Saturday, January 10, 2009

Nürnberg: City of Christmas Markets...and some weighty history

The weekend before Christmas, I said my "Frohlich Weihnachts" to the department and rushed to catch my train to Nürnberg (or Nuremberg in the English-speaking world). The final week of 2008 in Bonn was a bit harried as I prepared for my family's arrival the next week and I really hadn't bothered to learn much about where I was going. My friend and fellow Fulbrighter Katie had taken care of arranging a place to crash, and seemed to know a bit about the town. I knew the city was famous for its Christmas Markets and a friend had recommended a visit to the "Dokumentationszentrum" which I was vaguely aware had something to do with Nazis.

Nürnberg is charming. It was a wealthy trading center in the High Middle Ages and Early Renaissance. Then power shifted towards Munich, and the city was left a quaint monument to quaint, medieval, German-ness. The twin churches of St. Lorenz and St. Sebaldus Church are Gothic reminders of this time along with Nürnberg Castle which perches on a hill overlooking the old city.

Schönes Nürnberg. This is from a bridge leading down to the Christmas Market. The Christmas Angel is the official mascot of the festivities.

Today the city is frequented by tourists who want to experience Germany's largest Christmas Market and take in some of that medieval grandeur on the winding cobble-stone roads. Katie and I started with a Bavarian drink in a little pub that was festooned with evergreen boughs and grinning groups of locals. The next morning, after breakfast at in our temporary home the "Pension Altstadt," we hit the Christmas Market early. To be perfectly honest, it didn't really seem that big. Maybe it has more stalls then your average Christmas Market, but they're organized into neat rows instead of streaming through the streets of the town so it didn't seem to have the footprint of the markets in Bonn and Cologne.

I found goofy ornaments for the family and bought my brother a "Prune Man," a little figure literally made out of prunes. He's apparently a staple of the Nürnberg Christmas experience. Then we had a lunch of half-meter long wurst. The best part of the wurst were the onions on top. Germans aren't big fans of adorning their sausage, but I enjoy a healthy layer of grilled onions and peppers and got to indulge this preference a bit while trying to juggle the thing.
You know you needed the picture becaue "Half-meter" doesn't mean much to us American types and I can't convert that distance into feet in my head.

Our next stop was the toy museum, which just sounded like the perfect way to get into the Christmas spirit. Every year there's a huge toy convention in Nürnberg where all the big (and small) toy manufacturers get together to show off their new wares. The museum was recommended by multiple guides, but ended up a bit of a disappointment with seemingly random displays of old play things that didn't seem to have much of a thematic or chronological order though it was fun to see the exhibits of recent toys such as Legos and Master of the Universe. I was much more excited by the official city museum. Katie and I were equipped with audioguides and wandered a massive merchant mansion while getting a solid background on the history of the town were were visiting including her dubious history with her Jewish population (the Synagogue was destroyed in the 15th century to make room for the Marketplace and a new church).

Audioguides, phone-like devices you hold up to your ear to receive factoids, are a necessary accessory for many of the museums I've visited, since much of the signage is only in German. While I might benefit from puzzling through a translation, it's nice to get explanations in my own language so I can evaluate the objects on display without getting hung up on confusing words. The other great feature of the audioguide is that, regardless of language, you aren't tied to reading the explanation next to the display. Instead, the explanation is given to you while you scrutinize the object in question, in real time...but I digress.

Overlooking the city. The spires Katie's left (your right) are St. Lorenz and on the other side is St. Selbas...or maybe it's the other way around.

We also explored the many churches of Nürnberg, marvels of Gothic would think. In fact the churches, the marketplace, the castle and just about every house was reconstructed after World War II, a necessary project as the city was virtually leveled by Allied bombing. And now we get to the more weighty history of Nürnberg, home of Christmas markets and toy factories. It was also the spiritual heart of the Third Reich.

Hitler and company saw Nürnberg as a symbol of Germany's former glory. The city was once the resting place for the crown jewels of the Holy Roman Empire, the "First Reich," and the very German stockwerk buildings and Gothic architecture provided the perfect backdrop for the Nazi Party's massive rallies. If you've ever seen video of massive columns of Nazi soldiers parading in front of a podium with Hitler standing at a podium watching Germany rally to him, chances are you've seen Nürnberg.

