2016 Conway Scholarship Report – Liane Hewitt

Exploring Germany’s Many Faces: South to North, West to East, Rural to Urban, Medieval to Modern

Although I did not wander aimlessly, my nearly month-long travels in Germany did not have a conscious agenda. Rather, I used the special opportunity afforded me by the Conway Travel Scholarship to observe, enjoy and learn about multiple facets of German life and culture both of today and from the past. Above all, my trip expanded my curiosity for German history and peaked my interest in learning German. For broadening my personal and scholarly horizons, I am deeply grateful to Dr. Conway for his generous endowment that made the whole experience possible.

I purposefully designed my itinerary so that I could explore as much variety in Germany as possible.  Landing in Frankfurt am Main’s busy mighty airport, I made my first stop in the quintessential medieval town of Rothenburg ob der Tauber nestled in a beautiful Bavarian valley. Gradually, I journeyed northwards through the stunning German countryside, which I found remarkably dotted (in both the East and West) with small forests of wind turbines and village houses’ covered with solar panels. This fact raises many questions for me about the development of Germany’s environmental politics and practices which are renowned among “green” circles worldwide for being at the forefront of sustainability efforts. Ultimately, I finished my journey in the bustling metropolis of Berlin where I took a fascinating two-week language and culture course with the Goethe Institut.

Throughout my voyage, I drank in all the beautiful landscapes and spotted notable differences between the countryside of the former FDR and DDR. The fields are significantly larger in Thuringia, Saxony and Branderburg than in Bavaria and Franconia thanks, no doubt, to the legacy of Communist agricultural collectivisation. To my great surprise, some farms in the East rival those found in the Canadian prairies!  The density of villages is also clearly lower in the East. Equally intriguing, I noticed my first Trabant in a small Bavarian village near Rothenburg, and not in former East Germany.

After basking in Rothenburg’s stunning historical integrity, enhanced by what I learned during Dr. Friedrichs’ lectures on the early modern city, I made my second stop in Nuremberg. Of all the places I visited, Nuremberg felt most steeped in many distinct eras of German history. The juxtaposition of the largely preserved medieval city wall and its berg (castle), ornate baroque facades,  the foreboding Nazi Party Congress coliseum and mammoth rally grounds now used for an annual Formula 1 race, and modern glass buildings standing in a bombed-out quarter of the Altstadt including most notably the Human Rights Museum form a potent combination. Indeed, the whole old town feels like a living museum where traces of the past are clearly visible and haunt certain areas, while the bustling present continues to unfold. 

I visited Bamberg next, purely I must confess because I discovered that it is an underappreciated UNESCO World Heritage site conveniently on my road to Berlin. I did not regret my choice. Unlike most of Germany, Bamberg escaped the Second World War with hardly a scratch, and its medieval and baroque Alstadt is an awesome city to behold especially in the golden evening light. Built on seven hills, it is dubbed Franconian Rome and its monuments certainly communicate a powerful and prosperous past as a trading hub and the seat of an important prince-bishopric. It is also famous for having the highest quota of breweries per capita in Germany. My tour-guide, who happened to be a former American soldier stationed in a massive and still operating U.S. Army Base a few miles away, explained that Bamberg has so many churches today because in the past the law allowed breweries to be built only if associated to an ecclesiastical building. In Bamberg, I was struck by the rich layers of history a former American soldier and tour guide pointed out that intersect here. His presence itself spoke to the continuing legacy of Allied occupation after the Second World War, as he showed me around the world’s first modern psychiatric war established in the nineteenth century, breweries from the eighteenth century, and the great imperial Dom built in the eleventh and twelfth centuries.

Leaving behind Bavaria’s fertile rolling hills, I entered the former DDR’s territory and arrived in in Erfurt, the capital of Thuringia, which I explored on the two wheels of a rental bicycle. Before my visit, I only knew Erfurt to be an important site for Martin Luther and the Reformation, but I left with the impression of a thriving modern city that draws thousands of West German tourists every weekend thanks to its culture and affordability. Like Bamberg, Erfurt was an important commercial and episcopal centre in early modern Europe: it connected the Russian and Mediterranean markets to Northern and Western Europe and it was the seat of an important bishopric. And although Erfurt has retained much of its medieval and early modern past, not least its baroque citadelle built by a monastic order in the sixteenth century, its Imperial Dom, the old Rathaus and prosperous merchants’ timbered homes, the city does not feel like a relic of the past in the same way as Bamberg can. Once again, I was struck by the co-existence of the Augustinian cloister where Martin Luther became a monk with twenty-first century streetcars built on twentieth-century rails. Such a picture reminded me that Germany’s present is as fascinating as its past, and though previous times continue to be important the present is not constrained by them.   

