Leipzig is an exceptionally beautiful city, one that never fails to delight me. It has the cozy prettiness of Gohlis, the effortless elegance of the Waldstraßenviertel, the bustling but pleasantly non-hectic center city and a wealth of marvellous cafés and restaurants. In addition the people are of a hearty cordiality. If you haven’t been to Leipzig yet, go there.
Leipzig also is steeped in history. If you want to understand German culture on a deeper level, this is the place to go. (In case you stop reading here because you’re not interested in history: go to Leipzig anyway! It has much more to offer than history.) It has one of the oldest trade fairs of the world, the second-oldest university in Germany, it was where the world’s first daily newspaper was published in 1660, and where one of Europe’s first opera houses was opened in 1693. It has been the home to some of Germany’s most impressive artists, such as Goethe, Bach, Mendelssohn Bartholdy or Schiller. It was also the location of one of the main driving forces of the Wende, the fall of the border between East and West Germany.
Here is an overview of some of the most important events (in my subjective opinion).
Goethe doesn’t do much studying (1765 – 1768)
In 1765, 16-year-old Goethe arrives in Leipzig to study Law. It isn’t his decision, he wanted to study Ancient History and Poetry, but his father insisted on young Johann Wolfgang studying something sensible. Goethe has no choice if he wants to enjoy the generous financial support his father can provide, but secretely he vows to use his time in Leipzig for his own interests. Goethe is both amazed and a bit overawed by this bustling modern city. In fact, he has a bit of a culture shock, not only because of his sudden jump into such a different atmosphere (his hometown Frankfurt at the time was still rather medieval) but also because of the different dialect. In his memoirs, he writes that he feels paralysed inside, doesn’t know how to express the simplest things. He quickly overcomes the initial culture shock and enjoys life to the fullest. In the beginning, he even shows up at university once in a while and appreciatively writes that Leipzig is so sophisticated and refined that this behaviour even influences the students. He considers this remarkable because apparently in nearby Jena and Halle, students were rough and discourteous. (I can’t speak for Halle, but in Jena students are behaving well these days. I know because I used to be one of them).
Goethe doesn’t stress himself with his studies. After acquiring fashionable clothes (he wasn’t quite dressed up to date upon his arrival) he makes many friends, visits poetry lectures and writes poems. In front of the Old Stock Exchange you can see the Goethe statue that was unveiled in 1903. His face is turned towards the university, but his right foot speaks a different language, it points to Auerbachs Keller, a wine bar (today a restaurant), where Goethe liked to hang out.
The avid Faust-readers amongst you will recognize Auerbachs Keller as the location where Mephisto takes Faust to have some good old-fashioned drunken fun. It is the only location in Faust that exists in reality and a place that has been in business at least for 500 years (now that’s what I call a successful business!). It has wall paintings depicting the old Faust legend (the story has actually been around since the 16th century). Goethe sees those paintings and there you go – he’s inspired to write his most famous piece. The two scenes shown in the paintings (Faust drinking with the students and then, true to form, riding out of the wine bar on a wine barrel) are in Goethe’s Faust. You can still see the paintings in Auerbachs Keller. You have to take a tour, though, but it’s worth it. It also leads to the historic Faßkeller (barrel cellar) from 1525, which is tiny, with a barrel-shaped ceiling, historic wall paintings, an authentic old wine barrel and a big witch’s ride sculpture hanging from the ceiling. The main restaurant is – at first glance – rather bland, but check out the walls which are covered with painting showing events from Leipzig’s history.
Outside of Auerbachs Keller, you’ll find a statue of Faust and Mephisto. Again, it pays to look at a foot, this time at Faust’s left foot. You can see that the tip is much brighter than the rest of the statue. Touching the foot is meant to bring luck. I was even told that touching the foot means you’ll be back to Leipzig and so I never fail to do that.
In addition to the partying and the poetry, young Goethe starts his life-long tradition of quickly falling in love. There are two girls he fancies in Leipzig: Kätchen Schönkopf and Friederike Oser, who both become the topic of numerous poems. However, all these extracurricular activites are too exhausting for Goethe. He has a total breakdown in 1768, is near death, and hurries home to Frankfurt for a one-year-recuperation. He will return to Leipzig several times, but only for visits.
Schiller does a lot of writing, 1785
Fast-forward to 1785 and another famous writer sets his foot on Leipzig soil. Though, technically, it wasn’t Leipzig in those days, but an own village – Gohlis, today a largely residential district and home of the Gohlis castle (today a restaurant, where my friend Susanne and I were once greeted by a heated argument in the kitchen and then completely ignored when we wanted to order some coffee and cake. Still, the castle is pretty).
