In the Chinese calendar, of course, it’s the Year of the Pig. In the Jewish one, this month marks the end of 5779, in the Islamic one it’s 1441. For most people in the west, it’s 2019. But on the Davies calendar, it’s The Year of Finally Going to Huge Countries that I’ve Inexplicably Never Visited Before. After ticking the USA – well, New York and DC – off the bucket list a couple of months ago, it was the turn of Germany last week. My utter failure to get there until now is even more unaccountable than my inability to get across the pond; after all, I’ve spent a lot of time over the years in France and, especially, the Netherlands, had been to most of the countries bordering Germany, and spent a fair chunk of my career teaching German history. The German Reformation? Check.* Thirty Years War? Yep. Bismarck? Indeed. Kaiser Bill? Tick. Weimar, Nazis, Cold War, fall of the Berlin Wall? Been there, done it – indeed, back in 1989 I was in the surreal position of notionally teaching the Cold War but instead simply turning on live TV so the students could watch the history-making scenes of people tearing down the wall. So how I’ve never managed to get to Germany until now is a mystery; for goodness sake, my cousin even lived there for several years in the 1990s, and speaks the language fluently.
All this has finally been put to rights, thanks to an invitation to give a paper at a major conference in the University of Rostock (the oldest university in northern Europe, celebrating its 600th anniversary this year). I took the opportunity to tag on a quick sight-seeing day in Berlin, but a bit of due diligence on the internet gave me a cast iron excuse for doing so, namely the discovery that the Technik Museum currently has an exhibition entitled Architectura Navalis: Floating Baroque. This focuses on the political and cultural importance of the decoration of seventeenth century warships, which by happy coincidence was the subject of the panel I was going to be a part of on the following day. The exhibition was something of a disappointment, a small display primarily of original drawings of the bows and sterns of seventeenth and eighteenth century French warships, but there was some interesting commentary which proved useful at the conference. The rest of the museum’s shipping displays, though, were a revelation, notably the superb and extensive collection of ship models, which this German museum, at least, clearly doesn’t think are too boring and non-interactive to be displayed (certain British institutions which shall remain nameless, take note).
And so to Rostock. Standing on the estuary of the River Warnow, the town existed by the twelfth century and joined the Hanseatic League in 1259, when it had a fleet of some one hundred ships trading as far east as Novgorod and as far west as Britain. In 1323 it obtained the village of Warnemunde, at the mouth of the estuary, thus gaining full control of the waterway, and it became the second most important city in the League (after Lubeck). Despite fires, notably a great blaze in 1677, and heavy allied bombing in the Second World War, significant amounts of medieval heritage survive, including extensive stretches of the city walls, four of the original nine gates, the thirteenth century Convent of the Holy Cross (now the culture museum) and three churches, including the greatest, Saint Marien. This somehow survived the heaviest Bomber Command raids of all, a four day blitz in April 1942. Rostock was targeted because it was home to both the Heinkel and Arado aircraft works, and had a relatively safe and easy approach directly over the Baltic; indeed, until 1944 it was the worst damaged city in Germany. Today, Rostock has some brutalist architecture from the Communist era (it was one of the principal bases of the East German navy), but overall, the feel of it is strongly Scandinavian, a connection enhanced by its regular ferry services to Trelleborg (Sweden) and Gedser (Denmark). One bizarre feature is the fountain in the main square, which can best be described as containing sculptures of naked male and female figures performing various contortions; it’s officially called the Fountain of Joy, but the locals nickname it ‘the porno fountain’.
As for the ostensible reason why I was there – my conference session seemed to go down very well, with my paper receiving a number of excellent questions from a keen audience made up principally of young people with absolutely outstanding English. My thanks to Patrick Schmidt of the University of Rostock for inviting me, and to my fellow speaker, Eugen Rickenbacher, who spoke about the significance of the decorative scheme of the French warship Royal Louis of 1668. For me, though (and regular readers of this blog won’t be surprised to hear this), one of the two principal highlights of my stay in Rostock was a harbour cruise from the town quay right up to Warnemunde, where the river spills into the Baltic. Lots of ships, including several units of the German navy, lots of history, the extraordinary sight of a colossal cruise liner under construction – an enjoyable and enlightening experience (and the boat serves damn good coffee, too). And the other principal highlight? Well, if you ever find yourself looking for a really nice bar in Rostock, I can recommend one…
I concluded my blog about the States with a list of first impressions which I found a bit odd, or at least worthy of comment, so it only seems fair to do the same for Germany…
- I’d heard that Germans wait religiously for the green light at pedestrian crossings no matter how empty the road is and how long the wait might be. I was sceptical about this, but it’s absolutely true, and rather than be labelled as a troublemaking Brit (just as our entire country is at the moment…), I found myself complying. When in Rostock…
- Also apropos of being law-abiding, it’s a bit of a shock to discover a subway system with no gates, no electronic payment terminals, and no apparent checks on whether passengers have tickets or not. I suspect the vast majority of people using the trains on these lines are, in fact, incredulous joyriding Brits and Americans.
- OK, Berlin Cathedral, I was very impressed by the crypt containing the Hohenzollern burial vault, i.e. the often stunning tombs and coffins of dozens of seventeenth and eighteenth century Prussian royals, very reminiscent of the Kaisergruft in Vienna. But does the crypt really have to be the tourist route to the shop, the loos and the exit? Just saying.
- Very few beggars. How?
- Roads without potholes. Again, how? (Ah, OK, that whole ‘competent government’ malarkey again.)
And finally…Rostock’s a nice town, but it’s not really that big by national or international standards, and it’s off the beaten track in many ways. So imagine my surprise when I looked out of my hotel room window and saw a huge climate change march going past last Friday (20 September, the big climate action day). Probably at least two to three thousand people, by my reckoning, fortified no doubt by the presence of Greenpeace’s Rainbow Warrior in the harbour. If those sorts of numbers were turning out in somewhere like Rostock, where there was probably little or no media coverage, then maybe something pretty important is going on.
* Hence the double take moment when my train from Berlin stopped, I looked up, and saw the station’s name was Wittenburg. If I had a fiver for every time I taught about Martin Luther pinning his Ninety-Five s*dding Theses to that r*ddy door…
Endlich! (German-speaking cousin);)
Gael E Phillips says
Thank you for this very interesting account of your visit to Germany.
Very nice, often to the point, description!
J D Davies says