Category Archives: Europe

Heidelberg’s “Holy Mountain”

Thingstaette

There are numerous reasons to visit the Heidelberg area – few, however, are more remarkable than the layers of time and memory still visible on the Heiligenberg or “Holy Mountain”, rising some 439 meters above the river Neckar across from the Old Town itself.

There, archaeologists have found  remains dating back to Neolithic times, as well as a Celtic fort and burial grounds. Nearby, the ancient ruins of St.Michael’s Abbey contain the foundations of a Roman temple to Mercury, a god identified with the Norse/Germanic Odin or Wotan.There was also a second monastery here, St Stephen’s, given to the University after the Reformation, which then razed it to sell the stones. Many of the remaining stones were reused in the 19th century to build a lookout tower on the same spot as the original monastery and in 1905 a beacon dedicated to Prince Bismarck was also erected nearby.

Today, however, the most complete of the structures on the mountain is the Freilichtbühne-Thingstätte, a dramatic amphitheatre/stadium designed by Nazi master-builder Albert Speer and realized by architect Hermann Akker in 1935, built following  a period when rightwing student groups organized the notorious burning of “prohibited” books on the Universitätsplatz in 1933.

Some 40 such open-air theaters were constructed in significant locations across Germany, to be used for Third Reich propaganda purposes. They included one built next to the 1936 Berlin Olympic Games stadium and the amphitheater built on top of the Lorelei Rock,on the River Rhine, positioned to face the sunrise.

The Nazis were thus reviving what they imagined to be a truly Germanic way of  living and celebrating, based on sun worship with several of the structures aligned to the rising or setting sun.

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“My father, then aged 8, stood outside our building as one of a long chain of young torch bearers”, reminisced an affable hotelier I once met there. “It was June 22nd. Dr. Goebbels himself arrived to give the opening speech, timed for the summer solstice. The line of torches stretched from the old city, over the Karl-Theodore  bridge and all the way up the Philosophenweg to the top of Heiligenberg. There, the torches surrounded the newly built amphitheatre”. A French writer of the time had stated bluntly that “Fascism is Theatre!” and this certainly illustrated how important that concept was to the Nazis.

Said to originate from early Viking democratic assemblies, The Thingstätte at Heidelberg was an idea of Joseph Goebbels to counter the influence of Christian Churches. Hitler saw Christianity as a threat to the national-socialist regime, so new ceremonies needed to be invented. This was endorsed by Himmler who considered the main task of his elite SS was to be prepared for an ultimate clash between “humans against subhumans”.

A crowd of some 20,000 people gathered on the 56 rows of seats and around the theatre slopes to hear Goebbels, the Minister of Propaganda, speak to the crowd.  He compared the Thingstätte amphitheater to being “like the Autobahn, National Socialism in stone!”. It then opened with a Summer Solstice celebration that included a musical cantata by Franz Philipp called “Heiliges Vaterland”(Holy Fatherland). The acoustics were excellent and still are today.

Various staged events took place there over many months, before the Ministry of Propaganda dropped the “Thing” Movement by 1937, to concentrate on the Albert Speer-staged and rather Wagnerian Nuremberg Rallies.These were filmed and movies like Leni Riefenstahl’s much acclaimed “Triumph of the Will” disseminated their triumphant message in cinemas instead. The Nazi ideas were then efficiently reinforced through the radio broadcasts that were such a daily feature of the Third Reich.

55F5B41E-9A22-422F-B757-7B5B89EFDC47After the war, and 20 years spent in Spandau prison, Speer moved back to Heidelberg and lived in a villa above Heidelberg Castle. His son was also an architect but the two were estranged until his death in 1981 in London. He was on his way to a BBC interview on his bestselling autobiography. To his death, Speer always denied knowledge of the Holocaust and is said to have donated a good part of his publishing income to charitable Jewish institutions.