Outside the city the Nazi Party erected massive amphitheaters, coliseums and parade grounds for their annual rallies which pumped Nürnberg full of people every year. The participants stayed in barracks and in barns so they could march past the Führer. The rallying grounds are still located outside the city and now house the Dokumentationszentrum Reichsparteitagsgelände, a museum ensconced in the unfinished Congress Hall of the Nazi Party. The museum has a permanent exhibition called "Fascination and Terror" which follows the creation of National Socialism and its terrible consequences. The exhibit isn't necessarily the simple story of Germany at war. In fact, the war is only afforded about twenty feet of space. Instead, it focuses on the propaganda machine, considering how one man, who espoused German values and the Aryan Race but was neither German nor Aryan, was able to win support for his ideas.

The end of the exhibition focuses on the Nürnberg trials when everyone seemed to sober up and realized they might have committed crimes against humanity. But the museum doesn't paint the simple picture of a country down-and-out during the depression that gets hypnotized by a charismatic leader. Instead the creators of the museum try to reveal that there was a culpability shared by everyone who facilitated the Nazi rise to power.

The exhibit also shows that Hitler wasn't subtle. The rallies were designed to let Germans get used the idea of dying in war and killing other people. Ultimately, it wasn't a museum strictly about Germany and Germans. It uses the history of the Third Reich as an example of how people can be taught to do and think terrible things, and there is a point when it is too late to change the situation.

After the museum, Katie and I walked around the grounds, including the Zeppelin Field where the Nazi Masses gathered to hear Hitler rant. Now the area is used for a race track. We climbed into the stands and saw the spot where Hitler so famously stood in Triumph of the Will. I deal with the idea of "touching history" a lot. The fossils I scrutinize are the remains of our ancient mammalian ancestors. But standing near that podium, imagining the cheering masses rallying around that loathsome figure overwhelmed me with the proximity of history. He stood there, and only seventy years ago. I wasn't sure what to do with myself. I was repelled by the location while also wanting to place my feet on the podium to say I did. Katie and I didn't talk much while we stood in the amphitheater.
Standing in a historic place and not really sure what to do about it.

I walked away with a lot of history to muse on and a renewed loathing of totalitarianism (not that I needed it). One of the lines that struck me was Hitler's proclamation that (to paraphrase), "Democracy is inefficient. All these parties bicker and nothing gets done. The German people deserve to have things done." With that, the citizens surrendered their right to participate in their own destiny and surrendered their collective energy to a megalomaniac who would cause the deaths of literally millions of people across Europe. Call me a brainwashed American, but of course democracy is inefficient. Of course it never leaves everyone satisfied. That's the point. It forces compromise. It forces thought. It's always annoyed me when I hear people say, "I don't like politics, it makes people argue." It should make us argue. If we didn't argue, we'd be in real trouble (that's not to imply agreement leads to fascism and so on. The Reductio ad Hitlerum form of argument, that every discussion can end in a Hitler or Nazi analogy, is not one that I favor).

Back to Christmas. We tried to shake off the Nazi experience by checking out a few more restaurants, including one, "Zum golden Stern" (To the golden star) that was established in 1419. There I sampled Nürnberger sausage which Goethe called the best wurst in Germany. Really they're like little Bob Evans breakfast sausages, filled with pepper and other spices and are very tasty. The 600 year-old ambiance might have influenced my opinion a bit though.

Sunday Katie and I left Nürnberg for Rothenburg ob der Tauber, a little medieval town that has actually been preserved and is now a destination of tourists from all parts of the globe. Seriously. It's one of the first places I've seen Japanese signs. The stockwerk buildings leaned over the street at kooky, Seussian angles and the actual Gothic churches punctuated the skyline along with city hall. Of course there were Christmas markets, so Glühwein was on the menu along with Spätzle, the Swabisch version of Mac and Cheese.
Rothenburg ob der Tauber. You may be getting tired of cute, medieval cityscapes, but I obviously am not.

In a way, this weekend was a good primer for the arrival of my family. I learned how to get to know a city in two days and really feel I got to know a place. Taking a stroll to get my bearings, I slowly familiarized myself with the rich history of every nook and cranny.

Next up: The Borths Family (and Carolyn) arrive.

P.S. Stay tuned for pictures illustrating my adventures in Nürnberg. The album didn't upload for some reason. I'll mess with it tomorrow.

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