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Grenzlandmuseum Göhr

Saturday, 22 March 2014

This morning, I have an appointment with Herr Ritzmann from the Grenzlandmuseum in the village of Göhr, and two of my new Workaway friends decide to tag along. Although the museum doesn’t open its doors until the tourist season begins on the first of May, Herr Ritzmann is willing to show visitors around by appointment.

Dietrich-Wilhelm Ritzmann was a youngster when the partition that became known as the Iron Curtain was built. He remembers watching the labour force at work, only a few kilometres from his home near Schnega in the district of Lüchow-Dannenberg. He was fascinated by it all and, at the age of thirteen, began to take pictures of the border with his first camera – now also part of the exhibition. His collection of photographs exceeds five hundred and represents a personal documentation of historic value.

Of course Ritzmann was at the local border crossing in Bergen (about halfway between Göhr and Salzwedel) on the day the border was opened in 1989. He describes how a long line of Trabis crossed into the Federal Republic of Germany; how residents of the West had set up tables and stalls to welcome their new neighbours with drinks, fruit and cake; how people embraced and shed tears of joy … ‘It was an exciting time’, he states with a look laden with memories.

After Germany’s reunification, Dietrich-Wilhelm Ritzmann travelled along the former border with a GDR army truck and collected memorabilia for his little museum, anything that was moveable: parts of the metal-mesh fence, complete with wires and alarm lights, border posts and warning signs, radio communication units of Russian provenance, border guard uniforms for all seasons, documents, maps, a large flag nobody wanted anymore, various mines (complete and in splinters), buoys from the Baltic, and even an army truck and a patrol car.  The complete office of an NVA-Officer, including its red telephone, is a highlight. Ritzmann encourages our friend to dress up in an original officer’s uniform and try out the desk. Erich Honecker – head of state and butt of jokes (see previous blog post) – smiles cautiously from his picture frame.

Original Office of the NVA (Nationale Volks Armee)

An Original Office of the NVA (‘Nationale Volks Armee’)

Trying out a 'Trabi' of the Border Guards

Trying out a ‘Trabi’ of the Border Patrol

GDR border guards helped Ritzmann to stow his treasures. ‘Take whatever you like – take it all!’ they said. He is still friends with a number of them, and a press picture shows him raising a glass with the former enemy at the 20-year-anniversary of the day the border collapsed.

Border Guard on Duty

Border Guard on Duty

Details of Border Fortifications

Details of the Border Fortifications

Of course Dietrich-Wilhelm Ritzmann also knows the story of the wily mayor of Harpe and shows me the ‘Vodka Bend’ on a map. (Please see blog post ‘Cycling in the Borderlands’ for this intriguing tale.) 

The Vodka Bend, curving around the Village of Harpe

The ‘Vodka Bend’, curving around the Village of Harpe

A less amusing note is struck by articles reporting the number of casualties along the border, and the often gruesome deaths of men willing to risk their life to escape the socialist paradise. (You can read more about this in my blog post ‘Iron Curtain’s Silver Lining’). Lacerated by the shrapnel blasted by spring guns along the fence, they were sometimes left to die by the border guards who arrived at the scene without delay. Those who wandered into the mine fields also died alone, just like the wild boars, the stags and red deer that had the misfortune to get caught there. Only hares and foxes fit through the small holes cut at intervals into the mesh of the fence. These openings were reinforced with a collar of sheet metal and bolted tight from the outside. Hidden by the undergrowth on the western side, no one even knew they existed, except those small animals that were thus able to cross the border without setting off the alarm and losing their lives in the process.

Opening for Small Game

An opening for small game …

The Boar at the Back fell Victim to the Spring Guns

… but the boar at the back has fallen victim to the spring guns.

Nevertheless, people kept trying their luck, and a few were successful. Three workers at a factory in the vicinity of the fence observed the border guards over time, became familiar with their routines and hatched a plan. Before six o’clock one morning they escaped, in a bulldozer that took the shrapnel in their stead as it tore a hole in the fence and ripped concrete posts from the ground. The men got away unharmed.