The stadium-theatre he designed in Heidelberg remained in use for many more years – hosting events which included several organised by the US Army, an unofficial “witches” night every April and for high profile concerts – the most successful of which was possibly the electronic group Tangerine Dream, leading exponents of the so-called Krautrock movement.Heidelberg_Germany

The tranquil views over the beautiful Neckar valley would alone make a journey up the Heiligenberg worthwhile, but the unforgettable forest setting and the meaningful ruins and monuments make a visit particularly rewarding.

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The Most Wanted Painting in the World

7457666532_5a99f53464_oIf our culture is the shared memory of all historical experiences or, as renowned journalist Ryszard Kapuścinski claims, “we are human because we recount stories and myths”, then the huge painting (twice the size of Rembrandt’s Night Watch) covering a whole wall of the National Museum in Warsaw provides a major opening into the history of Central Europe.

Created to provide inspiration and resistance during the period of Empires and partitions, Jan Matejko’s “The Battle of Grunwald” became the focus of search, torture, bribery  and a huge  “wanted” reward following the Nazi invasion of Poland in 1939.

The painting, depicting the famous struggle in 1410, essentially highlights the death in battle of Teutonic Grand Master Ulrich von Jungingen against King Jagello’s Polish-Lithuanian forces and the charge by the hero Vytutas. This portrayal was seen by the Nazis as an unwelcome reminder of the greatest confrontation in medieval times and earmarked Matejko’s masterpiece for destruction.

The Teutonic Knights, a heavily armed German military order, were originally invited from Jerusalem by a Polish prince in 1230 to help spread Christianity. Instead, the Knights established an expanding monastic state along the Baltic coast based around their impregnable castle at Malbork/Marienburg. They extracted feudal levies, seized control of the lucrative amber trade and made themselves a naval power as well.
Over time their rule was transformed into, first the Duchy, and then later, the Kingdom of Prussia, but not before the Knights suffered a major defeat at Grunwald in 1410, thus halting major Germanic expansion.

It also obliged the Grand Masters/Dukes to pay homage to Polish kings (the subject of another major Matejko work). Although the Knights may have been defeated, their state eventually became the expanding Prussia of Prince Bismarck and his Germanization policies or “KulturKampf”, when all non-German schools and universities were closed down and printing in other languages forbidden.

The Nazis, in turn, saw themselves as a kind of continuation of the knights mission, on their way towards a world empire. When attacking Russia Hitler affirmed “We will give this country a past. We will take away its character of an Asian steppe. We will Europanize it”.

Hitler stated clearly that he wanted to erase the identity of neighbouring nations. Himmler, leader of the Gestapo security forces, had emphasized that “Polish lands are to be converted into an intellectual desert”, while Propaganda minister Joseph Goebels was anxious to establish German superiority by proving that all other cultures had German origins. With this in mind, a spectacular portrayal of past defeat could not be tolerated, so experts were specifically sent from the Reich to destroy all monuments  of national identity.

Among the first to be blown up was the granite and bronze “Grunwald” monument in Cracow, a pre-WWI symbol erected for the 500th anniversary of the battle, due to efforts by world famous musician Ignacy Paderewski. This was followed by destruction of the statues to poet Adam Mickiewicz, revolutionary independence hero Kościuszko and even the prominent monument to Frederyk Chopin in Warsaw’s Łazienki Park was cut up and sent for smelting. A new museum claiming Chopin’s (non existent) German roots was established by 1943. The search for these symbolic art works was relentless.

By 1942 Nazi administrators estimated that 90% of art in Poland was in their possession, including hidden masterpieces such as Leonardo da Vinci’s ermine“Lady with an Ermine”, which was betrayed to the Gestapo within days of the Occupation. Seized by governor Hans Frank, it was hung in his family living quarters and is still remembered as a picturesque backdrop by his son Niklas. Even the largest Gothic altarpiece by Veit Stoss was dismantled and transported to Bavaria on Frank’s orders. Looted and confiscated art was to form the core of the proposed Führermuseum in Linz or the Herman Göring collection. Today, it is estimated that at least 100,000 items have still not been returned to their rightful owners.