Schiller doesn’t come to Gohlis for coffee and cake. He isn’t doing well – he has no job, no money and is in bad health, as he unfortunately will be for most of his life. A deep depression clouds his mind, he doesn’t want to live anymore. A friend invites him to Leipzig. The joy and gratefulness Schiller feels and expresses about this are touching. He is already well-known as a writer and has quite a lot of fans in Leipzig, who take good care of him and envelop him in a busy social life. After some time in Leipzig, Schiller moves to Gohlis, then a village of 450 inhabitants. There, he lives in two tiny rooms in a farm house and enjoys the peaceful, rural atmosphere and the many new friends around him. Still, Schiller isn’t lazy, he writes much in those months, such as Act 2 of “Don Carlos” and the first draft of his famous “Ode to Joy”.
The house where he lived has been a museum since the middle of the 19th century. It is not only the oldest literary memorial in Germany, but the oldest remaining farm house of the Leipzig area. It’s tiny, sparsely furnished, and gives a vivid impression of the modest circumstances Schiller lived in. One room shows a model of Gohlis, as it looked in Schiller’s day, the Schiller room has a bust of the famous writer.
There are also events taking place at the house. In fact, we were passing there one night, when a man in 18th century clothing more of less jumped in front of us, held a tray in front of our faces and asked: “Fish roll?” (I don’t think that happens in front of many literary monuments). He then told us about an event taking place. Still, even without an event, the small house is worth a visit. Don’t expect an elaborate museum, but a nice glimpse at Schiller’s refuge for one summer.
Napoleon gets a good beating, 1813
In 1813, Napoleon is considered quite a pain in most of Europe, which is because he conquered most of it. Still, he’s already on his way down. 1812 already wasn’t quite his year. Conquering Russia wasn’t quite as easy as he thought, and even though he ruthlessly sacrificed most of his soldiers, the Russian winter and the Russian army eventually kicked him out of the country.
Prussia, Austria and several other German kingdoms and duchies kept a careful eye on the events in Russia and probably opened one of two bottles of champagne when they heard the news. Some of them were allies of Napoleon, either because they had no choice or because they gained advantages.
Now, they all see the chance to send the annoying litte man back to France once and for all. Prussia tells Napoleon where he can put his bicorn hat, and signs a treaty of alliance with Russia. England, Sweden and Austria follow. Napoleon knew that he wasn’t exactly flavour of the month (or the decade), but so far nobody had been able to confront him. Now, he is facing a rather powerful coalition. He still has some German countries on his sides, amongst them Saxonia, which now becomes the location for the battles between Napoleon and his enemies. The summer of 1813 isn’t much fun for Napoleon, whose troops get beaten several times.
In October, the big showdown happens in Leipzig. The so-called Völkerschlacht (battle of the nations) takes place from October 16 – 19, and the battle wages all around the city and the surrounding villages. It’s brutal and bloody. Never before have so many soldiers (almost 550,000) fought in a single battle. Napoleon is outnumbered, and then his ally Saxonia decides that it would be better off without him, and switches sides. The battle is decided on October 18. Eventually, in the early morning of October 19, Napoleon retreats, which proves difficult because he didn’t prepare his retreat, not even having considered the possibility of him losing the battle (you can accuse him of several things, but definitely not of having no self-confidence).
The Völkerschlacht ends Napoleon’s rule over Germany. Two years later, the battle of Waterloo ends his plans altogether. October 18, the deciding day of the Völkerschlacht, becomes a day of celebrations for many years. Small memorials all over Leipzig are reminders of the battle’s different locations. On October 18, 1913, one-hundred years after the Völkerschlacht, the Völkerschlachtdenkmal (Völkerschlacht memorial) is opened to the public by Emperor Wilhelm II and the Saxonian King Friedrich August III.
It’s worth visiting, not just as a reminder of the battle, but also as an example of the monumental architecture of the last Imperial years of Germany. The monument is 91 meters high and consists mainly of concrete. It looks imposing, even a bit intimidating. In front of it is a water basin – a symbol for the tears shed for the many victims of the battle.
It is guarded by a statue of archangel Michael, the patron of German soldiers, who is depicted martially.
The inside has three levels. First, the crypt. A bronze memorial stone on the ground serves as a symbolic grave for those who lost their lives in the battle. It is surrounded by stone soldiers guarding it, the soldiers stand in front of mourning faces.
