Monday, July 14, 2014
Nicholas Reid reflects in essay form on general matters and ideas related to literature, history, popular culture and the arts, or just life in general. You are free to agree or disagree with him.
I have never pretended to be an expert on things German. I cannot speak German, apart from understanding a few scattered phrases thanks to long ago doing two papers in German as part of an undergraduate degree. I visited Germany in childhood as part of a general European tour, spending a few weeks with my parents and elder siblings, travelling south from Hamburg down through Hanover and the Rhineland to Austria. But that was so long ago that I can hardly reconstruct memories of the trip – and they would be childish impressions anyway. Most of what I know of the country comes from reading books and seeing movies.
So it would be pretentious and silly of me to make sweeping statements about Germany based on a recent three-night stay in Hamburg with friends, who were also generous hosts. But I did have some of my preconceptions overturned in that very short time.
In the first place, I was surprised by the beauty of Hamburg itself. For some reason Iimagined it as a dingy industrial seaport, smoky, dirty and noisy. Doubtless there are parts of Hamburg that are like that, as there are in any modern city. But my chief discovery was of how green, clean and open the city was. Maybe I was influenced by the very salubrious suburb where my friends live. But riding by rail from suburb to central city, we were passing well-appointed garden allotments, tidy blocks of flats and much greenery. The impression was reinforced by going to the top of the tall former water tower (now an observatory) in the city’s major park and getting a panoramic view in all directions across the great North German Plain – flat as a pancake and green in all directions. To the west, there was a little bump of a hill, which seemed to be the highest natural feature for many hundreds of square miles. But my host pointed out that it was not a natural feature at all. It consisted of thousands of square metres of rubble that had been hauled away from the city after the Second World War, when Hamburg was repeatedly bombed, and piled in one place as the foundation for an artificial hill.
The old quarter of the city, with its preserved shopping arcade from the nineteenth century and its old Rathaus and other historic buildings around the artificial lakes on the River Alster, reinforces this impression of a city made for civilised living rather than for pounding machinery. So do the new building projects near the port, with gleaming modern architecture replacing antique berths for smoky ships. Walking through the working-class area of St Pauli, I saw the odd specimen of spray-painted graffiti; but I was amazed at how neat, tidy and generally un-graffiti-bombed it was (unlike working class areas in other European cities). My host told me that its apartments are permanently rent-controlled by a Social Democrat local authority, so that it has not been taken over by the middle class and “gentrified”, as inner-city working class areas in so many cities havebeen. It was only after leaving Hamburg that I discovered it was named Europe’s “Green Capital” in 2011.
On top of this, there was the feast of high culture to which our hosts treated us or directed us. An excellent production of Borodin’s Prince Igor at the Staatsoper. A performance, in the preserved nineteenth century concert hall, of orchestral works by Carl Phillip Emanuel Bach and of Robert Schumann’s Rhenish Symphony under the baton of Christian Zacharias. Not to mention a visit to C.P.E.Bach’s grave in the crypt of the great Lutheran Michelskirche (St Michael’s church) and an admiring look at a monument to Brahms (Hamburg-born even if he made his musical career in other parts of the German-speaking world).
I appreciate that by this stage I am sounding like a gushy tourist brochure. I do apologise for this, but Hamburg was really an enjoyable experience and it was good to find a city quite unlike by imaginings.
But you are an habitual reader of this blog and you know that I wouldn’t write aboutsome place I had visited without attaching a moral of some sort, and here it comes – complete with a reminder that I disclaim any profound knowledge of Germany.
The point is, you cannot be even in this lovely city of Hamburg without being reminded of the negative side of German history.
We walk through the beautiful square in front of the Wilhelmine Rathaus, with half an eye on the kayaking regatta going on, on the Alster lake. And we pass the monolithic First World War memorial. It says “Forty thousand sons of this city gave their lives for you, 1914-1918”. A reasonable sentiment for a war memorial. But a modern plaque at the base of the monument designates it a “Memorial to the Fallen in both World Wars” and tells us this sad story – when the memorial was raised in the 1920s, one side has a relief designed by Ernst Barlach,showing a grieving mother embracing her son. When the Nazis came to power, they saw this image as too “pacifistic”, so they erased it and replaced it with a patriotic German eagle. The grieving mother and son have now been restored. Clearly, war memorials can be used by those who wish to glorify war as much as those who wish to lament.
We pass over to the other side of the square. Again, there is a sad reminder of something. A not-quite-representational modern statue of Heinrich Heine, Germany’s greatest poet of the 19th century, stands there. (Heine’s mortal remains lie in the Montmartre cemetery in Paris, where we had visited them a few weeks earlier). Again, a modern plaque tells us that an older statue of Heine was raised here in 1926, but it was torn down by the Nazis and Heine’s books were among those that were burnt. This was because of the embarrassing fact thatGermany’s greatest 19th century poet was Jewish.
On the same day, leaving the square, we go to what remains of the once great Lutheran church of St Nicholas, larger than most cathedrals. It was bombed to smithereens by the RAF in the Second World War, so that all that remains is the spire, and parts of one of the old entrances. Next to these fragments, there has been planted a “peace garden”. The great church was built in the nineteenth century in the “Gothic revival” style that was popularised in England, and was in fact designed by a team of English architects. So British planes destroyed a British work of art – which is not the greatest tragedy of a war that destroyed far greater things than that, but which is horribly ironic anyway.
Perhaps you can see by now what I (protesting the brevity of my visit; admitting mylack of knowledge of Germany) am driving at.
Over seventy years after the Second World War, Germany is still haunted by the wrong sort of history.
I do not know how young Germans, who had no part in the sins of their grandparents, think about this. But I do know that when my wife asked conversationally whether it was yet safe to joke about the war, our host gave us a polite “Not really”. In fact, as he and I had been ambling around the city’s great park on a fine Sunday morning, he had been answering my own inane questions of how the Germans saw the past. He opined that even now, for Germans, most of the twentieth century is seen as a great and horrible tragedy, leading to the destruction of what Germany at her best could have been. There is an awareness that aspects of German history, which could be seen as quite innocent if they were parts of another nation’s history, can now be seen only as precursors to something indefensible. In other words, regardless of the guilt of specific individuals, there is still the residue of a national guilt. It doesn’t mean that Germans wake up stressed with guilt every morning, but it does mean that jangling in the background somewhere there is the sense that something is not right with the nation’s history.
And that is as far as I want to push this reflection before I start getting sententious and claiming to greater knowledge of the subject than I possess.