During this time, Himmler and his SS infiltrated the army and, similarly to the Knights, created a state within a state. He actively encouraged the SS to seek out the Church of the Teutonic Order in Vienna as a symbolic source for his military elite (the actual religious order had been abolished by 1938). The highest award of the Third Reich became a badge/insignia modeled on a crest of the historic Order and given first to SS General Reinhard Heydrich and then the top ten Nazis. They created a bureaucracy of terror at the centre of which was a network of concentration camps.

Somehow the huge Matejko canvas survived the first World War period. It had been taken to Czarist Russia and returned by the post-revolution Soviet State only in 1922. The theme of the struggle against the Teutonic invaders was also taken up by Nobel prize writer Henryk Sienkiewicz in the same spirit of “Romantic Nationalism” as Matejko’s. The conflict was portrayed in his 1910 novel “The Knights of the Cross”, later turned into a a 1960 film by director Aleksander Ford.nevsky-charge-lg In Soviet Russia, cinema great Sergei Eisenstein directed his 1938 classic “Alexander Nevsky” (complete with a music score by Prokofiev). It portrayed an attack over frozen Lake Peipus against the Russians, by the Livonian branch of the Knights. The film ending, with the heavily armoured Teutonic horsemen drowning as the ice collapsed under their weight, was presented as symbolic retribution for spreading Christianity by the sword.

During the Nazi occupation of Poland, what made the survival of “Grunwald” more remarkable was the intensity of the search for the removed painting and the astronomical reward offered. Initially, on Goebels orders, the museum curator was to be bribed with two million Reichmarks (about $16M USD in today’s money)  to reveal where the picture was hidden. When this was refused a public broadcast increased the sum to ten million Reichmarks (approximately $80M USD in today’s money).
Captured underground resistance fighters were tortured to death by the Gestapo seeking its hiding place. All to no avail. In fact, the  canvas had been rolled, placed in a specially made wooden box and secretly buried in a protective stone sarcophagus close to a village near Lublin.

The search by the Nazis was only abandoned when, in a clever ruse, the Polish government-in-exile based in London, announced the arrival of the painting in Britain. It actually only emerged from hiding in Poland after the war to be exhibited by 1949.
After years of meticulous restoration, finally finished in 2012, “The Battle of Grunwald” has once more taken pride of place in Warsaw’s National Museum, where it provides a visual insight to the struggles in “God’s Playground” (Norman Davies), still studied by modern historians and visitors.

In the rebuilt Old Town of Warsaw, on the façade of the cathedral, restored after Nazi destruction, the importance of national memory is emphasized with a plaque quoting Cardinal Wyszyński :

“A nation without a record, without a past,
becomes a nation homeless, without a future”

Jan Matejko’s Battle of Grunwald is a vital, imaginative link to that past.

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Heine, Hitler and the Lorelei

Lonely Giraffe

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The Lorelei Rock, located at the sharpest, most dangerous bend in the Rhine River, has for ages captured the imagination of those who have gazed upon it – albeit usually out of fear – blaming the alluring song of the “Rhine Maiden” for disasters which include a series of boats pushed by currents onto the rocks lining the river.

San Francisco’s emblematic counter-culture group, Jefferson Airplane/Starship, were to perform there once in the summer of 1978 at the open amphitheater behind the Lorelei. Then, disaster struck. Lead singer Grace Slick (Somebody to Love, White Rabbit ) refused to appear, maybe too sick, probably too drunk. The concert was cancelled and the gathered audience erupted in fury, throwing bottles, setting fire to the stage, and destroying all instruments and equipment. The curse of the Rhine Maiden had struck again and the group never recovered.

