Living History at the Dead Emperor’s – at Museum Huis Doorn

 

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I revisited Museum Huis Doorn last weekend. This country house, in a wooded area on the banks of the Rhine near Utrecht, is where Kaiser Wilhelm II ended up after seeking refuge in The Netherlands in November 1918. From the date of his forced abdication onwards, he never travelled far from Doorn. He spent his days chopping wood (yes, really), and never gave up hoping to be able to return to the Fatherland as Kaiser. He died at Huis Doorn, at the age of 82, in 1941.

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His remains are still there, in a purpose-built mausoleum in the museum grounds. Occasionally, groups of Prussian nostalgists come from Germany to lay wreaths at his coffin – the last occasion was the Kaiser’s 155th birthday in January 2014. The picture below is taken through one of the mausoleum’s windows, and is probably as close as you’ll get to seeing an actual dead emperor on this blog!

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When I visited, the house grounds were taken over by a living history event depicting daily life in WW I – both in the armed forces as well as at home. I didn’t know this, but there’s a distinction between living history and historical reenactment: whilst the latter is more about getting the details of the battles right, the former focuses on depicting daily life, costumes, and arts and crafts as close to the historical original as possible, usually with an educational purpose. For the event at Huis Doorn, living history groups had turned up from Belgium, the UK, France, the Netherlands and Germany.

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Now you should know that, as a trained historian, I usually even frown upon historical novels, because of the poetic license that I imagine their authors to take. I like my history unfrivolous and hard-core. But I was fascinated by the living history people. The ones I spoke to really knew their stuff and also were able to put their roles into context. I spoke to a German guy called Siggi, who played the role of an ensign in the Prussian army. He had a great beard and a wonderful banner showing the colours of his regiment.

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I was curious how ‘military’ these guys actually were, so I asked Siggi if he had ever served in the army. It turned out he’d served in the Bundeswehr for four years as an NCO at some point. Because he’d been a sergeant-major during his stint in the modern army, that’s the historical uniform he also liked to wear when role-playing, because it was what he identified with most. But many of his fellow role-players had not served in the army, or if they had, wore any uniform they chose. According to Siggi, there were no set rules for this.

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When I asked Siggi what he imagined the biggest difference there would have been between life in the modern army as opposed to 100 years ago, he immediately said ‘discipline’ – the discipline to which soldiers were subjected to back then was much stricter than today. Transgressions which would have lost you a weekend’s leave back then would not even be noticed today.

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For depicting life ‘back home’, the organisers had chosen to represent the upper classes: ‘grand-mère’s birthday on the lawn’, complete with croquet, cucumber sandwiches and deferential staff.

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All very Downton-esque and beautifully done. For the people in this group, it meant sitting in their lawn chairs the whole afternoon, making conversation about grand-mère and other family matters, and as far as I could see they never dropped their roles. An interesting point in the proceedings arrived when a ‘Dutch officer’ began explaining the uniforms of four ‘Prussian soldiers’ to the public. This took place in front of grand-mère’s marquee and gave a nice contrast between military life and aristocratic hedonism.

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As the Kaiser himself loved to dress up in all kinds of military uniforms, and certainly showed a lot of awareness of Prussian history (see Berlin’s Terracotta army – the Statues of the Kaiser’s Victory Boulevard), I am sure he would have approved of such an event at the home where he spent the last twenty-three years of his life.

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As you’ve probably been able to read between the lines, this hard-core historian was very much won over by the commitment and hard work that the living history people put in their displays. Will I find some funny dress and join them? Probably not, if only because I’d probably get bored after 15 minutes of sitting still. Will I go again? Definitely – there’s a lot to learn by viewing these displays and talking to people who are so passionate about their chosen period.

 

 

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Ostalgia isn’t what it used to be – it’s getting worse! #Berlin’s #Ostpaket shop.

In the days of the GDR, West Germans would send their East German relatives relief packages called ‘Westpakete’ containing packs of coffee, or clothes, or even D-marks hidden inside packs of coffee. This was one of the few ways that contact was allowed between East and West, especially before travel restrictions were eased a bit in 1972.

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In a cunning play on words, Berlin has an ‘Ostpaket’ shop that opened a few years ago. It’s in a prime location on Spandauer Strasse, on the way from Alexanderplatz to Hackescher Markt (or should I say Marx-Engels-Platz?) and it’s a bit schizo in concept: when you go in, on the right hand side there’s your usual Berlin tourist tat: model Trabis, postcards, guidebooks, Ampelmann t-shirts – but on the left there’s something that I imagine an East German supermarket must have looked like: rows and rows of hearing-aid beige shelving, containing packages of apparently genuine East German foods.

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There’s even an appropriately empty cooler – no beer this month, sorry sir. Apparently, the Ossi stuff is all sourced from the factories that used to make them in the past – even though the products now have to comply with EU regulations. That means there’s actually some cocoa powder in the Ersatz chocolate now, and they’ve had to find alternatives for most of the food additives used in the GDR.

