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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13 August 2012

“Brisk, devout, merry and free”

Well, the Olympics are over and although I was one of those converted cynics who became an unexpected sports devotee for two weeks, I'm sure my interest in running, cycling, rowing and the rest will ebb away. However, there is just one sport which I'll always voluntarily watch: Gymnastics.

What I didn't know when I first got hooked as a child watching the Olympic performances of Olga Korbut and Nadia Komǎneci was that modern gymnastics owes a lot to Germans. Two writers in particular were influential in making gymnastics an important and respected part of sporting education.

The elder of these, Johann Christoph Friedrich GutsMuths, wrote the first systematic guide to gymnastics, based on his own experience teaching at a progressive school. In his Gymnastik für die Jugend (1793; BL shelfmark C.105.a.12)  he argues for a greater emphasis on physical training in education and describes specific exercises. Many – GutsMuths 002including running, jumping and swimming  – would not be considered as gymnastics disciplines today, but GutsMuths also advocates vaulting, swinging and exercises on a beam.

[Beam exercises from GutsMuths Gymnastik für die Jugend (Schnepfenthal, 1793). BL: C.105.a.12]

If GutsMuths laid the foundations for a revival of gymnastics, the sport was expanded and popularised by Friedrich Ludwig Jahn, whose influence earned him the title of "Turnvater" – the father of gymnastics. He popularised the motto "frisch, fromm, fröhlich, frei" (a 19th-century English version of which forms the title of this post) to characterise the pleasures and virtues of physical exercise.

In 1816 Jahn and his assistant Ernst Eiselen published Deutsche Turnkunst (BL 785.f.32.). The exercises and apparatus they describe are more recognisably the ancestors of today's gymnastics, although the pommel horse is rather charmingly illustrated with a tail in imitation of a real horse, something that might surprise modern gymnasts! However, a book of illustrated exercises compiled by Eiselen in 1845 (BL 785.f.29) shows pommel horse (and other) exercises which would probably be Pommelrecognised by my personal 2012 Olympic hero, Louis Smith and his colleagues.

[Pommel horse exercises from Abbildungen von den Turn-Uebungen, (Berlin, 1845) BL 785.f.29]

As well as promoting gymnastics, Jahn was a passionate advocate of a unified, constitutional German state. Although his nationalistic writings were taken up enthusiastically by the Nazis in the 1930s, his aspirations seemed suspiciously liberal to the Prussian establishment of Jahn's own time, and he was imprisoned as a subversive for several years. Gymnastics, tainted by association, was officially banned in Prussia for two decades.

The ban was never fully enforced, but it led many of Jahn's supporters and fellow-gymnasts to emigrate. They took gymnastics with them, especially to the USA, but it was an enthusiast of a later generation, Ernst Georg Ravenstein, who formed the first gymnastics club in Britain in 1861.

In 1865 the club moved into a splendid purpose-built Gymnasium; the building still survives between King's Cross and St Pancras stations – a stone's throw from where I am writing this – although no longer as a gymnasium. The Times on 30 January 1865 reported that its opening ceremony on the previous Saturday had been "characterized by … cordiality and enthusiasm" and "prolonged till a late hour".  Something else today's Olympic gymnasts might recognise from London's opening and closing ceremonies!


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31 July 2012

Sport and history

With the London Olympics now in full swing, I've been thinking and reading about Germany's relationship with the Games in the course of the 20th Century. Of course much has been written about the 1936 "Nazi Olympics" (including by myself, on our "Sports and Society" webpages). But it occurred to me that this whole century of sporting history reflects Germany's wider political traumas and upheavals over the same period.

Germany, a major and respected power in 19th-century Europe, was part of the Olympics from the very first modern Games in 1896. In 1912 Berlin was chosen to host the 1916 Games. But a war caused partly by Germany's own expansionist ambitions prevented those Games from going ahead.

After the First World War the defeated Germany was condemned as chiefly responsible for the conflict and, despite having been reconstituted as a democratic republic, was banned from the 1920 and 1924 Games. Only in 1928 was Germany once more allowed to compete, but the IOC must have been impressed because three years later the 1936 Olympics were once again awarded to Berlin.

But by 1936 Germany was no longer a democracy. The Nazi dictatorship exploited the event's propaganda potential to the full and the Berlin Games passed into notoriety. The same regime had soon plunged Europe into another war and there would be no Games in 1940 or 1944.

There was no official ban on German participation at the first post-war Games in 1948, but the country was still under allied occupation and there was little international enthusiasm for a German team to be invited to London.

