The Solo Traveller's View

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Saturday, 22 February 2014

Today’s excursion to Leipzig begins with a walk through silent pine woods to the tiny local train station, where a ticket vending machine snatches my twenty-euro bill with unexpected vigour, as if to prevent me from changing my mind. The slogan “GEGEN NAZIS!!!” (against Nazis) catches my eye. The large letters of this forceful statement have been drawn carefully with a broad brush and lime green paint, underscoring the station’s name panels. It is just before nine o’clock, and a peaceful Saturday morning until a scruffy youngster comes along with a device in the pocket of his trousers that are hanging at half-mast, emitting blaring sounds that can be called music only in the loosest sense of the word: they resemble a cacophony of hammers striking metal planks and give the impression that a clanking factory accompanies his strides. All eyes on the platform follow as he huddles in the shelter opposite the tracks.

The train is scheduled for 08.54. Cold wind and the youth’s intrusive machinery-noises make the wait unpleasant, but it is of short duration. At 08.53 precisely, the train from Wittenberg glides into the station. Five people board, and exactly on time we depart, heading for Leipzig, leaving the youngster and his sound factory behind. I study the German passengers – their faces, their dress, their gestures – and my impression is that, unless they speak, they are pretty much indistinguishable from the population of Britain. Each type, every temperament and expression could be matched with an exact counterpart somewhere in the soggy kingdom, I’m sure.

Outside the windows the wide plain flies past, punctuated by marshes, copses of birch and fir woods, fields and raised deer-watching hutches, and also by artificial lakes that filled up the open pits of former brown-coal mines. Glades of wind turbines and acres of solar panels can be seen at times. Run-down and bricked-up station buildings, redundant in this age of ticket machines, are covered in colourful sprayers’ tags. Long, bleached grass grows over abandoned tracks; brick walls crumble. A bleak look of neglect hangs about these small, rural settlements and makes our arrival at the terminus, nearly an hour later, all the more stunning. For Leipzig’s main station is one of the largest in Europe; a magnificent stone edifice dating from the turn of the last century, its interior elegantly modernized. Below the tracks, shopping arcades are lined with international brand names. Spotless public toilets, supervised by a friendly cleaner on duty, stand to attention for one euro.

It is not immediately apparent which exit will take me towards the old town, so I approach a young couple to make enquiries. They interrupt their private conversation willingly and point me in the right direction. It strikes me anew that whenever I have dealings with members of the German public, be they shop assistants, museum staff or strangers in the street, their manner is always a touch more genuinely pleasant than is commonly expected and strictly necessary. Their educated friendliness, their heartfelt desire to be helpful surprises and moves me every time. This is totally unlike the German image as it is commonly portrayed in the Anglophone world.

Now I walk along wide, cobbled city streets into the peaceful pedestrian zone, taking care not to collide with the cyclists that sometimes zoom noiselessly around corners. Leipzig is indeed a grand old town, its inner circle stuffed to the brim with things of historic interest. My first goal is the Nikolaikirche, a Protestant church with several claims to fame: Luther, Bach, the ‘Monday Demonstrations’ …

Church of St Nicholas

I take advantage of the guided tour that is about to begin. A fair-sized group of visitors has come together to learn about this church, and we are fortunate in our guide who has a witty and well-informed mind. From him we learn that Leipzig began around the year 900 as a Slavic settlement on a slight elevation in the difficult and unattractive swampland of three rivers, but owed its quick rise to importance to the fact that two Roman main roads, the Via Regia and the Via Imperii, crossed here and linked the four directions of the compass to a centre of brisk trade. In 1165 Libzi, ‘Place of the Linden Trees’, was granted the state of a free market town, and at the same time the city fathers dedicated their new parish church to St Nicholas, patron saint of traders. This church of the citizenry soon acquired a rival in the Church of St Thomas, built as part of the local Augustinian Monastery, and their uneasy relationship became tenser still during the time of the Reformation, when the Church of St Nicholas welcomed Luther’s ideas and embraced the new Evangelical faith in 1539. The pulpit Luther preached from is preserved and can be seen in a side chapel.

The Church of St Nicholas underwent the same sequence of transformations that characterizes so many important edifices of the times: It grew from Romanesque beginnings and eventually was extended as a Gothic hall church. For the time span of a generation, the citizens of Leipzig only knew their church as a building site, and they worshipped inside a tent-like structure while the church walls around them were removed and remodelled. Almost three thousand people are said to have attended the first mass once renovation was complete. (Our guide points out that Sunday Service in those days lasted from half-past seven to eleven o’clock in the morning.)

Then the 18th century came along, eager to leave its baroque mark. The prosperous and independent-minded citizens of Leipzig wished to demonstrate their high cultural standard and invited their master town architect Dauthe to remodel the entire interior of their church to prove it. From 1784 to 1797 St Nikolai was once again a building site, until the nave emerged as one of the most original creations of German classicism; light and fresh as a piece of exquisite confectionery, richly ornamented with floral motives and decorated in icing sugar colours: white, signifying innocence; pink for the apple blossom; and light green – symbolic of the Garden of Eden. Its double row of pillars was designed to resemble palm trees, with fronds and fruit growing freely from their tops. Nothing Gothic remained.

Church of St Nicholas

Interior of St Nicholas Church

Among churches, St Nikolai is unusual in other ways too, as our guide now explains: The building sits level with the ground, inviting anyone who passes in the street to step inside without making him climb to a symbolically higher level via the habitual series of steps. Inside, one meets the opposite of the hushed atmosphere in catholic churches, dimly illuminated by colourful stained-glass images; for these tall windows let in the clear, rational light of day unaltered, as befits the Age of Enlightenment. No statues of saints, no worship of the Madonna either – only a beautifully crafted candle stand of wrought iron in the central aisle, bearing forty lights. According to our guide, in a biblical context the number forty always points to the difficulties of achieving communication with God: Forty days in the desert, or even forty years … In harmony with Luther’s impulse, it is a building dedicated to the conscious responsibility for one’s faith, to the word of the scripture and to music that elevates the soul, and it had the outrageously good fortune to be the place where several of Bach’s great works were performed for the very first time.

Unusual, however, doesn’t end there: A cycle of thirty large paintings by Adam Friedrich Oeser (town architect Dauthe’s teacher) depicts scenes from the New Testament, showing Christ as teacher of mankind and miracle-working Son of God. Images of this kind are certainly not part of other Evangelical churches. Unusual is also the fact that the altar space is not out of bounds to the public. One may wander freely in this hallowed area, otherwise strictly reserved for the clergy, and view the fine artworks displayed there.

