Germany - Within The Shadow Of The Past
( Originally Published 1887 )
EMERSON says, " Let the passion for America cast out the passion for Europe" ; yet nothing is stronger to create the passion for America than a touch of the passion for Europe. Old in wickedness is the Old World, and only in a land where there is a higher moral life and individual freedom is there a possibility of that for which Emerson, in the same paragraph, cries, " Here let there be what the world waits for exalted manhood ! "
Our country is so new, we have grown up in the surroundings of a Present, and we are unaccustomed to the presence of a Past around and about us everywhere. We feel this Past keenly in the Old World.. One seems to live in the shadow of the great past, and at times this shadow is more real than the reality itself, which passes before one as a mockery or play. We have just had this experience, in its most exaggerated vividness, in the celebration of a marriage in an old church.
A marriage, — the very height of life, — and everywhere the presence of death ! There stand the wedding guests, there the bridal pair ; but within the old pile are the countless tombs, while from the walls the dead look down upon the scene, and the place seems filled with the rustling spirits of the ages. It may be that these spirits are murmuring against the hollowness and mockery of these ceremonies, once full of solemn, holy sanctity. For marriage in Germany is no longer an institution of the Church ; it is a civil form, and belongs to the State. Formerly, marriages were made in heaven, now they are made in the Standes Amt — has become a proverbial saying in Germany. The Church has no power to unite a couple in marriage ; the State alone has this authority. This is one of the results of the union of Church and State. So, the seal of the Church and religion does not rest upon the newly married pair, and when marriage is thus removed from its " divine order," the bought and sold marriages, so common, seem naturally a part of the business system, and not a most horrible profanity.
In higher circles, and among Christian people, the religious ceremony is frequently added to the civil contract. Yet this previous civil marriage robs the hour of its deepest significance. The long, tedious exercise, added to the fact that it is only a form and of no power, that the couple are already married, — all brings into sharp contrast the beauty, simplicity, solemnity of the American marriage. The American bride, at the German altar, must feel this with shuddering. It would not be surprising if, even at the altar, they would shrink and falter, — for there is more death than happy life in it to a sensitive soul. Gloom and sadness filled our hearts as we accepted the invitation of one of the American girls to witness her marriage in the old land. It may be because she was one of our number, because the bridegroom was a foreigner, and that home and country were thus given up, that the hour was so sombre and dark, and every feeling of foreboding intensified.
" Merry as a marriage bell ! " Ah, that has meaning in America not here ! Even on an American girl's wedding-day, the leaden skies of Berlin refused to dispel the gray clouds, and show the long hidden blue we love so well. We sigh for our American friend, as we roll through the slippery streets, in a one horse droschke, to the antique church. It has been raining, and the asphalt is slippery ; and, as usual, the horse has several falls, but he is whipped up and onward. We pass castles and palaces ; the old, dismal Hohenzollern Castle, where the early, cruel, barbaric founders of the line lived and tyrannized. How can this royalty be so blindly worshipped by a subject people ? While there is something grand in a long line of kings, still it is a survival of " might makes right " ; and the dark record of kings, showing the lack of true nobility of character, rouses horror in the soul of a republican, and indignation that such a rule is tolerated. Where is its right to exist ?
We rattle through the narrow streets, down Heilige Geist Strasse (Holy Ghost Street), past the old home of Moses Mendelssohn, the philosopher, Lessing's ideal for his Nathan the Wise, when, suddenly, a horrible head, obtruding from a house-front, startles us. It is the head of a woman!— how repulsive ! Serpents are curling about her forehead, neck, and mouth ; a lolling tongue ; hideous features ; obtruding, vicious eyes ; a ghastly, scrawny neck ! Ugh!— we shudder! Cold chills pass over us. The story is that a woman who lived in this house was such a dreadful scold, virago, and gossip that Frederick II. had this head put here as a warning. It has been here over a century. It is horrid !— an insult to womanhood ! What woman can see it without this feeling ?
Here is the church Marien Kirche. It is the oldest in Berlin, dating from the twelfth century, ages before America's star was seen glimmering in the darkness. Its great Gothic towers — of a later date — reach far into the misty darkness of the upper air ; and from the phantom turrets the deep, hollow sounds of the bell mutter, a vision and a voice from the Dark Ages. Over cobble stones, through byways, behind a mass of buildings, we find our way to the entrance.
As you enter here, you enter the Middle Ages.
