Tuesday, 15 May 2012


The Golden Madonna, Essen

Travelling last week across North Rhine-Westphalia, I flew to Dusseldorf and thence by train to Essen, Münster and Bielefeld at the invitation of a group of Anglo-German Associations  (variously the Deutsch-Englische Gesellschaft , the Deutsch-Britische Gesellschaft and the Deutsch-Britische Freundeskreis) to lecture on ‘Cambridge Writers and Cambridge Writing’. This was the fourth time I’d accepted such an invitation. As ever, my hosts were welcoming and generous with their time, and my audiences were varied, interested and interesting. The A-V equipment worked at each location. No itinerant lecturer can ask for more.

In Essen, a third time, I visited the Dom to pay my respects to the Golden Madonna, the earliest known carving of the Virgin and Child in the world. She sits, piercing-eyed, in a specially protected chapel on the north side of the Chancel. Essen, like the other industrial cities of the Ruhr, was heavily bombed during the War, and the Golden Madonna was hidden away for safety. After 1945 it was a British soldier who rescued and returned her to her rightful home. Whenever I see her, I recall Lawrence Durrell’s description of the Marine Venus, recovered after the same war from her underwater hiding place off the island of Rhodes:

She sits … now, focused intently upon her own inner life, gravely meditating upon the works of time. So long as we are in this place we shall not be free from her. (Reflections on a Marine Venus, Ch. 2)

The Nikolaus Gross Chapel, Essen
 On the other side of the cathedral, by stark contrast, is a small chapel dedicated to Nikolaus Groß, a local miner who became a trades-unionist, journalist and outspoken, heartfelt critic of Nazism. His writings on religion and politics led inexorably to his implication in the July Plot to assassinate Hitler, and thence to his arrest and execution in Plötzensee Prison, Berlin. (I have been to Plötzensee: its hanging chamber is the coldest, bleakest room in which I have ever stood.) Essen’s Nikolaus Groß Abend-gymnasium is named in his honour, and its Director is a good friend of mine. The pictures on the walls of his office embody the tensions and ambiguities of the past century:  photographs of Nikolaus Groß, of Winston Churchill, and of Ernst Barlach’s  Magdeburger Ehrenmahl - for me one of the most eloquent and discomforting of all First World War memorials.

War memorials are much on my mind at present. I have contributed a chapter on British and German memorials after the Armistice of 1918 to a book due out next year, and in the autumn I shall be speaking in Oxford about memory and memorialization at a conference on memorials of the Great War. However, Münster, my next stop, appeared at first to have none. Not surprising, of course, since the city had been flattened by allied bombing.  Still, I liked Munster a lot: it felt at ease with itself. I liked its bicycles and traffic-free streets, its sensitive post-war reinterpretation of the medieval city. Above all, I confess, I loved its asparagus. The annual Spargelfest  was in full swing: my meal of spargel mit westfälische schinken on Tuesday night and the vast stacks of white asparagus spears in the Domplatz market on Wednesday morning will linger happily in the memory.

Asparagus on sale in the Domplatz Market, Muenster
But I was wrong about the war memorials. Straying further than I’d intended, I found my way to the Liebfrauenkirche Überwasser, a wonderfully light and spacious church. The main porch, under the tower, appeared to be screened off by heavy glass doors; but seeing someone else exit that way I followed, finding myself in a wide whitewashed vestibule. I don’t know why I didn’t simply walk out of the door straight ahead, but for some reason I turned and saw, on either side of the tower arch, a pair of tall wooden panels. Each one had two figures carved in relief, almost life-size, almost Expressionist in style: on the left, Ss. Michael and Sebastian; on the right, Ss. Barbara and Theodore. I couldn’t make out the texts above the figures. Then I saw each panel consisted of two shut doors – like an altar triptych closed for Lent. No one was looking, so I opened them out and there, no longer hidden from view, was the roll of the Münster dead from 1914-18. At the head of the list was the inscription Es opferten Ihr Leben: ‘They sacrificed their life’.

Hidden from view – though in quite a different way – was the war memorial at Bielefeld I visited on the last day of my tour. Bielefeld lies in a valley and I had been told there was a memorial, often disfigured, somewhere on the Johannisberg above the city. I needed help to find this and Janette, my guide, led the way across the railway, up the hill and away from the city. At the top of the hill, a hotel: beyond the hotel, a path leading into a wood, the Teutoburger Wald. You have to leave the path and head towards the trees in order to reach the memorial. Further from the centre of the city it could not be: it seems astonishingly, willfully, misplaced. 

The Johannisberger Memorial, Bielefeld
And yet it isn’t. The memorial shows a soldier in uniform but without rifle or helmet. He kneels with his hands raised awkwardly behind him. Only when you come close can you see he is bandaging his wounded head: there is no one to do it for him. Left behind, but at least left alive, he has to fend for himself – it’s as if he has taken to the hills to hide. His gaze is stern and distant: is he looking through the trees, scanning in vain for his dead companions? Is he looking back at the city, reproaching those for whom he fought but who have now abandoned him? This statue, significantly, was erected not by the townspeople but by the army veterans of Bielefeld. I have never seen a lonelier memorial.

This sense of loneliness and separation finds its counterpart in a WW2 memorial back in the city centre. Outside the Rathaus, inconspicuous against the flambuoyant architecture of the rebuilt town hall, stands a plain square column, really no more than a tall plinth, with a copper bowl on top. It looks as if an everlasting flame ought to be burning in the bowl, but no. There is in fact nothing to indicate that this is a war memorial at all, just four words on the side of the column: WIR WARTEN AUF EUCH – ‘We wait for you’.

Few things reflect more powerfully than war memorials the conflicted relationship, the similarities and differences between Britain and Germany during the twentieth century.  Think about it. So, if I’m invited to come back and lecture a fifth time, with the centenary of the Great War fast approaching, it is about this subject I’d like to speak.

Adrian Barlow