Wednesday, 28 May 2014

Germany, Asparagus and the First World War

Waiting at Tegel airport for a flight back to London, at the end of a 10-day lecture tour that began last week in Essen and ended last night in Berlin, I have a moment or two for reflection.

This is Spargel Zeit, the Asparagus Season, which in Germany is enjoyed with wonderful gusto. In NordRhine-Westphalia they call it Spargel-Fest, and at Münster Haupt Bahnhof (Hbf) I saw a train newly festooned with pictures of green and white asparagus, and proudly calling itself the Spargel- Express. Over the past week I have enjoyed, greatly, asparagus in all its köstlichsten Spargelvariationen: asparagus soup, asparagus quiche, asparagus and strawberry salad, asparagus with schinkenteller plus Hollandaise sauce and boiled potatoes, asparagus accompanying rump steak, and asparagus as a bed for salmon. I have been served asparagus – usually long white, succulent spears laid side by side, plain boiled or parboiled and then sautéed and served with melted butter – in restaurants, in a remote Pomeranian schlosshotel to the accompaniment of the theme music from Dr. Finlay’s Casebook and Desert Island Discs; in gardens, in private homes with kindly hosts, on a lakeside terrace and beneath a grand Baroque balcony where in past years (but no longer) statesmen and others waved at the world.

But this tour has not been all about asparagus. I have been in Germany at the invitation of the Deutsch-Britische Gesellschaft to lecture on aspects of the Great War (“And why is it still called the Great War in England?” I have been asked, often). I have been giving two lectures, the first entitled ‘If Armageddon’s on … British writers responding to the outbreak of the First World War’, and the second, ‘Mixing Memory and Desire: Memorializing the First World War in Germany and Britain’; the first, therefore, focusing on the start of the war, and the second on its aftermath. I have given the first lecture in, successively, Essen, Dusseldorf, Bonn, and Münster; the second in Bielefeld, Schwerin and Berlin. My audiences have been interesting, and interested, German and British, but all Anglophone – aged (I guess) between 16 and 86: students, teachers, art historians, academics, civil servants and senior citizens among them. I have spoken in an 18th century Jägdschloß, a modern conference centre, a porcelain showroom, an adult education college, a beautifully restored cultural centre, the headquarters of an international Law firm and, finally, at the Humboldt University in Berlin.

I have been travelling with my wife throughout the tour, and our hosts have been unfailingly kind and generous with their time. We have seen some remarkable places: not least the World Heritage site Zeche Zollverein, where on our first day in Germany we visited an exhibition (‘1914 – Mitten in Europa) that traced the German response to the War - before, during and after - with a candour that gave me valuable points of reference for my lectures and, especially, for some of the questions and answers that followed.

Here’s an example. In the ‘If Armageddon’s on…’ lecture, I discussed the British insistence that the German invasion of Belgium provided a moral justification for entering the war. I quoted from a much-publicized Declaration in August 1914 signed by fifty-three British writers (including Thomas Hardy, Arthur Conan Doyle, G.K Chesterton, Rudyard Kipling, John Masefield and H.G. Wells) which stated:

The undersigned writers, comprising among them men of the most divergent political and social views, some of them having been for years ardent champions of good-will toward Germany, and many of them extreme advocates of peace, are nevertheless agreed that Great Britain could not without dishonour have refused to take part in the present war…..Great Britain was eventually compelled to take up arms because, together with France, Germany and Austria, she had solemnly pledged herself to maintain the neutrality  of Belgium ….
When Belgium in her dire need appealed to Great Britain to carry out her pledge, that country’s course was clear.

Some among my audiences found this hard to accept: was Belgium really the reason (they asked) or just the pretext, for Britain’s entering the war? One questioner roundly declared that Germany had never signed any treaty promising to respect Belgium’s borders, and denounced the stories about German aggression in Belgium as ‘mere propaganda’. Actually, such a Treaty did exist: the Treaty of London (1839) signed by Prussia. But, somewhat unnerved, in case this treaty had been revoked after German Unification, I consulted an English historian friend who emailed back reassuringly that

in 1913 the German Foreign and War Ministers each separately reassured the Reichstag that the neutrality of Belgium as 'guaranteed by international treaty' would be respected.

And even as I write now, my friend has just sent further evidence that when, on 4th August 1914 (the day Britain joined the war) the German Chancellor Bethmann-Hollweg addressed the Reichstag, he regretted the need to invade Belgium which, he admitted, ‘was a breach of international law’.

As for the ‘mere propaganda’ point, I felt at once on safer ground. One of the interpretation panels at the Zollverein exhibition I had just visited was unambiguous on the subject:

In Germany the many war memorials were initially dedicated to the dead, but later “racially” co-opted through jingoistic heroisation. Until long after 1945 Germans disclaimed their responsibility for the war crimes committed against civilians when invading Belgium and France in 1914.
           (Essen, Zeche Zollverein: ‘1914 – Mitten in Europa’ exhibition)

One of the surprises of my second lecture was the discovery that even the best-known German memorials were unfamiliar to nearly all my audiences. Was I naïve to assume people would know the Magdeburger Ehrenmal, by Ernst Barlach, or the Grieving Parents by Käthe Kollwitz? Evidently yes. But it’s always good to re-think one’s assumptions; and though I have lectured on war memorials before, I have never encountered such thoughtful and thought-provoking questions afterwards. And in any case, to speak of my admiration for Kollwitz and Barlach in Germany to German audiences was a joy, especially since – quite unexpectedly – in Bielefeld’s Kunsthalle, I’d discovered a little-known but prophetic First World War work by Barlach; and in Schwerin’s remarkable Museum I’d encountered a whole gallery of small-scale bronzes by Barlach, including a touching dual portrait: Barlach and Kollwitz, two of the finest and most humane artists of 20th century Europe, together.

Adrian Barlow

[illustrations: The Spargel-Express, photographed  at Münster Station; Ernst Barlach: self portrait with Kathe Kollwitz, in the Schwerin Museum, Mecklenberg-Vorpommern. Photographs copyright the author .

The English Association’s major international conference on ‘British Poetry of the First World War’ Takes place at Wadham College, Oxford, from 5th – 7th September 2014. For full details of the Conference programme, click here.

I have written before about a previous lecture tour to Germany:

Anglo-German (May 2012)

Also about Berlin:


  1. Adrian – What a wonderful time you have had! And how infused with life is your blog as a result.

    I find it surprising that some among your audience asked if “Belgium was really the reason, or just a pretext, for Britain’s entering the war.” Just the pretext? This seems to me to raise the uncomfortable question, “Under what pretext did Germany invade Belgium?” It is certainly true to say that no nation on earth is guilt–free when it comes to the invasion of other countries for purely selfish and utterly unjustifiable reasons. So, If your questioners where disinterested, then that’s fine. Otherwise, the idea that old fires are being kept warm is disturbing to say the least. It seems that folk memory has a terrible tendency to harden into ersatz emotion. We try to justify the past acts of our own country when we cannot even justify all of the acts of our own personal history!

  2. Fascinating as ever, Adrian - much to think about and reflect on, plus lots of vivid detail and new information. Thank you!