A walk around a city reborn - review by Iain Bamforth

Iain Bamforth

Bach, Bombs & Books

A walk around a city reborn


This must have been how Leipzig saw its future in the 1910s, I said to myself as I took in the measure of its massive Hauptbahnhof and the long row of six ironwork train sheds distantly modelled, as all railway stations are, on the arches of Europe’s cathedrals (that’s why ‘sheds’ doesn’t seem quite right). A hundred years after its construction, this railway station, Europe’s largest in terms of floor space, still dominates the city. Most of the city’s tram and bus lines draw up outside, on Willy-Brandt-Platz; on the other side is the Brühl, an important street in the old town: it used to be part of the city’s Jewish quarter and at one time was world centre of the fur trade. Richard Wagner was born there, in 1813.

I hadn’t spared a thought for Leipzig since autumn 1989. I’d just got married and was living with my wife’s family near Munich; smoggy Leipzig was on the news every day in that fateful week of October. The city had drawn attention to itself – in what was supposed to be a celebration of the fortieth anniversary of the GDR – with a mass demonstration of seventy thousand people outside the St Nicholas Church, made famous by J S Bach, all of them chanting, ‘Wir sind das Volk’. It was a bold step to take, since many expected state forces to intervene and suppress the protests bloodily, much as the Chinese had done only months before. But a month later, the Berlin Wall proved permeable, not to say friable, and a government committed to liberalising the country was soon sitting in East Berlin. That December, after what is called die Wende (‘the Turning Point’), East German television screened a documentary with the ominous title Ist Leipzig noch zu retten? (‘Can Leipzig Still be Saved?’). Aside from some high-visibility modernising projects carried out in the GDR period, such as the construction of a new home for the city’s famous Gewandhaus Orchestra and a thirty-six-storey skyscraper in the shape of an open book, the city was crumbling away.

This same documentary was now showing as one of the exhibits in the museum dedicated to Leipzig’s history in its Old Town Hall, built in 1556 in the Saxon Renaissance style; it has been a museum since 1909. Curious, I thought, since the concept of the ‘city museum’ became a common notion in the English-speaking world only in the 1990s. But perhaps I shouldn’t have been so surprised: the oldest museum of book culture in the world had been set up in the city in 1884, and is now the Museum of Books and Writing, part of the Deutsche Nationalbibliothek complex in the southeastern suburbs. Perhaps this historicising impulse was why Nietzsche – who had studied classical philology at the University of Leipzig – once argued that the Germans were becoming overwhelmed with the sheer volume of antiquarian knowledge, most of which he considered paralysingly trivial if not downright life-negating.

* * *

Leipzig manifestly had been saved, though it had taken all the time I wasn’t thinking about it to restore many of its solid Gründerzeit villas and apartments. Adventurers and speculators had come and gone (bust). The city’s dilapidated heavy industry had been dismantled and livelihoods lost. But the Hauptbahnhof had reopened after being revamped in 1997 (with the obligatory shopping concourse on two levels beneath) and the S-Bahn commuter train network extended to Halle, over thirty kilometres away. Leipzig has recently even been voted the most liveable city in Germany.

But there are still barrens, some not far from the city centre. I had a view of them from my hotel close to the station in the north, and others cropped up around me as I walked through the eastern districts of what used to be called the Graphisches Viertel to the house where Robert and Clara Schumann enjoyed their first few untroubled years of marriage. Until the end of the Second World War, this was the centre of the German book industry: it housed more than two thousand publishers and printers, including large companies like Brockhaus, publisher of a famous encyclopedia, and Reclam, which long before Penguin popularised paperbacks through its Universal Bibliothek series and inspired the dismissive term Wegwerfliteratur or ‘throwaway books’, as well as smaller avant-garde presses like that of Kafka’s publisher Kurt Wolff. The city’s reputation as the most important centre for music between Vienna and Paris was consolidated by the presence of music publishers: Breitkopf & Härtel, the world’s oldest, was established in Leipzig in 1719. Between 1875 and 1920 the number of printers, booksellers and publishers in the city tripled, just like the city’s population: by 1905, Leipzig was home to over half a million people, a little under today’s count. It had always been a merchants’ city; now it was hosting the largest trade fairs in the German-speaking lands.

