This year marks the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall – an important date in German history. But while this year’s focus is on the events leading to Germany’s reunification, let’s not forget how everything began.
During this month in 1961, the GDR established the border that kept Germany divided for years to come. Between 1949 and 1961, 2.7 million people had fled the GDR and moved to the west, ignoring emigration restrictions. The dividing line between East and West Berlin was a border-crossing hotspot. In the year 1960 alone, 200,000 East Germans defected, leaving behind their old lives for new ones in the west.
GDR authorities panicked over the mass emigration and sought to put an end to it. On the eve of August 12, 1961, the East German communist government closed the German border, and on August 13, construction of the Berlin Wall began. Families and friends were separated as GDR authorities tore up roads and sealed the border with barbed wire fencing and concrete blocks. It wasn’t long before a 12-foot concrete wall stood as a barrier between the east and the west.
Not a lot of people in his native country are familiar with Baron Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben (1730 – 1794), but in the US the German-born military officer is a household name: he is considered one of the heroes of the American Revolutionary War of 1775 – 1783. Von Steuben, a veteran of the Prussian general staff, was recruited into the Continental Army by Benjamin Franklin. He used his extensive military experience to drill and discipline the badly organized and ill-equipped troops, transforming them into an effective army. Under the leadership of George Washington, the Continental Army eventually defeated the British. Today, Baron von Steuben is honored every year on Von Steuben Day, when parades are held in several US cities. A statue of von Steuben stands in Lafayette Square just north of the White House.
Thomas Nast (1840 – 1902) was one of the most famous caricaturists and cartoonists in the United States in the 19th century. He was born in the southern German town of Landau and immigrated to the US with his family during his childhood. Working for the illustrated political magazine Harper’s Weekly, Nast established the elephant and the donkey as symbols of the Republican and Democratic parties, which are still in use today. Nast has also been credited with creating the modern image of Santa Claus – a round friendly grandfather figure wearing a red suit.
In honor of Women’s History Month, we are launching a series introducing influential women of the Bauhaus movement – a movement that is also celebrating its 100th anniversary this year.
Elevating Craft to Art
“Being creative is not so much the desire to do something as the listening to that which wants to be done: the dictation of the materials.” – Anni Albers
On its 100th anniversary, you may hear much of the Bauhaus, the iconic German art school which had its beginning in Dessau, Germany in 1919 under the leadership of Walter Gropius and which bridged the gap between fine and applied art. You might have read of the Gesamtkunstwerk concept (complete work of art) which the school embraced. You may be familiar with the international artists who taught alongside German artists: Wassily Kandinsky (Russian), Paul Klee (Swiss), Lyonel Feininger (American) and others. You might know that after its dissolution in 1933, some of the Bauhaus staff emigrated elsewhere: Mies van der Rohe and Marcel Breuer continued their work in Chicago; Walter Gropius taught at Harvard; and Bauhaus-trained Jewish students designed apartments for the “White City” in Tel Aviv.
What you may not have heard of are the women of the Bauhaus.
Although the Bauhaus “welcomed any person of good repute, without regard to age or sex,” women were excluded from some disciplines. Disappointed that she could not enroll in the school’s stained glass class after fulfilling her core coursework, Annelise Else Frieda Fleischmann enrolled in the weaving class which was open to female students. She quickly mastered the technical aspects of weaving, pushed the traditional boundaries, and began experimenting with traditional and non-traditional methods and materials. Her innate curiosity of traditional and newly-developed materials allowed her to break free from accepted norms and pushed her creativity into new directions. Drawings and designs from those years often show randomly-placed color shapes inspired by the artist’s visits to the opera.
“There were so few chances to execute a stained glass window…So the only thing that was open to me was the weaving workshop. And I thought that was rather sissy…once I got started I got rather intrigued with the possibilities there.” – Anni Albers in a 1968 interview with Sevim Fesci, Smithsonian’s Museum of American Art.
The young student married Josef Albers, who had risen to Junior Master at the school, in 1925 and took over the weaving department in 1931 after the departure of its head, Gunta Stölzl. In her new position, she taught weaving and design and continued to experiment with geometric designs and non-traditional materials such as horsehair, jute, paper, metallic thread, artificial silk, and cellophane.
In 1929, Anni Albers accepted a unique challenge when she was asked to correct the inadequate acoustics of the Bauhaus auditorium. She studied the properties of materials traditionally used for sound suppression such as velvet and experimented with new kinds of synthetic fibers. By attaching light-reflective cellophane to sound-absorbing cotton and chenille on the back, she won acclaim for her innovative and effective solution which could be mass-produced and which furthered innovation in theater design.
When German immigrants came to the United States in the late 19th century, many of them entered through New York, seeking a new life in a world that promised endless opportunities. But the transition to a new life was not always easy. A New York based guesthouse called The Leo House took many of these immigrants in, guiding them on their journey in an unfamiliar land.
The Leo House is a Catholic guesthouse on West 23rd Street in New York. Today it serves as a nonprofit budget hotel for travelers, but it played a significant role in lives of German immigrants in the late 19th and early 20th century. Between 1865 and 1900, 35 percent of all immigrants who arrived in the US came from Germany. But after a difficult 4,000 mile journey, many of them found new hardships in the US.
“They didn’t speak English. The gangs of New York were ruthless – they saw Germans who just got off the boat as ‘easy prey,’” says David J. Smith, executive director of Leo House. “And many Germans lost their faith.”
