never quite touching, disbelief, because one must never stop believing that it is possible - is enormously impressive to an outsider. It’s always green on the other side of the fence, of course, and looking in through the front door always skews one’s view and obscures the more cobwebbed corners of a house, but I find Germany’s approach to its recent past both moving and profound. From Bernhard Schlink’s Der Vorleser to the visitors who flock to the site of Dachau and the Holocaust Memorial in Berlin, from Leipzig’s Zeitgeschichtliches Forum (motto: “Warning! History can lead to knowledge and cause awareness”) to the Stiftung Friedlicher Revolution, with which Gerlinde & Rainer are involved. My brief trip to Dresden with them allowed me a glimpse of this last: an event launching for the next month or so commemorating the fall of the USSR in 1989 and the way that was peacefully brought about, by the people, and why this must be remembered yet more fiercely in the day & age of Pegida and Alternative für Deutschland (more or less Germany’s BNP/UKIP, and which did lamentably well in the latest local elections in the northern state of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern). In Dresden’s gorgeous Theaterplatz, surrounded by stunning buildings many of which have been rebuilt since the British bombed them (one of our shameful chapters, to which we devote comparatively little thought), the Stiftung Friedlicher Revolution held speeches and political discussions on a canvas-covered stage; food and drink were served; Oriental-inspired music from a Moldovan rock group (of all things) brought the evening to a close; and all around us was a powerful exhibition of testaments from refugees from Syria who have made it to Germany - all of them under 18 years old, and one of whom was a five year old girl who was terrified of her pillow and hated going to sleep because she was certain it was during the night that the worst, the scariest, things happened.

Commemoration of various sorts formed a large part of my Leipzig experience; you never escape the ubiquity of this past-upon-pasts, a palimpsest as broad a canvas as the country itself. The aforementioned Zeitgeschichtliches Forum has entire exhibitions about “German Myths since 1945” (a distractingly and uninterestingly large number of which seemed to have to do with football, but nobody’s perfect). Nowhere is free of this awareness of the past. Erfurt, a charming city in nearby Thüringen which we visited one Sunday boasting marvellous cathedrals and sausage-houses and breweries, contains the ‘Topf und Söhne’ as you drive in to the centre - the company which manufactured the extermination ovens. In the tiny rural village of Halscheid about half an hour away from Bonn there is a memorial to Jews of the countryside who were working the land; the day after Kristallnacht, in which a synagogue in such a small, insignificant location was overlooked, some inhabitants of Halscheid gave notice that the synagogue in their village had been missed out and it was subsequently destroyed. These Jewish families were no bankers, no Rothschilds they; they were living tough lives eking a living off the land like everybody else. Even Weimar, which I will cover properly in a moment, is haunted in this respect: flowering city of the Enlightenment, home to Goethe and Schiller, the epitome of high culture and the ‘Land der Dichter und Denker’ (country of thinkers and poets)… even Weimar had Buchenwald concentration camp on its very outskirts. The satirical wit Karl Kraus spoke of the ‘Land der Richter und Henker’ instead (country of judges and hangmen). Perhaps both are right.

It is with a certain sobriety, then, that I move to talking about my fascination with Goethe on this trip. I spent a fair amount of my time in Leipzig writing an essay on his Faust (1770-1832), much of it in the Universitätsbibliothek/university library (Goethe was a student at Leipzig too, though sadly it wouldn’t have been this library he used, since it wasn’t built until the latter half of the 19th century). There is something rather wonderful about following the footsteps of a great literary figure, which was of course what took me to Auerbachs Keller - mentioned last time, but properly visited this time round. It has stood in the same spot in Leipzig since about 1530; even Martin Luther visited it. Goethe spent many evenings here as a student, and consequently set one famous scene of his Faust I in this underground beerhall. Now, of course, the story that was originally a mere folk tale before it became high literature has become folklore again - even, indeed, pop culture; frescoes line the Keller walls, depicting scenes from Faust; men dressed as devils and maidens perform impromptu seduction sketches for diners; Goethe’s likeness is everywhere; there’s even Faust as rock opera every January (which I now really, really want to attend). In the same spirit was my visit to Weimar, home of that archetypal Classicism to which Goethe and Schiller belonged - beautiful country parks, Goethe’s Gartenhaus (or garden house), home of a famous literary archive and a magnificent castle, and of course the house in which Goethe lived for 50 years, where he died, and in which he wrote much of Faust. It wasn’t quite as busy as I’d imagine Shakespeare’s Stratford-upon-Avon house would’ve been that same day; but perhaps that had more to do with the superlative weather in Weimar that day than any falling short of the esteem in which they hold their national poet. I tell you what though: Goethe had a blooming nice house. Who’s to say we couldn’t all produce a Faust or equivalent, if we got to live in a house like that, eh?! With its resplendent gardens, statues, busts, paintings and frescoes, and a study to die for, you can see why he got so much writing done at any rate.

The final stop on this leg of my journey (and, FYI, this is probably my penultimate update on this Germany trek of mine) was quite the change of scene - Halscheid, about as far removed from Leipzig as a village in Lincolnshire is from London. We went there for a weekend to stay with/look after Gerlinde’s parents, who are now both in their 80s and finding running the farm they have lived on all their lives to be slightly too hard work. During my time there the farm’s last cows - Galloways, of all species, hailing from a part of Scotland I (even more so my mother and her siblings) know passably well - moved on to … well, um, *thinks better of it, makes joke anyway* … to pastures new! (Thank you, I’ll be here all September). In all seriousness, it was something of a big moment for them, since there have always been cows at their farm; now there are ‘only’ 50(!) chickens. Still, driving the cattle with large sticks from their meadow to the stables so they could be sold was quite the experience. And the rolling countryside was very beautiful, even in the rain. And until you have eaten eggs and stewed beef on a German farm that came from that same farm’s eggs and cows, you haven’t really eaten eggs or beef: it doesn’t get any more delicious. On which charming note, as we sit round the table chuckling over how “the Englander” could talk Scottish to the cows and maybe they would understand him, or how maybe he should turn his time in Germany into a memoir called ‘From Goethe to Galloways’, we will let the curtain drop. Till the next time.

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