The City of Marburg

A recent visit from an old friend and former college roommate – the same who organized the trip to Normandy about which I still need to write – inspired another walking tour through the historic city of Marburg. I’ll briefly cover some of the highlights here and encourage anyone traveling to Germany to schedule a stop in this wonderful town and see these treasures for yourselves!

Easily one of the most famous sites in Marburg is the church of St. Elisabeth, built by the Teutonic Knights. Construction began in 1235 and was completed in honor of St. Elisabeth of Thuringia, whose grave inspired the location of the building. Elisabeth is an important political and regional figure for Hessen and is honored for her dedicated assistance to the sick and needy. She died as a result of illness at the age of 24.

The remnants of the Teutonic Knights' hospital in Marburg located next to the Church.
The remnants of the Teutonic Knights’ hospital in Marburg located next to the Church.

Her remains became holy relics and were a popular occasion for pilgrimage to Marburg in the 14th-16th centuries. Landgrave Philipp the Magnanimous, an important figure for the Protestant Reformation and the head of the House of Hessen who converted his state to the new religion, had them removed from the ornate sarcophagus in order to put an end to this practice. The ultimate fate of her remains is still unknown.

The church also contains many period coat of arms belonging to prominent Teutonic Knights. For reasons that are not entirely clear, the church is also the final resting place of Paul von Hindenburg and his wife. They had originally been buried in the massive nationalist monument commemorating the Battle of Tannenberg, but were removed during the retreat of the German army in 1944. After discovering the caskets in a salt mine, US occupation authorities decided to move the remains to Marburg.

Overlooking Marburg is the Marburg Castle, an old fortification that was gradually expanded and transformed over the centuries. For the longest time, it was also the seat of the Landgraves of Hessen, and even held the Hessian state archives until 1938. Today, it is a space for events as well as a large museum dedicated to the history of the city and the surrounding area. There are many rare portraits, artifacts, and an impressive collection of cast iron stoves from the sixteenth century. For those who are interested in Hessen’s history during the age of the American Revolution (as I am), the museum contains portraits of several Hessian officers who served in America, a large portrait of their commanding Landgrave (Friedrich II), a powder horn decorated by a Hessian soldier with scenes from America in 1777, an officer’s sword from the period, and a wooden “recruiting soldier,” a tool used to attract new recruits in the eighteenth century (further examples of such wooden soldiers can be seen in the French army museum in the Invalides).

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The Landgraves’ reception hall, decked out for an evening event.

The “Oberstadt” of Marburg, built on the slopes between the Lahn river and the large castle on top of the hill, is home to many of the oldest buildings in town. The old town hall sits at the head of a large market square, and the many Fachwerk-style buildings in the Oberstadt house university students as they have done for hundreds of years. During their time at the University of Marburg, the Brothers Grimm lived here as well.

A view of the Oberstadt on the way to the castle on the hill. The Brothers Grimm lived for a while in the building in the foreground.
A view of the Oberstadt on the way to the castle on the hill. The Brothers Grimm lived for a while in the building in the foreground.

A very somber sight at the bottom of the hill is the former site of the Marburg Synagogue. It was built in the late nineteenth century to accommodate Marburg’s growing Jewish community. On the night of 9 November 1938, it was set ablaze, and only the Torah could be saved from the fire. The damaged building was completely demolished in the following years, as the members of the community fled Germany or were deported East. Today, the site is marked with a monument, and the nearby bus stop features informational placards that detail the history of this erstwhile building.

The memorial to the Marburg synagogue destroyed in 1938.
The memorial to the Marburg synagogue destroyed in 1938.

Even if you are not planning on doing any research at the Hessian State Archives or studies at the University, a trip to Marburg is a rewarding one. The town boasts two convenient train stations, a comprehensive bus system, and many antique book shops, good restaurants, and beautiful views of the area (and what more does one need?).

The Fulda Gap

It’s a very good thing that there is so much going on on this trip that I’ve fallen behind on updates – but now it’s time to play some catch-up!

Yesterday, two German friends and I made our way to “Point Alpha” (Observation Post Alpha) on the former inner-German border of Hessen. It was near this place that DDR border captain Rudi Arnstadt was shot and killed by a West German border guard in 1962, a dramatic moment early in the Cold War. His killer, Hans Plüschke, was deemed by German courts to have acted in self-defense. The incident has never been fully explained. Plüschke stepped out of anonymity in 1997, only to be murdered in mysterious circumstances a year later.

Construction of the Observation Post began in 1965. The observation tower which can be seen today was built in 1985 and replaced an earlier wooden one. From the tower, it is readily apparent why this place was chosen to survey the famous “Fulda Gap,” the place where NATO leadership anticipated a Soviet invasion if the Cold War ever turned hot in Europe.

The observation tower of OP Alpha as seen from the former East German side of the border.
The observation tower of OP Alpha as seen from the former East German side of the border. In the foreground are the former East German defenses.

Observation Post Alpha consists of three barracks and several support buildings. It was totally self-sufficient, with its own plumbing network, generator, and even a gas station for vehicles. To help the roughly 50 soldiers posted here pass the time, the post also included an outdoor brick grill, a horseshoes stake, a basketball hoop, a small sauna, and ping-pong tables. A bright red line in the middle of the camp marked the “Sperrlinie,” the line across which no tanks or heavy vehicles were allowed to cross – any crossing would have been perceived as provocation. The fence on the eastern border of the observation post was also the border of West Germany. East German border guards regularly patrolled right outside this fence, keeping a close watch on their counterparts (and their grill, presumably). Tellingly, the East German defenses were directed East as well. For more than a decade, anti-personnel proximity mines were mounted to the fence to dissuade would-be refugees from attempting to cross.

