Alsace, a beautiful region on France’s north-eastern edge, is blessed by a sunny climate, vineyards that produce some of the world’s finest whites, and picture-perfect villages of half-timbered houses that have overflowing flower baskets on every window sill. But Alsace’s wealth, and its strategic location on the left bank of the Rhine and at the foothills of the Vosges Mountains, have also caused it to be the focus of land-grabbing campaigns by both French and German rulers. In fact, although originally part of the (German) Holy Roman Empire, Alsace has been forced to switch sides between France and Germany so many times since the days of Louis XIV that even many locals have lost count.
In 1870, the Franco-Prussian war ended up in the creation of the German Reich, and caused Alsace, and its sister region of Lorraine, to be attached to Germany. By the time Wilhelm II was crowned German Emperor in 1888, the Alsatians’ hearts and minds had still not exactly warmed to their new rulers. In a curious mix of Romance/Germanic cultures, most Alsatians had been quite happy to be French, even though the local language, Elsässisch (which is still spoken by older people today) is a German dialect.
Cue Wilhelm’s passion for royal PR. Very much aware of how new the German imperial title was, and how tentative its recognition, he grabbed every opportunity of legitimizing it with links to his forebears. A Roman emperor in the family tree would have been perfect, but failing that, any link to the Staufen rulers of the High Middle Ages would also do. And that is how Wilhelm recognized a perfect opportunity for educating the population of Alsace when the city of Sélestat, some 70 km south of Strasbourg, presented him with the ruins of the Hohkönigburg (its German name, literally High Kings’ Castle) – which was once upon a time owned by Barbarossa, the most famous Staufer Emperor of all.
This huge castle, perched atop the ridge of the Vosges and looking down on the Alsace plain and over the Rhine to the German Black Forest, was in ruins since the tender ministrations of Louis XIV’s troops, but it had an imperial pedigree that made it very much fit for Wilhelm’s nation-building purposes.
He set about restoring it in much the same way as he (and his grandfather, Wilhelm I) rebuilt the Kaiser-Pfalz at Goslar: with a heavy-handed nationalist touch. The additional twist in the case of this particular symbol of Germanness was its location at the very western fringe of the Empire – as a counterweight of sorts to the Marienburg in current Poland (a castle I hope to pay a visit for this blog later on). He gave the job to Berlin architect Bodo Ebhardt, who specialised in restoring castles. Ebhardt is the German equivalent of Eugène Viollet-le-Duc – another 19th century restorer of historical treasures, and similarly accused later on of violating the historical substance of the buildings he touched.
Today, of course, Alsace is very much French again. Since World War II, school children have been taught exclusively in French, which means that Elsässisch is on the point of extinction. One elder wine merchant told me some fifteen years ago that he was only able to communicate with his grandchildren in his own language once they started learning German in high school.
The museum that Haut-Koenigsbourg has been ever since Wilhelm finished its restoration in 1908 got the same treatment. Until a few years ago, La République Française completely ignored its Wilhelmine history and treated it as an example of a mediaeval castle – with tournaments, pageantry and a book and gift shop full of knights’ armour for children and books on chivalry.
I was delighted to find that on my visit this year, the focus of the exhibition, and also the story told by the tour guides, had shifted to the castle’s more recent political history. There were displays on the restoration by Ebhardt, there were some infographics on the German Reich, and there even was a life-size cutout of the Kaiser himself!
Finally, I was also able to get a good photograph of the famous fender that Wilhelm had installed on his last visit to Haut-Koenigsbourg, in April 1918. The inscription reads “Ich habe es nicht gewollt WII”, or “I did not want this”. It is still not clear exactly what the Kaiser meant. Some pundits say the statement refers to the castle’s tasteless restoration, but the most common interpretation of the inscription today is that it is an apology of sorts for the atrocities of World War I.
Toen ik op een mooie zondagochtend aan mijn racefietsrondje vanuit Berlin-Mitte begon, moest ik even wachten bij het stoplicht op de kruising van de Gustav-Adolf-Strasse en de Langhansstrasse in Weissensee. Vanaf het bankje van haar rollator, geparkeerd voor de bakker, sprak een nette oude dame me in het Duits aan: “lekker weertje om te fietsen, hè meneer?” Ze vroeg of ik Berliner was, en toen ze hoorde dat ik uit Nederland kwam zei ze stralend: “Ik ook!”
Toen wilde ze weten waar ik in Nederland vandaan kwam, en voor ik het wist had ik m’n racefiets geparkeerd om het levensverhaal van Irma Heinis-Walter, want zo heet ze, aan te horen.
Irma, dit voorjaar met een groot feest 90 geworden, logeert een paar weken in Berlijn bij haar al even pronte zuster Inge (87), die zich al gauw met haar eigen rollator bij ons voegde, af en toe het hoofd schuddend over haar zuster, die er blijkbaar vaker genoegen in schept met wildvreemden over haar belevenissen te praten.
