2015 Conway Scholarship Report – Eriks Bredovskis

Von der Großstadt zum Kleinstaat:
In search of traces of the past from Berlin to Liechtenstein

On 22 June 2015, I took off for Europe. Thanks to the Conway Travel Scholarship generously endowed by Professor John Conway, I was able to spend the majority of my summer in Europe. I have travelled to Europe before, but mostly to Latvia – from where my family came. I have been to Germany twice, in 2005 and in 2014, for a brief period of three or four days each and both times in Berlin. The Conway Travel Scholarship, however, provided me with the ability to travel for an extended period. 

The trip I planned has a specific purpose: To find traces of a German culture and past within and without Germany. Therefore, this report will not be a list of the museums I visited. As a student of history, going to museums is either an enjoyable or frustrating experience. Seeing complex historical narratives summed up into bite-sized pieces can be infuriating, especially if such summaries fail to display the interplay of various elements. For such reason, this report will trace moments when while travelling I stopped and reflected on my views of German culture and its past. Moments when I noticed traces of the past. These traces are found not in museums, but on the streets, in the parks, or among the people. 

For such reason, I did not restrict my trip planning to Germany exclusively. Rather, I actively sought to find traces of a German past in cities such as Prague, Kiev, Lviv, Riga, and Strasbourg, in addition to centres within Germany, ranging from the huge cities of Berlin or Munich, to small German towns like Esslingen am Neckar. Searching for these traces stimulates reflection.

This report roughly follows chronology, with some modifications to better fit my narrative. The overall arc of this report is a “U”. From one “end,” so to speak, of German culture, Berlin (Großstadt), to the other “end,” Liechtenstein (Kleinstaat). Between these two “ends”are places and moments when the past made its presence known. I hope this narrative arc highlights the spectrum of places and pasts I encountered on my trip across Europe. At the same time, I hope it also stresses the breadth of a German experience within and without Germany’s borders.

Berlin was my longest stay in this voyage. I spent one month living in the south-west neighbourhood of Schöneberg, but spent most of my evenings and nights either in the southern districts of Kreuzberg and Neukölln or in the north-east district of Prenzlauer berg. As mentioned earlier, I have been to Berlin twice before (in 2005 and in 2014). Both times I was there for four days or less. With a whole month in the city, I hoped to explore its metropolitan character. Purchasing a monthly transit pass, as opposed to a tourist pass was my first declaration that I will try to disassociate myself from typical tourist things. There is something about Berlin which has always attracted me. I am not too sure what, though. Perhaps it has something to do with growing up in a suburb of Toronto, a city with about the same population and cosmopolitanism as Berlin. Nonetheless, I will highlight only a number of moments during my stay in Germany’s capital.

In the first week, I went to the symphony and the cinema. The Berlin Youth Orchestra presented Beethoven’s third symphony (Op. 55), commonly known as “Eroica.” This has always been one of my favourite pieces of classical music, in particular its second movement “Marcia Funebre,” because of its allegorical connections with the rise of Napoleon – It has been said that Beethoven scratched out his dedication to Napoleon after learning that he had declared himself emperor. To my surprise, the performance was preceded by a brief lecture of the piece’s influence on music theory and its historical context. The speaker, a professor of musicology, seemed very pleased to have the opportunity to present a lecture whose aural examples came from a live orchestra. (Image 1) Later that week, I went to the Yorck Kino in Kreuzberg to watch Victoria (2015). Victoria is a German independent drama set in Berlin and filmed in one take. The film follows Victoria, a recently moved Spanish student through her interactions with a group of local Berliners during a night out on the town. The cinematography as well as the narrative makes it one of my favourite films. Although, this could also be due to me having the opportunity to watch it in Berlin. I will, however, find out whether this is a case the week after I write this, as I am going to watch the film again at the Vancouver International Film Festival. Both of these exposures to German media – which in a sense bookend two hundred years of evolution – was a proper way to begin my trip to find traces of a German past and culture.

Near the end of my trip, I went with a few of my friends who live in Berlin to Tempelhof airfield. In 2008 it ceased operation as an airport and since then it has been transformed into a massive park. The runways are perfect for cyclists, rollerbladers or walkers. At the east end of the park, the city constructed several dozen barbecuing pits and that evening we held a grill party. The experience of being on Tempelhof field exemplifies the purpose of my trip. The long straight runways are literal traces of a past – images of the Berlin Airlift in 1949 came to mind. Now there are no planes, only people.

