Saturday, August 11, 2012

Holiday in Eisenach



What a holiday! It was an idea launched by my 18-year-old son, who is an aficionado of classical music. So we went to Eisenach ( in the former Communist Germany’s province of Thüringen), birthplace of Johann Sebastian Bach.

I don’t have a habit of either celebrating birthdays or taking holidays. This one too lasted only four days. Mainly, I have no money, and little time. But this much I was able to do, and the kids demanded it. So, in just four days, we discovered an area that turned out to have played a central role in German history.

The city has preserved the house where Bach raised his family and wrote his music. Bach was, like modern rock musicians, a heavy smoker and drinker, but also a responsible family father of many children and of course a creative genius. It does me nothing to visit places where it all happened, but now I can say I was in the room where Bach composed most of his master pieces.

The city of Eisenach had also been home to Maarten Luther, so my lady-love Heidi and I visited the Lutherhaus. My attention was drawn not so much by the witnesses of the time, the typical furniture of an old burgher’s house, but by some of Luther’s quotations on display. Thus, he made pro-Jewish as well as anti-Jewish utterances. I had heard of the latter because Adolf Hitler spread this selection of Luther quotations among his soldiers, but not of the former. The Protestants we know in the Dutch-speaking countries are Calvinists, and Calvinism is a positively creepy religion. So, Luther and the good things about him (his stand against Church corruption, his abolition of priestly celibacy) were a pleasant surprise.

The Wartburg, which I only knew as the name of East Germany's car, is the name of a castle that apparently was part of our planning. I didn’t know it at all, the children didn’t know it either but they and Heidi had decided that we should go the local castle. It rained profusely when we climbed the endless steps, especially difficult for a cripple like me. But the sight at the top of the hill was well worth the climb: in two major direction, you saw only forest as far as the horizon. In Belgium, you never get away from the sound of automobiles or the sight of houses but here you still have space. It turned out that this was the place of the musicians’ contest featured in Richard Wagner’s opera Tannhäuser; of Luther’s temporary hiding place (where he was “abducted” for his own safety and stayed under a pseudonym) where he made his translation of the Bible, the basis of the unified German language; and where, after Napoleon’s fall, students had first demanded the unification of Germany as well as civil rights for all its inhabitants. They like to stress this combination, for it proves that there need not be anything authoritarian about German nationalism.

We also visited the house of the Low-German poet and political rebel Fritz Reuter. The city of Eisenach has turned it into a museum where a collection of Richard Wagner memorabilia is also kept. It was about time I learned about him.

We discovered that the megalithic site of Goseck was nearby, so we indulged our love of ancestral mysticism by going there. It was a reconstructed woodhenge, part of the first generation of Megalithic constructions in Europe, nearly 7000 years old. At the site, we learned that the village of Nebra was also nearby, just across the border of the state of Sachsen-Anhalt, so we went there too. Less than 4000 years old, the disc found at the astronomical site of Nebra was part of the last generation of Megalithic artifacts, and a unique piece in the world. It seems that there was a controversy whether the disc of Nebra was genuine, though that has died out now that the newest methods established its age as nearly 4000 years old. Still, I couldn’t help thinking that if the disc was a forgery, it certainly had done its job of making the Germans build a nice museum for prehistoric astronomy. Nebra shows a new Germany, proud of its history and its prehistoric artifacts the way Britain is proud of Stonehenge.

On the way back from Nebra, we visited another historic city, Weimar. This is where after World War 1 a democratic Republic was proclaimed, which had to pay off the debt which the victors at Versailles had imposed on Germany. It didn’t succeed and brought Hitler to power. But success is a poor yardstick to evaluate historic attempts.

While the music lovers in the family visited the Liszthaus in Weimar, I went to the Goethehaus. This was just a bourgeois house of the early 19th century, worthwhile mostly because of its paintings. I bought a few scholarly books on or editions of Johann Wolfgang Goethe in the shop. Franz Liszt was a Goethe lover, who put the Erlkönig (one of Goethe’s most famous poems) to music, but the love was not reciprocated: Goethe didn’t think highly of Liszt. A generation conflict, I suppose.

Anyway, the journey gave me a taste of what all those people are looking for when they start cruising our motorways to go abroad. I don’t think I’ll do much of it again, but at least I had a good time. And it turned out, quite spontaneously, to be more of a pilgrimage (the main valid premodern reason for travelling) than I had foreseen. But now, let’s return to work, it feels so much more like home than the holidays.



What a holiday! It was an idea launched by my 18-year-old son, who is an aficionado of Classical music. So we went to Eisenach ( in the former Communist Germany’s province of Thüringen), birthplace of Johann Sebastian Bach.

I don’t have a habit of either celebrating birthdays or taking holidays. This one too lasted only four days. Mainly, I have no money, and little time. But this much I was able to do, and the kids demanded it. So, in just four days, we discovered an area that turned out to have played a central role in German history.