Certainly the huge rock, rising over 180m above the…

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Living History at the Middle Rhine

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From the panoramic windows of the Rheinhotel Dreesen at Bad Godesberg, the immediate view is across the steady flow of the Rhine, towards Konigswinter. Rising just behind the town is the Petersberg, a hill formed by the remnants of a volcano, the first of the hills in the legendary Siebengebirgen uplands. These “seven hills” (an ancient magic number, though actually there are more like 40 hills) have brought many visitors to the area and to the elegant comfort of the Hotel Dreesen. Among them were celebrities such as Marlene Dietrich, Greta Garbo and Charlie Chaplin. The middle-Rhine location also attracted devoted followers of the many works of Wagner, foremost among them Adolf Hitler. In March 1945, it became the headquarters of Dwight Eisenhower during the Allied advance into Nazi Germany.

Downstream, to the north, the river eventually becomes the Rhine delta of the Netherlands and brings wartime memories of the ill-fated attempt by allied paratroopers, dropped to capture and secure the bridges at Nijmegen and Arnhem. If successful, “Operation Market Garden” (September 17-26) would have meant the end of the war in Europe by Christmas of 1944.
Upstream, a short drive from Bad Godesberg is Remagen where the Ludendorffbrucke became the only bridge to be captured intact on March 7th 1945, by the U.S. 9th Armored Division. To Eisenhower this bridge was “worth its weight in gold”,  it then endured ten days of heavy military use and constant air attacks before collapsing.
A frantic Goering in Berlin, having now diverted vital reserves to destroy the bridge, shouted that its capture was amongst the greatest German disasters of the war. A furious Hitler, in turn, ordered the officers responsible for defending the bridge shot for what he termed sabotage, as all bridges were to be blown up in the German retreat. As in history since the Romans, the Rhine was to be the “final barrier” to any enemy advance. These landmark battles were portrayed in the Holywood action films “The Bridge at Remagen”(1969), and Arnhem in “A Bridge Too Far” (1977).

For Hitler, who first stayed at the hotel Dreesen in 1926 (but returned more than 70 times!), it was the Wagnerian location that was particularly significant. The nearby Drachenfels (Dragon’s Rock) was where the hero of German Epic poems, Siegfried, the man who knew no fear, came on his initial journey up the Rhine (from his birthplace at Xanten) to fight and kill the dragon who lived in a cave on the hill. He then bathed in its blood to become( almost) invulnerable.
Still today, the vineyards above Konigswinter reflect this story in the name of the wine produced as Drachensblut, Rotwein von Drachenfels in Petersberg ( Siebengebirge). Though Hitler himself was a vegetarian teetotaler, so unlikely to drink even “Dragons Blood Wine”, he was deeply steeped in Wagnerian lore and once stood by Wagner’s grave dedicating himself as the reincarnated Siegfried.
The views from the Dreesen were thus of significance to him and soon a permanent Fuhrersuite, number 106, was established. It included several rooms as well as a bulletproof window overlooking the steady flow of the river.

With the threat of war looming once more in 1938, vital events were to take place at Bad Godesberg. Neville Chamberlain decided to face the dictator. Though Prime Minister, he was relatively inexperienced in diplomacy but he overruled his ministers, anxious to “save Europe from war”, 1914-1918 having been such a disaster. With this in mind, he made his first ever flight on September 15th to meet Hitler at Berchtesgaden, only to hear demands for Nazi control of the Czech (mostly German speaking) Sudetenland. Returning briefly to London to confer with the French, as well as seeking approval from his own government, Chamberlain flew out again, this time to Cologne, continuing by road to the Bad Godesberg/Konigswinter area. There he was given luxurious accommodation at the Petersberg Hotel, already a famous spa, with a spectacular location at the summit of the hill. He was the first ever foreign dignitary to stay there, many more were to follow.Image-1-2
The Prime Minister could see down to the hotel Dreesen and beyond, as far as the Eiffel mountains on the horizon. He was there from the 21st-23rd September. Meetings with Hitler took place in the quieter, but elegantly furnished inner salon of the Dreesen, where a map of Czechoslovakia was spread out over a huge table. On the map, Hitler marked out the area of contention, cut it out and presented it to Chamberlain with five pages of demands in German. Unbeknown to Hitler, the Army High Command, long alarmed by Corporal Hitler and his Nazi party, had planned to arrest him the moment war was declared and put hiIMG_0502m on trial for endangering the country. General Ludwig Beck, a Rhinelander himself, had resigned as Chief of the General Staff and was prepared to head any provisional government. Agents had even been sent to London to warn Chamberlain. They were not believed. Instead the German generals were surprised by the Prime Minister’s offer to visit Hitler in Bavaria, then completely frustrated by events at the Hotel Dreesen which gave Hitler credibility as Chamberlain, with his own peace agenda, informed Hitler that he could have the Sudetenland. In a nationwide evening radio broadcast on Sept 27th, Chamberlain gave a speech about “a quarrel in a far-away country between people of whom we know nothing”. On the 29th he flew to Munich where, with Mussolini, Daladier and Hitler, he signed the pact allowing the German army to occupy the Sudetenland.The Czechs were informed but not consulted. The generals were forced to set aside their conspiracy as Hitler was suddenly seen as a master statesman.The rest as they say, is history…

