• Meirion Harries

DAY SIXTEEN Once Into The Forest


As we sat down to table in the very pleasant Wirtshaus an der Lohmühle in Goslar, the Race Marshal remarked on the prevalence of trees in the countryside. Not surprising, given that 33% of Germany is covered by woodland and forest. (The figure is 11.76% for the UK). So, as we tucked into our Munich Weisswurst, we ruminated on the importance of trees and forests in German culture. The forest in German culture is multilayered – mysterious, evil, romantic, sacred and heroic. And its roots, as it were, in the culture go back to the high days of the Roman Empire. Tacitus describes a religious rite in Germania: 'At a set time all the peoples of this blood gather … in a wood hallowed by the auguries of their ancestors and the awe of ages. The sacrifice in public of a human victim marks the grisly opening of their savage ritual. In another way, too, reverence is paid to the grove. No one may enter it unless he is bound with a cord. By this he acknowledges his own inferiority and the power of the deity... All this complex of superstition reflects the belief that in that grove the nation had its birth'.... (c.Penguin Classics: trans H Mattingly) Tacitus then generalises about the physical characteristics of the German male: 'blue eyes, reddish hair and huge frames that excel only in violent effort' - and from this combination of genes and the deep forest, one of the great German heroes, Hermann, emerged. At least, he only emerged when Roman texts were being rediscovered in the fifteenth century. Then came to light details of a victory in the Teutoberg Forest, some 80km to the west of Goslar, where three Roman legions were lured into the forest and destroyed by Hermann, a German chief who had taken Roman citizenship (with the name Arminius) and served as an auxiliary in the Roman army. Tacitus records an eye witness account of the aftermath of the battle: “a half-ruined breastwork and shallow ditch showed where the last pathetic remnant had gathered. On the open ground were whitening bones, scattered where men had fled, heaped up where they had stood and fought. Fragments of spears and of horses' limbs lay there – also human heads fastened to tree trunks. In groves nearby were the outlandish altars at which the Germans had massacred the Roman commanders”. Heine once said that pantheism was the “open secret” of philosophy and religion in Germany. And these days, as we will see tomorrow, it is perhaps returning. By the 19th century, Hermann was being celebrated for having prevented Roman expansion into northern Europe. Handel wrote an opera about him (Arminio) and Max Bruch, an oratorio (Arminius). Germans emigrating to America named towns after him: in 2009, the town of Hermann, Missouri erected a statue to mark the 2,000th anniversary of his victory. (The town holds an Octoberfest and is the sausage-making capital of Missouri. It was also home to the murderer Richard Honeck, who, when he was paroled after serving 64 years of his sentence, got the record for the longest prison sentence ending in release.). The Hermann myth fed the growing patriotism stirred by the emerging national identity after the Napoleonic Wars: an identity that contrasted Germanic purity of nature, represented by the forest, with the urban-centred French. Or as Herder put it, “"spew out the ugly slime of the Seine. Speak German, O You German". And these fires were in turn fanned by the tastes of Romanticism – composers, writers, poets and artists looking to the forests for inspiration. Weber's Der Freischutz (the opera, incidentally, in which Jenny Lind made her debut) tells the story of foresters and huntsmen who occupy a space that is both demonic and sacred. In the medieval epic, The Song of Nibelungs, Siegfried is murdered by Hagen in the forest – a story taken up by Wagner at Bayreuth in 1876. Clara Schumann wrote to Brahms after the first performance of Symphony No 3: 'one is surrounded from beginning to end by the secret magic of the life of the forest'. And there are innumerable songs of the woods and forest: Schumann's Der Nussbaum, Waldesgespräch from Liederkreis (both sung by Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau below); Schubert's Der Lindenbaum from Winterreise (sung by Ian Bostridge below).

August Heinrich At the Edge of the Forest (c) Metropolitan Museum of Art Artists found inspiration in the forests. August Heinrich, Ludwig Richter, Philipp Otto Runge and, of course, Caspar David Friedrich, who used his works to give substance to Germany’s growing sense of nationality. He and the poets Heinrich Kleist and Clemens Brentano were known as the “friends of the Fatherland”.

Friedrich Uttewalder Grund

“At the edge of a large forest there lived a poor woodcutter with his wife and two children. ...”. In Hansel and Gretel, the forest is a major character, as it is in other folk tales collected by the Grimm brothers. And we must not forget Goethe, who was also, as it happens, a botanist – his poem Found: Once into the forest I went alone; To seek nothing …. Easy then for the Nazis to harness this inherited sentiment and new sentiments such as that of the Wandervogel movement: youth groups who, since the turn of the twentieth century, had been expressing their distaste for industrialisation by returning to the wilderness to wander like scholars and craftsmen of medieval times. A famous example of the German people-forest nexus is the Nazi-film Ewiger Wald (Enchanted Forest, 1936), with its voice over: “Eternal forest. Eternal people. The tree lives, as do you and I. And it strives for space, as do you and I...” as the film shades from rows of trees into rows of soldiers. In his 1960 book, Masse und Macht, Nobel winner Elias Canetti wrote: “The crowd symbol of the German was the army. But the army was more than the army: it was a marching forest. In no other modern country has the feeling for the forest remained so alive as in Germany. The rigidity and the parallelity of standing trees, their density and number, fills the German heart with a deep and mysterious joy.” Tomorrow follows the treeline from 1960 through to a sculptor greater than Donatello. But now it's time to look at the pudding menu. Here is Dietrich Fischer Dieskau singing Der Nussbaum - And here he is singing Waldersparch - If you think Fischer Dieskau's voice is deeper here, it may be because he had just smoked a strong cigarette. He learned the habit whilst a prisoner of the Russians and used cigarettes to help him push his voice down for certain repertoire. Ian Bostridge singing Der Lindenbaum - Here is film of Handel's Arminio -