James Ruggia | May 01, 2015 4:16 PM ET
Myth, Memory and History Collide in Germany
The annual survey of Germany’s top 100 tourism attractions tells you what most travelers, both German and international, enjoy about the destination. Walt Disney built his Magic Kingdom around a replica of the top vote getter, King Ludwig’s Neuschwanstein Castle. Some other top 10 attractions on the list include Cologne Cathedral, Oktoberfest in Munich, Brandenberg Gate, the old town of Rothenburg ob der Tauber, Heidelberg Castle and the Berlin Wall. The Europa-Park, a giant amusement park appealing mostly to families in Germany, seems out of place at number three on that list of exalted historic and cultural sites.
The National Brand Index, which evaluates the brand perceptions of 50 participating countries, ranked German tourism seventh based on a number of criteria and first in the category of history and culture, outstripping countries such as France and Italy. According to the German National Tourism Board’s CEO, Petra Hedorfer, culture and history are the top reasons that foreign visitors travel to the country. Not all of German history and culture is as easily digested as a Disney-esque castle in the mountains. For most people it’s the collision of German history, culture, myth and memory that makes it so compelling.
Wagner’s Rhine, the forests of the Brothers Grimm or the laboratory of Faust and Mephistopheles by themselves are enough to enchant the destination with mythic energy. It’s my guess that most visitors feel strangely surprised, as I was, upon first seeing the Black Forest and realizing that it’s actually a forest, a place of scenic trails and rest stops.
Like most countries, historic forces will often bend mythology to shape history. For example, after WWII, the U.S. State Department used many tactics to help Germany revive its image with Americans. One step was the creation of the tourist route known today as the Romantic Road, which occupies the 11th place on the top 100 list. Nearly 30 million people visit the road every year. Washington wanted to re-establish that mythic folkloric Germany in order to heal the bloody chasm ripped open by the Nazis, who also manipulated myth to seize control of Europe.
It was a control that Germany never needed, because it has always been at the center of Europe. The significance of Germany in European history is made evident by the country’s 39 UNESCO World Heritage Sites even if only 21 of those sites are listed among the popular Top 100. Almost every year a different anniversary reminds you. Last year Germany commemorated the 1,200th anniversary of Charlemagne’s death in Aachen and the 600th anniversary of the Council of Constance, which re-unified the divided Papal authority, as two popes were fighting it out and ripping Christianity in two. In 2017, Germany will celebrate 500 years since Luther nailed the 95 Theses on the church door at Wittenberg.
In the last century, Germany was in the center of almost everything, through two world wars and the Cold War. While most countries can focus only on building history museums to preserve official memory, the memory of National Socialism and the German Democratic Republic compels many German cities to open documentation centers and memorials. Two such examples are the Leistikowstrasse Memorial in Potsdam that remembers the time when the former rectory was used as a KGB interrogation center and Munich’s new Documentation Centre for the History of National Socialism, which just opened yesterday.
The 41st Annual German Travel Mart was held in Erfurt last week. Erfurt is an old trading post town where the Via Regia, a trade route connecting Santiago de Compostela in Spain to Moscow, fords (furt) the muddy waters (Er) of the Gera River, giving the town its name. So much east/west traffic crossed there at the fording point that a bridge was inevitably built and then that bridge was covered and today it is the Merchant’s Bridge, where shops, galleries and cafes line either side of the bridge and give the town one of the most interesting pieces of small medieval architecture.
Erfurt’s the kind of town that reminds you that the past wasn’t really about knights errant and coy ladies, despite popular myths. The traders of the Via Regia brought a wealth of goods and worldliness to towns like Leipzig and Erfurt, just as Silk Road traders did for Central Asian outposts that then became towns. Part of that worldliness was religious and artistic. The young Martin Luther served as a monk in Erfurt’s Augustine monastery (the Evangelical Lutheran Church today) and Johan Sebastian Bach lived and performed in Erfurt.
In nearby, Wartburg Castle, Luther spent just under 11 weeks translating the New Testament into a form of German comprised of 18 different dialects from around the area we call Germany today. In doing so, he essentially created a unifying national language and lifted the Bible from the exclusive ownership of scholars and priests so that ordinary people could read the book themselves and make their own understanding of it. Literacy took off at that point as people all over Germany raced to learn how to read.
Both Luther and Bach would have walked right past Erfurt’s Old Synagogue without even knowing it was there. The building was hidden behind the ordinary facades of the town. In fact, nobody even knew that the ruins of the synagogue were there until workmen uncovered them in 1998. In that year. upon finding the building they also found a treasure of hidden silver and gold that was buried to hide it from the town, which had grown hostile to Jews. In 1349, the town’s Jewish community was completely wiped out: men, women and children. At that time the Black Death was ravaging the town and it was suggested that Jews must be poisoning the wells. That’s all it took to begin the slaughter.
From 1946 on, the tables were turned when Soviet investigators and their STASI colleagues prosecuted between 30,000 and 50,000 East Germans on suspicion of “forming an opposition as well as the suspicion of espionage and agent activities.” In most cases, evidence came from the use of torture and the subsequent signing of confessions written in Russian. Death sentences were often imposed and in East Berlin, a guillotine was used more than 200 times. Altogether there were about 180,000 political prisoners in East Germany.
History, memory and myth both torment and tantalize in Germany. When I watched all those balloons released along the former path of the Berlin Wall on Nov. 9 last year to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Wall, I found myself hoping that this new generation of Germans would find a future bright enough to drive out the demons of the past, which they had no part in creating. And they’re doing it in many ways, especially in the environmental arena where they are light years ahead of every other country when it comes to sourcing renewable energy from wind and solar.
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