Letter from Germany

Notes on a journey to the Wagner Festival

BEVERLEY BAXTER October 12 1957
Letter from Germany

Notes on a journey to the Wagner Festival

BEVERLEY BAXTER October 12 1957

Notes on a journey to the Wagner Festival

Letter from Germany


This is being written on a tiny, flower-festooned balcony in Bayreuth. Germany. My wife, my daughter and myself managed, by considerable effort, to obtain tickets for the annual summer Wagner Festival, which has raised this provincial town to the level of a musical shrine that draws its devotees from the whole civilized world.

Having driven our car from London to the coast, with my two females alternating at the wheel, we were put on board an airplane, which whisked us across the channel in less time than it would take for a London omnibus at a normal hour to grope its way from Piccadilly Circus to Oxford Circus.

To use the language of more elegant times, our objective was to “lie” at Brussels for the first night of our trip. Thus we began our drive across Belgium and saw the famous beaches of Dunkirk, now crowded with people lying almost naked in the sun or plunging into the waters that had saved civilization by their kindly mood in the hour of fate.

For those of us who were in the First War, a tour across western Europe is always fraught with memories. Every river in France ran blood and almost every town in the north seems to have given the name to a battle.

It was shortly after eight o’clock when we reached the famous square of Brussels and put up at a hotel that is as modern and shiny as anything New York could offer. Brussels, incidentally, is in a state of great excitement. Its longplanned exhibition will open next year and in preparation every second public building is either knocked down or is having its face changed. As for the roadways, there are so many temporary detours that even the traffic police can only wave their hands like orchestral conductors until, in desperation, we take any road that offers a clear hundred yards.

After some argument with my two ladies, I persuaded them that we should visit the house where the great ball was given on the eve of Waterloo, then motor ten miles farther to look at the battlefield itself,

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“We bombed Cologne to save civilization—and paid a heavy price”'

They said that this would alter our timetable and that we could see the battlefield another time, but I insisted that it was now or never.

Unfortunately, no one in Brussels seemed to know where the battlefield

really was although most of the people had theories on the subject. When for the third time we passed our hotel, which we had left two hours before, we threw in our hand and accepted defeat. But now 1 know what Wellington meant

when he muttered, “Night or Blucher.” Wellington had stayed in Brussels and probably knew how difficult it was to find the battlefield.

Just one last word about this historic city. The character has changed remarkably with the impact of modern architecture. It has as many neon lights as Calgary on a Saturday night and the office buildings are like tall biscuit boxes, with slits of glass for windows. As far as the exteriors are concerned they could have been designed by a backward boy of fifteen.

Fortunately, the Roman Catholic Church admits no compromise. May my grandfather (who rode a white horse on Orangeman’s day in ancient Toronto) forgive me for these words, but Roman Catholicism seems the one unchanging influence in the Western Europe of today. Its spires still reach to the sky and its saints make no obeisance to the gods of progress.

And so in due course we came to Cologne, that lovely ancient city on the Rhine which was reduced by the RAF bombers to a cathedral and a mass of rubble, where the people breathed through holes and lived like rats until daylight brought each night of terror to an end. At Westminster we used to watch from the terrace as the bombers passed over us in an endless convoy of death. They flew in perfect formation and. at their height, seemed to be merely cruising—squadron after squadron, so close that their wings seemed bound to touch. Their target seemed always the same—the ancient city on the Rhine.

Soap boxes on the ashes

But humanity has a stubborn instinct for survival and the Germans cut holes in the rubble so that they could get air into their cellars. What then of Cologne today? Its elegance and beauty are gone but a slick modern city has arisen on the ashes. Once more we have this soapbox architecture, with endless windows cut to an exact utility pattern. We had to destroy Cologne to save civilization, but in the process civilization paid a heavy price.

There is one element, however, which mocks the carnage of war. You can destroy a city but you cannot destroy the good earth of the countryside. In Germany and France, in spite of their endless wars, the rolling farmlands and the leafy woods proclaim alike the immortality of the soil and the soul.