By 1952 Germany was formally divided into two states and for the next twenty years German involvement in the Olympics was inextricably linked with Cold War politics. Only West Germany (and, in 1952 only, the Saarland) was recognised by the IOC; western politicians were keen to avoid legitimising the Communist GDR by allowing it to compete in its own right.

 An uneasy compromise was reached in the form of the "Unified German Team". This allowed athletes from both Germanys to compete under a special version of the German flag with Beethoven's "Ode to Joy" as their anthem.  In 1968 separate East and West German teams were recognised for the first time but the shared flag and anthem were still used.800px-Flag_of_German_Olympic_Team_1960-1968_svg
Flag of the Unified Team of Germany for the Olympic Games, 1960–1968.

Four years later both German states competed under their own flags and used their own anthems. The 1972 Games were held in Munich, which welcomed the world to a democratic and peaceful (West) Germany. But the Games would come to be defined not by peace and goodwill but by the deaths of eleven Israeli athletes in an attack by the "Black September" terrorist group.

Finally in 1992 a genuinely united German team took the Olympic stage again, and today Germany is just another Olympic competitor, at ease with itself and the world, and no longer exploiting or exploited by the forces of history. Following the success of the 2006 Football World Cup, perhaps one day a German Olympics will at last lay the ghosts of 1936 and 1972.



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15 May 2012

A Sense of Place

The opening of our new "Writing Britain" exhibition, and the accompanying interactive map where website visitors can mark their favourite literary places, has made me think about German books I've read which convey a sense of place.

The Germans have a name for one kind of literature which celebrates a specific place: "Heimatliteratur". This refers to a popular, often kitschy genre which grew up in the late 19th century as a reaction to growing industrialisation and depicts an idealised version of rural life. The genre has recently merged with crime fiction to create the "Heimatkrimi", detective novels which play, sometimes semi-humorously, on local traditions and stereotypes.

Although they wouldn’t be given the same label, there are more literary works which reflect the landscape and traditions of a particular region. Theodor Storm’s evocative novella Der Schimmelreiter, set on the north German coast, is a great example. But most of the German literary locations which spring to my mind from my own reading are cities. 

Although never named in the novel, Lübeck is clearly the setting of Thomas Mann's Buddenbrooks. When the novel first appeared guides were published identifying the originals of houses, streets (and characters!) in Mann's fiction. This was, of course, missing the point. Like many great books which convey the spirit of a place, Buddenbrooks is not primarily "about" Lübeck, despite being permeated with the city’s atmosphere.

Günter Grass is another author whose native city haunts his work from the early "Danzig Trilogy" novels to more recent autobiographical works. Today you can take a tour of sites in Gdánsk associated with his life and works, but like Mann, Grass uses the city not just as an identifiable physical location but also as a metaphor, in this case for the complexities of 20th century history.

Turning to a younger generation, Uwe Tellkamp's novel Der Turm is set in Dresden during the late 1980s. The "tower" of the title is based on the city's Weisser Hirsch district where Tellkamp grew up. I started reading the novel while on holiday in Dresden, coincidentally just after visiting Weisser Hirsch. Of course Tellkamp was no more writing a guidebook to his native city than Mann or Grass (although, just as with Buddenbrooks a century before, commentators have identified originals of the characters and locations in Der Turm). But being able to picture the places so clearly helped me to find my way into this complex and densely-written novel.

Finally, Berlin, especially the Berlin of the 1920s, is celebrated in many novels. Alfred Döblin's Berlin Alexanderplatz has been called "the most topographically correct novel of Berlin ever written", but it is Döblin's montage technique, juxtaposing excerpts from newspapers, tram timetables, popular songs and snatches of inconsequential talk, often in dialect, that really brings the city alive. The book is a difficult read and tells an often grim story of a man's attempts to lead an honest life on the margins of society, but it’s worth the effort.

For a similarly topographically exact but far gentler view of 1920s Berlin, turn to Erich Kästner's children’s classic Emil und die Detektive. To its young hero, fresh from his small-town home, Berlin is huge, bewildering and loud, but it's also a city where children play freely in the streets and courtyards and, in this case, help to track and catch the thief who has stolen Emil's money. Two very different books, but they both evoke a powerful sense of the same place at the same period.