Altar of St Nicholas Church

A roughly fashioned, large wooden cross stands to one side of the altar. Although it is built according to the original Roman pattern for such instruments of torture and looks ancient, we learn that it was commissioned only at the beginning of the 1980s by the pastor and used in his regular meetings with young people. This cross was laid on the floor of the altar space, and everyone sat around it in gatherings that grew steadily over time. Here, the young citizens of the German Democratic Republic – deprived, restricted, patronized and spied on by their one-party state – could for once freely express their thoughts and feelings and not be met with a brusque “Halt’s Maul!” – Shut up! Those same two words were uttered habitually by nearly all their concerned, frightened or subdued parents and teachers, for in the ‘Socialist Paradise of Workers and Farmers’, speaking one’s mind was dangerous and not encouraged. But in the unusual sanctuary of this church (barely tolerated by the state), they could speak out after having placed a lit tea light on the beams of the cross, and here their voices were heard. Darkness fell outside as the evening wore on, but inside the light grew on the beams of the cross in their middle.

All during this decade, the peace prayers in the Nikolaikirche increased in momentum. The congregation was swelled by many who would never normally have attended a service. Yet in the troubled last days of the GDR, this church became the centre of their peaceful protests. Despite blocked access streets, random arrests and vicious brutality by the state police, the Monday Demonstrations continued and grew in size. On October 7, 1989, the GDR celebrated its forty-year anniversary with great pomp. While the ruling party admired a parade of their proud class of workers, TV channels of the West showed crowds of GDR citizens chanting, “Wir wollen raus!” – We want to leave! The Russian president Michail Gorbatchov, attending the celebrations, made it clear that the Red Army would not get involved. The Hungarians had already cut a hole into the Iron Curtain along their border with Austria, and now Germans from the East used it to escape. Hundreds of others were holed up in embassies, demanding the freedom to travel across the barbed-wire border. The eyes of the world were focused on Erich Honecker’s dictatorial regime, and all waited with bated breath for the bloody massacre that was to come. Only five months earlier, the Chinese government had crushed an uprising of its young people on Tiananmen Square, and the images were still in everyone’s mind. But then something unexpected happened. What could have led to a civil war became Die Wende, the turning-point.

A former member of the Central Committee admitted before his death: “We had planned everything. We were prepared for everything. But not for candles and prayers.” – Although articles in the press had threatened the ruthless use of armed forces to put out this ‘counter-revolution’, more people than ever assembled in the Nikolaikirche on that Monday evening, October 9, 1989. Among them were a thousand party members and state security forces with orders to fill up the church and crowd out the congregation. Thus they too heard the words of the gospel, the message of peace, the Sermon on the Mount … The bishop ended with his blessing and the urgent call for non-violence; written messages of solidarity from the director of the Gewandhaus Orchestra and others were read out. There was an atmosphere of intense calm and focus. In the words of Pastor Christian Führer: “And as we, more than two thousand people, were leaving our church – I shall never forget the sight – there were ten thousands waiting outside in the square. They had candles in their hands. And to carry a candle one needs both hands. One has to shield the light, protect it from extinguishing. One cannot carry a stone or a club at the same time. And the miracle happened. The Spirit of Jesus, of non-violence, took hold of the masses and became a peaceful force. Members of the army, the combat groups and the police became involved, engaged in conversation and withdrew. (…) Not a single shop window was smashed. An incredible experience of the power of non-violence.”

Nobody could have foreseen the speed with which the Socialist One-Party State crumbled, turned to dust and blew away on the winds of history. The most fiercely guarded border in the world was dismantled in record time and Germany became one nation once more. – An exact replica of one of the church’s pillars now stands outside in the square, its startling appearance a fitting reminder of these events.

Memorial Pillar

A short walk takes me to the Church of St Thomas. What does it have to offer, in terms of historical events, to equal its great rival? Quite a bit, it seems: The famed University of Leipzig, second-oldest of German universities after Heidelberg, was founded in 1409 in the Monastery of St Thomas. From 1723 to his death in 1750, Johann Sebastian Bach was Cantor in Leipzig, and though the city fathers employed him chiefly for their Church of St Nicholas, he lived and worked at St Thomas and led the boy’s choir. In 1789, Mozart passed through Leipzig and played the organ in this church; oh, to have been a fly on the wall then!

Church of St Thomas

In the following Napoleonic Wars, St Thomas was used first as an ammunitions store and then as a military hospital. In the meantime, Bach’s music had sunk into oblivion and he was remembered mostly as a great player and teacher of music. But in 1829, the young Jewish composer Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy initiated a revival of Bach’s reputation with a performance of the Passion of St Matthew in Berlin. A performance of the same work was heard in this church in 1841, and the inauguration of a Bach Memorial followed two years later. His coffin had lain in an unmarked grave of the Old St John’s Cemetery for nearly a hundred and fifty years, but was found in 1894 and transferred to a vault inside St John’s. When that church was destroyed in the Second World War, Bach’s remains were moved for a second time.

Bach's Epitaph

They lie under a bronze epitaph in the sanctuary, his name now firmly wedded to the church of St Thomas, while a simple bust of the great composer is all that marks his link to the Church of St Nicholas. In 2008, Mendelssohn’s memorial was restored, the original having been destroyed by the Nazis. (They had also done away with the exceedingly large and prosperous Jewish community of Leipzig, historically connected with the city’s fur trade of international renown and a close rival to that other centre of the fur trade, London.)

I emerge into daylight, holding my quota of research fulfilled. There is still so much to see and study, but one would need more than a brief day-visit to do it all justice. At every crossing, sign posts offer new attractive suggestions, but now I just amble along in the splendid sunshine and view the buildings.

Market Square

City Skyscraper

Bold, modern architecture intermingles with impressive historical styles. On the one hand, there is the opulent Ratshaus, the city hall, a Renaissance castle looking like something out of fairy-tale or legend. On the other, there is a mountain of glass facets, a crystal-like edifice that is in fact the venerable University of Leipzig in its newest incarnation.

Ratshaus, the City Hall

University of Leipzig

Another eye-catching piece of modern architecture, rising phoenix-like from a former bomb site, is the Gewandhaus, home to the orchestra of international renown.


In the square a great teacher, cast in bronze, raises his hand in a lecturing pose, and in it some spirited student (I assume) has placed a drinks can which fits perfectly between his fingers and connects him effortlessly to the present day.

Past and Present

This irreverent spirit seems to thrive amongst the august historical monuments of Leipzig. I detect no sign of stuffiness, of careful clinging to the weight of a great past. A double-edged advertising slogan illustrates this: “Für jeden Arsch ‘ne Hose,” it shouts gleefully and concisely – for every bum the right pants!

