Thursday, March 24, 2011

Letters Home: "I'm spending the day in Heidelberg"

Heidelberg: View from Philosophenweg in 1953
 My father wrote the following message on the postcard pictured above:
March 24, 1953

Dear Mom,

I am spending the day in Heidelberg. I had to drive a Lt. down here to 7th army headquarters 76 miles from Hanau. It sure is a nice day. Yesterday was our warmest day, 69°.  I suppose it's warming up around there too. The farmers are out in the fields plowing.

Love, V.

That's the Heidelberg Castle or Schloß in that early 1950's postcard. The view has scarcely changed since then thanks to stringent zoning laws.

In the early 1990s we had a young friend who was a native Heidelberger. His parents lived outside the city limits and we spent many a long, beer-soaked weekend there. He showed us around town and one day he surprised us by taking us up into the hills to an interesting but lesser known site called Thingstätte

Thingstätte is the name for an open-air amphitheater inspired by Heidelberg native Albert Speer. Numerous outdoor amphitheaters were planned and built throughout the Third Reich during the early 1930s, but were disused because radio broadcasting proved a more effective means of mass communication.

The Heidelberg Thingstätte was built on a site sacred to ancient pagan worshippers. Our friend told us that "they built it but he [Hitler] never came."  After the war the Thingstätte become an "unloved inheritance from the Third Reich."  More info can be found here.

Heidelberger Thingstaette
Thingstätte is an interesting word. First, the "Th" combination is orthographically rare in German and went the way of the Neanderthal some years ago. "Thing" is cognate with our word "thing" (in modern German, Dinge). A quick look at the OED etymology of "thing" gives a sense of the old Germanic meaning now lost in modern English.

The Thingbewegung "Thing Movement" was the closest that the Nazi party had to spiritual core beliefs. Josef Goebbels wrote of the Heidelberg Thingstätte:
In diesem monumentalen Bau haben wir unserem Stil und unserer Lebensauffassung einen lebendigen plastischen und monumentalen Ausdruck gegeben. Diese Stätten sind in Wirklichkeit die Landtage* unserer Zeit. Es wird ein Tag kommen, wo das deutsche Volk zu diesen steinernen Stätten wandelt, um sich auf ihnen in kultischen Spielen zu seinem unvergänglichen neuen Leben zu bekennen.
In this monumental construction, we have given living sculptural and monumental expression to our style and approach to life. These sites are in reality the Statehouses* of our time. There will come a day when the German people will convene to these stone sites in order to avow their new eternal life in ritual drama.
*The German word Landtag has no satisfactory English equivalent. Some dictionaries give Parliament, others Diet. The meaning here is an outdoor gathering place for elected leaders.

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