After one month, I got used to Berlin, so much so that rail construction disrupted my daily commute. I knew, naturally, that there is more to Germany then Berlin, and much more in terms of traces of a German past. My stay in Berlin, however, confirmed what I already suspected: First, that Berlin is still one of my favourite cities to visit and, second, that Berlin is very much an exception in Germany.

Prague was a brief weekend trip. Several of my friends from Toronto were passing through Prague and I decided to buy a last minute train ticket. The train from Berlin to Prague was just shy of five hours. In Prague we, naturally, saw the impressively long Wenceslas Square, clocking in at 750 meters in length, the Old Town Square, the new Town Hall – the site of the defenestrations of Prague, the representative moment of the start of the Thirty Years’ War – and the Astronomical Clock on the old Town Hall. On Saturday evening, we enjoyed the scenery from a beer garden in Letná Park with its beautiful view of Prague’s Old Town. (Image 2) This was my first time in the so called “Habsburg Lands” and much of my imagination around this space was coloured by undergraduate courses and Simon Winder’s Danubia (2013), a lucid history of the Habsburgs told through various moments and places in time. In terms of aesthetics, my imagination was correct. The stunning architecture of Prague’s Old Town and its nineteenth century additions somehow had a Viennese sensation to them.

Esslingen am Neckar is a special place for my family. After World War Two, it was the site of a displaced persons camp in which around six thousand Latvian displaced persons, including my grandfather, were housed. The camp was located on the opposite side of the Neckar along Stuttgarter Str.. (Image 3) My grandfather remembered that he lived at 33 Stuttgarter Str. and when I as little he would tell me stories of his life in Esslingen (he was fourteen when he arrived there in 1945 and left in the early 1950s). With the opportunity to form my own itinerary, I decided to spend only a few hours in Esslingen. I walked around Stuttgarter Str., still a main east-west thoroughfare, and took photographs for my grandfather to see what has changed and what hasn’t. Sitting at on a park bench in Esslingen I sensed traces of my family’s past. An apartment building in a Stuttgart suburb may not seem to be the most interesting place to visit while in Germany, but for myself and my family’s history, it was a suitable sight to see.

Lviv is a fascinating city with an interesting past – it was a historic centre of Polish culture; was under Habsburg rule from the end of the eighteenth century to 1918; changed hands multiple times between Polish and Ukrainian nationalist movements from 1918-1922; and at the end of World War Two became part of Ukraine. Now, while few in Lviv speak Polish (and Yiddish less so) traces of its past are everywhere. Many of its impressive buildings were build at the end of the nineteenth century under Habsburg rule. Its central station was built in 1904. The main building of the National University of Lviv, with its neo-classical architecture hints at its construction in the 1880s. Lviv’s opera house, strategically built at the end of a long and wide boulevard, opened its doors in 1900. These buildings possessed Habsburg vibes. Places of Leopolitan culture were mostly build under the Habsburgs at the turn of the twentieth century.

Not all traces in Lviv were so explicit. The most rewarding ones were more subtle. The main town square, with its cafés, street patios, bands playing music, and trams winding their ways through the pedestrian traffic hinted a more shared past with other Habsburg cities such as Prague, than with other Ukrainian cities like Kiev or Odessa. The most rewarding trace, however, I found accidentally. While I was walking through the south-west quarter of the old town, I noticed a missing sign. Where it should have been fastened to the wall I could see an unpainted portion of the building and on that unpainted portion I traces of Polish and Yiddish text. This subtle but power trace reminded of Trouillot’s Silencing the Past. (Image 4) In Lviv, I came to see traces large and small. The Habsburg legacy is very much present. It’s seen in obvious places, like the buildings and parks Leopolitans inhabit on a daily basis, but it’s also seen in their way of life and, for me, in missing street signs.

Strasbourg is a city I have always wanted to visit ever since I found out about its unique position between France and Germany. My stay in Strasbourg lasted three days, during which I couldn’t resist and visited three museums – the most I have in a single city for this trip.1 I went to see how they presented Alsace’s and Strasbourg’s unique position in France. I was also interested in seeing wether city life in Strasbourg still presents itself in a unique way. What struck me the most about Strasbourg was not the Germanic architecture of the old town or the broad avenues built in the 1880s (today Avenue de la Liberté is a good example), nor the architecture of the city hall or the national library of the university of Strasbourg, the latter of which eerily resembles the original design of the Reichstag. What struck me most were the monuments for Goethe, Gauss, Hegel, Herder, Kant, and Schiller scattered throughout the city in its parks. There were no busts of Molière or Voltaire nearby. Streets in the old town were labelled with their French and Alsatian names. It was interesting to see how the city still possessed many elements from its past. Perhaps these exist just for the city’s visitors, nonetheless it was interesting to experience a city where I spoke French, but ordered “Flammenkuchen” an Alsatian and south German dish with resembles a thin-crust pizza topped with a white cream sauce, bacon, cheese, and onion. It was a city where I arrived and left on Deutsche Bahn trains, a city which still labels a central square by its French and German names (Place de la République – Kaiserplatz) and a city where the I had the opportunity to see a performance of Alsatian folk dances on “Place Gutenberg.” (Image 5)