With tired feet and limbs nipped by the cold wind I make my way to Auerbachs Keller. The subterranean vault is decorated with fresco scenes from Goethe’s ‘Faust’, and in the foyer its story is told across several illustrated pin boards. A hot drink and a piece of ‘Mephisto Torte’ are most welcome at this point.

Auerbachs Keller

I ponder that as tourists we are happy enough with an approximation in the experience of historical events, locations and remains; that names, and the mental image of events linked with them, are usually sufficient to conjure up a feeling of having stepped into a magic circle of the past. It is certainly the case here, in this restaurant that – although it still bears the same name – is not the actual site of the drinking hole the young Goethe frequented as a student and commemorated in his epic play. Nor is it entirely certain that the mortal remains buried in St Thomas’s Church are actually those of Bach himself: the experts are only ‘highly’ certain. But does it matter? It seems to me that these memorial places serve as springboards to their significance, as points of connection charged with an energized interest that remains unmatched by Wikipedia.

Goethe as a Student in Leipzig


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Thursday, 20 February 2014

Today I visit Wittenberg for some sightseeing. Unfortunately, the Castle Church is currently encased in scaffolding and closed to the public because it is getting a thorough makeover for the approaching 500-year anniversary of the Reformation.

Castle Church, in renovation

Still visible behind the fence surrounding the building site is the famous church door on which Martin Luther posted his ninety-five theses. These days, we see a bronze door that dates from 1858 and commemorates the original, devoured by fire in the Seven Years’ War.

The commemorative Theses Door

At the moment, Luther’s tomb inside the church is only accessible via a guided tour while the builders take a break. I choose to visit his house instead, situated at the other end of the street that runs the length of the old town.

Wittenberg's Town Square with Statues of Luther & Melanchthon

Former Augustine Monastery, Luther's Home

This former Augustine monastery where he once lived has been turned into an attractive museum, and soon I am reading my way into Luther’s life, his beliefs, his work and the history of the Reformation. It is a gripping story full of dramatic twists, and if it had been told as such at school I would probably have retained a clearer memory of the facts as they are presented here:

Wittenberg, the town most intimately connected with Luther’s life and work, rises to importance in the late fifteenth century with the building of a new, improved wooden bridge across the River Elbe. It facilitates the trade between east and west, and the Elector Friedrich III of Saxony, known as ‘The Wise’, chooses to extend his residence in the town. He has the gloomy old castle converted to a splendid palace in the new Renaissance style, and since his silver mines in the Erzgebirge yield abundant riches, the best artists from all over Germany are hired to decorate it. Attached to the castle is the new Schlosskirche, the Castle Church, consecrated in 1499, just before the turn of the century. Here, the pious elector displays his collection of roughly five thousand holy relics. (Footnote: Electors were the ruling four princes and three archbishops of the various German realms that made up the Holy Roman Empire. Together, they elected an emperor to be crowned by the pope. There was no such thing as a German nation yet.)

Wittenberg's Old Town

Three years later, Wittenberg’s importance increases further with the founding of a university. One of its professors will be the eminent humanist Philipp Schwarzerdt, also known as Melanchthon. He shall become a close friend of Luther’s, as well as one of his main supporters. Wittenberg is now a town on the upswing; new houses are built and further floors added to the old ones to accommodate the influx of students, and the Castle Church is at the heart of the all-important religious life of the times.

Town Hall with Luther Memorial

The scene is set: Enter Martin Luther. He becomes first a student and then a doctor of theology in Wittenberg. Living the life of an Augustine monk, he is intimately familiar with Catholicism and its rules, and his experience of monastic life has already raised certain doubts in his keen mind. But it is the widespread use of ‘indulgences’ that makes him spiritually uncomfortable: Why should the congregation be ordered to buy forgiveness for their sins from the Holy Roman Church, he asks himself, when Jesus Christ already purchased that forgiveness with his blood on the cross? This money-spinning operation, transparently masked with threats of eternal hellfire, raises a question that begs discussion.

He is thirty-one years of age in 1514, the year he receives the mandate to hold sermons regularly at the Castle Church. In 1517, Luther begins to preach against indulgence payments publicly, voicing his doubts from the pulpits of both Castle and Town Church. But this is not far-reaching enough, and so he takes action: On the 31st October 1517, the banging of Luther’s hammer becomes the starting gun to a process that will soon be known as the Reformation, when he nails his ninety-five theses to the great wooden door of the Castle Church in the manner used for all public announcements. Lacking a facebook wall and a blog, he resorts to this coarse yet effective method of publicizing his thoughts – in Latin of course – so that his learned colleagues and students may appreciate his reasoning.

“He who takes to heart the words ‘Anyone who believes in me …’ has no reason to fear the Last Judgement.” This quote, in essence, is the reason why Luther is convinced that Rome is wrong to deal in indulgences. “The gospel is so clear that it does not need much interpretation, but wants to be carefully looked at and deeply taken to heart.”

His words fall on fruitful ground. The ninety-five theses cause a tremendous stir, a sensation. Luther reported later that “the theses circulated in no more than a fortnight through the whole of Germany.”  This in an age that is wholly without telecommunications, where messages travel no quicker than the fastest available horse can run. Martin Luther is so convinced that the Vatican must and will mend its ways, he even sends a copy of his theses to the archbishop. And Archbishop Albrecht loses no time in conveying them by mule across the Alps to Rome, for there is a strong scent of heresy clinging to these papers. Pope Leo X in his turn immediately orders a trial of the pesky preacher. (One can imagine his sentiments when he sees the lucrative stream of income from the widely used indulgences under threat.)

In the meantime, Luther makes no secret of the fact that he can no longer believe in the infallibility of the pope. His Holiness is severely displeased, threatens Luther with excommunication and issues a ‘papal bull’ (an edict, not an animal) which announces: “We earnestly ask that Martinus himself and his supporters, adherents and accomplices desist completely within sixty days from the aforesaid errors, and burn or have burnt all books and writings which contain these errors.”

Luther, as the saying goes, is skating on very thin ice. (Only a hundred years earlier, in 1415, Jan Hus had been burnt at the stake, together with his writings, for criticizing the greedy ways of the clergy.) But he charges ahead regardless, and instead of burning his publications as instructed, he sets fire to the papal bull. Things come to a head. In Wittenberg, Luther’s close friend, the artist, printmaker, entrepreneur and apothecary Lucas Cranach (the Elder) illustrates the Life of Christ with thirteen pairs of pictures that demonstrate the unchristian behaviour of the pope. This kind of early cartoon allows an illiterate majority of the population to grasp the explosive nature of the dispute, for Luther now equates the pope with the Antichrist, of whom Psalm 21:10 declares, “He strives to burn all those who are against him”.