Since I am especially interested in the history of the Kaiser Reich and the Weimar Republic, I was determined to make a small pilgrimage to Weimar even if there is hardly anything to see from the contested days of unified Germany’s first parliamentary democracy. The city’s grand architecture and florid parks on the Im River clearly communicated its glory days as a centre of German thought and culture. Indeed, it seems as though most prominent German intellectuals and artists spent some time in Weimar, from Goethe, to Schiller, Bach, Franz Lizst, and the Bauhaus and Art Nouveau architects of the early twentieth century. The juxtaposition of such refined high culture and beautiful countryside with my visit to the National-Socialist hell of Buchenwald, hidden away in the forest of Thuringia only nine kilometres away from the heart of Weimar, was particularly troubling and memorable. Although only one prisoners’ barracks remains standing – the Americans burned to the ground all the other buildings when they occupied the site – the vast open gravel field scorched by the sun on the crest of a hill overlooking peaceful rolling farms, and the surviving crematoria, disinfection chambers, SS guards’ barracks and the cells of prisoners awaiting execution and torture overwhelmed me with a total sense of despair and lifelessness that many inmates might have felt. It was especially disturbing to see how the Nazis had deliberately designed the evilly sardonic message on the camp’s gate (Jedem Das Seine, translated as “to each his own” or more loosely “everyone gets their due”) to be read from  those inside its fences, i.e. the prisoners, not by those outside. I have never been more moved to see and walk on a historical location as I was when I stood on a site where National Socialism perpetrated its crimes. The terrors of the Third Reich jumped out of the pages of books that I have studied and I experienced history in a new direct way.   

Before arriving at my final destination, Berlin, I made a short visit to the medieval town of Quedlinburg, another UNESCO World Heritage site, tucked away in Saxony-Anhalt. It could be considered former DDR’s equivalent of Bavaria’s Romantic Road towns, but it clearly is not as prosperous today. Although it boasts the largest number of original medieval timbered homes of all German cities (including the oldest timbered house in the whole country, which remains standing since the early 1300s), Quedlinburg lacks the flamboyant colours and flowers of Rothenburg. But I could see that it clearly had an important past, as I gazed up at the ninth century Schloss and Abbey overlooking the town from a craggy summit.  And unlike Rothenburg, Quedlinburg did not feel like a city frozen in time that exists to charm tourists. In that way, it is more like Erfurt, another former DDR city, than Bavaria’s Bamberg.

Finally, I reached Berlin. In many ways, the metropolis seemed like a foreign country compared to the other parts of Germany I had travelled through. I was struck by how modern most streetscapes looked, even if I arrived knowing that around 70 percent of Berlin’s buildings had been destroyed by Allied bombings and sustained artillery barrage in the last months of World War II. Since I arrived thinking I was most interested in German history from the the late nineteenth century through the 1930s, I must admit some disappointment at not being able to see Potsdamer Platz and Charlottenburg’s grand boulevards in their turn of the century glory. Such obliteration of the pre-1939 city architecture made the Second World War’s legacy loom largest here for me along with Nuremberg. Furthermore, I encountered constant reminders of the war, National Socialism and the Holocaust, from the Soviet impressive memorial commemorating the 305,000 Soviet dead in the Battle of Berlin, to the moving Holocaust memorial, the Jewish Museum, and the bombed-out Kaiser Wilhelm Gedächtniskirche, among countless others, but also in more subtle ways. For example, my parents recounted how they had walked past a building in Prenz Lauerberg – close to the neighbourhood I stayed in, and which I learned had been formally Berlin’s Jewish quarter – with a plaque stating that its owner’s had offered their premises to the SS to use for their interrogation and torture of prisoners. And yet despite such grievous reminders of the National Socialist era, I was amazed at how history is vibrantly remembered in Berlin in a way that does not cripple the present, but on the contrary encourages a progressive present. For instance, the DHM’s special temporary exhibit focused on the history of immigration to Germany during the last century with the clear agenda of celebrating the country’s identity as a land of multiculturalism. Such an image of Germany, I noticed is by no means universally accepted: some political parties’ posters for the upcoming municipal elections in Berlin, which I saw throughout the city, called for a “STOP TO ISLAMISM” and a “DEUTSCHEN DEUTSCHLAND” (German Germany) while the SPD assured that BERLIN BLEIBT MENSCHEN and WELTOFFNET (Germany remains human and open to the world). 

Besides visiting museums and other historic sites, including the Wannsee Villa, I spent most of my time in Berlin attending an intensive Goethe Institut German class with students from around the world who share an interest in Germany. I immediately enjoyed learning German as it helped me understand and decipher more of all I saw around me, from mundane things like road signs and grocery store labels but also the inscriptions on war memorials and primary sources displayed in the DHM.

Most afternoons, I explored much of the city on my rental bicycle and enjoyed rests in one of Berlin’s many beautiful parks and along its picturesque canals linked to the Spree River, especially Tiergarten and Treptower Park. One of my favourite areas of the city is undoubtedly Karl Marx Allee’s nearly 3km long boulevard of impressive DDR apartment buildings for workers built in the early 1950s by so-called “volunteers”. I spent one afternoon at the simple Café Sybille, a coffee house from the era on Karl Marx Allee, and enjoyed its fascinating exhibit on the construction of workers apartments in East Berlin. 

Thanks to Dr. Conway’s generous endowment of this scholarship, I return to Vancouver far more interested in and curious about Germany’s past and present than I was before I left. While I arrived interested especially in the Kaiser Reich and the Weimar Republic, I am now keenly interested in the National Socialist period and the post-1945 era. I am also greatly motivated to continue learning German, and I hope to try to read (what I can understand) of one newspaper article a week as my first step toward preserving what I have learned so far.