18 September 2012

Prinsjesdag, or Prince’s Day

DACH will be widening its focus in the next few months to take in the Low Countries and Scandinavia – the other parts of the BL's Germanic Studies department. Look out for a more formal "re-branding" in the near future, but we start taking a broader view today with this post from our Curator of Dutch Collections, Marja Kingma, on a day of  national celebration in the Netherlands. [SR]

It's the third Tuesday in September today! "Nothing special", one would say, and that would be true for the UK, but in the Netherlands it is a special day: Prince's Day, or the official opening of the new parliament in the Netherlands.

The Netherlands is not a country known for its pomp and circumstance – we prefer to keep things "normal, because that's crazy enough as it is". However, on Prince's Day tradition and ritual abound, together with pageantry and glamour.

Events begin around 1pm, when the Queen travels from her office, the Palace of Noordeinde, to the Ridderzaal or Knight's Hall, a distance of about half a mile, by Golden Carriage. The route is lined by representatives of the Dutch army, navy and air force and thousands of spectators.

Gathered in the Ridderzaal are her government, the States-General (1st and 2nd chamber of Parliament), members of the Council of State, and other guests. Seated on the throne, the Queen reads out the speech in which the government lays out its plans and proposals for the next parliamentary year, hence the name "Speech from the Throne". 

The Queen then returns to the Palace and appears on the balcony, surrounded by other members of the royal family. Queen Beatrix decided at the beginning of her reign (1980) that she would have a Palace/Office, in the heart of The Hague, the seat of the Dutch government, separate from her residence, Huis ten Bosch. This is quite unique for a royal.800px-Denhaag_paleis_noordeinde
Noordeinde Palace, The Hague (By Wikifrits (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

Nobody really knows how the term "Prinsjesdag" became connected to the opening of parliament. Originally the term referred to the birthday of the last Dutch Stadholder, William V, who ruled from 1748 to 1806. It was the most popular holiday in the Netherlands, especially under French occupation. It is only since 1930 that the opening of the parliamentary year is known as Prinsjesdag.

Another tradition is that of the presentation of the Budget for the coming year by the Minister of Finance (the Dutch use the terms "Minister" and "Secretary of State" in precisely the reverse meaning from the UK). As of 1947, following the example of the British Chancellor of the Exchequer, the Minister of Finance carries with him a briefcase which holds the Budget. My theory is that this may have to do with the exile of the Dutch government (including the Queen) in London during the Second World War. Legend has it that in 1957 a "no-nonsense" Minister of Finance stuck the Budget in his own briefcase, but was met by a group of angry students who offered him a "proper" briefcase, so the following year the traditional version was reinstated and has been used ever since. The current one is now 48 years old.

Prinsjesdag is the only day in the year when Dutch female guests in the Ridderzaal wear extravagant hats, a bit like Ascot. Spectators lining the route don traditional costumes, of which there are a wide variety in the Netherlands, or dress up in their finest.

Prinsjesdag is a day of celebrations; we celebrate our democracy as well as our monarchy and our sense of being one nation!


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12 September 2012

Remains of the Hohenzollern day: some Silesian castles

DACH seems to have an appropriately sporting theme this summer, what with Susan's entries on the Olympics and mine about the hiking and biking territories of Saxon Switzerland. It seems only appropriate, then, that my current one should be about another place the hikers love and loved – Silesia.

Silesia has over the centuries variously been attached to Poland, Bohemia, the Holy Roman Empire and Prussia. Today, the majority of it is again in Poland, but this blog entry concerns things which happened in the then predominantly German-speaking Lower Silesia during part of the 200 years between 1742 and 1945 that it was attached to the Kingdom of Prussia.

I used to think that Silesia's name evoked a wild and empty land, where castles stood on lonely rocks against a lowering sky and people went to hide away, only to be trampled and swept west by an advancing Red Army. The reality of the Silesian countryside is actually a lot sunnier and far more civilized, but the pre-1918 German aristocracy certainly looked upon the area as a romantic hideaway destination.

Military manoeuvres in Lower Silesia's most important town, Breslau (now Wroclaw), loomed large in the time and attention of Prussia's ruling class, and between 1820 and 1900 the Hohenzollerns themselves more or less colonised the Hirschberg Valley nearby, reconditioning existing castles and building new ones to retreat to when duties were done. The finished efforts ranged from turreted fantasies to more modest places resembling suburban villas. Here, against the idyllic background of rolling fields and distant hills, they could hike, hunt, nurse grudges and pursue their family quarrels in peace.

Strangely, this seems to have driven nearly everyone else away, apart from the multinational Schaffgotsch family who originally owned everything in the area, and held a few places in reserve so they could monitor what was going on. With romantic gardens, exclusive little spa towns, footpaths, miniature carp ponds and gothic follies abounding, the Hirschberg valley in its heyday must have been more like Marie Antoinette’s toy farm on a grand scale than the desolate frontier of my imagination!

