A few weekends ago we spent the night in Leipzig. Leipzig is in the Northeastern part of Germany. It is a city that from 1945 until1990 was a part of the former East Germany (the DDR). However, the city of Leipzig is much more than that. This year the city celebrates its 1000th anniversary.
1000 years…not a typo.
Who can even fathom that?
Obviously even if I was versed in Leipzig’s history, I couldn’t cover 1000 years in this post. But I can write about a few items.
First: Johann Sebastian Bach, (J.S. Bach) the renowned composer, was the musical director at the church of St. Thomas. He lived in Leipzig from 1723-1750. As the musical director, he led the famed boys choir and wrote tons of music. With his first wife he had 7 children (only 2 of whom survived.) But then she died too. With his second wife, he had 13 children (this time 8 survived.) Wow, 20 children. And at least four became well known musicians. After moving his bones about a million times, due to war etc., he was finally laid to rest at the St. Thomas Church, flowers are always placed on his grave and you can visit it anytime.
What is cool is that after his death he was admired by the likes of Mozart, Beethoven, Chopin and Mendelssohn, all of whom began to imitate Bach’s style in certain pieces. Not to mention the boys choir is still singing.
Speaking of Mozart, he played at St. Thomas too. It was after Bach’s death but on one occasion while traveling through Leipzig, he stopped at St. Thomas, improvised on the organ for over an hour and asked for a copy of one of Bach’s scores because he enjoyed it so much.
Next Johann Wolfgang von Goethe attended law school in Leipzig from 1765-1768. While studying, he seemed to figure out that he didn’t really love learning about the law and instead attended poetry readings and lessons. He wrote a great deal and spent lots of time at the Auerbach’s Keller.
Auerbach’s Keller boasts a legend about Faust and his riding out of the keller on a barrel, helped by the devil. Goethe enjoyed the legend and the Keller so greatly that he featured the location in his drama, Faust Part One. He fell in love in Leipzig and seemed to generally enjoy himself. But being that his legal studies were not progressing, he moved on. Important to note however that he did finally complete his legal education in 1771 and opened his own practice. In the meantime he became highly engaged in literature. While his interest in making the legal system more humane was his first aim, various factors eventually caused him to give up the law as a career and became a full-time writer and philosopher.
Leipzig is also home to the largest battle ever fought before WWI. It is called the Battle of Leipzig, or alternatively the Battle of Nations. The battle took place near the end of the Napoleonic Wars, and involved 5 armies and about 500,000 men. Napoleon’s forces were defeated in this battle, ending French control in Germany and Poland, but what was interesting to read about was the coalition that worked with Napoleon, who was with him, who was against him and why. Germany was not united at that time and so some German states (kingdoms) fought for Napoleon and some against him. What’s kind of funny is that 100 years after the battle, a monument was completed. One reason why it took 100 years to complete is because the monument stands in Saxony. Saxony actually fought with Napoleon and so no one in Saxony was that keen on having a monument in their state to commemorate their own loss…You can read more about it here. It is 91 meters high and really looked like something out of Lord of the Rings.
One of my favorite places was the St. Nicholas Church. Before I moved to Germany I listened to a series of podcasts from the Deutsch Welle called Deutsch-Warum Nicht?. These are designed to help you learn German and to teach you something about German history. One podcast told the story of the peaceful prayer services that started at St. Nicholas’s Church and became a peaceful protest every Monday. These protests were against the regime of the DDR and some say led the way to the eventual end of the DDR and the fall of the Berlin Wall. I was very moved by the power of this place and its inner beauty.
We did regular things in Leipzig too, like take walks and enjoy the sunshine. I had a soup and a milkshake in a cafe and we had dinner with friends at their house. I will say that the downtown is totally rebuilt and very lovely. The outskirts still boast some buildings that were damaged in WWII and were never repaired. Further outside the city are large apartment buildings built during the DDR. When you drive through that area, you really do feel like you are in an Eastern Block country. The communist architectural style is very apparent and you don’t feel like you’re in a 1000 year old city anymore.
This post only went back to the 1750’s. I have no idea what even happened in Leipzig before that. I have heard that it was an important trade city in the Middle Ages, so that gets us a little closer to 1000 years ago, but wow.
This city is a testament to the fact that some things, even when marred, even when ruined, even when made un-recognizable, manage to survive and even to thrive again and again. They are because they are. It seems they always have been and they will be again. Some things cannot really be removed or erased. Ruin doesn’t always mean death, it often means re-birth.
As we all lament the events that have occurred in Nepal and in Baltimore this week, we can keep this fact in mind: Greatness and perseverance are not tangible qualities, they cannot really be burned or torn down. They cannot truly be cancelled by an evil regime, a few bad cops, a few destructive protestors or a natural disaster. They live on, they continue and sometimes in the hands of the motivated, creative human spirit, cities are reborn, rememberances are constructed and hopefully, even if it takes 1000 years, we learn some lessons and keep on growing.