It is due to patient and diplomatic negotiations by the wise Elector of Saxony that Martin Luther gets a hearing before the young Emperor Karl V – certainly not the usual practice. And so, in 1521, Luther travels to Worms, where the German imperial estates meet in a kind of high court, presided over by the emperor as supreme judge. It is confidently expected by all that this lowly, loud-mouthed preacher will recognize the honour granted him by being received in this august circle, and that he will speedily recant under the pressure of expectation, the possibility of excommunication and the likelihood of execution.

Martin Luther

Martinus, as the pope calls him, is indeed under no illusion concerning the crucial importance of this trial. His faith, his reputation and his life are at stake; and so it is quite understandable that he asks for a day’s grace to consider his answer. This is granted, and when everyone has reconvened the next day, Luther declares – according to witnesses in a quiet, thoughtful voice – that he is unable to change his mind; for he feels himself bound by the words of the holy scripture he has cited and holds his conscience to be a captive of the Word of God; therefore he can and will not recant, because it is dangerous and impossible to go against one’s conscience. “May God help me. Amen,” he ends.

Once again his words cause a tremendous stir throughout the German realms. Luther’s courageous stance is reported far and wide in hastily printed flyers. That an individual dares to offer resistance to the supreme authority of emperor and church by calling on the authority of his own conscience – this is indeed a new step in the development of mankind. And this new step is in step with the times: In view of the great public sympathy for Luther’s cause, the diet refrains from condemning him outright. Nevertheless, Emperor Karl V issues the following edict to all his subjects: “We strictly order that you shall refuse to give Martin Luther hospitality, lodging, food or drink; neither shall anyone, by word or deed, secretly or openly succour or assist him by counsel and help. But wherever you may meet him, to take him prisoner and deliver him to us. Furthermore we command that none of you dare to buy, sell, read, keep, copy, print or cause copies or prints of any writings by Martin Luther.”

A tiny nod of clemency can be read into the fact that he only signs this missive after Luther and his protector have already left. Nevertheless, the emperor’s edict is law and Luther now an outcast, but the Elector of Saxony is fond of his troublesome professor of theology and does not wish to lose him. So – what to do with this thorn in the side of the Holy Roman Catholic Church? The elector hatches a plan. He arranges to have Luther kidnapped on his way back from Worms and has him taken to the Wartburg castle, where he can be kept safe, in secret.

Rumours spread that Luther may no longer be alive. Only a few close friends, such as Melanchthon and Cranach, know of his whereabouts. In his enforced seclusion, Luther develops a passion for writing. He sets down his opinion on monastic vows and the Latin mass (unfavourable in both cases) and writes a helpful and instructive collection of sermons for pastors. In record time he also translates the New Testament from the original Greek into German, and because existing words and phrases do not always suit the purpose, he creates new ones that are still in use today (just as a certain William Shakespeare will do a few decades later). The manuscript of this, Luther’s most successful and influential book, is completed in only eleven weeks, to be published in Wittenberg in September 1522 in an edition of over three thousand copies. No more than three months later a second – and already revised – edition, illustrated by his friend Cranach, is released to meet the great demand for a good bible in the common tongue. (There had been other attempts at translation before and bibles in the German language were available, but they were unsatisfactory and clumsy in their wording.)

On his return to Wittenberg later that year, a German liturgy is introduced to replace the Latin text of the mass, and Luther writes hymns for the congregation, also in their native tongue. These are received with enthusiasm and increase the speed with which the Reformation now spreads through German lands. Other aspects of the reform also take hold: Monks and nuns leave their monasteries and convents in droves to settle and get married. The priests follow suit, heeding Luther’s message that God intended men and women to live together, and that children are a divine gift. Owing to his own experience of monastic life, he cannot uphold sexual abstinence as holier than marriage and declares this ancient Christian tradition a profound error. The Catholic Church likes his views less and less. His critics gleefully pounce on the fact that Luther himself marries one of the nuns who left her convent, and they try to put an unsavoury spin on his intentions.

The nun in question, Katharina von Bora, is the daughter of a nobleman. She has been put into a convent when still a child, and now she escapes under the influence of Luther’s teachings with a small group of fellow-nuns.

Katharina von Bora, Luther's Wife

He makes it his mission to find them all good husbands, but she wants to marry Luther, not the man he has intended for her. Their marriage in June 1525 is publicized in true damage-limiting PR-style, and the couple shows itself frequently in public, strolling through the streets of the town to underline the respectability of their union. Their home in the emptied former Augustine monastery becomes a meeting place of friends both local and foreign, and anyone prosecuted for his faith can find refuge there. Discussions at the dinner table are lively, and at times Mrs Luther caters for up to forty people. After the meal, a select circle continues these talks in Luther’s study, his wife the only woman present. Martin and Katharina are a well-matched pair and very happy together. Six children are born to them, three sons and three daughters. A touching letter by Luther tells a friend of the grief he felt upon the death of one of his little girls.

Generally, the education of children is important to him and he seeks to introduce schooling for all children, though this will not come about until after his death. Luther considers it particularly important that girls should receive an education too – which is just as revolutionary as his other ideas. “Because a town needs educated citizens, one should not wait until they come about by themselves. We must contribute to their education …,” he writes. The pope might be satisfied with illiterate flocks who, for good or ill, depend on the learning of their shepherds. But the new Christians Luther hopes to see will take responsibility for their faith and have enough learning to read the words of the gospel for themselves, taking them deeply to heart. For he envisions a renewal of the whole Church of Christ in this new age, purged of its obvious errors. It was never Luther’s intention to cause a rift in a religion so dear to his heart, and such a burning beacon to his mind. He sees the devil at work in the raging disputes over the gospel, and the controversies now breaking out between the newly forming protestant churches depress him and cast a shadow over his final years.

Martin Luther’s life comes to an end in Eisleben, the same town that saw his birth in 1483. It seems pure coincidence that he is called there to be the mediator in a dispute between a pair of quarrelsome brothers he is acquainted with, the Counts of Mansfeld. His experience of life and his knowledge of people prevail and he is able to negotiate a contract, but the strain of the journey, the cold winter weather and the effort of peace-making exhaust him terminally. He dies there, in his sixty-fourth year, as one of the outstanding figures that shaped much more than the history of their homeland. On the instructions of the new Elector of Saxony, Luther’s body is transferred to Wittenberg, to be laid to rest in the Castle Church. Bells toll throughout the land as the cart bearing his coffin makes its journey, accompanied by a great procession of grieving crowds.

