A forgotten history of curious places.
Hidden corners of cultural & aesthetic experiment,
amid two of the greatest events in the history of Western Europe.
In an isolated clearing somewhere in the Black Forest, a young German sits thinking, at dusk, on a step. Below him is arrayed the architecture of a low-rising amphitheatre, crisply and newly built. The top steps blend into the forest, their gentle curve broken just by a small path leading away into the woods behind him, lit by soft lamps. A tall monument rises in front of him, resembling nothing in particular. The place is peaceful, but contrived. The young man thinks of nothing in particular, though much is on his mind. The year is 1942, and he is sitting in a curious construction known as a Thingstätte – a “being place”.
Scroll your mental navigation bars back a few centuries. A file of anxious-looking French boys is being led two-by-two into a large, neo-classical building, in the coastal city of Toulon. They are told to fan out, well separated from each other, to sit for an hour, and to ponder a problem in their heads. Any problem. Inside this building, the walls are of perfectly flat stone, the rows of hard pews are of rigorous and logical symmetry around a central circular space, which is empty, over all of which a high lantern dome casts a dim and religious light. Yet there is no religion here. The boys – and the flotilla of government officials accompanying them – are from the early class of the naval college. They have just entered a building that was intended, when construction began, to become the Roman Catholic Église Saint-Louis, serving the west of the town. But the year is 1794, the Revolution has come, and the boys have just sat down in a freshly-minted Temple of Reason.
In both cases, new régimes had swept to power, clearing all superstition in their path. Except, of course, for the natural superstition inside the people they claimed to lead. The official Nazi state religion was that of “Gott-Glauben” – God-believing, a term so nebulous as to lose its grip on monk and atheist alike. They built strings of thingstätte across the country. That anyone thought a quasi-spiritual offering, a café blend of multi-sourced mythology, an abundance of burning sticks and children beating drums in straight lines, could ever replace the centuries of cultural tradition and faith, is, well, curious. The French Revolution killed off a large portion of the ancien régime during the Terror. Convents burned, churches tumbled; Reason rose. Yet within two short years, they had to invent a god. Ils ont inventé un Dieu! To keep the people happy, an off-the-cuff deity was posited. Not for the uneducated masses. Not for stick-in-the-mud mystics and superstitious throwbacks. But for the mass of the thinking, reasonable – and Reasonable – populace, who knew that something was missing from their sparkling new society. The same in Revolutionary France as in National Socialist Germany.
And in both cases we see the common thread not just in the political, but in the aesthetic. In France, the hard edge of cold logic usurping the conciliatory ear of a priest. Stone walls no longer adorned by gilt-edged devotional pieces bathed in lambent light. Superstition undealt-with: dangerous no doubt in the admission even of the most ardent of atheists. Places of refuge, centralised. Organic structures broken into line. Yet a soft spirit in the poetic renaming of the months – Brumaire (the foggy one, roughly November), Frimaire (the frosty one, roughly December), Floréal (the month of darling buds, mostly May) and Pluviôse (the rainy month, mostly February), against the rigorous logic of a newly metric numbering system. And the invention of a comforting deity, amid the merciless toppling of the churches.
In Germany too, the thingstätte, built as places for spiritual reflection, embodied the paradox of the sharp and the soft, which collided at the heart of Nazi ideology. The smoothly imperial geometry of a stone amphitheatre against the ephemeral watercolours of an untamed, mythical forest. The sharp white lines of Albert Speer’s planned Berlin colonnades – and the infamous ones he did build in Nuremberg – against the deep pigment dyes of lace-skirted maidens churning butter in the high woodlands. The idea of harnessing the calligraphic power of the flamboyant Black Letter and Fraktur, against the urge to standardise its typography. The stark design of a hooked cross, black on white and red, against the concession to add velvet and voluminous gold tassels to the flag’s edge. The yearning to build a city more beautiful than Paris, against the final order – mercifully ignored – to destroy it. The mystical hedonism and exotic productions of Wagner, against the penchant for marching songs and uniformed masses. A network of semi-secular, vaguely-mystical “being places” proclaiming the new state religion, against an ancient, sometime deeply Protestant, sometime deeply Catholic, always deeply Christian, people.
In both cases above, the places were built in the name of an extreme socialism – something for the people, the volk, the citoyens; something for humanity. Yet it was things belonging to those people that had been cleared away, by increasingly inhuman régimes. Sharpness, centrality and certitude in the new replaced the softness, subtlety and superstition of the old. Except, in each case – and in every other case I can think of – they have always had to bring it back. Not partially, not abstractly, but totally. These places, among them the Thingstätter and the Temple of Reason, are but two curious remnants. Remnants that serve as examples of why the intensely private, the intensely faithful, and the intensely superstitious are always more human – and indeed humanising – than the coldness and artifice of logic and reason. They’re also a good excuse to visit two picturesque corners of France (Toulon) and Germany (Heidelberg) …