Dr. Natalia Nowakowska is a Tutor & Lecturer in Early Modern History at Somerville College, University of Oxford.

Thursday, 22 May 2014

Memory Castle?

Haut-Koenigsbourg, Alsace
Photo by Francisco Antunes
Before the challenges of an Oxford Trinity term started, I spent a week in Alsace, one of Europe’s great borderlands. Alsace occupies a plain between the Vosges and Black Forest mountains, full of vineyards, medieval villages and ruined castles. Perhaps the most famous of the Alsatian castles is Haut-Koenigsbourg, which makes for a rather unsettling visit, raising questions about memory, identity and heritage.

On a windswept hill above the Alsace plain, Haut-Koenigsbourg was first built in 1147 by the Hohenstaufen of the Holy Roman Empire. Its fortifications were extended in the fifteenth century, by the various disreputable families to whom the Holy Roman Emperors leased the castle. Attacked by the Swedes during the Thirty Years War, the castle was badly damaged and abandoned in 1633, becoming just another Alsatian hilltop ruin.

Kaiser Wilhelm II, castle enthusiast
All this changed with the annexation of Alsace by a newly unified Germany in 1871, part of the price France paid for its defeat in the Franco-Prussian war. Presented as a gift to Kaiser Wilhelm II, from 1900 to 1906 Hochkoenigsburg became the subject of one of the most ambitious restoration projects of the long nineteenth century, as an army of artisans, architects and engineers descended on the castle. The rebuilt fortress was to function as a celebration, and proclamation, of German imperial rule over Alsace. This ideological agenda is present in the very fabric of Haut-Koenigsbourg – in the Hohenstaufen and Habsburg family trees inscribed in multiple rooms, the massive imperial eagle mounted on the highest turret, the frescos in the great hall showing military victories, and the sheer triumphant scale of the building itself. Here, Kaiser Wilhelm’s ambitions in 20C Europe are expressed in, and legitimised through, medieval fantasy. Here, in a bizarre fusion, Game of Thrones meets Prussian militarism.

It was interesting, then, to see how people interpret and move through this building today. There were tourists from Germany, admiring the quality of the craftsmanship. There were tourists from Poland, looking uncomfortable. There were teams of local Alsatians, erecting scaffolding and diligently maintaining Kaiser Wilhelm’s great edifice. The French authorities, in their guidebooks and information boards, present Haut-Koenigsbourg chiefly as an exceptional early attempt at heritage restoration – we are encouraged to note how carefully medieval door handles were reproduced, for example. I had the impression that the current custodians of Haut-Koenigsbourg tacitly play down the fact that the castle is blatantly a monument to 20C nationalism. The local Alsace narrative, painfully forged, is after all one of reconciliation and Franco-German harmony; Strasbourg, and the European Parliament, are just down the road. Alsace has positioned itself as being at the heart of the European project, and Haut-Koenigsbourg doesn’t sit comfortably with that story. Particularly this year, as we remember the First World War, the challenge for borderlands like Alsace is to find ways of living in peace, and forgiving, and moving on; without in the process forgetting, or remaining too silent about, what historic sites such as this really represent.