Wednesday, 19 March 2014
What will I discover on my day trip to Salzwedel? It is not a place I have ever heard of, this small town at the north-western edge of Sachsen-Anhalt. Yet, like so many other little and little-known places in this region, it turns out to be full of interesting links to history.
Its name already tells a story. Since antiquity, valuable wares were transported over long distances at great cost and high risk to the merchants, for numerous tolls had to be paid and bands of brigands to be fought off. And so it was that only the most precious goods made such an enterprise worthwhile: silk and spices, for example, amber, silver and salt … In any Northern German place name, the ending ‘-wedel’ is synonymous with ‘–ford’ (as in Dartford, Castleford, Stratford and Oxford) and points to locations where a river was fordable. In this case, it is the Jeetze River that was traversed by one of the old salters’ roads, along which the precious commodity of salt – Salz – travelled. It is the place where salt crossed the river: Salzwedel.
Here, a fortress watched over this trade route which extended from the salt mines in Halle to the great cities of the North-West, and undoubtedly levied a toll for the protection it offered. Albrecht the Bear of the House of Askania made this fortress, Burg Salzwedel, his temporary home in the twelfth century. He is regarded as the founder of the town, though an earlier settlement in this location is known to date back to the year 800. The fortress of ‘Soltwidele’ is mentioned in surviving documents as early as 1112, and Salzwedel as a town for the first time in 1233. Thirty years later, it is already a member of the Hanse, that powerful union of German tradesmen. (The Hanseatic League was an early insurance scheme founded to protect the guild by spreading the risks of trade while sharing the profits. It also represented and defended the members’ interests abroad and soon became not only a commercial, but also a political influence of the first order, as well as an important cultural factor.)
But not all was well, as is usually the case when many souls are living together: Salzwedel’s protective ring wall enclosed a divided town. Old Town and New Town (‘new’ meaning it was founded as late as 1247) indulged in a love-hate relationship at close quarters for nearly five hundred years, their rivalry making two town halls and two mayors necessary, as well as separate churches, schools and town gates. A part of the ring wall and two of the old gates remain, but the division was overcome.
However, it was not until 1713 that these segregated communities became one; not by choice, but by royal decree. Friedrich Wilhelm I of Prussia ordered – which means forced – the two halves to unite to what became known as Hansestadt Salzwedel.
This interesting fact is not apparent to the visitor. Instead, one notices the rows of beautifully restored half-timbered houses, with their delicate colours and variations in the pattern of beams, brickwork and doorways.
Almost life-sized figures, headed by the date 1600, are carved with artistic energy into the woodwork, while carefully lettered verses run along the main beams of house fronts and remind readers of the temporary nature of life, or beseech the Lord for protection from fire.
Some buildings even go back to the 1500s. One is in effect walking through medieval alleys here, but without the filth and stench. All is clean and neat and attractive, and strangely bare of people on this Wednesday afternoon. The population of Salzwedel is clearly not in the habit of strolling or loitering.
An immaculate stretch of new cobblestones is laid out in a quiet lane, still without the filling. The chunky, square pieces of granite fan out in delicate curves with organic regularity, like a pattern found in nature.
In a peaceful square of the former Old Town, partly lined by ancient lime trees, the Marienkirche points its spire at the sky. Its slightly crooked tower is the emblem of Salzwedel. Local legend tells of Jan Kahl, a giant, who lived beyond the forest and was angered when the tower was completed (about 1496) and reached beyond eighty metres in height. He was used to being the tallest landmark around and meant to teach those tiny, impertinent humans a lesson by hurling an erratic boulder. It missed the tower, but the turbulence of air and the tremor of earth as it crashed to the ground caused the spire to quake and lose its former perfect uprightness … Unsurprisingly, though, experts remain convinced that the tower’s crookedness stems from deficient trusses.
Today, the Marienkirche is a historic monument, a national treasure and a fine example of the Redbrick Gothic style that dominates the North-German Plain, since there has always been a dearth of natural building stones in this area.
From around 1200 it was constantly altered and rebuilt for three centuries, finally emerging in 1550 as the gothic basilica with five naves we see today, and remaining essentially unaltered in its architectural substance. A wonderful tripartite altarpiece by an unknown master was put up in 1510. It is the largest in the Altmark and shows scenes from the life and death of Christ in thirty-one panels, intricately carved from wood.
A Renaissance baptismal font in bronze by Hans von Köln was added in 1522. It was designed so that the water could be heated to a pleasant degree, and infants would not shrink back and cry at the very moment of being received into the holy faith.
