Tag Archives: Bad Godesberg

Living History at the Middle Rhine

Image-1

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

Advertisements

2 Comments

Filed under Europe, Germany, World War II

Heine, Hitler and the Lorelei

Image

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 river, is an unmistakable landmark. The Rhine River bends to its narrowest point at the base of the Lorelei and, with a depth of 22m, that narrowness creates an unusually strong current that hides treacherously submerged rocks and sand banks.

Although protected by the “Warschau” warning light signals (operated from the river control headquarters at nearby Oberwesel) and the use of specialist river pilots, numerous incidents still happen. As recently as 2011, a barge carrying 2400 tons of sulphuric acid from Ludwigshafen to Antwerp, capsized blocking the river for days – causing major disruption along what is, in reality, the major aquatic highway of Europe and costing the German economy Millions in damages.

Since the early 19th century, blame for these strings of disasters have been laid on a female river spirit imagined by the writer Brentano and then woven into a dream tale by Germany’s then favorite Romantic poet Heinrich Heine who was fascinated by the Rhine and its ancient Niebelungen myths.

In 1824, Heine wrote the lines to his “Song of the Lorelei” with foreboding:

I wonder what it presages

I am so sad at heart

A legend of bygone ages

Haunts one and will not depart

Heine’s song was captured in his “Buch der Lieder”, which then became one of the most popular books ever published in Germany.  Some years later composer/songwriter Friedrich Silcher added music to Heine’s verse and a popular classic was born – intriguing artists and visitors ever since – not least of which because of the endless cruise ship playlists that feature the song as they pass the rock.

A brief list of the artists inspired by Heine include Franz Liszt (who wrote the song “Die Lorelei” in 1841), a propagandist painting by Oskar Kokoschka in 1941, and more recently a poem by Sylvia Plath (“Lorelei“, 1960) , who reflected on the Rhine Maiden’s actual silence as its most disturbing aspect. For most travelers, however, a bronze statue of the Rhine Maiden combing her long golden hair, created by Natascha Alexandrova (aka Princess Jusupov) placed on a jutting extension to St Goarshausen in 1983, is the most obvious reminder of the legend created by Brentano and Heine.

Heine lived in turbulent times. While studying at Bonn University, he joined the new Nationalist movement. In 1819 the students threw “unpatriotic” books and papers into a huge bonfire. He recoiled in horror, later portraying a character in his tragic play “Almansor” who, reacting to the burning of the Koran and the Inquisition during the Reconquest of Spain , by proclaiming  “where people burn books, in the end they burn people” .  This is now inscribed over the entrance to Yad Vashim Holocaust Museum in Jerusalem, the US Holocaust Museum in D.C. and the Opernplatz, Berlin.

Despite converting to Protestantism (in 1825) as his “ticket” of admission to European culture, Heine still ended up getting thrown out of Germany by the Nationalists he was once a part of and exiled in Paris, albeit as a celebrity.

Analysing extremism on the Right he wrote that  “Thor will leap to life with his giant hammer and smash the Gothic cathedrals” (painting a picture of the legendary hero destroying the iconic images that were held up as the traditional basis of a German identity).

Later then, after meeting Karl Marx (an admirer of Heine’s at the time), he foresaw that  “the future belongs to the Communists. With fear and terror I imagine the time when those dark iconoclasts come to power”.

ImageHis words were prophetic, essentially predicting the rise of both Stalin and Hitler – with the result that, in 1933, as books were burnt once more nationwide in Nazi Germany, Heine’s books were included amongst those of Einstein and Freud.

Adolf Hitler, like Heine was fascinated by the myths of the Rhine (although as interpreted by Richard Wagner) and often came to contemplate the river. He normally stayed at the picturesque Rheinhotel Dreesen at Bad Godesberg, sometimes on matters of state  (meeting Chamberlain which led to the Munich Peace Pact), sometimes to fantasize on his destiny. From this location, downstream from the Lorelei, he decreed that, although the song of the Lorelei could still be published, it had to be attributed to an “unknown  author”.

When Nazi-led armies reached Paris in 1941, German Radio reported  “on Montmartre, the grave of Heinrich Heine, the famous German Jewish poet, has been desecrated and demolished with no trace of the grave left”. Today the grave has been rebuilt, and monuments to Heine stand in both Paris and Berlin, as well as St Goarshausen by the Lorelei.

Hitler’s fascination with the Niebelung myths continued to his last days in the bunker in Berlin. Original manuscripts of Wagner’s Rienzi and Götterdammering stayed with him to his dying day. He ordered the Siegfried Funeral March, the death of the hero, to be played over the loudspeaker system during his last days in the Berlin bunker that served as his headquarters, and after their suicide,  the remains of Hitler and Eva Braun were burnt, like those of his hero Siegfried, on a funeral pyre.

So the granite rock at Km marker 555 is a major feature of any Rhine journey, with its still present dangers and ghosts, and its anchored dreams and ideas.

Dictators and extremists have always understood imagination as a threat to their society. In a period of instant communication but limited content, it is worth reflecting on Russian Nobel Prize writer Joseph Brodsky’s warning:

“There are greater crimes than burning books, one is not to read them “

3 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized