Saturday, January 2, 2016

Memories of a Nation

Red Baron likes to read books about German history written by foreigners. The author of the most recent one: Germany, Memories of a Nation is Neil Robert MacGregor, Director of London's British Museum. The German translation of his book became so successful that in the year of his retirement MacGregor was nominated founding artistic director of Berlin's new Humboldt Forum. This Forum will be housed in the Berliner Stadtschloss presently under reconstruction and will later form the southern part of Berlin's Museumsinsel.

Neil's argumentation is mostly straightforward. He wants to entertain his well-disposed readers with interesting stories and not to bore them with sophisticated reasoning. Nevertheless, I drew some interesting details from his richly illustrated book that are worth blogging. The text marked in blue is copied from the book.

The Berlin Stadtschloss (Humboldt Forum) under reconstruction ©dpa

The German Bible

It is common knowledge that Martin Luther forged the German language in translating the Bible using "original" Greek and Hebrew texts. I learned from Neil that Albrecht, the Archbishop of Mainz and Chancellor of the German Empire, had refused a translation of the Latin Bible (vulgata) claiming that the German language was simply too poor, too coarse, to convey the scriptures.

To get the word of God across to the people Luther schaute dem Volk aufs Maul (used the idiom of the ordinary people on the streets and of the farm people) and while translating he invented catchy new German words when they did not exist. Nearly all of his neologisms are combinations of two already used words, e.g., Schandfleck (spot of shame) for blemish, Gewissensbiss (biting of the conscience) for remorse, Lockvogel (luring bird) for bait, and Landpfleger (caretaker of the country) for governor. Eventually Albrecht was twofold mistaken by taking neither Friar Martin's posting of the 95 Theses nor his capability of translating the Word of God for the common people seriously.

25 of Luther's 95 Theses
Spreading the Word of the Bible meant printing the German text what happened in Wittenberg in 1522. It is interesting to note that Gutenberg had initially used movable-types to print the Latin Bible but later rather letters of Indulgence that the Catholic Church sold. This practice was at the origin of the Reformation. Gutenberg printed thousands and thousands of Indulgence forms. So as well as giving the penitent buyer remission of sins in the next world, it gave Gutenberg a handy cash flow. In fact, these Indulgences were preprinted forms: some gaps were left blank for the name of the person who bought the Indulgence and the date on which they bought it. This was administratively useful for the Church, as it meant it did not need to employ people to sit around writing them out.

One of Gutenberg's Indulgence forms printed for Albrecht of Mainz


The Reinheitsgebot
Red Baron had addressed the German Reinheitsgebot (Beer Purity Law) allowing only barley, hops and water for beer brewing in previous blogs. Initially the Reinheitsgebot had nothing to do with purity but the fear of famine. It was simply to prevent people from brewing with wheat or rye, because wheat and rye would be better used for bread.
The issue became highly political in 1871 when Bavaria made the adoption of the Beer Purity Law a condition of its joining the new German Empire. And the issue arose again at the reunification of 1990. Across Germany the so-called "Brandenburg Beer War", fought out in the courts, lasted for ten years "all over a black beer brewed in the former GDR that contained sugar, something forbidden by the Purity Law. Nowadays the Köstritzer Schwarzbier is so popular all over Germany that even Freiburg's Ganterbrauerei brews a magical dark beer ... during the night of a full moon.

Magisch Dunkel

The Hanse

The Hanseatic League or in Lower German Hanse was a commercial and defensive confederation of merchant guilds and their market towns. It dominated Baltic maritime trade along the coast of Northern Europe from the 13th to the 17th century. The city of Lübeck was called the Queen of the Hanseatic League but suffered when the trading routes changed from the Baltic Sea to the Atlantic Ocean. Nowadays Lübeck is no longer autonomous. On the other hand Hamburg and Bremen, facing the Atlantic, have prospered and are still Free Hanseatic cities and separate Länder within modern Germany ... Both cities saw themselves, and still do, as republican city-states after the high Roman fashion, governed by consuls and senators, and adopting for public buildings the Roman letters SPQR , Senatus Populusque Romanus. You can see to this day SPQH , Senatus Populusque Hamburgensis , on the door of Hamburg Town Hall, and similarly SPQB in Bremen. Germany's airline is Lufthansa "the Hansa of the air" with its Senator class for business travel.

The Napoleonic Wars

The Napoleonic Wars were a disaster for continental Europe in particular for German territories. Napoleon's success was certainly due to his unequaled war machine but considerably facilitated by the missing unity of the German peoples. When the petit corporal defeated Austria at Austerlitz on December 2, 1805, Prussia's King Frederick William III kept his powder dry.

When however in 1806 Napoleon forced Austria's Francis II to abdicate as German Emperor most of Europe including Prussia was shocked. It was Queen Louise who told her husband: The more compliance we show the more Napoleon mocks us as being fools. The only thing that counts is force against force. Following his beloved wife Frederick William demanded Napoleon on September 25, 1806, to withdraw from all German territories declaring war on France. The inevitable happened on October 14, 1806. The at one time glorious Prussian army suffered crushing defeats in the Battles of Jena and Auerstedt. Two weeks later Napoleon triumphantly entered Berlin on horseback through the Brandenburg Gate.

Prussia's existence hung on a thread. During a meeting between Louise and Napoleon the new emperor started the conversation: What a wonderful robe you wear. Where was it made? Louise snarled: Shall we talk about such insignificant matters in such an important moment? Napoleon convinced that his beautiful counterpart was the actual warmonger asked: Why did you start war? She answered: Sire, the glory of Frederick the Great had deceived us about our means.

Napoleon meeting his beautiful foe
But in the process Napoleon had created a formidable foe: Queen Louise spent her remaining years encouraging the Prussian people to hold out until they could recover their dignity and their lands. She was loved and revered by them as the "soul of national virtue". They called her the Prussian Jeanne d'Arc ... Napoleon, when she died in 1810, remarked that Frederick William had "lost his best minister".

Napoleon returning from Russia
When in 1813 following Napoleon's disastrous Russian expedition the military tide began to turn in favour of Prussia and its allies, the king suspended all existing military decorations. He ordered a new one to be struck, for those who took part in the war against Napoleon. The Iron Cross was to be awarded to men of all ranks, not just officers; a historic innovation in Prussia, and a brilliant PR stroke. In the fight to free the nation, all Prussians would henceforth be honoured on equal terms, irrespective of wealth or social standing. In fact, Fredrick William had just copied Napoleon's system of the Légion d'honneur introduced in 1804.

Frederick William above an oak branch and the year 1813
The victory against Napoleon forged Prussian unity and pride. Following my reading of Memories of a Nation I visited the commemorating monument in Viktoria Park on Kreuzberg during my last visit to Berlin.

Steep steps for an old man approaching
the Battle of the Nations near Leipzig on October 18, 1813.

The forgotten Battle of Groß Görschen on May 2, 1813
better known to my English-speaking readers
as the (second) Battle of Lützen.

The entry of the Great Coalition Army into Paris on March 30, 1814
marked the provisional end of Napoleon's rule.

Better known to my English-speaking readers
as the Battle of Waterloo on June 18, 1815.

Bismarck's "Mein Kampf"

The following information about Otto von Bismarck was new to me. The Iron Chancellor had forgotten to write it up in his literary master piece: Gedanken und Erinnerungen. In August 1862, on a visit to London, he revealed his plans to his host, Benjamin Disraeli. Jonathan Steinberg describes what Bismarck said: "I shall soon be compelled to undertake the conduct of a Prussian government. My first care will be to reorganize the army with or without the help of the Landtag [the Prussian Assembly]. As soon as the army shall have been brought into such a condition as to inspire respect, I shall seize the first best pretext to declare war against Austria, dissolve the German Confederation, subdue the minor states and give national unity to Germany under Prussian leadership. I have come here to say this to the queen's ministers." They were stupefied. On the way home, Disraeli accompanied the Austrian ambassador and when they got to his residence, as they parted, Disraeli said to him, "Take care of that man, he means what he says." Disraeli was right to take him seriously: Bismarck did exactly what he said he was going to do.

Eventually the Iron Chancellor's plans demanded another decisive step: Defeating Napoleon's III France. Still, I always had thought that Bismarck's leitmotiv had rather been Prussia's Gloria than German unity. At least old King William was more Prussian than German when he wrote to his wife Augusta: Dropping back the name Prussia is half of my tomb. At the eve of his proclamation as German emperor he wailed and wept: Tomorrow I will live the most unhappy moment of my life. We are going to bury the Prussian kingdom. Emperor William I never forgot what his chancellor had forced onto him. He once famously said: "Prussians need only fear God and Bismarck."

It's all history. In Wikipedia we read: In Law No. 46 of 25 February 1947 the Allied Control Council formally proclaimed the dissolution of Prussia.

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