Today, Martin Luther is the most frequently portrayed personage in all the history of Germany. Over two thousand of his sermons and a large number of his talks at the dinner table are preserved in writing. The Luther Bible is his greatest legacy, making a great faith newly accessible to millions and developing the German language as no other book has done. As one of his friends said: “And though he is dead – he lives!”

I emerge into the street several hours later, head and heart humming with his story. The late afternoon sun casts its dramatic light over the buildings, the cobblestones and the River Elbe.

Wittenberg's Town Church

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Dessau-Woerlitz Gardens

Saturday, 15 February 2014

A short drive of only six kilometres takes me from Oranienbaum to the Dessau-Wörlitz Garden Realm, Germany’s oldest landscaped park. Because it is a cloudy and cold day in February there are hardly any visitors about, though several extensive parking lots offer a clue to the numbers of people visiting in the warmer seasons. But at this time of year it is possible to wander lonely as a cloud along paths that meander through the grounds, follow waterways, cross bridges, loop around little hills and traverse woodlands. Following these unknown, silent and solitary trails, I find myself once again in my true element.

13_Woerlitzer Park

Created in the late eighteenth century by a great if little known ruler, this garden realm is now a Unesco World Heritage site and one of the loveliest man-made sceneries. Prince Leopold III Friedrich Franz von Anhalt-Dessau, head of a tiny principality and the youngest of Germany’s rulers under King Frederick the Great, had been much impressed on his travels by England’s naturalistic, informal gardens. Inspired by their departure from the symmetry of the baroque garden of the times, the prince introduced this novel concept to his homeland. From the start he also intended his grounds to be accessible to the public as a place of recreation, as well as an educational site where his subjects could inform themselves, refine their cultural taste and learn about new methods of gardening, agriculture and architecture – all in the rational spirit of the Age of Enlightenment.

Between 1765 and 1773 his gardens were laid out – in flat and formerly unattractive land – with the help of the garden architect Eyserbeck, whereas the buildings were designed by his friend von Erdmannsdorff. And while Europe was shaken by the turmoil of the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars, Prince Leopold was busy creating his own version of Eden on roughly one hundred and fifty square kilometres in the floodplain of the River Elbe.

03_Woerlitzer Park

Earlier, at the tender and impressionable age of seventeen, the prince – descendant of a line of highly-regarded military leaders – was serving in the Prussian army while the Seven Years’ War pitched Prussia against the Austrian empire. Leopold experienced his first battle and was horrified by the reality of warfare. He became seriously ill, resigned forthwith from the military and declared the neutrality of his little realm. King Frederick, outraged, laid a heavy financial penalty upon him for such unheard-of action; but the young prince, instead of raising taxes, sold the family silver and other valuables from his private assets to meet this crushing demand. Then he set about improving the living conditions in his land, making use of all he had learnt on his Grand Tour. Dams were built to keep the recurring floods at bay, marshy grounds were drained, fields reclaimed and agriculture revived. The prince set up a flourishing tree nursery, encouraged the breeding of cattle and sheep, and – himself an excellent horseman – initiated the breeding of fine horses for export. Thus the economy recovered and supported Leopold’s wide-ranging improvements in the social realm. In the considered opinion of a historian, “Leopold III can be regarded as a pioneer of sustainability. Here, the magic triangle of sustainable economy, ecology and social affairs had been achieved in an exemplary manner.” 

Wikipedia features the following heartwarming summary of Prince Leopold’s interests and mission: “An Anglophile and strong supporter of the Enlightenment, Leopold took special interest in the education of the population of his principality in science and nature. His numerous reforms in the areas of education, health care, social services, roads, agriculture, forestry, and industry made Anhalt-Dessau one of the most modern and prosperous of the small German states. The most conspicuous of his improvements included planting fruit trees along dykes and the construction of beautiful buildings. However his reforms included public works programs repairing dykes destroyed by flooding, providing social housing, education, sanitation, the first public parks, burial grounds irrespective of social rank, as well as liberal policies towards the Jewish community, including allowing for the founding of a Jewish school and the first Jewish newspaper in Germany.”

By those familiar with his achievements, Leopold III of Anhalt-Dessau is regarded as one of the three most exemplary rulers of German lands at the time (and, it seems fair to say, probably of all lands at all times). His subjects referred to him as their father, as ‘Vater Franz’; and Napoleon himself, impressed by Leopold’s reputation (if not his pacifist stance), invited him to Paris.

“Ich glaubte, den äußeren Menschen und seine Verhältnisse müsse man erst verändern, dann werde der innere Mensch wohl von selbst sich bessern,” was his opinion. (“I believed that one had to begin by improving people’s external circumstances, then their inner nature would follow suit of itself.”) His last words are reported as “Man muss für Arbeit sorgen. Darauf kommt alles an.” (“One has to provide work. That is all-important.”) It makes me wonder why this admirable man is so little known and talked about. Surely, governments and heads of state ought to look to him and learn from his example.

15_Woerlitzer Park

As one wanders among the trees, attractive, historic buildings come into view every once in a while. First and foremost among these is the prince’s Wörlitz Palace, modelled on an English mansion and finished in 1773, with the high steeple of St Peter’s Church beside it reflected in the water amongst floating swans and flocks of ducks.

26_Woerlitzer Schloss

At this time of year, the park is reduced to the bare bones of its layout. Trees without foliage allow for vistas that will be veiled by green later on. The water surface, still unbroken by leaves of water lilies and gondolas, reflects the light like burnished pewter. Swans are grazing in adjacent fields. One feels one has strayed into a painting; the living portrait of a nobler age. 


Set in a small, Grecian temple are two marble tablets. Their chiselled inscriptions quote the poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, describing a walk in these gardens in a letter to Charlotte von Stein on May 14th 1778, at a season when they looked their best:

“Hier ist’s jetzt unendlich schön. Mich hat’s gestern Abend, wie wir durch die Seen, Kanäle und Wäldchen schlichen, sehr gerührt, wie die Götter dem Fürsten erlaubt haben, einen Traum um sich herum zu schaffen. Es ist, wenn man so durchzieht, wie ein Märchen, das einem vorgetragen wird, und hat ganz den Charakter der Elysischen Felder. In der sachtesten Mannigfaltigkeit fliesst eins in das andere, keine Höhe zieht das Aug’ und das Verlangen auf einen einzigen Punkt, man streicht herum ohne zu fragen wo man ausgegangen ist und hinkommt. Das Buschwerk ist in seiner schönsten Jugend, und das ganze hat die reinste Lieblichkeit.”