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Of course, all of this is pretty harmless and probably even funny – but that’s where I start to get a bit uncomfortable. With every honking parade of Trabis full of smiling, waving tourists, with every street vendor hawking fake DDR insignia, gas masks and Russian militaria, I’m getting more worried that people are forgetting the true nature of the terrible dictatorship that caused so much hardship, heartbreak and so many deaths (just visit the Bernauer Strasse wall memorial in your rented Trabi, for crying out loud).

As Hubertus Knabe, the director of the Memorial at Hohenschönhausen Stasi Prison has said in interviews about places like the Ostel (a hotel full of GDR symbolism, featuring a Honecker suite): “die DDR war keine Spassveranstaltung” – the GDR wasn’t fun and games. In his view, GDR insignia and symbols should only be used for educational purposes, with proper commentary to explain their relevance – in fact, Knabe makes the link to Third Reich parafernalia: you can’t go running around in Nazi uniforms wearing swastikas just for fun.

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I realise that selling packages of Tempo beans and bottles of Rotkäppchen Sekt is probably pretty harmless – but still, I very much respect Knabe’s point of view. Should we research the GDR? Definitely. Museums? Certainly, as long as they (also) show the dark side of life in the GDR. Shops selling GDR goods? I’m not sure. How about a mandatory video on Stasi crimes before your Trabi Safari, or a printed ‘Evil Government Health Warning’ on your Sandmann teabags and Spree Gherkins?

On how you can’t avoid German history – even on a Bastei hiking trip

“Die Reise in die deutsche Vergangenheit ist nicht immer eine Vergnügungsreise” (a journey into German history is not always a pleasure trip) wrote Maik Kopleck, editor of the excellent Pastfinder series of travel guides. True, and to that I’d like to add that any trip in Germany, and especially in the East, always becomes a trip into history.

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Take this weekend: we went to see the holiday region of Sächsische Schweiz (“Saxon Switzerland”). Its most famous feature is a scenic outcrop of rocks and boulders called Bastei that overlooks a picturesque stretch of the river Elbe, an easy day trip upstream from Dresden. There are many stone and metal bridges so that even hikers of moderate skill and fitness can see the sights. Picture-perfect Germany, and all relatively harmless, I thought.

For dinner, we ended up in the local village of Burg Hohnstein – not very famous, at least I’d never heard of it before. Its castle perches high above the town and turns out to be the only one on the upper Elbe’s right bank that is not in ruins.

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We were able to take a quick look at the castle just before it closed to non-staying guests for the night (it’s a youth hostel). Outside there were some memorials and monuments.Image

This monument was built by the GDR’s communist regime in 1961. It is dedicated to “the living, as a warning” and refers to the use of the castle in the Nazi era. The first thing the Nazis did after coming to power in 1933 was to clamp down on their political opponents, mainly communists and socialists. Burg Hohnstein (already a youth hostel before 1933, “the nicest in Germany”, according to one of the interpretive texts) was pressed into service as a prison for political prisoners, and became one of the earliest concentration camps.

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The facility’s first prisoner was Konrad Hahnewald, previously the youth hostel’s manager, imprisoned for refusing to hoist the Hakenkreuz flag. The fact that he was an official in the ADGB (the socialist trade union congress) probably didn’t help his case either. He was fortunate enough to be released later in 1933 but was banned from the town, joined a Dresden resistance group, and survived the war. Today, Burg Hohnstein’s primary school is named after Mr. Hahnewald.

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So far, so good then: a socialist ran the youth hostel in the castle, the nazis impounded the castle and imprisoned socialists and the youth hostel manager, the SED (East German communist party) put up a memorial for the socialists and named the local school after the imprisoned youth hostel leader – and then it all falls to pieces (as usual, where the SED is involved). According to the castle’s Wikipedia entry, towards the end of the GDR communist regime in the 1980s, the SED cynically planned to open a detention centre for 890 political opponents at Burg Hohnstein castle…

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On a totally different topic: for those of you old enough to remember Colditz, the castle may remind you a bit of the WW2 POW prison from the famous BBC television series. Well, totally coincidentally, from 1939 to 1940 Burg Hohnstein was Oflag IV a – and of course you know that Colditz was Oflag IV c. Before you ask: “but where was Oflag IV b?” – that was the Fortress of Königstein, just across the river from the Bastei. Maybe next time.

 

 

Thank you #SED and #GDR – for restoring #Dresden

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We went to see the sights of Dresden yesterday – the famous riverfront along the Elbe that has been so wonderfully restored after the devastation by the Allies in February 1945. At first sight, the beauty looks only skin-deep. The restored strip of historical buildings is really only the river front and a few hundred meters behind it. Behind that, 1960s modern, functional, GDR era Plattenbau starts – a stark contrast and a bit of a disappointment at first (such as when you look northward from the terraces of the Zwinger at the Ostra-Allee and the Postplatz).

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But then you think again – and you realise that what the communist regime in fact did restore, starting with the Zwinger palace just after the war, and up to the Semper Opera House and the Residential Palace in the late nineteen eighties, was a tremendous economical effort for a regime that even had difficulty keeping its population properly supplied with toilet paper, vegetables and tv sets.Image

So next time you see buildings such as the 1968 Kulturpalast (Culture Palace) right next door to the beautiful Frauenkirche , don’t scorn the communists. Despite all their other faults, they did the best they could.