Krummhübel and Schreiberhau, little towns on the edge of the Giant Mountain (Riesengebirge) range just outside the valley, catered to less privileged tourists who cared more about mountains than manoeuvres. Two different hiking clubs called the Riesengebirgsverein grew up on either side of the Bohemian/Prussian border here in the late nineteenth century. Between them they constructed a full network of trails and mountain huts; and the resorts also began to attract skiers.

My old impression was correct in some ways: the Red Army really did sweep everything before it, and today most of Silesia is Polish-speaking, its towns renamed and population from the German-speaking areas relocated. The people living in Lower Silesia now are descendants mainly of refugees from Lviv, themselves driven north and west by the Russians. The Hirschberg (now directly translated as Jelenia Gora) Valley's devastated castles languished for a long time, seen as very low priority by a country intent on forging a resolutely un-German identity for the area, and on caring for a war-exhausted population.

Of late, though, there's been a remarkable renaissance. As the Germans came back on holiday and the Polish economy grew enterprising individuals began to acquire the shells of the former imperial retreats, transforming them into holiday homes accessible to everyone. In 2012, Jelenia Gora Valley has a surprising concentration of castle hotels, with more to come, oases of sophistication set on tiny rural roads in little villages perhaps more obscure and isolated today than they were in the Prussian era. You can buy glossy little books about their histories at the hotel receptions, and explore the romantic ruins of the estates still to be restored. Accessible they certainly are, though: a stay in a Hohenzollern castle such as Wojanow (previously Schildau) will cost you less than a motel in the UK. Just don't tell everyone

Janet Ashton (who also took the pictures)


Before (Bobrow) ... 

                 ... and after (Schildau/Wojanow) Wojanow




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23 August 2012

When the trains didn't run on time

You might want to steer clear of Saxon Switzerland on Ascension Day – that is, if you'd like to leave the country with any intact illusions about German trains running on time, or other national stereotypes.

Ascension Day is a public holiday in many European countries, and because it falls on a Thursday in May a lot of people take a long weekend and go away for the first break of the summer. In Germany, where it's called Himmelfahrt, it is also celebrated as Vatertag, Father’s Day, particularly in the Protestant states or those which were once in the GDR and disavowed religious festivals for a while. Its traditions are said to date back to days when men from rural communities would roam the countryside in spring, drinking to a good harvest.

Saxon Switzerland – and the adjoining Bohemian Switzerland – is the national park which lies alongside the Elbe between Prague and Dresden. Most British people I've spoken to about it have never heard of it and assume it's actually in Switzerland. Its rolling landscape punctured by weird sandstone rock formations and soft green forests actually look nothing like its namesake, but it was given the name by artists in the Romantic era, who loved to go there to paint. Hans Christian Andersen, Rainer Maria Rilke and other such literary luminaries followed, leaving accounts or poetry, which of course the BL holds, of their ramblings through the rough and dramatic countryside. [e.g. 10027.bb.20.]

In the late nineteenth century mass tourism arrived, strongly encouraged on the Bohemian side at least by local aristocrats, who saw the opportunity to transform the backward, rural area to everyone's advantage. Some examples of contemporary hiking maps can be seen in the BL – e.g. at Maps 29332.(22.) and Maps 29332.(20.). The landmarks on the Bohemian side of the border still bear the names of members of the Kinsky or Clary-Aldringen dynasties, and the hills are dotted with memorials to hotel-owners Bohemianswitzwith names like Fiedler, ghostly but unselfconscious reminders of the German-speakers expelled after 1945, whose descendants now come here on holiday. There are footpaths and viewpoints, boat rides, cycle tracks and pensions galore.

Dresden's shiny new S-Bahn runs down the Elbe as far as the Czech border, delivering the many day trippers from the city to gaze at the grim Konigstein fortress, and wander across the vertiginous Bastei bridge. BasteiMore serious hikers stay for days, and I knew something was up when I had trouble booking a room for May 17th in any of the picturesque towns along the river. That morning, Ascension Day, all the cafes had hogs roasting on spits outside at 9am, and people watched with pints in their hands. The trains were running terribly late, and when they finally limped into the stations they would disgorge hordes of gasping people, fanning themselves and struggling not to fall in the crush. Men bent on celebrating Vatertag pulled home-made carts with beer and even barbecues on them, and there were ingenious devices for carrying tiny bottles of spirits attached to their belts like ammunition. The low carts are not unique to Saxony; they have become a stereotype of the Ascension Day celebrations in Germany. Most of the revellers seemed very good-natured, though were a handful of exchanges between police and shaven-headed youths from the darker corners of Dresden. 

For obvious reasons, Vatertag is not universally popular in Germany. By evening, however, the men had all trooped home again, leaving the bucolic delights of Bad Schandau, Konigstein, Rathen and Wehlen to more sedate weekenders and family groups, while police barges cruised the Elbe vainly looking for any stragglers.

The trains took their time getting back to normal, though!

Janet Ashton (who also took the pictures)

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