I was in Bonn last month visiting my friend Jane and we went to a whole load of Weihnachtsmarkts. Here’s what that’s all about: Weihnachtsmarkts or markets ushering in the Christmas season date back to the Middle Ages in German-speaking Europe; the first recorded ‘December Market’ took place in Vienna in 1294. These days, the markets are usually held during the four weeks of Advent. Popular attractions include gluwein (hot mulled wine with cloves, cinnamon, cardamom, oranges, and sugar); hot chocolate; rahmfleckrl (a sort of rye flatbread with creme fraiche, cheese, scallions, potatoes, bacon or speck, etc.); brat- and other wursts in every size, shape and color, often served with sautéed greens; grilled steaks, chickens and mushrooms; Santa-shaped gingerbread cookies; and stollen (a buttery, orangey, fruit and nut-filled loaf).
Once you’ve finished eating (or, shall we say once you are on a break from eating), there are booths selling handmade knitted and felted slippers, hats and gloves, Christmas ornaments, nutcrackers and, of course, the ubiquitous Nigerian carvings. There are also myriad lights, nativity scenes and often singing and dancing. The German Christmas fairs are great fun and good for winter tourism — the multiple fairs in Cologne apparently bring in over four million visitors per year. By my count, Jane and I visited seven fairs in all — five in Cologne, one in Bonn and one in Bad Godesburg, the Bonn suburb where she lives. We enjoyed them all, although they do tend to run together after a while We did manage to find a gay Christmas fair in Cologne and had high hopes for a little something different but, with the exception of a disco motif and a single booth selling sexy underwear, it was pretty much the same as the rest of the fairs. Some photos of the German Christmas market experience follow.
Here’s some things about Cologne (Köln to its German friends) that you might not know. Beginning in 1940, Köln was bombed 262 times during the course of World War II. The city was the target of the first thousand plane raid on a German city by the RAF: in 1942, ‘Operation Millennium’ saw 1500 metric tons of bombs fall on Köln during a period of an hour and a half, the goal being to knock Germany out of the war. Although it didn’t work, the raid did flatten 90% of the city centre, killing 500 people and leaving another 45 000 homeless. Interestingly, Köln was not the original target of Operation Millennium. Hamburg was but that idea was abandoned due to poor weather. By the end of the war, the population of Köln had been reduced by 95%. The great cathedral was bombed 14 times but amazingly never flattened. Rudolph Schwarz, a German architect who played a decisive role in the post-war reconstruction of the city, called Köln “the world’s greatest heap of rubble.”
On Sunday, having pretty much exhausted the local Christmas markets, Jane and I turned up at the Rheinhotel Dreesen in Bad Godesburg for brunch. We were taking a risk here: Jane had called to reserve a table and had received a snort of derision in return for her trouble. Apparently the Dreesen merits far more than a week’s advance booking. We decided to check it out anyway but, by the time we got to the hotel after a goodly walk in the rain, we were looking a great deal more bedraggled than the average denizens of the swanky joint. And then, there was the Dreesen’s history to consider.
The Rheinhotel Dreesen opened in 1894 on the banks of the Rhine in the swishy spa town of Bad Godesburg. From the first it was a big hit with European aristocrats, world leaders and Hollywood types. Greta Garbo, D.D. Eisenhower, Danny Kaye and Charlie Chaplin were just a few of the hotel’s honoured guests. Oh, and it was Hitler’s favorite hotel. He first came here in 1926, probably at the suggestion of his pal Rudolph Hess who went to boarding school nearby, and he returned for over 70 visits thereafter. It was here that Hitler came up with the plan to eliminate the paramilitary Sturmabteilung (better known as the SA or the Brownshirts) and its leader Ernst Röhm in what would be known as the Night of the Long Knives. Anywhere from 85 to 400 people were killed in the 4-day purge in 1934, which consolidated Hitler’s power by eliminating his real and potential enemies and conciliating the Reichswehr, the official German military, which feared and despised the SA.
Hitler also met the British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain at the Rheinhotel Dreesen between 21 and 23 September, 1938 regarding his proposed annexation of the Sudetenland. Determined to avoid war at any cost, the leaders of Great Britain, France and Italy signed an agreement on 30 September that allowed the Nazis to annex this region of Czechoslovakia, which was home to many ethnic Germans. On Chamberlain’s return to England, Winston Churchill declared, “You were given the choice between war and dishonor. You chose dishonor, and you will have war.” By the way, it probably isn’t significant, but it is interesting that the Dreesen has the whole Hitler story available on its German website but not on its English site.
During the war, the Dreesen served as an internment camp for 100 diplomats. It was handed over to the Americans in March 1945 without a fight. Later, the hotel was requisitioned to become the seat of the French High Commissioner, in which capacity it served until it was ‘released from occupation’ in 1952. History does not record the hotelier’s view on that particular development.
Amazingly, Jane and I got into brunch despite not having reservations and the whole aforementioned snootiness and bedragglement issues and it was quite a spread. There were pates, cheeses and herring, salmon and shrimp, eggs and bacon, venison and beef roasts and stews, sausages galore, braised red cabbage, potatoes au gratin and lovely little fruit mousses. We ate, dare I say it, unto torpor.
Later, we visited the German National Museum of Contemporary History (Haus der Geschichte der Bundesrepublik Deutschland) in Bonn, a fascinating exploration of the history of Germany from World War II to the present. The museum uses video and sound recordings, cultural and everyday artifacts to help visitors — Germans and foreigners alike — come to grips with the country’s complex past. It is well worth a visit. The information displayed in English is limited but helpful. Admission is free. There is also a nice cafe.
One last thing. In the museum’s bookstore I bought a ‘Pocket Guide to Germany,’ written for US soldiers occupying Germany after the war. It is super fascinating. Here are some excerpts, presented without irony or comment:
“The occupation of Germany will give you your guarantee that as soon as you turn your back to go home the German will not pick up his shooting irons and start throwing lead and lies at an unsuspecting world once more.”
“However friendly and repentant, however sick of the Nazi party, the Germans have sinned against the laws of humanity and cannot come back into the civilized fold by merely sticking out their hands and saying — ‘ I’m sorry.’
‘Most young Americans hate a bully, despise a snitch, and have nothing but contempt for a double crosser. In school, you learned from your teachers and from the other kids that it wasn’t smart to pick on a little guy, or tell tales…you learned not to cheat and that if you couldn’t win fairly, then you took your licking like a man and shook hands with the man who beat you…The young German, through his most impressionable years, has been taught that the strong are entitled to pick on and destroy the weak, that it is noble to squeal on a pal, or even snitch on a member of one’s own family, that if you can win by cheating it’s just as good as winning any other way, that a promise or word of honor given is to be kept only as long as it suits its purpose and can be broken at any time.”
‘The German isn’t sorry for the millions of dead, wounded, homeless and maimed in Europe, the result of his lust for loot and conquest. He is sorry for himself..He will try to make you sorry for him too. Don’t fall for it.”