Irma leerde in 1945 haar Nederlandse echtgenoot in Berlijn kennen. In de chaos vlak na de oorlog was ze blij een baan als stenotypiste op het Nederlandse consulaat in Zehlendorf (in de Amerikaanse sector) te bemachtigen. Tot 1947 werkte ze op het consulaat, want toen kon haar man een goede baan bij de PTT in Nederland krijgen. Ze verhuisden naar Noord-Holland, waar ze drie zoons kregen. Eén van die zoons, niet toevallig leraar Duits geworden, heeft haar overigens voor de logeerpartij bij haar zus met de auto naar Berlijn gebracht.
Mevrouw Heinis-Walter vertelt dat ze omstreeks 1950 erg veel last van heimwee kreeg – naar Berlijn en naar haar familie. De DDR was toen net gesticht en visa waren heel moeilijk te krijgen. Toch deed ze een poging: omdat de reis vanuit Nederland door de Franse, Britse, én Russische bezettingssector zou lopen regelde ze vanuit Nederland visa voor al die gebieden. Tegen de wens van haar man in overigens, die (terecht, zoals later zal blijken) bang was dat zijn vrouw, eenmaal in Berlijn, niet meer terug zou kunnen komen.
Tot Marienborn verliep de reis voorspoedig, maar bij de grenspost aldaar wilden de DDR-autoriteiten mevrouw Heinis, met haar Russische visum, niet binnenlaten. Misschien omdat de DDR, zo kort na haar oprichting in 1949, haar tanden extra wilde laten zien?
Wat volgt is een verhaal dat John le Carré waardig is. Mevrouw Heinis, toen 25, zocht een eind verderop een landweggetje op, en wandelde zo illegaal de DDR binnen (de muur zou immers pas in 1961 gebouwd worden). Een vrachtwagenchauffeur gaf haar een lift naar Berlijn en zo klopte ze op een avond bij haar familie in de Gustav-Adolf-Strasse aan de deur.
Dat gaf natuurlijk consternatie, want als de Stasi erachter kwam dat haar familie onderdak verleende aan een illegale immigrante zouden ze in grote problemen komen. En bovendien kon Irma, vanwege het ontbreken van het juiste visum, ook niet zo maar meer terug over de grens naar het westen. Ook haar oude werkgever, het Nederlandse consulaat in Zehlendorf, kon officieel niets voor haar doen. Maar gelukkig wist één van haar oud-collega’s daar een ticket voor haar te bemachtigen op een vlucht van Tempelhof naar Hamburg. De kosten, 200 mark, moest haar Nederlandse familie voldoen op Schiphol. Zo vloog ze vanuit Berlijn terug naar het westen, waar ze de reis met de trein kon voortzetten.
Nu is alles anders. Zowel Irma Heinis als haar altijd in Duitsland gebleven zuster Inge zijn weduwe, en haar zoon brengt haar met de auto naar Berlijn als ze zin heeft om haar familie te zien. Inge en Irma wilden nog wel even poseren voor de deur van Gustav-Adolf-Strasse 17, het huis waar Irma kort, en Inge bijna haar hele leven gewoond heeft. Inge zegt: “mijn vader is hier gestorven, mijn moeder is hier gestorven, mijn man is hier gestorven, en ik sterf een stukje verderop” – ze heeft een paar jaar geleden een betere woning gekregen, een eindje verderop in de straat. Het was een voorrecht met de dames te spreken – wat heb ik als nieuwkomer in Berlijn (zelfs al was ik hier in 1992 voor het eerst) toch maar weinig van de geschiedenis van de stad meegemaakt!
Naschrift: om mevrouw Heinis dit verhaal te kunnen laten lezen, heb ik via internet contact gezocht met haar zoon. In zijn reactie noemde hij zijn moeder en tante ‘wandelende geschiedenisboeken’. Dat vond ik een mooie definitie van ‘oral history’, het vakbegrip onder historici voor het optekenen van ervaringen uit de mond van mensen die een gebeurtenis zelf hebben meegemaakt. Vaak een race tegen de tijd.
Until now. Because this week, on the return trip of our family holiday around Switzerland, the French Alps and Alsace, we made a stop at Speyer (or Spires) on the Rhine. This lovely town was a capital of sorts of the Salian dynasty – the family that supplied the Holy Roman Emperors between 1027 and 1125. Four of them (and another four from later dynasties) lie buried in the crypt of Speyer Cathedral.
The cathedral, the largest Romanesque one in the world since Cluny was destroyed, is a UNESCO World Heritage site, and it’s easy to see why. Because of its situation in the Rhine valley, and because the town doesn’t have many high rise buildings (except for a technology museum with a Lufthansa Boeing 747 mounted on a stick) the cathedral can be seen from far afield. As it would have been in the Middle Ages, again, except for the Jumbo.
The cathedral is huge, and completely dominates the quaint town centre. French troops destroyed it to such an extent during the Napoleonic wars (as they did, in fact, destroy Cluny) that it was no longer considered fit for religious service. At one point in the early nineteenth century, plans were even made to tear it down. Then a series of restorations set in – some less fortunate, some more so, until the cathedral ended up with a western facade that is reimagination of what its romanesque front must have looked like when it was built.