Above the crypt, there is a gallery, the so-called Ruhmeshalle (pantheon). Four statues, each nearly 10 meters high, depict the virtues of the German people in the fight against Napoleon – courage, faith, fertility and willingness to make sacrifices).
Outside, on the top, 10 giant statues guard the monument, symbolizing attention and readiness to defend.
Apart from the powerful symbolism, the monument provides great views over Leipzig and the surrounding area. A lift (or many, many, many stairs) takes one up to two higher levels – one inside and one outside. The top can only be reached by stairs, in total, the narrow circular staircases provide 500 stairs. And no, I haven’t climbed them all. High heels and low condition are not the best combination for that.
The people fight for freedom, 1989
Some time ago, I stood at a window and looked down at the Nikolaikirche and the Nikolaiplatz (Nikolai church and Nikolai square). It was a quiet evening, the end of a warm and sunny day. The Nikolaisquare was nearly empty, just some people sauntered by, on their way home. I tried to imagine what the square had looked and sounded like in those exciting weeks of October 1989, when the demonstrations in Leipzig and other East German cities lead to the opening of the border between West and East Germany. There aren’t many photos or even movie clips of those demonstrations – the government wasn’t in favour of anybody documenting what happened there.
How did it all start? In 1982, weekly Friedensgebete (praying for peace) are initiated in the Leipzig Nikolaikirche. They are not only an occasion to pray for peace in times of nuclear armament, but also provide a somewhat secure environment for discussions and the exchange of opinions – something not widely availabe in East Germany. Needless to say that the government isn’t all that delighted about these Friedensgebete. The responsible priest is interrogated regularly, even though not many people attend the Friedensgebete during the first years. Access to the Nikolaikirche is made more difficult by police barriers as early as 1984. The Stasi, the East German Secret Police, attends the gatherings in church, and going to the Friedensgebete therefore isn’t just one’s regular visit to church – it has the potential to get one in trouble. Nevertheless, people go. More and more. By the end of 1988, when East German people start to voice their unhappiness more openly, attendance at the Friedensgebete rises remarkably. After the prayers, many people gather on the adjoining Nikolai Square to continue their discussions. Throughout the spring of 1989, the gatherings sometimes turn into peaceful demonstrations of 300 – 500 people.
By September, more than 1,000 people attend the Friedensgebete. The church is bursting with people. The government is increasingly nervous and reacts with arrests and barriers. The number of people attending the Friedensgebete and ensuing Monday Demonstrations (by September they are a regular event in Leipzig and many other East German cities) rises to 5,000 in Leipzig. By October 2 – 20,000 people. The state reacts with horrible violence and at that time there’s no saying what would happen next. The Tiananmen Square Massacre in China from June 1989 is still vividly on everybody’s mind. Would something similar happen in Leipzig or the other East German cities?
In West Germany, the demonstrations at first weren’t covered in much detail, but by September they made news headlines every day. We also wondered how the East German government would react – it was a bit like a gripping series with a daily cliffhanger.
On Monday, October 9, 1989, police, army and hospitals are ready. Train connections to Leipzig are made difficult, there’s tension in the air. Still, 70,000 people gather in and around Nikolai Square. An appeal for non-violence is read out in the Nikolai church. The miracle happens – for the first time, the demonstration takes place without any violence. Apparently, the government is simply overwhelmed and surprised by the amazing amount of people who came to attend. Police and army are told to retreat. The people broke the power of the state. It’s the miracle of Leipzig.
Erich Honecker resigns on October 18, 1989. October 18 sounds familiar to you? Yes, just look at the Völkerschlacht entry again…
From now on, attendance at the weekly demonstrations rises continually, up to 400,000 people are demonstrating in Leipzig on November 6 – the last demonstration before the opening of the border.
The Nikolaikirche has a small exhibition about the 1989 events in an ante room. The church itself is breathtakingly beautiful – bright, with a charming colour scheme of light green and light pink. Nikolai Square is graced by a column just like the ones in the church – a momument to the peaceful demonstrations. That’s more or less all – there are no showy momuments for the 1989 events in Leipzig. Still, there are many reminders, such as a 100 x 30 m wall painting showing the October 9 demonstrations and further events. The Runde Ecke (“round corner”), the former headquarters of the Stasi, now houses a museum showing how frighteningly thorough the Stasi was in spying on the citizens.
So, on a single day, you can walk in Goethe’s footsteps, see where Schiller worked, remember the victory over Napoleon and remember how the people of Leipzig and other East German cities courageously stood up for the rights. So – go to Leipzig. It’s worth it.