At the door, outside, is a rude stone cross. It marks the spot where one or more of the priests were murdered in those bloody days of combat, and in. that open Market Square many were burned. These old churches are old battle-grounds, where storm and terror were no strangers. The hall vestibule is chilling; it turns warm blood almost into ice in one's very veins. At once, you encounter on the walls the frightful painting, the "Todten Tanz" (the "Dance of Death "). It is a mediaeval painting, and so has no beauty of form or color to relieve the ghastliness of the subject ; neither is it on canvas, or wood, or metal, nor has it a frame or border to relieve it, — but there it is, painted at once upon the rough walls, around the hall and up the crooked stair-way. There is a long procession., —young and old, the bride, nun, soldier, king, and with each the fearful spectre. It was painted here in the fifteenth century, just after a pest had raged in Berlin, — its object to show that death comes to all, —high or low, young or old. Ugh !— what a grim people lived then ! — We turn from it, but these grim old people have left their spirit on all sides, and opposite to this are great stone figures cut in the wall, — figures in robes, weapon in hand, long, evenly curled hair and a. death's-head at their feet, grinning in chilling glee and freezing mockery. Another door is opened, and, within, a blazing fire strives in vain to impart warmth and cheer : it is too weak against the death-chill of ages. An unholy odor prevails. Pass down the long, dim aisles, now seeming to be peopled with the ghosts of the past. The monks, as of yore, seem to file down the dark passages, chanting, while the veiled nuns mingle their Ave Marias, and the air gives back in whispers the gentle echoes.
The bride must walk through this. We hope she has no sensitive imagination to see and feel all that rests its heavy weight upon our souls. At the remote end of the vast interior is a gleam. The candles at the altar are lighted. The dark lengths of gloom fade, and the eager expectation of the expectant people, here gathered, imparts life. The Germans are used to these places, and know no such thoughts : yet to us the demonstrative company, crowding here, jumping on benches to catch a good view, jostling, laughing, scolding, — all this seems less real than the great company of the dead, calling out to us from the tombs, "Omnia est vanitas." The wedding guests, in rich array, take their seats within the altar railing. The organ, from its distant heights, wafts a few faint chords. The preacher enters, then the bride and groom, four little children are attendants, and sixteen young ladies are bridesmaids. The bride wears the conventional white and a myrtle-wreath, the others are in all the loveliest tints and shades of beautiful colors. It is a beautiful procession, and forms a lovely tableau as they arrange them selves within the sacred place. They all stand, and the service begins. It is a long ceremony, and they must stand the entire time. A hymn is sung, — that is, three long verses are doled out ; now and then, a few stray words or notes are heard. It seems more like a funeral. Then follows a sermon of twenty minutes. It is cold : the bare arms and necks of the bridemaids have become pink, the bride sneezes, the groom shifts his footing, while the old knights frown from their lofty heights on the walls, the coats of mail rattle on their hooks, the many death's heads assume a more ghastly grin, — ah, it is enough to turn a bride into a raving maniac !
Where is the beauty and solemnity of our simple service? Even the soul of this tedious ceremony is removed, when you remember that it has no legal power, no weight, — that this couple was already made man and wife the previous day ! The long sermon finally ends, and the only poetical feature of all is the beautiful quartette " Heilig, heilig," that follows. Would that they could have been dismissed with the peaceful benediction, " holy, holy" ; but another long hymn by the scattered voices breaks its sacred spell. We ask the German Frau why they do not change the service, have it shorter, or allow the people to sit down, or She quickly interrupts: " Change ! Why, we have a l w a y s had it so ! " and her horrified expression plainly foretells that they always will have it so.
The crowd rushes out to see the end, with a total irreverence of the past. It is nothing to them an old story. To us it is a wonderful Old Past. We linger to read, or attempt to read, the old German inscriptions on tablets and stones. There are very many the sexton cannot tell how many. The pictures are memorials, too, and the walls are completely covered with them. The groups in stone are parting scenes, the paintings are weeping circles, and the death's-head is everywhere. Europe is rich in such old treasures ; but it is a wealth that begets poverty. It is a wealth that stands in the way of progress, spiritual growth, and independent, ideal life.
The weight of the past rested for several days upon the too sensitive imagination, when the oppressive feeling and the gloom of spirit were most happily dissipated by an experience that was a supplement to this American-German wedding, to reveal to us that these forebodings are morbid and superficial, and that real happiness may follow. Fortunately, just at this time, we had the opportunity to look into a home founded on such a marriage ; so that within the one week we viewed the two pictures, "The Wedding Day," and "Five Years After," and all the gloom and foreboding we found in the first is changed into sunshine and happiness in the second.
Through Professor S. and his wife, we were invited to take tea at Professor I.'s, in the Joachim Valley, a suburb of Berlin. Fie is Professor in the Joachim Gymnasium, and the Professor's houses are grouped about the institution. Professor I.'s wife is an American, from my own city. She came over here to study music, and met the Professor ; but she felt she could not give up her home and country for him, and so returned to America. But "many waters can-not quench love," and she crossed. the Atlantic again to become his wife. They have a lovely home, the most tasteful I have seen in Germany. I was eager to see Mrs. I., not only because she was an American, and had been one of the " home girls," but she is the translator of " German Love," by Max Müller. I felt that the person who would be impelled to translate a book of that kind must have a lovely nature, and I was not disappointed. The Professor is very proud of his American wife, and you can see the difference between her and the German wives, and the Professor knows how to cherish the relation. Mrs. I.'s parents and sisters have visited her, yet she finds the separation hard.
