Welcome to the Home of Grey Christmases. Much “Achtung!” About Nothing. Episode 22.
What shall we do with the drunken swineherd? Laying the groundwork for some myth-busting. Some notes on archaeology and geological observations.
“As a change of air, Bonn can work wonders for several hours.”
– Heinrich Böll
“Getting rid of a delusion makes us wiser than getting hold of a truth.”
– Ludwig Borne
The prevailing wind in Bonn is a kind of parochial bluster which comes down the Rhine and usually picks up significantly in the evenings. It circulates in eddies through the beer gardens which line the river-banks, and whips the foam off the lips of the Bonner Bürger in a fine spray which is hard to escape.
It often comes in cool, and then turns hot as the bladder pressure rises. Sometimes it blows gently and almost imperceptibly; at other times it arrives in vehement blasts, scalding or freezing depending on the season and the barometric Zeitgeist. Foreigners can always feel it, but the good Bonner Bürger (although minutely sensitive to any kind of draught) rarely notices it.
The average Bonner Bürger will tell the gullible blow-in that Bonn is a cultural hub; that the place was once the largest and most important Roman settlement in Western Europe; that Bonn was the site of the strongest resistance to the Romans; that Bonn didn’t support the rise of Nazism and indeed that Bonners put up the strongest resistance against the rising Nazis. They will shout from the rooftops that Bonn is now an important and cosmopolitan European city and they’ll whisper in your ear that foreigners are ruining what used to be a great place to live. Some will tell you that Bonn was never bombed by allied aircraft and the next day others will tell you that after the war the city was a smoking ruin and had to be rebuilt stone by stone by the hands of German women, because all the men were still interned in POW camps in France, Britain and Russia.
Every taxi driver and publican and half-baked bar philosopher, every born and bred Bonner and every shopkeep, every law student, every landlord and every laundry lady will fill the innocent arrival’s head with pseudo-facts and twisted history-bits about their beloved Bonn. This is in large part based in propaganda going back to the rise in nationalism from the late 19th and early 20th century.
Germany, like most European nations at the time, embarked on a project of myth-making which formed the basis for all later forms of nationalism.
The French under Louis Napoleon (Napoleon III) more than likely saw his fancy uniforms, his sabre-rattling antics and tongue poking in Bismarck’s general direction as a bit of harmless nationalist theatre. Whether or not they approved of the way in which he had taken power, they were certainly fond of the Vercingetorix cult which he spawned. The French needed a heroic figure to turn to after Napoleon Bonaparte’s Russian misadventures. It gave them the opportunity to cultivate a national identity as righteous underdogs, and to shed the image of pompous aggressors rushing about drunkenly in acres of expensive fabric and gigantic perfumed wigs, as had been the case a century earlier.
The Spanish were content to sit on past glories and put down the odd new-world insurrection, some with more success than others.
The English were quite happy pushing boats around and playing with their colonial possessions, feeling strong and protected in the ample skirts of the larger than life Queen Victoria.
The Swedes were experimenting with neutrality and potatoes, which they discovered could be eaten as well as distilled.
Scandinavia at the time was no different. The Danes began to rewrite the Viking sagas to remind people that they had once also been an adventurous and almost important hardy, seafaring people. The Norwegians were surprised and secretly proud to find a painter and a composer among their ranks. Where their talents came from and what use they were in a sparsely populated nation of bearded, drunken swineherds is anybody’s guess; but at a time when many feared their nation would lose its identity under a forced union with Sweden these artistic giants were seized upon as a source of nationalistic pride. The Swedes, having waged a war with Norway to bring about a peaceful union by force were now experimenting with neutrality and potatoes, which they discovered could be eaten as well as distilled.
The Germans were caught up in their own intricately woven net of fanatical nationalism, a net carefully cast to incorporate sometimes contradictory threads from pre-Roman tribal times, the Roman settlement – military occupation to some, the birth of civilisation to others – and the reigns of the Carolingian and Frankish kings (Charlemagne being the first in a long line of them). Religious identity became a potent admixture to the general myth-making, leading to countless years of war and cruelty during and after the reformation, a long, divisive and infinitely repetitive process which was supposed to prove once and for all which Christians were the real followers of Christ, and in which the peasants were always the losers.
During all of this, the countryside around Bonn gave birth to some kind of a mythological narrative rich with sadistic dwarves and avaricious dragons and doomed boats-people, later to be developed into excruciating operas by the likes of Karl Weber and Richard Wagner. And yet despite this preponderous sense of self as not just a nation, but a people, a “Volk”, the Germans have, for the last 150 years, wandered, lost on the moors of history in search of themselves and repeating endlessly the two questions “Are we still German?” and “What does it actually mean to be German?”
Bonn is just as steeped in its own myths as any place in Germany; but what few inhabitants of or visitors to Bonn know is that this little agglomeration of villages really was the venue for some rather dark, quirky and salacious tidbits of history. Bonn is also close to the source of some of Germany’s biggest and most enduring myths, of the heaviest and most quintessential of ancient Germanness. But, instead of touting the truly interesting facts about the place, the average Bonner trots out the same tired old half-baked jiggery-fakery every time. Despite some of the town’s more deluded and less interesting claims to fame, at different times Bonn played a real role in events of major importance in German (and European) history, and had minor (but interesting) roles to play in many others. Yet the true Bonner Bürger is either innocently ignorant of these events and facts about the city they love, or wilfully ignores this in favour of second-rate, larger than life, manufactured myths.
