Porta Nigra

After visiting Aix la Chapelle / Aachen, capital of the Holy Roman Empire around 800, it seemed appropriate to also visit Trèves / Trier around 100 miles to the south. Trèves was conquered by the Romans in the time of Emperor Augustus around 16BC, when it got its name Augusta Treverorum.  Trèves became one of the leading cities of the Roman Empire, and eventually in the 4th century oversaw much of the Western part of that Empire – that Charlemagne re-established 400 years later.

The most impressive Roman remain here is the Porta Nigra, built in 170AD, the best preserved Roman City Gate north of the Alps. This is a massive structure, a clear demonstration of power, but hardly beautiful.

porta nigra werner

I understand that we owe the current restored state of the gate to another Emperor, Napoleon.

Nearby in the attractive city centre is the cathedral, said to have been originally commissioned by Emperor Constantine, but clearly most of it is much more recent. It’s a nice enough cathedral to explore, along with its cloisters and the neighbouring Liebfrauenkirche.

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There are more Roman remains in Trier, but we didn’t tarry long. Traffic problems seemed even more intense than in the UK. We headed for France!

The first image of the gate is from Wikimedia Commons, thanks to Berthold Werner

 

Charlemagne’s Cathedral

I’ve previously mentioned how Aix la Chapelle, or Aachen, was the original capital of the holy Roman Empire founded by Charlemagne in 800. As befits an Emperor, the cathedral built for Charlemagne, completed around 805, is even today quite magnificent.

The interior is painted or marbled in magnificent fashion, which quite took my breath away on a recent visit. Of course, the original cathedrals were decorated both inside and outside. Here at least the interior decoration remains, giving a taste of just how impressive these buildings originally were. And just imagine the collective dedication and money that has gone into maintaining such an edifice over more than twelve centuries.

Here are just four photographs (as slideshow) to give a brief impression. You just have to go there for the experience.

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Aix la Chapelle

To visit Europe is to travel through history, and in my case gradually build up a picture of Europe’s history that was neglected in my education. I first heard of Aix la Chapelle as the capital of the Holy Roman Empire of Charlemagne, which reunited Western Europe, effectively recreating the original Roman Empire (European Union is not a modern idea!). Charlemagne was crowned Emperor there in the year 800.

Eventually I realised that the romantic-sounding Aix la Chapelle is actually known as the much more dour sounding Aachen in German. The roman languages are so much more poetic! Aachen is today in Germany, close to the Belgian border.

According to Wikipedia, Aach, means river or stream, corresponding to the Latin aqua and the French Aix. Remains show that Aachen was indeed a Roman ‘spa’ town. ‘La Chapelle’ of course refers to Charlemagne’s cathedral, one of Europe’s great and most historic buildings, originally completed around 805.

aachen cathedral
Chapelle of Aix/Aachen

I intend to say more about a recent visit to Aachen in a future post.

Featured image shows Aachen town hall and cathedral,
by Arne Hückelheim via Wikimedia Commons

Ever Flowing

I contemplate the huge flowing mass of water before me, opposite the ‘German Corner’ in Koblenz where rivers Rhine and Moselle join together, overlooked by the massive monument to Kaiser Wilhelm, first German emperor 1871-88. Here is inexorable power and movement before me, a part of the cyclic flow of the earth’s water system. Today, tomorrow, it is always there, pretty much as in Wilhelm’s day, yet always different.

As it happens, I have been reading The Shortest History of Germany, by James Hawes and A Short History of Europe by Simon Jenkins. I am struck by how the major figures in these histories have their brief flowering influence, usually driven by an overwhelming ego, often associated with some abstract concept, and without concern for the consequences on their own and other peoples: Julius Caesar, Constantine, Charlemagne, Louis XIV, Napoleon, Bismarck, Lenin, Hitler, Stalin, and on and on…

Recent events suggest that this flow goes on, to new dimensions, with environmental breakdowns and resulting attempted migration of populations, and the rise of populists – more blooming egos with their destructive consequences. Yet ever new challenges require ever better solutions, not the gross over-simplifications of those who appeal to what is lowest in us. They will be seen in time for what they are.

The flow of history, and the zeitgeist, inevitably moves ever on, just as those great rivers – the same as before, yet ever different.

