Tag Archives: Germany

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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Filed under Art, Europe, Germany, History, Military Orders, Nazis, Poland, Religious Orders, World War II

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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Gold Rush, Blue Jeans and Earthquakes

Golden-Gate-from-San-FranciscoIn my recent trip to San Francisco, I noticed that this town, having been subject to multiple booms and busts over the years, is on the move again. Headlines in the San Francisco’s  Chronicle explained that yet another technology bonanza is the culprit for the current housing boom – an effect being especially felt in the “City by the Bay” more than anywhere else.

An explosion in technology jobs, IPO’s by cutting edge start-ups and big money buy-outs by larger companies have created yet another generation of instant millionaire buyers thrown onto the city’s housing market. Even run-down old buildings and warehouses in the SOMA (South of Market Area) and away from the Bay Bridge are being renovated with a renewed vigour – becoming outposts for new social technology darlings like Twitter and Yammer.

googlecarLuxury busses with wi-fi and tinted windows zoom through the city to provide a free regular service for Google employees to Mountain View in Silicon Valley – a practice followed by numerous others like Genentech and Yahoo!, while the driverless (yes, driverless) Google car passes by to demonstrate innovation in action.

Some say this is due to a West Coast hippy mentality of the 1960’s which left a legacy of radical thinking, others because of the concentrated brain-power of Stanford, Berkeley and another 20 or so universities. Although much research has been traditionally sponsored by the military defense companies in the past, today there is a far broader spectrum of investment and speculation, with companies such as Apple, Facebook, Oracle, and other emerging tech leaders dominating from their positions in the famed Silicon Valley. The list goes on but, whatever the impulse, one third of all the venture capital in the United States is concentrated in the “magic triangle” between San Jose, Marin County and Pleasanton/Livermore in an area with a total population of around 7 million. Thanks to all this, the iconic city of San Francisco, situated in the middle of it all, is booming once again.

Historically of course, the Bay Area was not always so active. Protected by fog, mist and unstable weather, the Bay offered shelter but only to ships that could find it. The Camino Real of New Spain, its governors and the Dominican/Franciscan missions only reached out to claim possession. The Yerba Buena settlement which became San Francisco originally had a population of only 469 and very few trees.

The defining moments for this city were really the great Gold Rush of 1849 and the earthquake of 1906. Early discoveries of gold and the staking of claims caused a frenzy of landgrabbers and easy money.The 10,000 newcomers of 1848 became by 1849 a throng of 25,000 from all over the world. Among them only some 300 women, many of them prostitutes.

Sailors rushed inland, leaving a graveyard of 800 abandoned ships on what became known as the Barbary Coast, named after the infamous dens of North African pirates. Highwaymen averaged 500 killings a year on the Camino Real. Desperate ships captains resorted to kidnapping to raise their crews. Ex-convict elements from the Antipodies attempted a takeover which was only crushed by crowds of self appointed vigilantes. There were imprisonments, hangings and deportations back to Australia.

Interestingly, the gold seekers were only able to extract a small portion of the gold in the foothills, more 70% of the gold is estimated to still be there. However, very real fortunes were made during this time – mostly by enterprising suppliers to miners or by those involved in the construction of the rapidly growing city that was springing up as a result of this growing activity.

user2425_1172627992The classic case is the legend of Levi Strauss who originally attempted to sell brown sail cloth material for tents to gold miners but found greater demand for sturdy work clothing. The predominant material used at the time chafed so a hard wearing but smoother cotton was sent for.

This had been a major export from Nîmes in France (hence from/de Nîmes or denim) to the dockworkers and sailors of the dominant Mediterranean port of Genoa (known as Gênes to the French , hence “jeans”).On sea voyages this denim clothing could be laundered by being dragged behind the ship in a net.

For the miners however, it was not strong enough at the seams and the final commercial breakthrough came only when Jacob Davis applied copper rivets at strategic points. He became a partner and patent holder. It then became the single best selling item of clothing in the world and today is virtually a uniform in Silicon Valley. Corporate headquarters are located on Levi Strauss Plaza in San Francisco, the company is still privately owned by Levi Strauss descendants and a “blue jeans” museum has been opened in Buttenheim, Germany, from where the founder had migrated.

As much as California and the Bay Area is famous for, it also has its share of infamy – not least of which for the perceived prevalence of Earthquakes in the region. A fracture, the notorious San Andreas fault was the cause of some 400 quakes recorded after 1848. Early in the morning of April 18th 1906, however, the ground moved along the fault and suddenly shifted 16’ to 20’ north. By today’s measurements it would have registered around 8 on the Richter scale. 28,000 buildings were destroyed and half the population made homeless. However, the major damage was done not just by the force of the quake, but rather by the 50-some fires that raged for days and weeks after the quake, The prevalent rumor of course, is that a healthy percentage of those fires started, not as the result of ruptured gas lines as commonly thought, but by distraught residents who torched their own homes to claim on fire damage in the absence of any available earthquake insurance. It took 9 years to rebuild the city to a state resembling its prior glory.

6787638359_e031d7b26a_zSeismic activity is a primary concern on the famous bridges. When the Golden Gate Bridge was opened in 1937 it was thought capable of resisting any conceivable earthquake. It is still considered a technical masterpiece, but recent research suggested the possibility of a collapse at the city side, Fort Point supporting arch, leading to a 392 million strengthening retrofit.

On the other side of the city, the 8.5 mile Oakland Bay Bridge is having problems too, ominously with bolts breaking. During the 1989 earthquake a 50’ section collapsed. Now a whole section between Treasure Island and Oakland is being replaced.

There is , of course,  constant research on how to minimize earthquake damage, particularly in Japan. New buildings now consist of an exoskeleton fitted with hydraulic dampers that absorb energy and convert it into heat which it dissipates. Architects in Tokyo believe indestructability is now a given. “You could keep working at your desk at Rippongi Hills if there were a big earthquake beneath Tokyo”, say specialists. 
San Francisco is taking note , thinking of “The Big One” to come.

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