After 1945, the Petersberg Hotel gradually became the official guest house of the Bonn government nearby. Queen Elizabeth II stayed in 1965 and 1992. Brezhnev in 1973 (when he wrecked a gifted Mercedes on his first drive down the mountain). Gorbachev came in 1990, Yeltsin in 1991.The Clintons visited in 1994…
Since 1956, the Siebengebirge area has become a nature preserve and national park and while the government has moved to Berlin, state visitors are still accommodated at the Grand Hotel Petersberg. It is frequently referred to as the “German CIMG_0492amp David”, while the Dreesen hotel has hosted every Chancellor of the German Federal Republic.

In this area of great beauty, ancient lore and meaning, the two fabled hotels stand witness, and a reminder of events that once shook the world.IMG_0494

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The Mediterranean Winter in Malta – “Bring me the head of John the Baptist”

DSC_0003Cool temperatures and glorious skies mark Malta in November. Clouds tinged with gold, red, crimson, blue against creamy-yellow limestone, echo Titian, Veronese, and maybe even Turner. A fabulous blend of colours –  Nature always remains the greatest artist.

The Maltese archipelago is a remnant of the geological land bridge, over 40 million years old, that once linked the continents. It is the shallowest stretch of the Mediterranean, dividing the sea into its eastern and western halves and, underwater, connecting Sicily and Tunisia.

Local people identify Gozo as Calypso’s isle where Odysseus was kept as a love slave over 7 years for the pleasures of the goddess-nymph. Eventually, helped by Athena,  he was allowed to go, but not before being offered immortality as a last temptation.

Away from myth, the temple blocks of Ggantija are composed of stones, several tons in weight, that are considered by Unesco and confirmed by carbon-dating, to be the oldest buildings in the world. They were left by a neolithic people who made their home there, long before the pyramids of Egypt were constructed, but who disappeared mysteriously around 2000BC.

Christianity came with the legendary shipwreck of St Paul on his way to Rome where he would be tried and executed by the sword.  On Malta’s high point near the ancient capital of Medina, the “Silent City”, St Paul’s catacombs at Rabat still mark ancient Christian burial grounds

It is the Knights of St John, however, who left the biggest impact on the main island . The warrior-monks transformed it into a fortress and, after victory over the Turks in the Great Siege of 1545,  the island became known as the Shield of Europe. The Knights’ familiar eight-pointed cross was said to symbolize the main elements of the Sermon on the Mount as well as the different national groupings or “langues”.

VallettaCoCathedralFloorOverviewIt is in their Cathedral of St John that one of Europe’s greatest art treasures can be experienced. Just entering the main church there is a feeling of celebration and exuberance, apparent from floor to ceiling. High above, the ceiling paintings by Mattia Preti recount the life story of St John the Baptist. Behind the altar, marble figures portray the Baptism of Christ but it is the floor that soon becomes the focus of attention. Like a tapestry of color in marble, filling the whole nave, are some 400 brilliant decorative tombstones of Grand Masters  and major figures of the order, each with a story and image. This alone would make a visit to the Cathedral unforgettable. It is, however, just a preamble to the Oratory which contains a powerful and graphic portrayal of the “Beheading of John the Baptist” by Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio.

