I am a new immigrant; I am not an expat hiding behind a term because of prejudice toward immigrants, a prejudice that is oddly extolled by some people who themselves live in a foreign country. Whilst I am an alien I do blend in with the majority of people in Germany (even when wearing Lyrca), well, I do until I try to speak the German language and then I stand out as an ‘outsider’.
Being a product of the English education system I am alarmed to find that there is so much to learn and understand about Europe and Germany. Although I pride myself on having a good knowledge of many things it is when you put yourself into a foreign domain that all sorts of surprises reach out to test you (this does help to keep the mind active).
I considered my new immigrant status when I took a breather on a bench at Kerstlingeröder Feld whilst out on a bike ride (see below) and I thought about how I saw history, and my own nationality. We Brits tend to see the World through the prism of a United Kingdom naturally determined by our island coastal waters and whatever independence or national identity is being sought it is not through the barrel of a gun (violent struggle has been on hold in Northern Ireland and has not been seen for some time in regard to Wales and Scotland).
Whilst for hundreds of years the UK has had stable borders the same cannot be said of continental Europe. Belgium which came into being in the 1830’s is one example, and Germany itself was forged into a ‘nation’ in the late 1800’s.
Up to the invasion of ‘Germany’ by Napoleon and the defeat of the combined Prussian and Saxony armies in 1806 at Jena, Germany consisted of 460 plus states – city states, dukedoms, principalities and monarchies, all of which vied for position, and where I sit on this bench at Kesterlingroder Feld there once stood a village which was partially destroyed in a typical regional feud, and then was finally wiped off the map by the chaos of the Thirty Years War. A war that I doubt few Brits know about or have considered as being a major marker of the European psyche.
Fought between 1618 and 1648, the Thirty Years War had its roots in the Catholic push back against the Reformation and began when the newly elected Holy Roman Emperor, the Emperor of Austria launched a campaign by sword to force out the Protestant religion. The result was carnage as competing forces (from across Europe – eg. Sweden, Austria and France) slaughtered and laid waste to ‘Germany’ (and large areas of Eastern Europe – Bohemia/Czechoslovakia etc.) reaching a high horror mark with the massacre of the citizens of Magdeburg. It is estimated that millions died (‘the male population of the German states was reduced by almost half’), farm lands were made barren and thousands upon thousands of villages plundered or laid to waste.
Napoleons subjugation of Germany and victory over Austria in the early 1800’s ended the Holy Roman Empire and the predominance of Austria as the leader of the German speaking people. The French Emperor cut the 460 states to just 32 and he was able to exploit the complex relationship between Saxony, Prussia and the rest (Bavaria etc.) by bringing Saxony on side when they allied themselves to him; this is in turn saw Prussia’s stature grow when it continued to resist the French, and the Prussian victory at Waterloo in 1815 cemented their position as the leader of German nationalism and politically as the leading German speaking state.
Prussia was located then in what is now Eastern Europe (the Baltic) and Northern Germany governed from Berlin. It was often at odds with the Polish and Russian Empires, the latter at one stage was almost at the point of overwhelming Prussia but when the pro-Prussian Czar took the throne on the death of his mother, it was saved. The border with Poland too was like all Germany’s borders subject to the ebb and flow of political events.
Note: Frederick the Great had done much to set the scene for German unification when he took reign of all Prussian lands and pushed into other areas (often by force) from 1740 until 1786.
Prussia was also to benefit from the influx of huge wealth from industrial areas it controlled such as Cologne, but which was not actually adjacent to Prussia itself, a symptom of the often confusing make-up of the Kingdom and wider Germany. Under Otto von Bismarck’s leadership an aggressive policy of Pan-Germanism led to the unification of Germany under the Prussian banner and Bismarck became the first Chancellor of a new German Empire between 1871 and 1890.
Bismarck’s was later sacked leaving Kaiser Wilhelm ll at the helm, but he himself was beholden to the military and the rich elites. Arrogance, absurd thinking and lack of diplomatic skill or nuance soon saw the fledging German nation smashed by the carnage of World War One. 1.8 million Germans died in the war, more were injured, starvation was common, much of Eastern Prussia was lost with a redrawing of the border and what monies was left was almost all eaten up by painful reparations.
An appalling legacy (just one of many) was that a terrible untruth was allowed to flourish – that the German army had lost because it had been stabbed in the back, obscuring the truth that the German Army and its overlords had waged an impossible war and had lied at every turn about how it was conducted. Something had to burst and it did – the navy mutinied at Kiel in October 1918, and a revolution of sorts was held when citizens pushed back against the Kaiser and the ruling Prussian grandees. The Kaiser was exiled to the Netherlands and a Republic formed in November 1918, not in Berlin, but in Weimar the home of German poets Goethe and Schiller in the hope that a new form of democracy could be created. In addition a peace was sought to end the war.
Sadly the Weimar Republic’s democratic experiment lasted just until 1933 when Hitler’s Nazi Party took power when the new republic had been weakened and split apart by economic isolation in the face of world disorder, the victors occupation of the Ruhr and extreme forces on the political spectrum that had fought for control. With the ruling elites and the army behind him Adolf Hitler was maneuvered into becoming Chancellor and began to tear up the democratic constitution. The rest is history and once more Germany and Europe saw carnage, murder on a massive scale and huge demographic shifts as yet another round of redrawing of borders took place. Germany lost almost a quarter of its territory in this new carve-up of soil and once more it lay in ruins in 1945.
I guess what has been reinforced in my mind is that the European project means more than simply a market; it is also a tool, no matter how flawed, to prevent a return to the nightmares of the 19th and 20th centuries.
Germany is not a military but an economic power dependent on close relations with its neighbours. Check out the ‘Rise and Fall of the Great Powers’ by Paul Kennedy for more on the history of global economic and military tensions etc…
The borders of Europe and Germany have never been as stable as they are now in 2019 because in the past peace could not be taken for granted. Looking back I have NOT mentioned other events which made Germany an ‘interesting’ place to live back then such as the Seven Year War, the Peasants Revolt, the Franco Prussian War, the waning of trade routes and associations such as the Hanse or the mass migration of two million Germans from rural areas to the USA, Britain, South America and across the World to escape poverty and war in the 19th century.
One final twist is of course the reunification of West and East Germany in 1989 when separated by ideology and a physical internal border after World War Two.
I then got back on my bike and went home to write this which I think has now given me a greater sense of what being a Continental European means and a reminder that German democracy is actually quite young.
History and life is not simple but prejudice and assumptions often are, I have had to have a good rethink about Continental Europe. I now believe that we Brits are sadly ignorant beyond our own borders and this is reflected in our political rhetoric.
Zieten Barracks – Kerstlingeröderfeld ride – March 26 2019
With so few miles in my legs in recent months this ride felt tough especially on the cobbled climb through what were the Zieten Barracks and then the abandoned Panzer Weg up to Kerstlingeröderfeld. Once a place where Chieftains and Leopards roamed.
The route featured cobbles (some very gnarly), gravel, Panzer Weg, dirt trails and smooth tarmac all ridden within a hour. A stark contrast to my London life.
More history under our wheels
Utopian Cycling – London Thames River Ride
Betteshanger Cyclo Cross
Riding the Kemmelberg
Box Hill, Surrey, England
North Downs, England
Epping Forest, north London