The cathedral has thus been externally complete since the late 1960s – but of course such a work of art is never finished, and fortunately, neither are the funds available for arts and culture in Germany. In 2012, the cathedral opened the next stage in its revenge on Napoleon: the Emperor’s Hall in the Westwork. Joining that, as a great public attraction, a new spiral staircase was built inside the south tower. Reaching 60 meters high, from the viewing platform at the top you get a great view of the Rhine valley, the hills of the Rhineland-Palatinate, and Heidelberg and the foothills of the Black Forest in the distance. It almost competes with the view of the eight dead emperors’ tombs down in the crypt…
It’s a convent now, not a monastery. It’s been a nunnery for much longer than it ever was a monks’ place. But it’s the word monasterium that lent its name to the town of Müstair, and to the valley it lies at the end of. It’s the easternmost municipality in Switzerland, located in the southeast corner of the canton of Grison (Graubünden in German).
Even though there’s a through road into Italy, and bikers, cyclists and sports car drivers all vie for road space further up the valley as they blast their way up the Umbrail and Stelvio passes, this place today feels like a dead end, and it’s all the better for it. A rare thing for an Alpine valley of any significance, it has no railway, and the valley stream, the Rum, or Rom, or whatever other vowels the local languages and dialects can throw at it, is left completely unchannelled and undammed.
When Charlemagne traversed this valley in 776, after defeating the Northern Italian kingdom of the Longobards, it was very much a crossroads of civilizations. To the south lay Italy, to the west Charlemagne’s traditional power base, the Frankish Empire, and to the north and east the Duchy of Bavaria – whose rulers, like the Longobards, were linked to Charlemagne by marriage, but all the same found themselves at the receiving end of his strategic planning not much later.
The founding myth of St. John’s monastery at Müstair says that Charlemagne got into trouble in a snowdrift on his descent down Umbrail pass, and when he finally made his way down to the valley floor safely, he thanked God by pleading to found an abbey. St. John’s perfectly shows the dichotomy that is Charlemagne: a brilliant and often brutal warlord, the monastery’s strategic location certainly wouldn’t have escaped him. Yet it is also a key example of the Carolingean Renaissance – the focus that King, and later Emperor, Charlemagne placed on education, unification of the Christian faith, the arts, and the rule of law.
The valley may be remote, but its beauty and significance are getting noticed. The monastery, of which church and chapel date back to the 700s, is a Unesco World Heritage site, and the whole valley, along with the Swiss National Park further up the road, has been declared a Unesco Bio Reserve.
The Swiss National Park – the country has only one, so that’s what it’s called – was created just over 100 years ago to preserve the Alpine ecosystem, not to showcase any particular bit of scenery. The authorities probably nominated this remote chunk of the country as the rest was already overtaken by mass tourism – Matterhorn was first ascended in 1865, and the opening of the narrow-gauge railway all the way inside and to the top of the Jungfrau (which ironically means virgin) in 1912 may have confirmed the decision.
The result is a pristine Alpine valley. The National Park, and areas beyond, offer great day hikes. The Müstair valley focuses on sustainable tourism and the network of postal buses that serve trailheads offers lots of one way hiking opportunities. Hiking signposts out in the woods even indicate which destinations are served by bus. The valley appears to have relatively little holiday apartments owned by absentee city dwellers, and many of its inhabitants run bio-responsible farms.
Judging by the number of “Gruezis” and “Allegras” (Allegra is the cheerful Romansh greeting) you hear on the trails and in the towns, this part of Switzerland is not yet overrun by package tours from overseas , but mainly serves the Swiss themselves. You could do worse than take their hint – the Swiss know a thing or two about natural beauty.
Added bonus in the lower part of the valley around Müstair is that all your pictures will be photo bombed by the crenelated silhouette of St. John’s monastery, and that the progress of your hiking will not only marked by the bells hung around the necks of cattle and goats, but also by those of the abbey.
Celebrating ‘Richtfest’, reaching a building’s highest point, is a German tradition. In the case of Berlin’s new Humboldt Forum, which we’re not supposed to call City Palace, the party arrived sooner than everyone thought, as the project is, shall we say, controversial. Many ostalgians prefer its predecessor, the GDR’s Palace of the Republic, ‘an architectural atrocity with orange windows and asbestos inside’, to quote The Economist. It was razed to the ground in 2008 to make way for the new City Palace Humboldt Forum.
The historical to-and-fro on this site is ironic: first there was the old City Palace, built by Andreas Schlüter and Eosander von Göthe around 1700. Last monarch to occupy it was Wilhelm II, who fled into Dutch exile in 1918. Heavily bombed in World War II (but not unsalvageable), the government of the GDR considered the palace such a poignant symbol of Prussian tyranny that they blew it up in 1950 – keeping only one part: the ‘Liebknecht portal’ which contains the balcony from which Communist leader Karl Liebknecht proclaimed the German Soviet Republic on 9 November 1918. The portal was integrated in the Staatsrat building, Erich Honecker’s office, just across the road from where the palace had been. Then, in the 1970s, the GDR’s bronze glass and asbestos Palace of the Republic was built on the site previously occupied by the City Palace. As the GDR itself got confined to history, so did the Palace of the Republic, and things went full circle as construction of the new Humboldt Forum, a replica of the old City Palace, is now halfway completed.