After an early supper at an open-air café a few miles beyond Cologne, we began our journey to Frankfurt some hundred and twenty miles distant. Poor Hitler! For a maniac, he had some darned good ideas and one of them was to build dual highways that would permit him to move his armies at lightning speed from one front to the other. The Autobahn is divided into two sections separated by built-up grass and shrubbery, which prevent any chance of encroachment. On each side the road is divided into two sections with the left half for those who want to travel at maximum speed and the other half for mere plodders at fifty or sixty miles an hour.

All across Germany the lorries make their way by day and night over the .roads that were to make Hitler the con-

queror of Europe. Because the highways were built away from the towns and villages, the lorry drivers sometimes fall asleep from the unbroken monotony and bloody disaster ensues.

It was about ten o’clock that night when we reached Frankfurt and pulled up at the hotel where we had engaged rooms. Two small boys in pages’ uniforms smilingly welcomed us as if the whole thing were part of a modern Rosenkavalier. The streets were crowded with American soldiers, both black and white, in convoy with the local girls, and from the cafés and dance dumps came the sound of revelry by night.

Yet there was one thing, seemingly unimportant yet pregnant with meaning. In the booklet of the week’s events, handed to us by the courteous hotel manager, there was the announcement of the weekly meeting of the Jewish society. How that must torture Hitler's spirit if there is any contact between this world and the next.

There are some advantages in being a member of parliament and one of them on this occasion was a message from the mayor, saying that he was sending his principal housing officer to show us how Frankfurt had dealt with the problem of rebuilding itself into a city when the war ended. Tike Cologne, the cathedral had suffered no irretrievable damage although horror and destruction had rained all around it. The only possible way of recreating Frankfurt was to place the whole thing in the hands of the local council, aided and partially financed by that inspired act of American generosity known as Marshall Aid. It is easy to satirize the Americans but there are few things in history more worthy of praise than the way dollars were poured into the stricken continent when the blasphemy of war had ended.

But wisely the city fathers of Frankfurt refused to take the view that houses must be rushed into being with no thought of the future. Thus when they built postwar housing estates near the cathedral it was planned that nothing should obstruct the view of the cathedral spires; the children playing in the grass allotments should not only be able to feel the nearness of the cathedral but see the steeple. Wherever there was a chance to give horizon to the allotments the planning authority acted accordingly. Thus they went against the very basis of the German character by doing everything possible to avoid uniformity. Even the shops were brought into the scheme.

In fact, as we were taken from one district to another we saw this city, which in the war was so often “target for tonight,” transformed into a community of villas embroidered with flow-

ers and with the benediction of the church upon them.

Every town-planning officer in Canada, the U. S. and Great Britain should be sent to Frankfurt to see how beauty and utility can be wedded to the delight ot the senses and the exaltations of the soul.

It was almost with sadness that we said good-by and turned our car toward Bayreuth—that shrine and home of the Wagner family where the immortal Richard wrote music of such neurotic genius that it made ordinary Germans

imagine themselves gods in Valhalla and where Adolf Hitler came as the Führer to bow in veneration before the amiable Siegfried, the son of Richard, who had few of his father's gifts but enjoyed the reverence of that greatest of all ham actors, Adolf Hitler.

Tomorrow we shall set our compass for Munich where Chamberlain was either the dupe of Hitler or else, with his umbrella, tricked the Führer into delaying his war until Britain was better prepared. That is a verdict yet to be declared by history.

Afterward we shall visit the Bavaria of the mad King Tudwig who was so overcome by Wagner’s genius that he used to have private performances of his operas in a castle pitched precariously on a mountaintop.

Will there be another Wagner some day in Germany? Will there be another Kaiser even though he call himself president? Will there be another Hitler? Germany is the Big Query on the map of Europe although at the moment she is content to give us the greatest music ever written. ★