CULTURE CORNER: THE KAISER’S CASTLE AND THE GOOSESTEPJune 28, 2019
I've been thinking for quite a while about starting a new "tab" on this website having to do with "cultural stuff" and as the headline of this blog notes, I've decided to do it, at least, with a story shared by T.D.L. This may end up being a one off, or it may become an occasional regular feature, regular, because the ugliness of modernism surrounds us everywhere in the arts: architecture, painting, sculpture, literature, music... all have succumbed to it. But this one is so strange, that it requires a bit of introduction, so that my really high octane speculation makes a little sense. Most people who know me well know that French, Italian, Spanish, Russian, and German history and culture fascinate me, and that for a very simple reason: try to imagine the evolution of our western culture without them. Take any one of them away, and our culture is marred and no longer recognizable.
Long ago in the late 1980s and early 1990s, I made a prediction in conversation with some friends, that if Germany were ever reunified, one would see the gradual return of all the military traditions of the old Kaiserreich, and that the last of those traditions that would be restored would be the Stechschritt or Paradeschritt, the "parade step" or, as we know it by its more familiar term, the goosestep. Sure enough, after the reunification, the Bell Trees came out, torch light "Grand Taps" ceremonials began to be held once again at the Brandenburger Tor, Frederick the Great, der alte Fritz was dug up and reinterred in Berlin under the Kohl government with full military honors. Some of my friends expressed alarm at this but my take then, as now, was different. This wasn't some sort of Neo-Nazi revisionism; Nazism didn't invent those traditions it merely expropriated them. Germans were happily goosestepping down town and city streets during the local hunting festivals since the end of the war. It's part of the tradition, the culture, and of its manifestation in military traditions.
But if that's the case, then what is going on? Watching these cultural developments occurring at the same time that Merkel flooded her country - and Europe - with thousands of "refugees", the backlash has been predictable: Frenchmen are outraged at the assault on French culture, Austrians on the Austrian, Dutch on the Dutch culture. Viktor Orban in Hungary refuses to allow Hungary and its culture to be swept aside; Poland, Italy... virtually everywhere there seems to be a movement back to preservation of unique culture.
With that in mind, consider this strange video of a German naval guard at a drill show at Parliament Hill in Ottawa, Canada, where, as far as I can tell, the parade step was done in full public by a German military honor guard for the first time since the end of World War Two. Notably, they begin by marching backward while the fife and drum corps pipes out the traditional tune beginning such guard drills. Then, as it begins piping out the military march "Prussia's Glory," the unit begins the goosestep forward:
The message, while subtle, is clear: we're going back to our traditions, in order to move forward. And notably, no one in the audience, which one may presume is largely Canadian, is booing or showing any signs of alarm. Rather, they seem to be enjoying it.
But I'm bold to suggest it isn't merely nor even primarily a military message that "we're returning to our traditions." When T.D.L. shared his story, I was stunned, because the story concerns the fact that the Germans decided to rebuild the old Staatschloss, the "state palace" of the old Kaiserreich, in Berlin. Not only that, they crowd funded it in part, and in order to rebuild it, demolished an old modernist (and hideously ugly) structure the Communists had build on the site when they demolished the original palace. And, as you'll see from the following article (from the crowd fund site), there's a strange reason the old State Palace is being rebuilt.
Obviously, they're not rebuilding the interior of the palace, especially as Wilhelm II, who was a connoisseur of the Baroque, oversaw much of its original appointments: it would cost a fortune almost as much as the building itself to do so. But read carefully what the site says about why the project was undertaken (and, as one can see from the picture, at the following link, the rebuilt State Palace is nearly complete: https://berliner-schloss.de/en/news/berlin-palace-is-being-rebuilt-in-its-former-glory/ ). The first thing to note was that the Palace's reconstruction was agreed upon by almost all political parties:
On 4th July, 2011, the German parliament’s budgetary committee voted to release the funds for the construction, by then totalling €595 million. The governing CDU/CSU and FDP parties and the opposition SPD and Bündnis 90 / Die Grünen parties voted unanimously in favour, while ‘Die Linke’ voted against.
The reasons to rebuild it? Consider this carefully:
The palace will then restore the familiar picture of Berlin, complete its historic centre and heal the previously wounded cityscape. Its reconstruction is making Berlin once more the much-loved ‘Athens on the Spree’.
In this way a counterpoint is being created to the mass-produced modern areas of the city’s centre. As a result, Berlin is now again becoming an exciting city in architectural terms as well. If it doesn’t want to become boring, the modernity has to face up to the city’s history, allow itself to be judged against historic architecture and compete with it. The palace will reconcile the citizens with the city’s reconstruction, as, after all, everyone will now find their architectural home in old/new Berlin. Its utilisation will be pioneering, redefining in its task the centre of Berlin.
As the ‘Humboldt Forum’ it will serve the arts and sciences and become with the museums of Museum Island, with Humboldt University, the German Historical Museum and the State Library a unique place of world culture and learning. Berlin is putting its centre at the disposal of dialogue between the peoples of the world. In the age of globalisation a grand gesture, with which Germany is embracing and seeing itself as a part of the community of peoples and their cultures. The building, serving all citizens and with its multitude of functions, will become a place of adventure in the best of tradition, a building in which the lights never go out, aspirational and serene.
It will serve political, cultural and social dialogue and be a venue of great events. Open to everyone, it will thus become a meeting point for all Berliners and the city’s guests. We aim here on our website to present this fantastic project to you in every detail. If it inspires you, we hope you will support us in our fundraising. (Emphasis added)
In spite of the pro forma bows to globaloney and multiculturalism - the very globaloney which helped to create and promote modernist ugliness - which close the passage , I suspect the real significance and weight lie elsewhere, and lies in those two opening paragraphs of the quotation.
When one reads between those opening lines a bit, the reconstruction of the Staatsschloss may be seen as a revolt against architectural modernism, for the clear implication of the first paragraph quoted above is that Berlin cannot be "the Athens on the Spree" again, without a return to cultural tradition, in this case, the classical style as it manifested itself in German architecture. Modernism must now (to cite the second paragraph) "compete with it." The real clue, however, is in the sentence which, if one ponders its implications carefully and deeply, admits that if Berlin "doesn't want to become boring, the modernity has to face up to the city's history." Indeed, that is an admission that modernity is anti-traditional, and hence, produces a kind of cosmopolitan rootlessness; traditional style on the other hand grounds people in an outward and visible sign of a matrix of tradition and history. It is a reminder both of the good things, and the faults, in any historical culture. Modernism is merely the rejection of all memory, and all tradition, of the good and the bad.
It's of a piece with the rejection by the French Senate to rebuild Notre Dame as some modernist Macronist monstrosity. And it's an announcement that perhaps, as a friend put it to me, that while modernism may not be over, at least now it has significant competition, and that the old forms and styles still have real life.
And, I suspect, that trend is only going to continue.