(“Here it’s infinitely beautiful at this time. Yesterday evening, as we wandered about the lakes, canals and woodlands, I was much moved that the Gods granted the Prince to create such a dream all about him. Ambling through it all, it is as if one were presented a fairy-tale, and it has fully the nature of the Elysian fields. In the gentlest variety one view flows into the next, no height attracts one’s eye and desire to a single point, one roams without asking where one started or means to arrive. The bushes are in their most splendid youth, and the whole is of the purest loveliness.”)

He too walked these same paths, took in these same views … and his description helps me to picture the scenery in summertime.

11_Woerlitzer Park

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Saturday, 15 February 2014

The sky is a dull grey this morning (not ideal for photography) and the wind is chilly. Nevertheless, I am determined to explore the area and set out early, driving on straight roads lined with young Linden trees through seemingly deserted villages and across Sachsen-Anhalt’s countryside that is flat as a pancake. To my relief, I do not once lose my way and find Schloss Oranienbaum without problem. Of course it is closed at this season, but one is free to wander the grounds. Being the only visitor makes me feel like an intruder, a trespasser in a park taken over by quietly burrowing moles. The palace has fallen into disrepair and is in a sorry state: beams are rotting, masonry is crumbling and paint peeling away. But one side has already been restored to perfection and the rest is sure to follow; I notice building machines and scaffolding waiting in the wings.




This palace was built as a summer residence for the Dutch princess Henriette Catherine of Oranje-Nassau after she married Prince Johann Georg II of Anhalt-Dessau in September 1659 and moved to Germany. On an information panel, I read that the bride received this formerly desolate area including the largely abandoned village of Nischwitz as a gift, the year after her wedding. (Did her husband say, “Look here, my darling – do you fancy a chunk of wasteland?”) What did she make of that, one wonders?

But I assume that this totally level countryside must have reminded Henriette Catherine of her homeland and inspired her to recreate its familiar environment. Finding herself married in a foreign country, she commissioned an architect from the Netherlands to transform the run-down hamlet she had been presented with into an attractive little town in the Dutch baroque style, extending the design of park and palace. And so Oranienbaum was built to the rigorously rectangular plan of Dutch settlements and named after the dynasty of its patroness. She also founded a glass factory, and this, together with the ongoing building projects, helped to revive the local economy. To this day, an orange tree fashioned from metal and bearing gilt fruit marks the centre of the market square as a tribute to Henriette Catherine and her family name. (It seems to me that, in keeping with the fruitful theme, the stone nymphs flanking it look decidedly pregnant.)


Her marriage lasted thirty-four years and seems to have been a happy one, viewed across the centuries, though it had more than its fair share of sorrow: She bore her husband ten children, eight of which were daughters. The first two died soon after birth, and her first boy died before he reached two years of age. It was an age of high infant mortality, as she knew full well: four of Henriette’s eight siblings had not survived childhood. Praying for the children’s good health must have been an even more important part of parenting then … Five more daughters arrived, and lived; but only child number nine turned out to be the required heir: Leopold the first was born in 1676 – to be followed six years later by another girl.

Oranienbaum Palace was completed in 1683. It featured fine leather wall coverings and splendid Delft tiles, and Henriette Catherine, presumably feeling almost at home by now, retired there after the death of her husband, ten years later. Because her son Leopold was still a minor at the time, she assumed regency until he came of age. After her own death in 1708, the place was used only occasionally by her descendants, mainly as a hunting lodge. But after nearly a hundred years had passed, her great-grandson Prince Leopold III Friedrich Franz of Anhalt-Dessau had the park remodelled and added some Chinese touches that were all the rage at the time. I wander around a towering pagoda on a hill, past a tea house accessible by boat and over wooden arch bridges spanning the waterways. How lovely all this must look in the summer sunshine, framed by June’s undarkened green …




Fortunately, the palace has remained unaltered since the seventeenth century, but it deteriorated considerably and emerged from the era of the not-so-Democratic German Republic in a state of sad neglect. Since then much has been repaired, but a lot more needs to be done until the building can once again give visitors a true impression of its splendid baroque style.

In 2004 and 2012 Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands, herself a descendant of the house of Oranje-Nassau, paid a visit and inspected the ongoing restoration project. The estate is now a Unesco World Heritage Site and part of the Dessau-Wörlitz Garden Realm, which I plan to visit next.


After a tour of the hibernating gardens, I wander the streets of the little town for a while. They are cobbled in many different patterns: stones of various sizes, colours and shapes are used for different sections of the road. The effect is attractive to look at but unpleasant to drive on with cars, wheel- and pushchairs. And as for high-heeled shoes …! I recall the rant of an elegant friend who cursed what she called the “protestant-peasant-cobblestones” of our Swiss hometown and compared them unfavourably with the smooth marble pavements of catholic Italy. – Be that as it may, these cobbled streets give the local towns and villages a look steeped in tradition. Thus, owing to the local German ruler’s match with a foreign lady, the principality of Anhalt-Dessau bore a decidedly Dutch stamp for over a century.

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Friday, 7 February 2014

A visit to Salzburg’s biggest cemetery, opened in 1879 and called the Kommunalfriedhof, is on the programme today. Situated on the outskirts south of the city, it covers twenty-five hectares and contains some 20,000 graves in which about 160,000 people have so far been laid to rest.


Only a few people are visiting on this sunny morning; they replace burnt-out candles on family graves and spend some moments in remembrance, their heads bowed in silent prayer. I wander along tree-lined paths past the chapel and the crematory, and visit special areas that can be seen at intervals: a fenced plot dedicated to the Dutch soldiers who fought and fell in the last war, a Muslim section, a place for anonymous urns, for Asian graves and others. Each themed section has a different look as one wanders in a time warp from those impressive graves of the imperial era towards our more modest, democratic age.





The style of this cemetery is quite unlike those I have seen in England, where simple slabs of engraved stone, often leaning with age, are dotted amongst the lawns and yews surrounding village churches. Here, each headstone rises behind a small garden-like plot containing shrubs, flowers, gravel and candles, and there is a striving for individual design and variety.


As I walk around the extensive cemetery, I study names and dates carved into stone slabs bearing wrought-iron crosses, sculptures of angels, carved wreaths or the likeness of the dear departed on a ceramic oval. The sun’s rays filter through dark branches of trees growing between the graves, and the singing of birds only enhances the quiet and peaceful mood.


