Tag Archives: German culture

A Two Minute Introduction to Goethe

This post was written by Isabel Parkinson, who studies German & Philosophy at Worcester College.

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe was born, rather poetically, on a summer’s day in Frankfurt in 1749 just as the church bells were striking noon. In true sensitive-artist style he studied law as a young man and detested it, preferring to attend poetry lectures instead and write Baroque-style verse for his lover. Goethe became a literary celebrity at just twenty-five when he wrote Die Leiden des jungen Werthers – a quite beautiful story that’s not only unchallenging enough to be read for pleasure, but has been so excellently translated that no knowledge of German is required. It’s achingly melancholy and endearingly optimistic in equal measure with a core of reverent, self-sacrificial, and occasionally obsessive love; the young hero Werther is so desperately infatuated with Lotte that he sends his servant to her house when he himself cannot visit, just to have someone in his home who has seen her.

Werther made Goethe an overnight success, and by the 1790s he was collaborating and communicating with the other major player in the German literature scene, Friedrich Schiller. In 1809 Goethe published his third novel, Elective Affinities. It is written in prose, rather than in the epistolary style of Werther and is a similarly excellent story, with not so much a love triangle as a love square or maybe even a pentagon.

Goethe turned his hand to many things – politics, science, prose – and his epic reworking of the classic legend Faust is an example of his dabbling in the closet drama genre. Part One is closely connected to the original famous legend, while Part Two – published in 1832, the year of Goethe’s death – pushes the story and the soul wager to its conclusion. The rich detail and sheer length of Goethe’s Faust may unfairly paint it as an impenetrable work; these misconceptions hide a vividly imagined and often quite humorous tale. It is true that one can make much of the religious, moral, and philosophical questions, but they are balanced with lighter touches such as a shape-shifting poodle and Mephistopheles accompanying Faust on a double date through a garden – and what Oxford student can fail to identify with the dissatisfied academic who trades his soul for knowledge and pleasure?

The Humboldt forum: negotiating Germany’s past and future

This post was written by Dr Richard McClelland, a stipendiary lecturer in German and St Hugh’s and New Colleges. Dr McClelland gives an overview of this year’s Taylor lecture, by Neil MacGregor. You can watch the lecture here.

On Tuesday 13th February 2018 we were thrilled to welcome Neil MacGregor for the annual Taylor lecture. An alumnus of the university, MacGregor is the former head of the British Museum and the instigator of the popular exhibition, radio series and book ‘Germany: Memories of a Nation’. His lecture, ‘The Humboldt Forum: Two Brothers, a Palast and a Schloß’ outlined the background to his current position as Founding Director of the Humbodlt Forum in Berlin. When completed, the Forum will occupy a cluster of buildings and will contain museums, teaching rooms for the nearby Humboldt University and public spaces open to all. The Forum will be located at the eastern end of Berlin’s Unter den Linden, the long imperial boulevard that stretches across Berlin to the Brandenburg Gate. And, as MacGregor states, it has caused quite a stir…

This isn’t, after all, just any building site, but one that is redeveloping what MacGregor describes as ‘the most contested of all of Berlin’s “sites of memory”’: the former site of the Hohenzollern Stadtschloss. Completed in the middle of the 17th century and exuding Baroque opulence, the Schloss was located on the famous Museuminsel. A deliberate choice, this site represented the bringing together of influential strands of public life as a physical embodiment of the Prussian and subsequently Imperial German crown: power in the palace, knowledge in the museums and, thanks to the nearby Berlin Dom, religion.

The Berliner Stadtschloss under construction. Photo by Ziko van Dijk.

Following heavy damage in the Second World War, the authorities of the German Democratic Republic (GDR) decided to tear the palace down. This decision was met with public outcry because it could have been saved; indeed, the similarly damaged museums were spared demolition. But the imperial grandeur did not project the correct image for the newly-founded workers’ state. In its place the authorities constructed the Palast der Republik, a people’s palace that housed the Volkskammer, the parliament of the GDR, and recreational facilities including a bowling alley. In 1990 it even became the home of the first democratically elected parliament in East Germany. Following Unification, however, it was left empty, the decaying shell an uneasy reminder of the communist past right in the heart of Germany’s new capital. In a decision that echoes the one taken some fifty years earlier, authorities demolished the building in 2008 because it contained asbestos. Or so runs the official line; again, the building didn’t project the right image for the new Republic.

Neil MacGregor gives the Taylor lecture, February 2018. Photo by Henrike Laehnemann.

In developing the Forum, then, MacGregor and the other directors must negotiate the legacy of imperial Germany, and the legacy and memory of the GDR – and address the questions, debates and often visceral reactions that each legacy provokes. The Forum, then, is an engagement with multiple strands of Germany’s history. Furthermore, it also embodies a very public debate on the legacy and impact of the nation’s past. It raises questions of how Germany remembers its past, and what this mean for the future image of Germany being projected globally. And, as MacGregor said, it also represents a very different narrative of the past than typically addressed in Britain.

A tour of Salzburg’s Christkindlmarkt

This post was written by Martha MacLaren, a fourth-year German and History student at Somerville College.

Walking down Broad Street at the weekend, I was hit by the familiar smell of German sausages and mulled wine, and the hubbub of the Oxford Christmas market brought back memories from my year abroad. In Salzburg, a beautiful cathedral city on the edge of the Alps, I lived right on the central square where the Christkindlmarkt was held every year – that smell wafted through my window whenever I dared to open it to the below-freezing temperatures in frosty December!
Christkindlmarkt is the Austrian equivalent of the German Weihnachtsmarkt. The latter translates as Christmas market, but the Austrian reflects the tradition of the Christ Child who visits children with presents on 6th December. Christ means Christ, and Kindl is the diminutive of Kind (child) – so ‘little-Christ-child market’. In Austria, an “l” is often used instead of a German “chen” – “Mädel” instead of “Mädchen”, for example. You can see why it’s easier to yodel in Austrian German!


Sausages such as Bratwurst and Käsewurst (sausage with cheese inside – delicious) were sold for about half of the £6 you’d pay for them here – and not in a hot dog bun, but with a Semmel, a bread roll. They’d probably be served with Sauerkraut und Senf (pickled cabbage and mustard), which is as disgusting as it sounds! Glühwein (mulled wine) was a favourite, and you needed it to warm your hands, especially after ice skating on the outdoor rink on Mozartplatz. Kaiserschmarrn, thick and fluffy torn up pancakes, were cooked on a griddle and served with Apfelmus (apple sauce) or Zwetschkenröster (stewed plums). There’s another word – Zwetschke – that’s different from the German (Pflaume).
Beautiful decorations, organic chocolate and fancy soaps abounded, alongside the classic Mozart-themed touristy gifts. Salzburg is very proud of its most famous cultural export! The tasteful lights and Christmas tree topped off the scene, with the cathedral and fortress forming the backdrop. I can’t wait to go back, but this year I’ll content myself with Oxford’s buzzing market as term comes to an end.