The Oratory was a place for meditation and prayer by young knights newly inducted into the Order. It was also a place of judgement. Caravaggio was commissioned to fill a whole wall, more than 3×5 meters, with an altarpiece. Traditional portrayals of St John the Baptist range  from the optimistic depiction of St John as a child in Leonardo da Vinci’s “Virgin of the Rocks”(in Paris and London), to scenes from his life, such as those painted on the walls of the cathedral in Prato by Fillipo Lippi, focusing on the dance of Salome as a principal element.  Alternatively he appears as a teaching figure on the side of God holding a book, such as in the exquisitely detailed Ghent altarpiece “The Lamb of God” by Jan Van Eyck.

Caravaggio, however, chose a radically different approach to his subject.Variously called  “The Painting of the 17th century” (!) or “the first work of a modern art”, the artist presents a scene involving the spectator in the moment after the beheading, the used sword still lying on the ground. Caravaggio usually painted from live models, so his contemporaries saw his art as “not painting but truth”. Here only the expression on the dead saint’s face is peaceful. A bright ray of light highlights the central scene, in the background prisoners look out from a building said to resemble the Grand Master’s Palace in Valletta.

The stark theme breaks away from illustrating a biblical past to a vision of an artist familiar with murder,violence and brutality. It is a work that speaks to a post-Auschwitz age where “only following orders” became the standard, emotionless explanation for unspeakable horror.  It has consequently been described as one of the most important works in western painting even though darkness seems to prevail. The artist, having been made a knight himself in the same Oratory, was shortly a fugitive once more, escaping from an impregnable prison. In absentia, he was ceremonially disrobed by the knights in front of his masterwork, a cloak being pulled from a stool in the original place of induction.

On the wall facing the “execution” is Caravaggio’s  “St Jerome Writing”. Faintly behind the figure, a cardinal’s hat can be seen hanging from the wall of the hermit’s cell. He almost seems to be contemplating the events opposite. St.Jerome, an early Church father is shown with a skull symbolizing the transience of life while a candlestick suggests spiritual illumination. Like the larger picture it is painted mostly in brown but also underlined by a defining strip of red, in this case the saint’s robe Originally in a different location, it was moved to the Oratory after being stolen in 1984, held for ransom, then recovered in 1986.  Another attempted theft, this time on “St John” badly damaged the picture. It is unlikely that either work will leave Malta again.

Escaping from Malta, a paranoid Caravaggio went on to portray himself as a severed head of Goliath held by David and as a head on a platter in “Salome With Head of John the Baptist”.Shortly afterwards he was dead, in mysterious circumstances, at the age of 39.

Today he remains a figure of interest and speculation. Did this genius murderer fugitive exhibit violent behaviour as a result of lead poisoning from the paint used at the time? Was he unstable due to the trauma of losing most of his family to plague when aged six? Certainly dark stories penetrated by beams of light became his trademark. Many consider that Rembrandt could not have existed without him, and  his major works, particularly “St John” in Malta, are seen as the most spiritually intense  paintings in the history of art. This, his largest work, is the only one he ever signed using the red, painted blood of the beheaded saint, an ultimate acknowledgement.

For anyone exploring the ideas of western culture,  a visit to Malta is essential. The Chief Executive of one of the world’s major auction houses, Stephen Murphy has emphasized the need to experience , to see, a work of art : “ We have a saying in our company, when our people are assessing or valuing something, they will say “ I haven’t stood in front of the painting yet” No matter how many times they may have seen images of it, they are not ready to give their opinion.”

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Seeing the Caravaggio’s in Malta can be a life-changing visit. What better place for a meaningful winter break?

Disclosure: LG visited Malta courtesy of  Hilton Hotels and EasyJet, organized by the Malta Tourist Office.

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