In Munich, I experienced my first intra-German culture shock. From Berlin, I travelled to Ukraine for a week, then I headed to Stuttgart (Esslingen am Neckar) via Munich. After living a month in Berlin and knowing in the back of my mind that Berlin’s culture was an exception in German culture, spending six hours in Munich confirmed that. My very brief exposure to Munich was the S-Bahn ride from the airport to the central station, where I spent four hours wandering around the old town. I remember seeing commuters wearing Lederhosen and thinking to myself: “People actually wear these?” Likewise, seeing groups of football spectators with FC Bayern München jerseys and scarves singing and chanting on the S-Bahn was a surprise. I also saw an older commuter tipping his hat to two fellow passengers. After habituating myself to Berlin urban culture (not to mention growing up in North American urban culture) seeing these three moments were a surprise. This experience, while brief, was a memorable one. It confirmed my sense of a variety of German cultures. It would have been interesting to have spent more time in Munich, but with a tight schedule I had to keep to it.

Liechtenstein is not the first place people name when planning a trip. It was, however, one of the few places I was determined to go, and at a specific date: 15 August (Liechtenstein’s National Holiday – Staatsfeiertag). The holiday was first celebrated in 1940 and this year marked its 75th anniversary. As a student of history, this holiday felt like a relic from the past. It somehow felt like I travelled back to the eighteenth or nineteenth century in its performance; A country roughly the area of Vancouver and UBC (Vancouver and UBC are 130km2 –Liechtenstein is 160km2) and a population of 35 000 celebrate the birthday of Prince Franz Josef II (the father of the current prince). I went to this holiday with a colleague from the University of Toronto and we stayed in Feldkirch, Austria as it was much cheaper to stay there than in Liechtenstein. On Staatsfeiertag, we travelled to Vaduz, by taking what’s known as “the Liechtenstein bus,” a bus whose route starts in Feldkirch, Austria, drives through the towns and villages of Liechtenstein, and ends its route in Sargans, Switzerland. From Vaduz, we walked up to the Vaduz Castle, the residence of the Prince of Liechtenstein. At 11:30 a brief (10 minute) parade of Burschenschaften, children in folk costumes, scouts, members of parliament and the prince with his wife made its way to the stage. After two speeches by the president of Liechtenstein and the son of the current prince, and the singing of the Liechtenstein national anthem, the crowd of about three hundred were invited to the Vaduz Castle courtyard for free pretzels and beer. At the reception, everyone was free to mingle and chat, including the current prince, Hans Adam II, with whom my colleague and I were able to briefly chat and take a photo. (Image 6) Liechtenstein was the most unique portion of my trip. In comparison to Berlin, it seemed surreal. This contrast, however, highlights what I wanted to experience,and for what the Conway Scholarship is intended: the breadth of German culture. Liechtenstein’s Staatsfeiertag has many traces of a different German past. Although the holiday was founded seventy-five years ago, it has traces of a more distant past, not only in its performative aspects, but also in its capacity to encapsulate a sort of essence of small-state-ness (Kleinstaaterei) in an almost explicit form.

When the portion of my trip funded by Professor Conway ended, my research began, specifically in Marburg. My last reprieve before I began working in the archives was to spend a day in Frankfurt. There, I walked for about five hours reflecting on the past week and what I experienced. I managed to walk past St. Paul’s church, the site of the Frankfurt Assembly in 1848, and the old town hall. I concluded my trip at the Goethe Universität. There, I enjoyed a coffee on Theodor-Adorno Platz (the central square of campus) and reflected on my journey. All in all, spending such a long time in Europe, crossing borders which at times you can’t notice, and speaking different languages, helps one take notice in the nuances of historical traces in the cities and countrysides. Sometimes, the past is not preserved in museums, but in the culture or in the architecture. Finding the traces of a German past was an enjoyable experience and I am deeply thankful to Professor John Conway for his generous contribution and the opportunity he has provided to allow students of German history, like myself, to experience the German past.

1. The Museum of Alsace; The Museum of Modern Art in Strasbourg; The Museum of Strasbourg