Funding of the Humboldt Forum project has always been precarious. In the end, the German federal government agreed to foot the bill for the new ethnology museum that the palace will house and which had to be built anyway. But the cost of the baroque stonemasonry that will make the building look like its 1702 predecessor has to come from private funds, and the money isn’t fully there yet – hence the hearts and minds (and money) exercise organised over the weekend of 12 to 14 June 2015. If all goes well, ironically, Berlin will have two Liebknecht portals (one on the Staatsrat, one on the Humboldt Forum), but no more communism.
Most of the thousands of visitors to this weekend’s open house looked like Berliners – they certainly were different from the hordes of tourists in shorts and sunglasses hanging out in Lustgarten outside. Most people were over 50, conservatively dressed – West or East Berlin, or from outside the city? Hard to tell.
The fundraisers for the palace’s completion got ample exhibition space, but the open house wasn’t a begging exercise – access was free, and the collection boxes weren’t that conspicuous. If anything, the Humboldt Forum’s partners got pride of place. On each corner of the building, the neighbours got the opportunity to present themselves – the German Historical Museum across the road on Unter den Linden, the project to reconstruct Schinkel’s red-brick Academy of Architecture, the Foreign Office, the management institute that occupies the GDR’s former Council of State, and so on.
Students from the Hanns Eisler music academy, which is housed in the Marstall, the stables and service building of the old City Palace, played jazzy big band tunes which fitted right in with the visitors’ demographics.
Although touring the second floor would find you some non-standard catering, including an Israeli falafel stand, the main entrance hall of course contained the staple of any German festival: a bratwurst stand and a beer wagon. So far, so traditional.
Hard to say when the next time will be Joe Public can go see the City Palace. Maybe it will only be by the time the Humboldt Forum actually opens – and Neil McGregor, current director of the British Museum, connoisseur of all things German and curator of the excellent ‘Memories of a Nation’ exhibition, will have woven his magic wand over the Forum’s concept and content.
Follow the Strasse des 17. Juni all the way west from Brandenburg Gate and after about 10 km you will find yourself in the leafy area of Berlin’s West End. There are two poignant war memorial sites here: the 1936 Olympic complex with its Langemarck Hall, honouring the German dead of World War I, and the 1939-1945 Berlin Commonwealth War Cemetery.
Berlin’s sports complex for the 1936 Olympics and the Langemarck Hall
Berlin’s huge Olympic site in the West End is one of those projects, like the Autobahns, that are usually credited to Hitler but which were actually conceived in the era of the Weimar Republic. Hitler knew a good idea when he saw it but would normally add his own perverted twists.
In the case of the Reichssportfeld, this involved turning the original design for the Olympic Stadium, which was Bauhaus-inspired with lots of steel and glass, into the traditional Nazi design language of forbidding stone cladding and intimidating Doric columns.
Hitler also added the Maifeld to the west of the stadium, a huge parade ground where the Party could marshal hundreds of thousands of people for mass gatherings, and an amphitheatre for open air performances (known as Waldbühne today and still used for performances). Then there was the Olympic Bell Tower (Glockenturm) overlooking the Maifeld and the Olympic Stadium (and much of the rest of Berlin besides – very much worth a visit!).
But the structure most telling of Hitler’s belligerent intentions, already as early as 1936, was the Langemarckhalle, at the base of the Bell Tower. Langemar(c)k is the name of a Flemish village near Ypres, where one of the first entrenched battles of World War I took place in October 1914. Many young German volunteers lost their lives, and in Germany the name became symbolic for the horrors of war but also for the heroism of the soldiers who died.
The Nazis used Langemarck in their propaganda whenever the topic of World War I arose – which it frequently did, as the platform on which the NSDAP had come to power was the shame of Germany losing WW I, and the Stab-in-the-back myth of Socialist and other mainstream parties agreeing the November 1918 armistice, where, if left to fight on, the German army could have won the war .
But in the runup to the 1936 Olympics, Hitler took Langemarck propaganda one step further in creating a direct link between sportsmanship and the heroism of fighting and dying in battle. By building this rather grim memorial to the dead of World War I at the centre of the Reich’s most prestigious sports facilities, he managed to frame the Olympics, for the German population at least, as a kind of preparation for the struggle to come.
The 1939-1945 Berlin War Cemetery
A different, and far more peaceful, kind of war memorial is the 1939-1945 Berlin War Cemetery, managed by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. Just over a kilometre away from the Bell Tower, at the northern edge of Grunewald forest, this site is the central burial place for British and Commonwealth airmen killed over Eastern Germany, as well as for killed prisoners of war.
Most of the fallen at this cemetery were bomber crews – the survival rate of flying staff in the R.A.F. was only 44%. Crews lie buried together whenever possible. The cemetery was opened in 1945 and bodies of airmen were soon collected from all over Eastern Germany to receive their final resting place here, in what was then the British sector of West Berlin.