This cemetery is an attractive recreational area and was intended as such from the beginning. Lawns, shrubs and well over a thousand old trees are assembled to create a park for the living and the dead, an inviting space to visit and remember. Lovers could meet here to wander hand in hand amongst the memories of bygone generations. And if it is already this beautiful in the bleak season, what must it be like in the spring? In early summer? I should like to return then, like the swallows …


Eventually I approach the arcade that runs the length of one side and discover that here the famous and influential members of local families are commemorated in tombs of honour. There are mayors, bankers, architects and judges, as well as members of the aristocracy. Each segment of the arcade is furnished with an impressively decorated marble slab, a sculpture or occasionally even a large painting.


Wrought-iron lanterns are suspended from chains that descend from vaulted roofs painted in delicate trompe-l’oeil motifs, and the stone floor bears wreaths, flower arrangements and candle holders. There is a distinctly classical, Italian style expressed in art and architecture, and the sunshine that casts deep shadows today reinforces this impression.




A huge gate of profuse metal curlicues is set into the main entrance here. It was made in 1885 by the locksmith Karl Fiedler according to designs by one Professor Joseph Salb, and a plaque dedicated to the memory of this “Composer of the great wrought-iron cemetery gate” is set into the wall.



Later, I read that this cemetery is reputedly one of the most beautiful in the whole of Europe, and – now that I have seen it for myself – I have no trouble believing it. With a splendid view of the Hohensalzburg fortress and framed by snow-dusted mountains, it seems a fit resting place for those fortunate people who were born in Salzburg or concluded their lives here … Wish I were one of them!



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Saturday, 8 February 2014

Today, I wander about Salzburg’s inner city by myself. The morning sun on the buildings adds to their appeal as I soak up the atmosphere of this magical place. At this time of year the usual crowds of visitors from all over the world are still absent.



50_St Peterskirche

48_St Petersfriedhof

The Getreidegasse, usually choc-a-bloc with tourists, is only loosely populated this morning. Rows of very chic shops in its arcades offer luxury goods; some in keeping with the place, others less so.

14_Kinder Trachten



Artistic signs, suspended above the shops, add a special touch to this long, narrow lane that runs between the river and the rock. At its centre is the house in which Mozart was born on the 27th January 1756. There are no queues at this time of year. After paying ten euros for a ticket, I climb the stairs to the third floor, where Mozart’s family lived at the time. These rooms are fairly large with low ceilings. Their white-washed walls show painted paragraphs in delicate grey lettering that describe the Mozarts’ lives in these quarters. Objects such as music scores, letters and a few personal belongings are displayed in glass-topped cases, and those well-known portraits of family members look down from the walls.

And then one enters the bedroom where he was born. Wooden floorboards, creaking slightly; bare, white walls, and a simple Kachelofen in the corner. Five black, slender pillars are installed along one side of the room, each containing a few relics in a subtly lit Perspex segment: locks of his hair, a ring, mother-of-pearl buttons and his embroidered silk purse amongst others. In the corner by a window, Mozart’s child-size violin is suspended in a glass case, floating above three words engraved in a brass plate below: Liebe, Leben, Licht – love, life, light. There I stand still, close my eyes and listen to his music, to the voices of piano and violin emanating from a hidden sound system and filling this simple chamber with the dimension of heaven.

Never one to participate in active fandom and so far unmoved by relics, shrines and autographs, I am suddenly gripped by a deep reverence – here, in the heart of this wonderful city where he was born. His music is my home on the road, my spiritual haven; and this city would have been my home too, had I been allowed to choose. I live in hope that I shall find my way, after death, to that realm in the universe where his music originates. But here, at this precise moment, I feel connected to it all.

56_Mozarts Geburtshaus

Later, as I look out across the River Salzach from the promenade, I am approached by an elderly lady – very elegantly dressed – who asks, “Sind Sie Salzburgerin?” (Are you from Salzburg?) Shaking my head, I reply, “Leider nicht – zu meinem unendlichen Bedauern!” (Unfortunately not – to my infinite regret!) And so it is.

26_Mozart Denkmal

Crossing the footbridge, I notice hundreds of colourful padlocks of all sizes, clasped to the wire mesh beneath the banister. Why are they here? No clue is given, but upon closer inspection I notice that each padlock bears two names or initials, often with a heart or a message like ‘In love forever’. It seems that couples commemorate their union in this way, in this place, instead of carving their names into the bark of a hapless tree. It is an appealing idea, attractive to look at and full of significance. What a pity that I have no one to share a padlock with! I briefly consider adding one with the name of the city, and mine; but experience has taught me to use ‘forever’ with caution.


Less pleasing are the beggars seated at intervals along the bridge and in the lanes of the old town. They seem to be from Eastern Europe, possibly Romania, and even to my inexperienced eye it is clear that these are not poor individuals who have fallen on hard times, but members of an organized gang. As so often, the women look a lot unhappier than their male counterparts as they brave the cold, kneeling on the tarmac in various poses of supplication, uttering plaintive words in German, “Bitte schön, schönen Tag, danke schön …” and holding out paper cups in the hope of moving the passers-by to a donation.

However, in six hours of wandering the streets, I do not witness a single instance where their pleading is successful. People avoid looking at them and give them a wide berth. I smile at one of these women and reply, “Einen schönen Tag auch!” without being tempted to fork out money which I know she will have to hand over to the boss. She returns the smile, glad to have been acknowledged, and when I pass her again later, she recognizes and greets me. Dark eyes in a dark face, friendly, and resigned to their fate …

Beggars are a new element in the mix of this city, and I am astonished by their numerous presence. Should such a foreign enterprise, so alien to this country and its culture, really gain a foothold here?


64_Stations of the Cross

Having crossed the river, I ascend a steep path that leads along the Stations of the Cross to the Kapuzinerberg. A little way past the old monastery, there is a small statue of Mozart. It marks the place where a wooden shack once stood, in which he is said to have composed large parts of ‘The Magic Flute’. On the pedestal are the lines: ‘Jung gross, spät erkannt, nie erreicht’ (early greatness, recognized late, never matched).

70_Kleines Mozartdenkmal

The woodlands up here are a nature reserve, and the view across the city is splendid. I sit on a bench and soak up the sun, squinting at the scenery from this new angle. And I love, love, love being here …


… revelling in the uplifting effect this place always has on my soul. What is it about this city that pleases me so intensely it comes close to a physical sensation? The beauty of its buildings and the care with which they have been preserved certainly play a part. The eye, with its keen appetite for aesthetic pleasure, is served a banquet of tasteful vistas composed of elements that cannot help but appeal. Akin to Mozart’s music, this architecture speaks a universal language of beauty and heavenly harmony, speaks of a realm to which the soul, mired as it is in the depths of daily concerns, can rise in moments of awe and wonder. Here, in the heart of the city, there reigns a grandeur so far removed from the mundane and purpose-driven style of the suburbs, a historical splendour so steeped in the traditions of an age when beauty in tone, stone and manners was considered to be of supreme importance – it is impossible not to be enchanted.