Border guards were also (one might assume, especially) susceptible to escape attempts, and therefore they were always deployed in groups. They knew that their comrades had orders to shoot them, should they make a dash for it. In any case, those scouts that were sent to explore the land beyond the border, smuggled out through secret, hidden, tiny gates, were drawn solely from the politically rock-solid elite. They were kitted out with smart uniforms and the best equippment, and they always wore ties on their missions that involved a lot of crawling through bushes. Clearly meant to impress the decadent capitalists with their accoutrements, they were strictly forbidden to speak to the enemy. No greeting, no nod and certainly no smile … Ritzmann remembers meeting such eerily silent figures on his early rambles.

Border Scouts, in Summer and Winter Uniform

Elite Border Scouts, in Summer and Winter Uniform

'Our border is always reliably protected!'

‘Our border is always reliably protected!’

'Please do not touch the mines!'

‘Please do not touch the mines!’

Ritzmann explains the Alarm System

Ritzmann explains the Alarm System

It is a dark chapter in the history of man’s violence towards his fellow man, and added to the state-sanctioned cruelty is the hypocrisy with which it was justified: The armed fence was there to ‘protect’ the citizens of the GDR from the fascists beyond, the great enemy that was always trying to get in and corrupt the socialist paradise of happy workers and farmers. (Isn’t it strange then that all the guns and mines were on the inside?) Of course, a heavy amount of hysterical propaganda was necessary to shout this threat into existence in the minds of the populace. But this kind of brainwash, beginning in early childhood, was undermined by the media of the West. Westfernsehen and Westradio were of course strictly taboo, yet their allure was strong. In the end, they helped to reveal the government’s propaganda as the pack of lies it was. And when the farmers and workers saw, and compared to their own, the style of life, the means of production and the advance of technology in the West, they began to realize that they had been cheated. ‘It was then I knew that a big crash was about to happen …’ a farmer said after his formal visit to the other side of the fence.

Those living within a certain distance of the border in the West were allowed to apply for permission to visit family in the East several times a year. But they had to pay an admission fee, as well as exchange a set amount of their money at a rate of 1:1 per day of their stay. Of course there was nothing to spend that money on, so it was an expensive outing and not overly popular.

A large sign next to the road to Salzwedel marks the place of the former border line. A watery ditch running along the woods may or may not have been part of the former fortifications. Everything has been removed: The metal-mesh fencing (its raw material supplied by Krupp-Essen and the finished product by Sweden – thank heavens for neutral nations; they must have made a fortune from that order!), the barbed and the trip wires, the concrete paving, the mines … nothing remains but a bitter memory and a green belt of healthy, because undisturbed, nature.

After my visit at the museum, I wander into the woodland of firs and follow tracks that criss and cross between the trunks of tall conifers. The ground is mossy, strewn with small fir cones … and it is quiet, so very quiet. Despite its grim history, this land is beautiful and of Zen-like tranquillity. I like everything about it: the softly rolling landscape, the expanse of sweet-smelling woodland and the charming architectural style of its settlements. And since I am not looking for employment, the absence of industrial development seems a blessing. Could a way be found to generate job opportunities here without turning the Wendland into an ugly park of industrial estates? I hope it with all my heart.