The nearby Point Alpha Museum tells the story of the Cold War in Hessen with numerous placards, strategic maps, videos, and artifacts like a military Trabant vehicle and original border defense mines. The museum also incorporates the stories of eye witnesses in a novel way – a video booth in the exhibition hall is available for visitors to tell their stories. The room contains multiple video screens to view the most interesting ones. The eye witnesses include former mayors of the area, attempted refugees from the DDR, US soldiers, and former border guards. A special exhibit on the second floor is dedicated to the infamous East German women’s prison at Hoheneck, contextualized with many moving accounts of former inmates.

The view from OP Alpha towards the former East German town of Geysa.
The view from OP Alpha towards the former East German town of Geysa.

The towns around Observation Post Alpha, on both sides of the former border, refer to themselves as “Point Alpha communities.” They regularly cater to tourists traveling to this important strategic post, and likely appreciate more than most that it never had to report the beginning of a new war in Europe. Since the end of the Cold War, the post has hosted many reunions of US soldiers posted here, as well as symbolic meetings of former enemies, such as that between Chancellor Helmut Kohl and General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev.

France, 2016 (Part 1 of many)

It has been an extraordinarily busy week, and one I very much look forward to retelling. Though chronologically I should begin with trips through historic Marburg and the old capital Kassel, a recent trip to Normandy for the 72nd anniversary of the D-Day landings will take precedence while the details are fresh in my mind.

A few months ago, my good friend and former college roommate Jeff suggested visiting me in Europe while I’m here doing research. As we consulted calendars to figure out the best timing for the trip, he noted that the optimal week happened to include the 6th of June – and a plan was born.

On 5 June, we left Marburg at 6am for Frankfurt, where we caught a connecting train to Paris. Our ICE was replaced by a TGV, which was a perfectly comfortable ride at up to 316km/h across the French countryside. Once we arrived in Paris, we had a five-hour layover in which to see the city before heading to our connecting train to Bayeux from Gare Saint Lazare. The city was buzzing with tourists as always, even with an historic swelling of the Seine River, which caused several museums to evacuate their first-floor collections as a precaution.

The Seine overflowing its usual banks to flood the walks along the river.
The Seine overflowing its usual banks to flood the walks along the river.

The weather was unfortunately overcast, so we scrapped the plan of starting at the Arc de Triomphe and opted instead to spend more time at the Invalides (Musée d’Armée and Napoleon’s tomb). One could spend weeks in this massive museum dedicated to French military history. The different halls span from the Middle Ages to the War on Terror, with a heavy emphasis on the nineteenth century. Those who study memory will be interested to learn that placards in the Napoleonic rooms could have been written by the Moniteur’s own propagandists – unapologetic glorification of French Empire and Emperor. Curiously, the small room dedicated to the “Birth of the American Nation” makes no mention of the Marquis de Lafayette.

The courtyard of the Invalides. The halls of the Musée d'Armée are on either side, while straight ahead is the chapel of the Invalides. Under the dome is the ostentatious tomb.
The courtyard of the Invalides. The halls of the Musée d’Armée are on either side, while straight ahead is the chapel of the Invalides. Under the dome is the ostentatious tomb.

After spending most of the layover in the museum, we did a quick walking-past tour of other centers of French Revolution and Empire: the Place de la Concorde (formerly Place Royale and Place de la Révolution – the place of execution for 1119 royals, clergy, and other “counterrevolutionaries”), the Tuileries, and the Louvre.

The fountain at the Place de la Concorde. The Eiffel Tower can be seen through the fog.
The fountain at the Place de la Concorde. The Eiffel Tower can be seen through the fog.

When it was time to catch our connecting train to Bayeux, we hit our first and biggest snag of the trip: the SNCF. French railway workers were participating in an ongoing strike, which delayed trains, canceled others (which naturally overcrowded those still running), and closed most information booths at metro and rail stations. Though seat reservations are mandatory in France, to think one actually gets to occupy that seat is often a forlorn hope. In our two-hour ride to Bayeux, our train car had every seat filled and people sitting in the aisles – where we, too, were stuck, unable to even get in sight of our seat assignment. Not once were any tickets checked and only for the very last leg did we actually get to sit in seats (albeit, still not the ones we actually had reserved).

20 minutes late, we finally arrived in Bayeux, a beautiful, medieval Norman town. Our French host picked us up from the train station and brought us to their home on the outskirts of town, within easy walking distance to the historic town center.

Research forum – “Security and Security Policy in the Age of Louis XIV”

On Wednesday, I had the pleasure of attending a research forum at the Hessian State Archives in honor of Prof. Dr. Dr. h.c. Klaus Malettke’s 80th birthday. The theme was security and security policy in the Age of Louis XIV, including presentations on borders, mail security, confessionalization, and “German liberties.” The presenters were professors and graduate students from various universities in Germany and France.

The research forum's announcement
The research forum’s announcement

The presentations were held in the beautiful “Landgrafensaal” in the state archives, a room dominated by portraits of the landgraves (and some of their wives) of Hessen through its history. Beneath each portrait, glass cases contain facsimile reproductions of interesting papers about their reigns which are held by the archives. For “my” Landgrave, Friedrich II, the selection is comprised of draft pages of his anonymously-distributed tract on “princes, ministers, and states,” a piece heavily influenced by the Enlightenment. Under the portrait of his son, Landgrave Wilhelm IX and later Kurfürst Wilhelm I, is a copy of a proclamation distributed after the restitution of the Hessian landgraviate in 1813/4, when the Wars of Liberation forced Jerome Bonaparte from his newly-minted Westphalian throne.

The Landgrafensaal (Landgraves' hall) in the Hessian State Archives
The Landgrafensaal (Landgraves’ hall) in the Hessian State Archives