Visiting the cemetery is a familiar experience for anyone who has been to a Commonwealth war cemetery anywhere else – the same headstones, the same simple descriptions of rank and date of death, and often an inscription chosen by the dead man’s relatives. The grass and flowers are meticulously kept by the cemetery’s groundsmen, and the atmosphere is very much one of peace – sadness yes, but definitely peace, and gratitude for those that gave their lives.
There couldn’t be a more different approach to honouring a country’s fallen soldiers than between the Langemarckhalle and the Berlin War Cemetery. Visiting them together makes for a fascinating half day away from the bustle of central Berlin. The stark contrast between the two memorials is a great reminder of the power and the dangers of propaganda, and clearly shows the difference between how democratic and totalitarian countries come to terms with their history.
Paul Theroux, the grumpy travel author, complained in The Pillars of Hercules (in which he travels around the Mediterranean clockwise, from Gibraltar to Ceuta), that he had already had enough of Roman amphitheatres by the time he reached Valencia. By that time, he’d barely covered half of Spain, and he still had the whole Mediterranean seaboard to go.
No chance of overkill by amphitheatres in Northern Europe though. The Romans faithfully maintained their northern limes with army camps (familiar to Asterix lovers) and occasional cities for retired legionnaires, but there weren’t many sites for high-brow cultural entertainment (such as gladiator battling with wild animals).
But at Xanten, a small town on the banks of the Rhine halfway between Düsseldorf and the Dutch border, there was an amphitheatre, and what’s more, it’s been reconstructed. Since the site of the former army camp was discovered in the 1930s, many former buildings have been restored and the park is a huge hit with German and Dutch grammar school classes.
And for good reason: in all of Northern Europe, there isn’t anything remotely as powerful to suggest the might of the Romans on the edge of their Empire – Hadrian’s Wall is probably the only site to surpass it. In Roman days, Xanten was named Colonia Ulpia Traiana, which neatly takes us to the dead Emperor whose name it bore:
Marcus Ulpius Traianus, or Trajan to his English friends, was one of Edward Gibbons’ Five Good Emperors, all others having done more harm than good to the Empire. Trajan is not only known for being a Good Emperor, embellishing Rome with a Forum, a market and his self-named Column, but he also took the Roman Empire to its greatest geographical stretch by the end of his reign in 117.
The Colonia at Xanten was very much on the limes – the name that classicists traditionally have used for the fortified border of the Roman Empire, but wikipedia says that this use of limes is all wrong: the Romans themselves are supposed to have called it the Munimentum Traiani, or Trajan’s Bulwark – I’m quite happy to go with that too, as it fits nicely with Trajan’s colony on the Rhine!
But whatever the politically correct name of the limes on the Rhine may be, its remains are getting ever more attention. German paper Die Welt reported recently that the adjacent countries and regions are nominating the whole stretch, from Remagen (famous with WW2 movie fans) down to where the Rhine meets the North Sea at Katwijk, as a Unesco World Heritage site.
I’d be very happy if that happened – as a boy I lived in Wageningen, on the banks of the Rhine, which once was thought to have been the Roman army camp Vada, and our Dutch house is in Oegstgeest, also on the limes and close to where the northernmost branch of the Rhine flows down to the sea. Living right on this historical frontier always made a great impression on me, and I’d love this heritage to get the recognition and publicity it deserves.
Most people who catch the S-Bahn for a day trip to Potsdam or Oranienburg are on their way to UNESCO-listed Sans-Souci, or Sachsenhausen concentration camp. But if you have a little more time, there is a strong Dutch influence in these erstwhile royal residences that dates over three centuries back, but is still, or rather again, very visible today. Sit down and relax for a story of Brandenburg’s relationship with Holland, and a quick history of the ruling Hohenzollerns thrown in.
The Thirty Years’ War
To get started, we need to dig up some 17th century history. The Thirty-Years War (1618-1648), a rather complicated geo-political-religious fracas in which various German, Austrian, Swedish, Danish, Polish and Baltic forces were involved, ravaged most of modern-day Germany, but was especially hard on the Mark of Brandenburg. An area with no natural borders but lying at the crossroads between all the above countries, it was extremely hard to defend against competing bands of marauding soldiers, even if the Elector at the time, George William, had not been such a shilly-shallying procrastinator. But this Hohenzollern ruler was competent enough to realise that his son and successor, Frederick William (1620-1688), would not be safe from enemy soldiers and rampant disease in Brandenburg. The son, who would later be known as ‘The Great Elector’, was packed off to his relatives in the House of Orange in the relative safety of the United Provinces, as the Netherlands were then known.
Calvinist Holland at that moment was experiencing its Golden Age – despite being tied up in a religious and political revolt against Catholic Spain, which technically still owned it. This Golden Age, remembered today by the splendid paintings of Rembrandt, Vermeer and Jan Steen, impressed in those days by a maritime empire that spread from current New York, via the Carribean, bits of Brazil, Ghana, the Cape, Goa, and Sri Lanka to Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia.