She told us a charming little episode connected with this home. In one room there is a marble tablet on the wall, with the inscription stating that in this room the Kaiser had stood, and the date. It happened in this way. When Joachim Gymnasium was dedicated, the Emperor was present, and, after visiting the school, he ex-pressed the desire to visit one of the professors' houses. Professor I.'s was chosen, we will say because it was arranged the prettiest by his American wife, with American taste. While the Emperor was in the salon, he heard ladies' voices in another room, and asked the Professor if that was his wife, and asked to be presented. Mrs. I. and the Emperor thus met, and she presented her sister, just from America. The American sister could not manage the "Ihre Majestät " and all the reverences and homage in her speech to the Emperor, so the Professor apologized for her, explaining her difficulty and ignorance as a foreigner. This led to inquiry as to the marriage, and the Emperor was highly interested in the story of their love and marriage. At the close, His Majesty turned to Mrs. I., saying, "So he chained you fast, then?" (fest gefesselt). "O, no," broke in the gallant Professor ; she has chained me fast !" They are very proud of the incident, and it is a worthy pride.
The Professor is the author of several scholarly works, and is a brilliant conversationalist. He was amazed to know that I was studying Latin, and at what I had read ; but refused to believe that Latin could be serious in a woman, only "a higher kind of intellectual amusement." He always asks his American visitors what they find most frappante in Germany, and keeps a list of the answers. Just then the most striking thing that occurred to me was the peculiar ideas that are held about our English. My Professor had accosted me that morning, in this way : "That American language is very odd. I have just been looking over a book by Mr. Artemas Ward. The spelling seems more philosophical than that of the English, but it is a droll book." Actually, the Professor thought this book was a pure specimen of the American language. They fail to understand our humorists, and think the writing serious, the language odd. Professor I. says every American tells him something different. He seems to like Americans, but he has proved that beyond his words. We spent a happy evening, and some of our prejudices about the foreign marriages were removed.
However, I have had a finer and nearer touch of royal blood than only to have stood in the room where His Royal Majesty once entered — I have been in the presence of royalty itself !—We have a new interest in the lectures on Neurste Geschichte, in the presence of a new auditor, Princess Wilhelm, wife of Prince Wilhelm, oldest son of the Crown Prince, who, after the next reign, will rule as Empress, if Germany continues to remain an Empire that long, which the Socialists refuse to believe. One day when I entered the lecture-room, I went as usual to a seat directly in front of the desk, as I must watch Professor Breslau very carefully in order to understand his rapid speech. This day a lady leaned over in greatest excitement and distress, saying, "That seat is for the Frau Princessin," and I quickly vacated. With my usual absentmindedness, I had not noticed that this was a special arm-chair, covered with a robe, and a rug placed for the feet, and I had taken possession of these royal comforts to the horror of the loyal German ladies ! The Princess is fair, young, slender, quite girlish, although she has several children, and dresses very plainly in dark woollen garments. A gentleman Kammerherr and a lady always accompany her. The audience rises as she enters, — she bows ; the same performance marks her departure. It is rather opposed to our democratic ideas, but we feel constrained to con-form to the custom. Somehow, this fair young Schlesien appeals to one's sympathies. I fear my eyes wander from the lecturer's severe features to her delicate, sensitive face. She listens care-fully, and takes notes, as nearly all of the ladies do. Even at church, the people take notes.
The presence of royalty in a country is very entertaining, not only to us, but to the people themselves, and probably that is one reason they cling to it, — they like to be amused, and think no farther. We have had a grand day here again, a celebration that makes pale all our Fourth of July glory. It is amazing how these Germans —such a slow, steady-going folk -- just plunge into the wildest excitement, whenever opportunity is given. This occasion was the Emperor's Birthday, —March 22, — nearly ninety years old, yet hale, hearty, and ruling well ! In the morning, the congratulations were received from family, army, court, embassy, — a repetition of New Year's day, with more glory, if possible. We again took our place under the Alter Fritz statue, which on this day is decorated with vines, plants, and flowers. We watched for the Princess Wilhelm, of our history class, and saw her and the baby in the glass equipage, dressed in blue, to correspond with the turnout. There was the shouting and throwing of hats, and Bismarck called, but in a close coupé, and we could not see him. In the evening there was excitement beyond control. The streets were ablaze : every window twinkled with candles or gas jets in artistic designs, or in colored lights. The palaces glittered in dazzling radiance — eagles, crowns, mottoes, letters, numbers, arches, like a fairy scene. We were in terrible crowds, but ran and screamed like the rest. All the fine equipages were out again taking the guests to the grand ball at the Old Castle, in the Weisse Saal, with its hundreds and thousands of twinkling tapers. The crowd presses right up to the carriages to look at the ladies in their ball costumes, — lovely in shining satins and flowers, and brilliant in jewels and laces. What a scene in the Weisse Saal the heart of that gloomy castle ! The mad crowd pushes and yells, and we, under the maddening influence, form a line with linked hands, to keep together, and run and scream as the rest. With vulgar curiosity, we watch the high dames trip into the castle. Then we went to the Hof-Conditorei, and had a German treat —a round chocolate horn filled with whipped cream. We were out until midnight, and even then the frenzy had not abated. Each year the celebration is more elaborate, as the Emperor is so old they always fear it will be the last birth-day, and so they desire to make it worthy.