The lawyer and industrial pioneer Karl Heine was one of the major figures responsible for unleashing the energies of industrialisation; his name now adorns the long straight avenue that cuts through the western district of Plagwitz. He organised the construction of a canal between the White Elster and Saale rivers, and reclaimed the marshy land – just like Faust in the second part of Goethe’s classic. (The first part was Reclam’s first ever paperback.) It was on this land that entrepreneurs built one of the most modern and extensive cotton factories in Europe, the Spinnerei: the site’s cobblestoned streets are now home to an artists’ community and exhibition centre, the disused workshops being occupied by some of the famous names of the New Leipzig School, including Neo Rauch and Rosa Loy. Their figurative paintings – German Expressionism meets Pop Art – resemble the work being produced in my home city of Glasgow in the 1980s by artists like Peter Howson and Steven Campbell, a kind of socialist surrealism. Central Europe as exotic? Glasgow as exotic? They certainly were for a while in the New York art-buying scene. (Another thing Leipzig and Glasgow have in common is an impenetrable accent in their respective languages: the Saxons have the remarkable habit of coughing their sentences back into their throats.)

* * *

It was the heavy industry in this part of the city that the four hundred bombers of the Royal Air Force intended to strike in the massive air raid that took place on 4 December 1943. They missed their primary target. About 1,800 people died instead, a relatively small number given the large tonnage of bombs that was dropped, but fifty million books in the Graphisches Viertel went up in flames. This conflagration marked, in essence, the end of Leipzig’s reign as a publishing city. It had already been seriously compromised by the Nazis, who had torched books in Leipzig in 1933 and whose laws against Jewish businesses led to an exodus of publishers; after the war, the last private companies shifted to the Federal Republic and the few remaining publishers in the east were never going to stage an even modest revival when paper supplies weren’t regular. Although the incunabula and valuable books in the university library had been prudentially deposited in villages around Leipzig and returned to the city at the war’s end, some were seized as booty: a priceless copy of Gutenberg’s original forty-two-line Bible is still in the Russian State Library in Moscow. It is estimated that 40 per cent of all books in public collections in Germany were destroyed during the war; the ones that hadn’t been destroyed underwent the indignity of being read in the communist years only if they had first been gesäubert (‘purged’).

Walking around the old city, which has several of those opulent arcades dear to Walter Benjamin, I realised that it wasn’t the events of 1989 – scenes of which are on public display in the bunker of what used to be the Stasi headquarters – or even of the last war that have most deeply left their mark on the city; it was a much earlier battle, in October 1813. At the Battle of Leipzig or, as it is sometimes more grandly called, the Battle of the Nations, a coalition of Russians, Prussians, Swedes and Austrians faced up to Napoleon’s own multinational Grande Armée. Armies from different German states were fighting on both sides because Germany was still in the making (and this battle was one of the events that led to its creation). For Napoleon, it was the beginning of the end, and it was truly the end for as many as 110,000 soldiers, more than died in any battle in Europe until the First World War. It was, in short, one of world history’s many terrible moments. Cholera and typhus broke out in the city and local people were still burying corpses a year later. There must have been an awful lot of dead horses too.

The biggest battle in Europe had to have the biggest monument. It wasn’t enough to have fifty memorial columns – named  Apelsteine after their initiator, the Leipzig writer Theodor Apel – at various sites around the city to record the exact position of the armies and their commanders. By 1900, lotteries and donations had raised the sum of six million gold marks for the construction of the Völkerschlachtdenkmal, to give it its full name (‘Völki’ to the Leipzigers). It took thirteen years to build and was one of the first granite-clad concrete constructions made, consisting of more than 25,000 blocks. Everything about this pile is larger than life, starting with the gargantuan statue of St Michael who guards the entrance (‘Gott mit uns’ is written in Jugendstil script above his impassive helmet) and continuing with the constellated warriors keeping watch a hundred metres up in the sky. It has Wagner’s influence written all over it, but also something Mesopotamian and lion-trampling. When the memorial was unveiled, the First World War was only a year away. It is the kind of bombastic monument that a society poised to worship the cult of itself might design. Hitler, of course, made it a venue for the mass meetings he organised in the city.

We don’t today have the same susceptibility to ceremony and grandeur. Life doesn’t have to be larger than it thinks it ought to be. I beat a retreat to the St Thomas Church, where Bach, the man to whom God owes everything (to quote Emil Cioran), used to preside over the choir. The remains of the greatest composer of them all repose in the nave. I picked up a brochure at the entrance that reminded me that this was no museum but a working church. There are indeed a lot of museums in Leipzig, I thought to myself. It was oddly uplifting to know that it has a couple of working churches too.

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