'Erich's Revenge' - 'With Original Contents'

‘Erich’s Revenge’ – ‘With Original Contents’

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GDR: a Legacy of Acrid Jokes

The brigadier of an agricultural commune, the Landwirtschaftliche Produktionsgenossenschaft (LPG) in Heilenroda knows that his sows produce on average six piglets. ‘Well,’ he muses, ‘that doesn’t sound like much. The SED county leadership won’t be impressed.’ Therefore he writes in his report, ‘The healthy sow in Heilenroda usually produces seven piglets.’
The county leader peruses this report attentively, thinking, ‘Seven piglets! That’s good, but it may not be quite enough to reach our production target. It’s probably better if we put eight.’
The district leader ponders. ‘Eight piglets? Is that a lot? No idea – but let’s make it nine, just to be on the safe side.’
Reading this, his superior at the National Planning Committee thinks to himself, ‘Nine piglets? Not bad! However, we still have a little gap in our Schweinefleischbilanzkennzahl.
The leader of the Central Committee for Agricultural Production reads of ten piglets in the latest report. ‘Not quite enough to impress the Politbüro, I think. Let’s make that eleven.’
The final report is impressive and satisfies the highest authorities. ‘Comrade Honecker,’ they announce proudly, ‘the healthy sow in Heilenroda produces on average twelve piglets.’
‘Marvellous,’ the head of state replies. ‘In that case, we can export half of them!’

What would happen if the Sahara were to turn socialist, with a state-directed economy? – Initially, nothing at all; but after about ten years the sand would get scarce.

A citizen of the GDR intends to buy a pair of shoes, but inadvertently enters a butcher’s shop. ‘Have you no shoes?’ he asks. The butcher replies, ‘You can get no shoes next door. Here we have no meat.’

At the hardware store: ‘Do you have nails?’ – ‘No.’ – ‘Do you have screws?’ – ‘No. But we’re open twenty-four hours.’ – ‘Why?’ – ‘The lock is broken.’

The GDR astronaut Siegmund Jähn was recommended for the job of director at the largest department store in East Berlin. Why? Because he had experience with vast, empty spaces.

Under socialism, everyone can choose his job, whether he wants to or not.

A primary teacher in East Germany explains to the little ones that every profession of their parents can be found in a symbol on the nation’s coins. ‘Tell me what your father does.’ – ‘My father is a builder.’ – ‘Look, here’s the hammer.’ – ‘My father works at the LPG.’ – See here, the garland of corn.’ – ‘My father is an engineer.’ – ‘And here we have a compass.’
A little boy begins to cry. ‘What’s the matter? What is your father’s job?’ – The boy wails, ‘He is Secretary-General of the Party!’ – ‘Hush now, don’t be upset. Look here, right at the centre: this is the nut that holds everything together …’

A delegation of French journalists returns from a visit to the German Democratic Republic. The correspondent of the communist newspaper L’ Humanité reports, ‘Particularly impressive are the citizens of the GDR in their honesty, their intelligence and their love for the state.’
The reporter of the conservative newspaper Le Figaro confirms this. ‘Indeed. But let me add that I have not met anyone who united those three virtues. Those who are honest and love the GDR are not intelligent; those who are intelligent and love the GDR are not honest; and those who are honest and intelligent don’t love the GDR.’

The head of state is visiting a primary school. With a smile he asks Fritzchen, ‘Tell me, my boy, who is your father?’
‘That would be Ulbricht, Comrade Honecker.’
‘And who is your mother?’
‘The GDR, Comrade Honecker.’
‘And what would you like to be when you grow up?’
‘An orphan, Comrade Honecker.’

Why were there hardly any bank robberies in the GDR? – One had to wait fifteen years for a getaway car.

Two Trabis crashed, resulting in thirteen casualties: Both drivers, plus eleven citizens amongst the crowds who fought over the spare parts.

The difference between socialism and orgasm? – Socialism makes you moan longer.

The difference between democracy and social democracy? – About the same as between a chair and an electric chair.

The difference between terrorists and the GDR leadership? – Terrorists have fans and followers.

The difference between capitalism and socialism? – Capitalism is the exploitation of man by his fellow man; under socialism, it’s the other way round.

Which systems are incompatible? – The socialist system and the nerve system.

What are the geographic particularities of the GDR? – It’s a flat land with tight spots.

What are the four main difficulties in socialism? – Spring, summer, autumn and winter.

What is a quartet? – An East German symphonic orchestra after a tour in the West.