Maybe we should not fear too much. The flow that matters is here, now. Our fears are that the future may not be the same as the peace and plenty of our recent past (in the West). Our present is the opportunity for our own best action, guided by conscience, not by selfish ego or abstractions.

Travellers in the Third Reich

The Rise of Fascism Through the Eyes of Everyday People

As one of a generation haunted by discovering the then-recent calamity of WW2, now disturbed by the rise in populism across the world, I found this a timely book by Julia Boyd.

It tells the story of the Third Reich through the eyes of people who visited or lived in Germany through the days of Adolf Hitler’s ascent to power, its consolidation, the increasing drumbeats towards war, and the war itself.

What is remarkable is how many people gave the Nazi regime the benefit of the doubt, despite the clear signs, such as the centralisation of all power, rescinding of civil liberties and press freedom, the early concentration camps, the persecution of Jews, the burning of books (all in 1933) through to Kristallnacht (1938) and the subsequent descent into war.

Of course, the desire to avoid another war was a major part of this, and there is the interesting story of Neville Chamberlain’s vain attempt to make peace in Munich in 1938, and Hitler’s dismissive attitude to the whole affair.

The book presents an interesting story, perhaps a bit long-winded at times. It certainly opened my eyes to some things, such as the fact that Germany welcomed English and American tourists throughout the 1930s, and many found the country very efficient and friendly, except where they came face to face with the persecution of Jews and supposed non-aryans.

The stories from the 1920s and early 1930s show that, after making a fair recovery from WW1, Germany was not in a good place after the shock of the great depression. The arduous reparation terms imposed by the Allies at the end of WW1 were a major cause of German suffering and dissatisfaction. It seems that these were major factors in the rise to power of Hitler.

The evident parallel today is the rise of populism following the 2008 financial crash, and the subsequent failure to make due reckoning with its causes. The missing factor today is there is no sense of national persecution similar to that caused in Germany by the WW1 armistice terms.  

In the case of Donald Trump and the US, it is maybe too early to say how far the parallels go – but he clearly came to the presidency by exploiting white male dissatisfaction with the status quo that had come about – economic, racial and misogynistic. On the positive side, the US constitution appears to be much more robust in resisting over-centralization of power than was Germany in the 1930s.


Geography and Stupidity

The breakout of WW1 is a haunting occurrence for those of us born in the dying days of WW2, which finally brought an end to the European conflict begun in 1914, leading to the peace of the European Union since then.

How did that prosperous and confident Europe of the late 19C descend to such a self-defeating process?

It seems the answer lies in geography and stupidity. Read More »

J’accuse

officer and spyReview of the historical novel An Officer and a Spy by Richard Harris.

There are many examples of group think and injustice in the history books. Few are quite as dramatic as the Dreyfuss Affair that gripped France in the late 19th/ early 20th century. The story is told as a historical novel in Richard Harris’s book, from the perspective of Colonel Georges Picquart, a key central character in the story of uncovering the antisemitic conspiracy and subsequent cover-up.Read More »

Germany

Review of the book ‘Germany: Memories of a Nation’ by Neil MacGregor.

Germany_coverMy education in the history of Europe was deficient. Previously a ‘tech college’, my grammar school was very oriented to science and technology – an interest in history was not encouraged. And as for Germany, the world wars were too recent in the fifties for its history to be given much consideration at all. So I’ve only picked up the story of Europe bit by bit since then – on many European holidays and through reading. I was thus interested to see the recently published book Germany: Memories of a Nation by Neil MacGregor, a former Director of the National Gallery and of the British Museum.

MacGregor approaches his subject through the lens of major historical, cultural and artistic figures and takes us through key events and places in the history of the German speaking peoples of Europe.Read More »

A veneer of culture?

We visited Weimar in Germany a few years ago and were very impressed by this grand city with its tree-lined streets, parks and grand cultural connections – a superb place to visit for a few days. It was therefore with some interest that I read the recent article by David Blackbourn ‘Princes, Counts and Racists’ in the London Review of Books. It was all about Weimar, and told more than I had learned from tourist literature and being there – particularly its dramatically contrasting associations with Wolfgang Goethe and Adolf Hitler.Read More »