1541 is presumed to be the year the congregation adopted the new Lutheran evangelical faith. Before the Reformation did away with such fripperies, the church had accommodated twenty-eight side altars and services often went on simultaneously in different parts of the huge interior. Large numbers of priests were employed to hold masses in rotation, masses donated by individuals, by families or fraternities; and sometimes processions took place while the townsfolk met and worshipped. This lively usage of a great church I should have liked to witness, as a glimpse of the life of past times … The building, though magnificent, seems incomplete without attenders.
In the mid-seventeen hundreds, the prolific and highly-regarded organ builder Joachim Wagner installed a baroque organ. It was to be his last – he died before it was finished. One of his pupils completed the instrument, but it did not survive into our times. Only the original, baroque organ prospect remains and now fronts a more contemporary instrument.
The Marienkirche survived both World Wars without damage, but had to sacrifice its bells to the armaments industry. Never before had I realized that bullets or cannons were sometimes cast from church bells, in a perverse reversal of swords being converted to ploughshares … I also learn that in the Second World War, the melting down of the nation’s church bells slyly served the purpose of silencing the powerful voice of Christian religion – with its inopportune commandment ‘thou shalt not kill’ – under the pretext of urgently needed metal reserves. But the speed with which those bells were later replaced shows how important their ringing remained to the people. Here, too, the full set of six bells has long since been restored. More food for thought can be found in the fact that the youngest of these bells is named Shalom – the Hebrew word for peace.
Near the church, I find the house where the noble family von Westphalen welcomed the birth of daughter Jenny in 1814. Her father was the well-connected district administrator of Salzwedel, but she became more widely known as the wife of Karl Marx. At the age of seventeen, Jenny declined a suitable offer of marriage and later became secretly engaged to Marx, who, four years her junior and the son of a provincial lawyer, was not a good match for a baron’s daughter. Their engagement, reluctantly accepted by her family, was to last for seven years (while Marx matured in pursuing his studies abroad) and they were finally married in June 1843, after a decent period of mourning her father’s death. In Jenny, Karl Marx had found a supportive partner in his struggle for a new world order. Despite her pampered childhood and privileged upbringing, she followed him into penury and a restless and self-sacrificing life, faithful to the end.
To his grief, she predeceased him: “The letters of condolence I have received (…) are all animated with a spirit of truthfulness and profound feeling in honour of Möhmchen, as is seldom the case in such conventional statements. I explain this with the fact that everything about her was natural and truthful, unselfconscious, never artificial; therefore also her impression on others lively, full of light. Even Frau Hess writes: ‘In her, Nature has destroyed her own masterpiece, for in my whole life I have never met with such a brilliant and loving woman.’”
Their youngest daughter, Eleanor Marx, observed, “It is no exaggeration to say that, without Jenny von Westphalen, Karl Marx could never have been what he was. They were perfectly matched and completed each other (…) And I believe that a tie as strong as their commitment to the cause of the working class bound them – their inexhaustible, indestructible humour.”
Friedrich Engels, long-term friend and comrade, also mourned her loss: “What such a woman, with a keen, critical mind, with such political tact, with such energy and passion of character, with such commitment to her comrades, has accomplished in our movement over almost forty years – that has not penetrated into the public awareness; it is not written in the annals of the contemporary press. It had to be witnessed personally. (…) We shall often enough have reason to miss her bold and clever advice – bold without boastfulness, clever without ever being dishonourable.”
Jenny Marx remains, of all the sons and daughters of Salzwedel, undoubtedly the most impressive – yet I had never even heard of her! But there is still more to learn, this time about a local delicacy:
Salzwedel produces a kind of cake that resembles a slice of tree trunk when cut and is therefore called Baumkuchen, ‘tree cake’. Salzwedeler Baumkuchen has been served at banquets of the European nobility for about a hundred and fifty years to date. It is sold in bakeries specializing in its manufacture, for it requires a large spit-like revolving cylinder on which the batter is brushed and baked in those thin, even layers that give the effect of year rings when cut.
Usually, this ‘trunk’ is made up of fifteen to twenty layers of batter and can be three to four feet in length. It tastes blandly sweet, with a hint of vanilla, and is also sold in various cut shapes, glazed with fondant, covered in white or dark chocolate, or as an uncut trunk, sprinkled with decorative sugar flowers for special events.
Imbued with new impressions and the sweet flavour of bakery products, I leave Salzwedel behind. The road towards Bergen soon passes a large sign commemorating its intersection with the line along which Germany, and Europe, had been divided by the Iron Curtain until November 10, 1989, at midnight.
Salzwedel, in close proximity to this heavily guarded border, served as base for the helicopter squadron of the GDR’s border control force. Yet its location also exposed it to radio waves and TV news from the West, and it easily received those rays of information that poked holes in the dense veil of a dictatorial government’s … ahem … miscommunication.
What an interesting day this has been!