What would have happened if Ulbricht had been shot instead of Kennedy? – Hard to say, but one thing is certain: Onassis would not have married the widow.

After an official meeting, the German heads of state Willy Brandt (West) and Walter Ulbricht (East) find time for an informal chat.
‘Do you have a hobby?’ asks Ulbricht. – ‘I like to collect the jokes my people circulate about me,’ Brandt tells him. ‘And what is your hobby?’ – ‘Almost the same as yours,’ Ulbricht confides, ‘but I prefer to collect the people who circulate jokes about me.’

A faithful member of the SED returns from a business trip to the West. His superior is curious: ‘So, comrade, you have witnessed the putrid decay and the mortal agony of capitalism?’
‘I have.’
‘And what is your impression?’
‘It’s a beautiful way to go …’

Fritzchen returns from school: ‘Papi, our essays on the great achievements of the GDR were handed out today. Mine was the best: I got a D!’
Dad is cross. ‘Really, a D! How can that be the best? What did the others get?’ – ‘I don’t know. They are still being questioned.’

A teacher in the German Democratic Republic asks his class, ‘Who wrote The Communist Manifesto?’
Silence. He decides to ask one of the boys directly.
Fritzchen, can you tell me who wrote The Communist Manifesto?’
It wasn’t me, honestly!’ is the anxious reply.
The teacher, appalled, tells his wife about the incident. She tries to calm him by saying, ‘You should give him the benefit of the doubt, dear. Maybe it really wasn’t him.’
The teacher withdraws to a dark corner of his favourite bar to drown his dismay, and ends up telling the whole sad story to a stranger.
Now look here, don’t you worry. I’m from State Security. We shall find out who did it.’
A couple of weeks later, the two men meet once more in the same bar.
Comrade! You’ll be pleased to know that it really wasn’t Fritzchen. However, his father confessed.’

Erich Honecker is due to receive the Nobel Prize. Why? – He turned the ‘Heart of Europe’ into the arse of the world.

What is Honecker’s favourite sport? Bobsledding, of course: speedily downhill, with a wall on either side.

Honecker inspects the port of Rostock, where three cargo ships are berthed. At the first one he asks a sailor, ‘Well, comrade, what will your journey accomplish?’
‘We are taking fertilizer to Mozambique and shall return with a load of bananas.’
‘Splendid, comrade – carry on!’
At the second ship, Honecker repeats his question and is told, ‘We are shipping bicycles to Comrade Fidel in Cuba and shall come back with a cargo of sugar.’
At the third ship, Honecker enquires, ‘Tell me, comrade, where will your journey take you?’
‘We are delivering bananas and sugar to Leningrad.’
‘And what shall you be taking back?’
‘The train, as usual …’

Honecker watches the sunrise from his balcony. ‘Good morning, dear sun!’ he says.
‘Good morning, dear Comrade Secretary-General and Chairman of the Socialist Unity Party of the German Democratic Republic,’ the sun replies.
Honecker’s day is spent in Berlin, working with the Central Committee. At lunchtime, he takes a break and opens the window wide: ‘Good day, dear sun!’
‘Good day, dear Comrade Secretary-General and Chairman of the Socialist Unity Party of the German Democratic Republic,’ answers the sun.
As the sun is about to set, Honecker waves, ‘Good evening, dear sun!’
‘Kiss my ass – I’m in the West now!’

Honecker wishes to investigate his popularity. At random, he visits a tower block and rings a doorbell. A little girl opens.
‘Who are you, comrade?
she asks.
‘I am the man who ensures you have a good life. Thanks to me you have food and a home …’
‘Mum, come quickly,’ the little girl shouts. ‘It’s Uncle Peter from Munich!’