66_Vom Kapuzinerberg

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Road Trip Stop Chiemsee

Saturday, 25 January 2014

I take the motorway towards the Austrian border and Salzburg, but turn off towards the village of Prien and the Chiemsee, a large lake. The land is covered in a thin layer of snow that fell over night as the temperature dropped towards zero. Driving on the right-hand side of the road with a British car is not a problem, but the lack of winter tyres may soon turn out to be one. So far, luckily, the roads are clear.

How to take a ticket from the machine at the large parking lot near the piers? With the steering wheel on the wrong side of the car, one must lunge through the passenger window to reach the button, taking care not to slip off the pedals in the process.

The next ship tour around the lake begins at noon, leaving ample time to wander along the promenade. There is a lovely winter mood, with gulls perching on snowy piers and the light reflected on the cold, grey water.

6_Anlegeplatz Prien


Then the tour ship Berta arrives and gathers up a surprising number of people braving the cold on this bleak day. She delivers us to the Herreninsel, the largest island in the lake.

A twenty-minute walk along a smoothly tarmacked path through the woods leads to the hidden castle of Herrenchiemsee, a pet project of Ludwig II of Bavaria. This sensitive, creative and introverted king used extravagant building projects to escape from the sordid reality of political intrigue and power games.

Ludwig II felt much more at home in an ideal world of legend, music, art and architecture. In 1873 he acquired the island as a setting for this impressive castle. It was built in homage to Versailles as a miniature copy of that grand chateau and its gardens and was designed to be a temple of glory, dedicated to Ludwig’s idol Louis XIV. Every imaginable luxury was lavished on the building, and King Ludwig paid for everything from his own coffers, thus amassing a huge personal debt.

7_Schloss Herrenchiemsee

Schloss Herrenchiemsee

Work began in 1878 and continued for seven years, yet castle and gardens remain unfinished. King Ludwig’s exhausted funds and sudden, unexplained death (days after his deposition because of alleged insanity) put an end to his dream.

Even so, the completed parts are impressive. The guided tour of about thirty minutes takes us through extensive state rooms, clad in many-coloured marble panels and furnished with massive lead-crystal chandeliers reflected endlessly in huge, gilded mirrors, parquet floors inlaid in intricate patterns with costly, scented tropical woods, colourful frescoes and priceless embroidered draperies, as well as a collection of precious clocks and a table designed to be set near the kitchen below stairs and then hauled up by mechanical magic.

But King Ludwig II also integrated the newest technology in his building projects, like cleverly disguised central heating and running hot and cold water. Furthermore, he was a pioneer of the beginnings of social security. The workers on his castle projects could join a society that would pay a certain sum per day of illness, and carry the costs of the wake and a mass in case of death.

These days, the castles that led to Ludwig’s financial ruin are Bavaria’s main attractions and have paid for themselves many times over, drawing millions of visitors each year from all over the world …

Intrigued by this king’s tragic story, I decide to learn more about his life and visit the museum in one of the castle’s wings. Apparently, Ludwig II envisioned flying machines from an early age and later ordered various engineers to work on this idea, unaware that such a feat was not yet technically possible. Unfortunately, this dream of his was later used as one of the most damning arguments in the report ordered by his ministers to prove Ludwig’s unsound mind. However, when Bismarck was approached by the conspirators, he dismissed the report with the verdict that “the Ministers wish to sacrifice the King, otherwise they have no chance of saving themselves.”

Indeed, Ludwig II was considering replacing them all, for their constant opposition to his projects irritated and frustrated him. So the ministers, preferring to act quickly, commissioned a panel of four eminent psychiatrists with an investigation; and although not one of these doctors had met the king, nor ever examined him, their findings were that the king suffered from paranoia and was no longer fit to rule.

“Suffering from such a disorder, freedom of action can no longer be allowed and Your Majesty is declared incapable of ruling, which incapacity will be not only for a year’s duration, but for the length of Your Majesty’s life.”  

The detailed files of the king’s personal physician, who strove to show that there could be no question of mental illness, were dismissed unread.

It all makes the words of Richard Wagner, who met with Ludwig II in May 1864, seem prophetic:

“Heute wurde ich zu ihm geführt. Er ist leider so schön und geistvoll, seelenvoll und herrlich, dass ich fürchte, sein Leben müsse wie ein flüchtiger Göttertraum in dieser gemeinen Welt zerrinnen … Von dem Zauber seines Auges können Sie sich keinen Begriff machen: wenn er nur leben bleibt; es ist ein zu unerhörtes Wunder!”

(“Today I met with him. Alas, he is so handsome and ingenious, soulful and magnificent, that I fear his life must melt away like an ephemeral divine dream in this vulgar world … You cannot imagine the magic of his eye: if only he remains alive; it is too great a miracle!”)

Ludwig II had found in Wagner’s operatic work the kind of fantasy world that appealed to his imagination, and he became Wagner’s generous patron and the saviour of this obstinate, rebellious and debt-ridden composer’s career. Reports about King Ludwig’s peculiar habits observe reproachfully that the king shunned public shows at the theatre and instead ordered private performances for his solitary enjoyment. But the king himself confided that he could not possibly enjoy a performance and immerse himself in the story while being stared at by the crowds who followed his every expression through their opera glasses – surely perfectly understandable and a sign of normality rather than eccentricity.

That this king was too sensitive to withstand the expectations and duties his role placed upon him is further illustrated by his aversion to war. Nevertheless, he was forced by a treaty with Prussia to do battle against France in 1870. After the victory, Wilhelm the First was proclaimed German Emperor – in Versailles, of all places – and Ludwig considered this an insult to the French people. He refused to take part in the celebration, thus making himself more enemies at home.

He was critically aware of his situation, as shown by another quote where he reflects on the fact that he acceded to the throne at the age of eighteen.

“I became king much too early. I had not learned enough. I had made such a good beginning (…) with the learning of state laws. Suddenly I was snatched away from my books and set on the throne. Well, I am still trying to learn …”

Today it is widely believed that Ludwig was an innocent victim of political intrigue. His cousin Sissy, Empress Elisabeth of Austria, knew him closely and held the view that “The King was not mad; he was just an eccentric living in a world of dreams. They might have treated him more gently, and thus perhaps spared him so terrible an end.”


Winter Mood