Let me start by giving a few cursory examples (I will expand on these in later chapters): The first known permanent human settlement in what is now Germany was in Bonn’s immediate surroundings. Bonn was for a time one of the Romans’ most important harbours on the Rhine and is believed by historians and archaeologists to be the point at which Julius Caesar built the first ever bridge across the Rhine. For a time Bonn was the witch-burning capital of Europe. The town was also the point at which the allied forces first reached the Rhine in 1945. They were disappointed to find that the retreating Wehrmacht had blown the bridge linking Bonn to Beuel; and a couple of days later, the first allied troops crossed the river on a pontoon bridge a few kilometres south of here, at Remagen. Bonn’s historic attributes don’t end there. Many of Germany’s great minds completed at least part of their studies at Bonn’s university. Bonn has produced at least two great classical composers, Germany’s most infamous rapper, a world champion boxer and Tour de France winning cyclists.
Since the very beginning Bonn has been reduced to rubble on a regular basis by barbarians, Bavarians, Vikings, Frenchmen and Americans
Since the very beginning, Bonn has been reduced to rubble on a regular basis by barbarians, Bavarians, Vikings, Frenchmen and Americans and anyone else who happened to wander through; and yet the town has survived. Perhaps because the flat land is easy to build on, the alluvial soil is easy to plough, and ample rainfall makes it easy to grow crops; but more likely because your average Bonner just can’t be bothered moving.
Bonn lies in the valley popularly called the Kölner Bucht, literally “Cologne Bight”, a V-shaped basin-like depression that widens out from between steep and high river banks just south of Bonn before passing the Siebengebirge (the seven hills) on the eastern bank at Königswinter. The right hand, or eastern, edge of the Kölner Bucht follows the Rhine up to Düsseldorf in the north, hemmed in by the so-called “Bergisches Land”, a broken plateau which starts just a few kilometers from the banks of the Rhine. To the west, the Kölner Bucht stretches out as far as Aachen and the mountainous and wooded Eifel region – where the eroded hulks of ancient volcanoes form a natural barrier and a more or less logical place for the border with Belgium.
This geological basin is one of Germany’s warmest places, with hot, humid summers – hence the name of Wolfgang Koeppen’s Bonn-based novel, “The Hothouse”. The winters are mild and humid, and snowfall is rare. Bonn is the home of grey Christmases.
The high rainfall, volcanic soils and annual flooding from the Rhine make the area one of Germany’s most fertile, and the flat plains between Bonn and Cologne are heavily cultivated with asparagus, cabbages, potatoes, rhubarb and strawberries. Just south of Bonn, at the southern end of the Kölner Bucht, where the terrain climbs into more hilly country, vineyards cling desperately to the volcanic cliffs. Here you can really see why the German word for vineyard is “Weinberg”, or wine-mountain. You need strong legs and good balance to climb the kind of hillsides which Rhein Valley vintners have under cultivation. An activity preferably undertaken before lunch, which inevitably involves a couple of bottles of full bodied Grauer Burgunder, the local name for Pinot Gris.
The local geology shows itself in the architecture of the structural vestiges remaining from Antiquity and the vestigial structures remaining from the Middle Ages. Dark, hexagonal rods of basalt peek out as occasional reinforcing layers between building stones cut from the plentiful supply of beige-coloured pyroclastic tuff, an easily worked alkali volcanic rock. Both were quarried just south of Bonn, near Königswinter. The two rock types used in unison lend the local medieval architecture much of its defining character. The few remaining buildings of any consequence from that period – the Bonner Münster is without doubt the most intact example – clearly show that Bonn was a place of importance in the distant past, long before it became the reluctant capital of post World War Two Germany, where Koeppen’s protagonist Keetenheuve – it would be stretching credibility to call him a hero – lives and dies.
Bonn was something of an accidental capital, grumpily shouldering the burden and responsibility in the beginning, and petulantly relinquishing the status and wealth fifty years later. Those five decades in the global limelight have played a large part in what Bonn and its inhabitants have become today. Much of the puffed-up bourgeois self-importance remains, but the cosmopolitan spirit and liveliness have all gone to Berlin. Some welcomed the departure of all those pesky foreigners and their late-night cafés, and rejoiced in a general return to business as usual as it had been in a half-remembered and mostly imagined golden age before the war – when everything was very German and potatoes were still sold by the Pfaffengewicht to a Groschen.
John Le Carré wrote in “A small Town in Germany”, that the very choice of Bonn as the capital was an anomaly. He described it as an unnatural capital village, an island state, lacking both political identity and social hinterland, and permanently committed to the condition of impermanence.
“Perhaps only the Germans,” Le Carré wrote, “having elected a chancellor, would have brought their capital city to his door.”
And it was largely due to Herr Adenauer, West Germany’s first post-war chancellor, that Bonn became the capital in the first place. It was certainly no accident. This was a story of skulduggery in the best Cologne tradition, and blatant vote-buying. In the end, the wily old Colognial would get his way.