There was also a less spectacular, but even more lucrative fleet trading wood, herring and grain with the Baltics. To top it all, Dutch military forces were well-trained, efficiently managed, and more or less well-behaved. Frederick William observed how his relative, Viceroy Frederick Henry of Orange, besieged the city of Breda in 1637 and eventually beat the Spanish troops occupying it. He attended Leyden University, which at the time was the leading centre of international law, featuring professors such as Hugo Grotius, who had a profound influence on his sense of legal propriety and the relationship between rulers and the governed. And, finally coming to the point of this story, in 1647 Frederick Wilhelm acquired a Dutch wife, Princess Louise Henriette of Nassau (1627-1667), daughter of Frederick Henry.
It is clear that when Frederick William ascended the throne of his ravaged country in 1640, his ideas on how to run it were very much influenced by what he had seen in the Netherlands. He set about creating a standing army, which steadily grew during his 48 year reign. Having his own army, he was not dependent, like his father, on a system of unreliable alliances but rather could steer his own course and choose his own coalition partners. The nascent military bureaucracy also served as the foundation of an efficient Prussian state, and helped curtail the power of the landed gentry. Frederick William put his army to good use when he chased the Swedes (who had continued pestering Northern Germany even after the Thirty Years’ War) away for good at the Battle of Fehrbellin (1675) – the feat which earned him the lasting epithet ‘The Great Elector’.
The first years of their marriage, with war still raging in Brandenburg, Frederick William and Louise Henriette spent in the comparative calm and civilisation of Cleves (a Hohenzollern possession near the Dutch border), but by 1648, when the Peace Treaty of Westphalia had been signed, the couple moved to Berlin. Frederick William presented his wife with a hunting lodge in the hamlet of Bötzow, and she soon set to work remodelling it into a palace. She called it Oranienburg, and the town was so pleased with the additional status that the palace conferred that they dropped the Bötzow name and adopted the name of the palace. Louise Henriette’s Dutch background showed in the paintings she brought to the palace, and the porcelain collection that she put on display there. She also made her mark by introducing Dutch methods of animal husbandry, brewing and brick manufacturing, which helped Brandenburg overcome the depressed state of its economy following the destruction of the Thirty Years’ War.
When Louise Henriette died in 1667, her son, Frederick III (from 1701 King Frederick I), continued embellishing and expanding Oranienburg in his mother’s honour, until, around 1700, it was said to be the most impressive Hohenzollern palace of all. But soon after, it was overtaken in grandeur by Schlüter’s Berlin City Palace, and when Frederick’s wife Sophie Charlotte died in 1705, he started using her former palace, renamed to Charlottenburg, as a summer retreat instead. You can see the white stucco of Oranienburg’s palace on the banks of the Havel river from far away, and it completely dominates the centre of the town – which otherwise still very much bears the mark of the GDR years. In the years since it lost importance as a royal residence, the palace has served all sorts of purposes, from housing a chemical factory (the fumes of which destroyed all the frescos on the ceilings), to military and police barracks for Imperial, Nazi, Russian and GDR troops. It was renovated and turned into a museum as recently as 2001 – and what a lovely place it has become. Besides the paintings and the porcelain, there is a good overview of the reign of the Great Elector, and the museum guides (the palace can only be visited by guided tour) are friendly and knowledgeable.
At the back of the palace, there is a rather innocent, even elegant looking extension – until you read that it was built in 1938 by Himmler as a training centre for SS officers. Oh well – German history is never entirely idyllic.
S1 to Oranienburg, then bus 824 or walk 1 km. Approx. 1 hour.
Potsdam – the Dutch Quarter
Moving on to Potsdam to visit its Dutch Quarter (Holländisches Viertel), we find ourselves in the period of one Hohenzollern ruler later – by this time, King Frederick William (called the “Soldier King”, for his military focus, simple tastes and parsimonious nature) had ascended the throne. Whereas his father’s lavish outlays on palaces, the arts, and especially his own crowning ceremony (1701) had put a severe financial burden on his territories, the Soldier King cut back spending on such non-essentials immediately and focused on the army and state bureaucracy.
Like his grandfather the Great Elector before him, Frederick William had visited the Netherlands. He went on a prolonged study trip to Amsterdam and the Hague in 1704/05, and came back impressed with the advanced state of its economy and the efficiency of its architecture. Towards the end of his reign, he invited Amsterdam carpenter Jan Bouman to build a neighbourhood of 136 Dutch-style houses in Potsdam, hoping this might attract Dutch artisans and merchants to Brandenburg. Bouman duly built the Dutch Quarter in the years from 1733 to 1740, but the hoped-for immigrants never arrived, and the houses were mainly used by French and Prussian merchants and artists.
The Dutch Quarter today looks brand new – after a long period of neglect during the GDR years, its restauration was finished in 2014. Princess Beatrix, the Dutch ex-queen, has been spotted shopping in its streets, and it is rumoured the House of Orange contributed to its restoration. The neighbourhood is laid out along a grid of two crossing streets, Mittel- and Benkertstrasse, creating four large blocks of houses. As Bouman came from Amsterdam, it is assumed he modelled the houses on those in the “Jordaan” neighbourhood. There are plenty of cafes, restaurants, fashion, flower and souvenir shops, but make sure you don’t miss the little Bouman-Museum – this is one of the best kept houses, complete with period furniture, interesting displays on the history of the quarter, and with original outbuildings towards the back and a pretty little garden.