Berlin's Alexanderplatz in the 1920s (Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-H0724-501-02 / CC-BY-SA)

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16 April 2012

Weird and Wonderful

Every year the trade magazine The Bookseller awards its "Diagram Prize for the Oddest Book Title of the Year". One of the small joys of working at the BL is the occasional serendipitous discovery of such odd titles which we receive under legal deposit legislation. For years I've kept a list of those which have amused and mystified me. Most remain mysterious as I've never read Famous Tortoises (YK.1998.a.8253), Egg Poems (YK.1991.a.13251) or How to Cook Husbands (012629.de.68), though I did flick through Cluck! The True Story of Chickens in the Cinema (YA.1994.b.5330), and very amusing it was too.

The BL's non-Uk collections are of course rather less eclectic as books which we buy are selected for their academic quality. Still, to the non-specialist some perfecly respectable academic titles can seem a bit strange: Die Emder Heringsordnung von 1597 [The Emden Herring Order of 1597] (YA.1994.b.369) sounds both literally and figuratively fishy but is a genuine historical study of the north German fishing industry, and presumably Der Einfluss der Musik auf die Milchgiebigkeit der Kühe [The Influence of Music on the Milk Production of Cows] (07925.d.2) was intended as a serious piece of research  by Georg Tartler who published it in 1936.

Titles of antiquarian books can also amuse unintentionally because of their old-fashined sound and sometimes their sheer length. I've always rather liked Die gantz unvermuthete doch plötzliche Ankunfft Caroli XII ... in dem Reiche derer Todten ... [The quite unexpected but sudden arrival of Charles XII ... in the Kingdom of the Dead ...] (9432.dd.26.), published in 1720, for the charming way it conveys a sense of surprise.

It must be admitted that some genuinely off-beat foreign titles have also made it into the collections. One of my predecessors in German bought Ermordete die Stasi Marilyn Monroe? [Did the Stasi murder Marilyn Monroe?] (YA.1995.a.32575), and the Document Supply Centre purchased - presumably on request - Scandinavian Corkscrews (q96/05001). But for a regular fix of the weird and the wonderful from the German-Speaking world I have to turn to the national bibliographies from which we select books for purchase. In the run-up to Christmas I could have bought an illustrated history of the Christmas tree stand, and a recent bibliography issue offered a study of antique egg-cups. Then there was what would seem to be the definitive study of garden gnomes. I resisted them all.

Aficionados of this kind of thing will be pleased to note that there is now a German version of the Diagram Prize. I don't think the nominees have quite the accidental humour of the Diagram Prize successes: the 2011 winner was Frauen verstehen in 60 Minuten [Understanding Women in 60 minutes], although the first winner in 2008 was a classic of its kind: Begegnungen mit dem Serienmörder. Jetzt sprechen die Opfer [Encounters with a Serial Killer: the Victims Speak]. But it's definitely a website to follow - though not as a source for german books to add to the BL's collections!


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16 March 2012

A news story and some fairy stories

Last week my eye was caught by a newspaper article about a collection of 500 previously unknown fairy tales discovered in a German archive. The story was picked up in various countries and on Radio 4's Today Programme, so I was a bit surprised not to find any mention of it in the German press. It turned out that the discovery was actually made a couple of years ago and the tales were published in Germany in 2010; it was the prospect of an imminent English translation which had sparked media interest here.

Still, it was news to me and I'd never heard of the man who originally collected these tales in the 19th century, but Franz Xaver von Schönwerth deserves to be better known. No less an authority than Jacob Grimm praised for the "care, richness and gentle intuition" of Schönwerth's folklore collecting. 

Schönwerth did publish some of the material he collected in his own lifetime: Aus der Oberpfalz: Sitten und Sagen [BL shelfmark 12431.d.18], which appeared in three volumes between 1857 and 1859, is a collection of the dialects and folklore of his native region, the Upper Palatinate (Oberpfalz) in Bavaria.

Schönwerth's introduction speaks of a "return of the German spirit", reflecting the rising sense of nationalism in 19th-century Europe (a factor which motivated many folklore collectors of the time). But his real interest is not so much national as local, and when he dedicates the book to "My homeland", he means not Germany but the Upper Palatinate, which he describes as "forgotten … in a corner near the Bohemian forests … as dear to all its children as green Erin is to the Irishman," – and from the evidence of Schönwerth’s work, as rich in folklore.

The three volumes are divided into sections covering the stages of human life, the social world of the house, farm and village, and the natural and supernatural worlds. Open it at any page and you will find something to intrigue or amuse. Some random examples give an idea of the range of stories and superstitions included:

  • The people of Neuenhammer believed that eating bilberries on St James's Day (25 July) would prevent stomach aches for the rest of the year.
  • No farmer in Tännesberg would remove a calf from its mother on a Thursday.
  • In a meadow in Waldthurn you can see twelve ghosts mowing at midnight.