German businessman Peter Cahensly became concerned about the plight of German immigrants and founded the St. Raphael Verein in 1883, an organization dedicated to ensuring the safety of German travelers. In 1887, immigrants connected to the society started a fundraiser to further help incoming immigrants. Pope Leo XIII had recently received money in honor of the 50th anniversary of ordination, and the pope took that money and in turn donated $50,000 to the St. Raphael Verein. This money was then used to purchase a building in New York that became known as the Leo House, named in the honor of Pope Leo.
On the eve of November 11, you might come across groups of smiling German children carrying home-made lanterns through towns and cities in Germany. These lantern processions are a tradition of a widely celebrated religious observance known as St. Martin’s Day (Martinstag).
The holiday celebrates the life of Saint Martin of Tours (316-297 CE), a Roman soldier who was known for being modest and altruistic. After being baptized as an adult, St. Martin became a monk and was eventually appointed as the Bishop of Tours. Many people know of St. Martin for saving a homeless man by giving him half of his cloak during a snowstorm.
In remembrance of this humble saint, German children create paper lanterns, gather on the streets and sing songs about St. Martin as they march with their illuminated lanterns. Often times, the procession is led by a man on horseback who is dressed as St. Martin. After the walk, children and their parents gather around a bonfire.
Although St. Martin’s Day is a Catholic holiday – many children participate in the lantern processions, regardless of their religious backgrounds. The lantern walks have become a large part of German culture. St. Martin’s Day is one of the oldest religious holidays in the world, and is also celebrated in many other European countries.
If you live in the United States, there may even be a lantern procession in your city; some German churches, schools and communities come together to organize their own St. Martin’s Day celebration!
When you think of East German cars, you probably visualize the colorful but cheaply-made Trabants (“Trabis”), which is what most people drove in the German Democratic Republic. But the GDR also had its very own race car: the Wartburg Melkus, also known as the “Ferrari of the East”.
While the West German car manufacturer Mercedes-Benz generally dominated the Formula One World Championship, East Germany participated in many of the races with its Melkus cars and had a surprisingly high level of success: Heinz Melkus, race car driver and founder of the company, was the 1958 German champion in Formula 3 and the 1960 East German champion in Formula Junior. Overall, he won 80 of the 200 races he competed in throughout Europe.
But producing the race cars was not easy, since the Dresden-based manufacturer was only permitted to use materials from East Germany. About 90 percent of the Melkus’ parts came from Wartburg cars and some of its parts came from the Trabants. Still, Melkus was determined to see his vehicle on the streets of East Germany. Alongside his race cars, he also produced sports cars for everyday use, known as the Melkus RS1000. These sleek and stylish cars could reach speeds of about 112 miles per hour. But they never gained the popularity of the Trabants or the Wartburgs, and the company stopped producing its Melkus cars in 1986.
As we remember the 29th anniversary of the fall of the wall this week, we like to look back at the things that differentiated East and West Germany, as well as the things that united them. The Trabi is a symbol of the East, but the Melkus was one of the GDR’s prized creations: a race car that was made in a region with very few resources.
Some went over, others went under and some went right through it!
In a hot air balloon
In 1979, eight people soared over the Berlin Wall in a home-made hot air balloon created with small pieces of nylon cloth. To avoid looking suspicious, the families of Hans Strelczyk and Gunter Wetzel secretly collected small amounts of cloth over a long period of time. After their escape, the East German government began to strictly control the purchases of light-weight cloth.
With Halloween just around the corner, let’s take a look at one of Germany’s creepiest places: Frankenstein Castle.
Frankenstein Castle sits on a hilltop overlooking the city of Darmstadt. It was constructed sometime before the year 1250 by Lord Conrad II Reiz of Breuberg, who founded the free imperial Barony of Frankenstein. Over the coming centuries, the castle was home to various different families and witnessed several territorial conflicts. In 1673, Johann Conrad Dippel – who later became an alchemist – was born in the castle. The structure fell into ruins in the 18th century and was restored in the mid-19th century.
The most famous story is, of course, that of the alchemist who worked in the castle in the 17th century. He was known to experiment with strange potions. He supposedly created an animal oil (which he named “Dippel’s Oil”) that was a so-called “elixir of life”. There are also rumors that the man studied anatomy and conducted experiements on cadavers, some of which he dug up himself from graves. There is no evidence that proves that any of this happened, but local people believe the legends are true.
This is a guest post by Horst Cerni telling the story of his long journey from Germany to the United States.
Others call it “Germany”, or “Alemania” or “L’Allemagne”, but for me it has always been Deutschland.
My first home was in Allenstein, East Prussia, which no longer is German. We had to escape from the Russians in January of 1945, – we, my mother, two younger sisters, my cousin, and a friend of our family with five small children. It was a horrifying experience, walking in snow for many miles at icy temperatures. After three weeks, we reached Gotenhafen (now Gdingen in Poland) – in time for my tenth birthday. There we were fortunate to get on a freighter that took us to the West.
This year marks the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I, which was often described as the “war to end all wars.”
Remembering the Great War is of utmost importance to the Federal Foreign Office. This week, a series of events kicked off in Berlin to look back on the events before and after 1918.
“The future needs remembrance,” said Foreign Minister Heiko Maas on October 11. “The European Union is a unique example in world history for successful conflict resolution. We should be proud of the lessons we have learnt from our shared history, of what we have achieved. And – in awareness of the past – to protect and promote this.”
Together with French politician Jean Yves Le Drian, Minister Maas opened the two-day conference “Winning Peace – the end of the First World War with its history, remembrance and current challenges”. Several other events will take place in October and November to reflect on the war, including an international Youth for Peace meeting in Berlin with more than 500 young people from 52 countries.