For people from Holland who are familiar with this kind of house in, let’s say, Leiden, Delft or Gouda, visiting the Bouman house is a strange experience – everything looks familiar, but also slightly foreign. It’s only after a little while that you realise that the houses are actually much bigger than they would have been in Holland – the street fronts are probably 50% wider than a typical Dutch workers’ house would be.
Frederick William, the Soldier King, died just before the Dutch Quarter was finished, but his son, Frederick II (who later became known as Frederick the Great, or ‘Alter Fritz’) made sure the original plans were carried out.
S7 or DB to Potsdam, then tram 92 or 96 to Nauener Tor, 1 hour approx.
Jan Bouman, one of the greatest architects you’ve probably never heard of, was then honoured with the task of supervising construction of Frederick the Great’s beloved Sans-Souci palace (the designs were drawn by Frederick himself, together with Georg Knobelsdorff). He created further works in Potsdam (Berlin Gate, City Hall), but soon moved to Berlin, where he built the predecessor of the current Berliner Dom, worked on St. Hedwig’s Cathedral, and, most famously, built Prince Henry’s palace, more familiar today as the main building of the Humboldt University on Unter den Linden. His first son Michael Philipp, by then Germanized to the name of Boumann, continued the family tradition by building Schloss Bellevue (today the seat of Germany’s Federal President), while the second son, Georg Friedrich, built the Royal Library (now known to Berliners as the ‘Commode’), on August-Bebel-Platz. And so, after our day trips to Oranienburg and Potsdam, the Bouman(n) family has taken us back to central Berlin.
In the first half of 2015, Europe celebrates the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II. On an almost daily basis, you can follow the Allies’ progress across occupied Europe by following commemoration events – from the liberation of Auschwitz on 27 January to the Battle of Berlin from 20 April onwards, and the final surrender of the German High Command at Berlin-Karlshorst on 8 May. (Use Liberation Route Europe’s excellent app – LRE in your app store – for details on the route).
Even with Germany over 50% occupied by Allied forces by February 1945, and no realistic hope of a military victory, Adolf Hitler and his staff showed no signs of surrender, instead preferring to fight to the bitter end – bringing country and population down with them (read Ian Kershaw’s excellent The End for an analysis of why they might have done that). To force a surrender, the Allies had to conquer Berlin. The job was left to the Soviet forces advancing from the East, and the first step was the Battle of Seelow Heights.
Road tripping the B1
I decided to go and see the battlefield. Seelow is a small market town on the B1 road, close to where it crosses the Oder River. The B1 used to be Reichsstrasse 1, which once ran all the way across Prussia, some 1300 km from the Dutch border at Aachen in the west to Königsberg (today’s Kaliningrad) in the east. (It actually shares its roots in middle Germany with the Westfalischer Hellweg, which dates back to Charlemagne. But that is another story).
There’s trains to Seelow, but driving the road that the Red Army needed to secure for their final assault on Berlin does add to the experience. Berlin to Seelow is easy – just point east on Karl-Marx-Allee and keep going. It takes about 90 minutes and takes you across a varied landscape – after the GDR high rises of Marzahn, the road continues as a 4-lane highway up to Berlin’s outer ring road (A10) – but the cityscape quickly changes to typical one or two storey Brandenburg farm houses – interspersed with a variety of not too prosperous looking businesses.
Once you’re across the A10, the road narrows to two lanes, and the country becomes slightly hillier, with the occasional S-bend in the road. It also passes the Nature Reserve of “Märkische Schweiz”, an example of the strange German custom of calling any area that is slightly hillier than the surrounding landscape “Switzerland”.
As you approach Seelow, you can tell you’re getting close to the Polish border. In the last stand of woods before the town, even in mid-winter, there are girls sitting by the side of the road, waving at passing motorists, and chatting (to each other?) on their mobiles.
The Battle – first they took Seelow Heights, then they took Berlin
Marshall Georgy Zhukov, the commander of the 1st Belorussian Front, had been pushing back Nazi forces through Ukraine and Poland since October 1943. In January 1945, he finally reached the Oder-Neisse line, at Kostrzyn, the point where Reichsstrasse 1 crossed the river. Here, his armies kept their position in the floodplain of the Oder river, only 70 km from Berlin’s Alexanderplatz, waiting for other Soviet army units to spread to the north and south, to allow for fully encircling Berlin.
By 16 April, sufficient forces had finished their mopping-up operations further east for the final push to the German capital. General Theodor Busse’s 9th Army, consisting mainly of under-armed Hitler Jugend boys and little-trained Volksstorm fighters, had prepared its defences on a a north-south ridge in the landscape some 90 m high, flanking the Oder’s flood plain and centred on Seelow – where Reichsstrasse 1 scaled the Heights.
The attack started before dawn. The Red Army used runway floodlights to light the battlefield and blind their opponents, but in the early morning mists, they only served to backlight the advancing infantry. Pushing across the muddy floodplain up onto the well-defended heights (which, from any distance, look deceptively flat) proved to be more difficult than expected, and the battle dragged on for days, causing heavy casualties on both sides.