Ingrid writes to her uncle in the West. ‘Dear Uncle, thank you kindly for your parcel. I buried the pistol and the ammunition in the garden for now. Your presents are always received with great joy.’
A couple of weeks later, uncle receives another letter from his niece in the GDR. ‘My dear Uncle, our garden has been thoroughly dug over and is now ready for the vegetable seeds you promised to send …’

‘Who invented socialism? A politician or a scientist?’ – ‘A politician, of course.’ – ‘I thought as much! A scientist would have tested it on rats first.’

The Seven Miracles of Socialism:
1) There was no unemployment in the GDR.
2) Even though there was no unemployment, only half the population had work.
3) Even though only half the population worked, production targets were always reached.
4) Even though production targets were always reached, there was almost nothing to buy.
5) Even though there was almost nothing to buy, everyone was happy and content.
6) Even though everyone was happy and content, there were frequent protest marches.
7) Even though there were frequent protest marches, the government was always re-elected with a majority of 99.9%

There has been a break-in at the Ministry. Honecker phones his chief of police: ‘Have important documents been stolen?’
‘Nothing to worry about – only the election results of the next thirty years.’

The US, the Soviet Union and the GDR are planning to lift the Titanic. The Americans are interested in the safe and its contents of gold and diamonds, the Russians are interested in the engineering, and the GDR is interested in the band that played such cheerful tunes right until the end.

Even the GDR had a Festival of Political Jokes. First prize: ten years’ worth of winter holidays in Siberia.

A citizen of the GDR wanders through the streets of East Berlin at night and roars, ‘Crap state! Crap government!’
He is arrested immediately by an officer of the secret police. The man wants to know the reason for his arrest and is reminded of his words.
‘I did not say which crap state and which crap government I meant!’ he argues. The Stasi officer cannot deny this and releases the man. After a couple of minutes, however, the officer catches up with him and arrests him anew.
‘Upon reflection,’ he says, ‘there is only one crap state and one crap government. You’ll have to come with me.’

A GDR border guard asks his comrade, ‘What is your true opinion of our great socialist state?’ – ‘Much the same as yours, I should think,’ is the reply. – ‘In that case, I’m afraid I shall have to arrest you!’

A teacher, explaining the meaning of bereavement, asks her pupils for examples.
‘My granddad broke his leg.’
‘That is a case of harm, but not a bereavement.’
‘My mother lost her wallet.’
‘That is a loss, but not a bereavement.’
‘When Comrade Honecker dies, is that a bereavement?’
‘Well done! It is a bereavement – but no harm, and certainly no loss.’

After his demise, Honecker knocks on the gate of heaven. St Peter opens, measures him with a cold glance and says, ‘I believe you have lost your way, Erich. Off to hell with you!’
Half a year later, two little devils knock on heaven’s door. St Peter can’t believe his eyes. ‘What are you doing here? Surely you know this is no place for you.’
But the devils plead with him: ‘For pity’s sake, St Peter – we are political refugees!’

Honecker’s guardian angel requests a holiday, pleading stress and exhaustion. St Peter enquires, ‘And why should this be necessary? Like all the other guardian angels, you have only one single person to protect.’
‘Certainly,’ whimpers the angel, ‘but I have to protect him from seventeen million people!’

Three prisoners are sitting together in Bautzen, infamous prison of the GDR. One of them says, ‘I was always five minutes early, so they arrested me for a spy.’
‘I was always five minutes late, so they arrested me for sabotage.’
‘And I was always exactly on time, so they arrested me for possessing a watch from the West.’

A US banker has been invited by the finance minister of the GDR. In the yard of the ministry, he sees stacks of bullion lying about. Amazed, he tells his host, ‘In my homeland, gold is considered a very precious commodity. It is stored in Fort Knox, surrounded and secured by concrete walls, barbed wire and mines, and guarded by watchtowers and soldiers with dogs.’
‘There you have it!’ replies the GDR minister. ‘That is the difference between our systems! Here, we regard the people as the most precious commodity.’

IMG_0377

***

If you have a favourite joke about the GDR, please share it in the comment section below. 



 


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Leipzig

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.

Gewandhaus

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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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. 

27_Venustempel

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