The city has preserved the house where Bach raised his family and wrote his music. Bach was, like modern rock musicians, a heavy smoker and drinker, but also a responsible family father of many children and of course a creative genius. It does me nothing to visit places where it all happened, but now I can say I was in the room where Bach composed most of his master pieces.

The city of Eisenach had also been home to Maarten Luther, so my lady-love Heidi and I visited the Lutherhaus. My attention was drawn not so much by the witnesses of the time, the typical furniture of an old burgher’s house, but by some of Luther’s quotations on display. Thus, he made pro-Jewish as well as anti-Jewish utterances. I had heard of the latter because Adolf Hitler spread this selection of Luther quotations among his soldiers, but not of the former. The Protestants we know in the Dutch-speaking countries are Calvinists, and Calvinism is a positively creepy religion. So, Luther and the good things about him (his stand against Church corruption, his abolition of priestly celibacy) were a pleasant surprise.

The Wartburg is the name of a castle that apparently was part of our planning. I didn’t know it at all, the children didn’t know it either but they and Heidi had decided that we should go the local castle. It rained profusely when we climbed the endless steps. But the sight at the top of the hill was well worth the climb: in two major direction, you saw only forest as far as the horizon. In Belgium, you never get away from the sound of automobiles or the sight of houses but here you still have space. It turned out that this was the place of the musicians’ contest featuring in Richard Wagner’s opera Tannhäuser; of Luther’s temporary hiding place (where he was “abducted” for his own safety and stayed under a pseudonym) where he made his translation of the Bible, the basis of the unified German language; and where, after Napoleon’s fall, students had first demanded the unification of Germany as well as civil rights for all its inhabitants. They like to stress this combination, for it proves that there need not be anything authoritarian about German nationalism.

We also visited the house of the Low-German poet and political rebel Fritz Reuter. The city of Eisenach has turned it into a museum where a collection of Richard Wagner memorabilia is also kept. It was about time I learned about him.

We discovered that the megalithic site of Goseck was nearby, so we indulged our love of ancestral mysticism by going there. It was a reconstructed woodhenge, part of the first generation of Megalithic constructions in Europe, nearly 7000 years old. At the site, we learned that the village of Nebra was also nearby, just across the border of the state of Sachsen-Anhalt, so we went there too. Less than 4000 years old, the disc found at the astronomical site of Nebra was part of the last generation of Megalithic artifacts, and a unique piece in the world. It seems that there was a controversy whether the disc of Nebra was genuine, though that has died out now that the newest methods established its age as nearly 4000 years old. Still, I couldn’t help thinking that if the disc was a forgery, it certainly had done its job of making the Germans build a nice museum for prehistoric astronomy. Nebra shows a new Germany, proud of its history and its prehistoric artifacts the way Britain is proud of Stonehenge.

On the way back from Nebra, we visited another historic city, Weimar. This is where after World War 1 a democratic Republic was proclaimed, which had to pay off the debt which the victors at Versailles had imposed on Germany. It didn’t succeed and brought Hitler to power. But success is a poor yardstick to evaluate historic attempts.

While the music lovers in the family visited the Liszthaus in Weimar, I went to the Goethehaus. This was just a bourgeois house of the early 19th century, worthwhile mostly because of its paintings. I bought a few scholarly books on or editions of Johann Wolfgang Goethe in the shop. Franz Liszt was a Goethe lover, who put the Erlkönig (one of Goethe’s most famous poems) to music, but the love was not reciprocated: Goethe didn’t think highly of Liszt. A generation conflict, I suppose.

Anyway, the journey gave me a taste of what all those people are looking for when they start cruising our motorways to go abroad. I don’t think I’ll do much of it again, but at least I had a good time. And it turned out, quite spontaneously, to be more of a pilgrimage (the main valid premodern reason for travelling) than I had foreseen. But now, let’s return to work, it feels so much more like home than the holidays.

4 comments:

अश्वमित्रः said...

[While the music lovers in the family visited the Liszthaus in Weimar, I went to the Goethehaus.]

Hah, I knew it.

Kartikey Sehgal said...

your son had good taste. i only hope he doesn't disregard beethoven and others. then we can be great friends.

supreeth vasisht said...

Hi, I am a student in Kassel, a neighbouring city in Hessen about 50km west. I have been to eisenach! Its a quiet town, foreign faces are few... still the eastern german culture persists... but I missed the castle! Will go next time! will take your cue on the history part

contemplationist said...

Dr Elst

I've always admired your work as you seem quite rational and detached in your scholarship while continuing to care about Hindu and Indian causes. In spirit of that rationalism, I'd love to read your comments on the genetics and linguistic papers coming out that would shed light on the continuing Aryan Invasion debate.

http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp/2012/08/there-are-more-things-in-prehistory-than-are-dreamt-of-in-our-urheimat/

Thanks for your great work