Only by the fourth day of fighting, the Soviet troops managed to break the German forces’ third line of defence at Seelow, and from then on, not much stood in their way until reaching Berlin’s city limits. The Battle of Seelow Heights turned out to be the last entrenched battle of the war between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, with tens of thousands of losses on both sides.
The Monument and Museum
After the Battle of Berlin, the Red Army wanted to honour its dead and mark its victory. Marshall Zhukov, who stayed on as military commander of Berlin and the Soviet occupation zone, commissioned three monuments immediately after hostilities ceased in May 1945: the famous Soviet War memorial on Strasse des 17. Juni in Berlin’s Tiergarten, the monument at Seelower Heights, and an obelisk at Kostrzyn, just up the road in Poland, which was removed in 2008.
The monument at Seelow was created by Lev Kerbel, who also designed the Tiergarten memorial. The Red Army didn’t waste time: both monuments were inaugurated in November 1945. The Seelow statue shows a Red Army soldier with his hand on the turret of a defeated German tank. From the beginning, the memorial included war graves, but most Soviet and German casualties of the battle are buried elsewhere, at Lebus and Lietzen cemeteries respectively.
The museum is worth a visit. It’s fully bilingual in German and English, and like so many monuments in the former GDR, it has an interesting history in its own right. It was built in 1972 to complement the War Memorial on the hill, and has the shape of a typical Russian bunker. It was meant to pay tribute to the Red Army, and cement the everlasting friendship between the socialist peoples of the German Democratic Republic and the Soviet Union.
Although no one disputes the heroism of the Red Army soldiers giving their lives for the final push to rid Europe of the Nazi regime, after German reunification questions arose on the overtly political slant of the museum’s displays. The exhibition texts were rewritten and by 1995 the current displays had been created. The museum now tries to do justice to victims on either side.
There’s no catering (or other facilities) at the museum, but Seelow has a nice town square, with some cafes and restaurants to make up for it. Unfortunately, the battlefield itself, in the floodplains below Seelow, is not signposted, and there aren’t any other monuments beside the main one, so after finishing your Kaffee und Kuchen, you’re probably best off following the Red Army’s tracks back up the B1 to Berlin.
Today, there is not a lot of heavy industry left in Berlin. The city that once was the home of huge factories like Siemens, Borsig, and AEG never recovered from World War II. What wasn’t bombed by the R.A.F. and the US Air Force was dismantled and carried off by the Soviet, French, and British occupying forces, what wasn’t dismantled was either nationalised (in East-Berlin), or was left to die a slow death in the isolation of post-war West-Berlin.
But there’s an exception: BMW’s motorcycle factory in Spandau. Since 1969, BMW has built all its motorbikes at this site (with the exception of the original F-series 1-cylinder bike in the 1990s). Today, some 110.000 bikes leave the factory each year for shipment over the world. That may sound like a lot, but Honda, its largest Japanese competitor, builds five times as many – and that’s down from a peak of 3 million in 1982.
BMW relocated its bike production to Berlin as it was running out of space in its factories in Bavaria. But it had a long history at the site. Originally built as an airplane engine plant by Siemens in 1928 (the factory is adjacent to an area called Siemensstadt, a complex of factories and modernist flats for workers, now a Unesco World Heritage site), it was spun off as ‘Brandenburgische Motoren Werke’ or Bramo in 1936 – after all, the BMW acronym was already being spoken for. The plant built radial engines for planes such as the Junckers Ju52/3m – known throughout Germany as the Tante Ju (Auntie Ju), the German equivalent to the reliable and multipurpose DC3 ‘Dakota’.
By 1939, BMW, by then a motorcycle, aeroplane engine and motor car producer, acquired Bramo and continued building aircraft engines at the site. After World War II, the plant’s equipment was dismantled by the Allies. Low scale production of useful stuff like sickles and scythes continued at the factory, but it returned to full operations in 1949, constructing motor cycle parts for BMWs assembled in Bavaria.
What certainly influenced BMW to bring all motorcycle production to Spandau were the lavish subsidies the Senate granted to anyone wishing to invest in West-Berlin – a sum of 200 million Marks (in 1969 money!) was granted just to redevelop the site. But whatever the original motive – the company has stayed the course, and is even expanding. It’s bought a plot of land adjacent to the factory to build a new assembly hall.
When you take a tour of the factory (6 euros, book through the bmw.de website), you see why they need the extra space: while quaint, the long history of the factory means that it consists of a large number of smallish buildings, some from the early 20th century, and the logistics of keeping everything organised must be a nightmare.
As mentioned, the production numbers at BMW Motorrad (the subbrand’s official name) are not spectacular as far as global bike factories go – but then, as BMW likes to point out, they are a high end brand, and there’s a lot of manual labour in constructing each bike. One of the interesting things you see on the tour is how much of the work is done by hand. There’s robots for the heavy and dangerous stuff, but a lot of the assembly work is done by people who have usually entered the factory as trainees straight out of school, and are quite happy to spend their whole careers there. In Berlin terms, they are good jobs to have.