Finally, since this Sunday is Mother's Day in Britain (though not in Germany), a tale Schönwerth collected from Fronau, about the strength of maternal love: A pregnant woman was could not rid herself of the belief that she was bound to kill her child when it was born. She kept confessing these thoughts to the priest, but they would not go away. So the priest told her that she could kill the child as long as she kissed it first. As soon as the baby was born she kissed it as the priest commanded. This kiss awakened the mother’s love, and from then on the child was the dearest thing in the world to her.


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22 February 2012

Networking for a network

Last Thursday evening I attended an event at the German Ambassador's Residence to introduce the German Resources in Britain (GRiB) project. GRiB jpegThe aim of this project is to create a website which will act as a "one-stop-shop" for those interested in the German-speaking countries, their language, cultures, societies and heritage, from school pupils to academic researchers and from the interested general public to professional writers and journalists.

Such a site will offer a search across the catalogues of all member libraries and advice as to which institutions are best for which type and level of research. We also hope to offer access to other material of interest – news articles, interviews, archive material and links – and to make use of social networking tools to encourage interaction between partners and users. The founding partners are all in London, but as the name suggests, the aim is eventually to include institutions from all over the UK.

This is a big challenge. I've been involved with the project since its inception, along with colleagues from the Goethe-Institut London (who gave the initial impetus), the London Library, London University's Germanic Studies Library and the Wiener Library. It had taken many months of discussion and planning to get to the point where we were ready to present the project to a public, and we were both honoured and delighted when the German Ambassador agreed to be patron of the project and to host our presentation at the Residence.

It was a really good evening – I was particularly pleased that our guest speaker was Simon Winder, whose book Germania I discussed in a post last year. In person and as a speaker he was every bit as informed, interesting and entertaining as the book suggests. And, despite my initial nerves, I found myself enjoying my role at the reception as one of the project partners, talking to different guests and explaining more about the project.

As yet GRiB still exists largely on paper. Indeed one of the aims of the event last week was to try and interest potential sponsors in funding the creation of the planned website. That's another big challenge! But there was certainly lots of enthusiasm for the project, and I'm sure that I can safely say: watch this space for more about GRiB in the future!


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20 December 2011

German Christmas gifts to Britain

Weihnachtsbaum 001Everybody knows that the Christmas tree came to Britain from Germany. These days a lot of know-it-alls like me will also smugly point out that it wasn't introduced by Prince Albert as is often said, although pictures of Victoria, Albert and their children around a tree definitely publicised and popularised the tradition in both Britain and the USA. However, rather than go into a long debate about the origins of the Christmas tree, I thought that for a festive blog post I'd mention some Christmas things which we owe in some degree to Germany without realising it.

1) Tinsel. Yes, tinsel was a German invention, originating in Nuremberg in the 17th century and originally made of metal foil. Like other shiny Christmas things (including the use of lights on a Christmas tree, ascribed by legend to Martin Luther), the theory is that it was meant to represent the stars shining over Bethlehem. One of the famous phrases coined by the humorist Loriot, whose death DACH marked in September, was "Früher war mehr Lammetta!" ("There used to be more Tinsel!"), a grandfather’s lament at the lack of decoration on his family's environmentally friendly tree.

2) Christmas Pudding. Of course Christmas pudding itself is very, very British. However, a story which I hadn't heard before but which I've come across in various places this year claims that it was the Hanoverian king George I who restored its popularity when he enjoyed some during his first Christmas in England in 1714. As this anecdote was new to me, I cynically wondered whether it was a bit of sly marketing on the part of a shop which is selling "George I's Christmas Pudding" this year, but whatever the source, it's been around for some time and appears in at least one respectable history of Victorian cooking [BL shelfmarks YC.2007.a.17420 and m07/.21989]. Still, at least we can't blame anyone but ourselves for mince pies.

3) Boney M. We all know that the much-loved "Silent Night" comes from Austria, and Christmas wouldn't be Christmas without Handel's Messiah. But in my local supermarket on Saturday I was reminded of another great German musical contribution to Christmas: Boney M's rendition of "Mary's Boy Child". Although all the members of the band came from the Caribbean and most grew up in the UK, the group was put together and their records produced in Germany by singer-songwriter Franz Farian. (Boney M also recorded a version of "The Little Drummer Boy", but let's draw a veil over that.)

So, as you trim your tree with tinsel, prepare your pudding and put on your festive pop hits album, remember the metalworkers of Nuremberg, the Hanoverian kings of England, and the disco singers of Offenbach am Main. And have a very happy Christmas.


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