Visiting Nuremberg: When Is It Time To Forget?

By Abi King | Germany

Aug 16

Concert in a ruined church in Nuremberg

Visiting Nuremberg: when is it time to move on?

A single trumpet pierces the air. The church bells chime. And a woman in a blooming white lace blouse sloshes a tankard down next to the bowl of covered pretzels. The foam spills over the edge, the bubbles slide into glass and the sound of psychedelic rock swells across the parasols, between the fluttering leaves and down to the table where I am sitting writing this.

I am at the Bardentreffen festival in Nuremberg, and what a beautiful, bewildering affair it is

 

Bardentreffen Nuremberg

More than 80 Professional Bands

Bardentreffen’s direct translation means “the meeting of the Bards” but it’s as far from a medieval flute-and-horn playing jig as a sense of humour is to airport security.

Instead, more than 80 professional bands play on 10 different stages over a period of three days to mark the start of the Bavarian summer holidays. This year, though, the dates coincide with Germany’s declaration of war on first Russia and then France exactly 100 years ago.

In other words, it’s the centenary of the First World War, a conflict which saw as many as 30 000 men die per hour in the Battle of the Somme and which counted over 37 million dead, both military and civilian, by the end of four years.

It also, according to many, created the conditions for the descent into World War Two, the holocaust, and the use of the atomic bomb.

What do you do as a city with a name that carries more weight than a military submarine and with more than 200 000 revellers heading into town expecting to have a good time?

You do what modern Nuremberg does best: you name it, claim it, face it and then make it your own.

Nuremberg Sausages

War And Peace in Nuremberg

“The theme came early on,” Bardentreffen’s chief organizer Andreas tells me. “The War & Peace name was a work in progress but,” he shrugs, ”as happens with these things, it then became the name.”

“Andy” tells me more about the line-up for this year’s Bardentreffen. They’ve sourced artists from war-torn regions, either past or present or (depressingly) both. There’s Noa, a Jewish singer from Yemen, Tamikrest who sing about the plight of the Tuareg women in the worsening crisis in Mali, The Sands from Northern Ireland and Dubioza Kolektiv from Bosnia Herzegovina. And that’s just for starters.

It all sounds very worthy, very important. Very all the things I usually want to write about and encourage in the world.

But, let’s face it, it doesn’t necessarily sound like very much fun.

But, let’s face it, it doesn’t necessarily sound like very much fun.

Well, one of the many great things about travel and perhaps life in general is the chance to discover just how wrong you can be. I’m here on day three, sharing a table with a young German family as I type, and the sweet smell of popcorn, candyfloss and roast sugar-coated nuts mingles with the bitter scent of hops. Accordions, violins and a pumping base from the main stage rise and fall in the air around us where, to be fair, people do look as though they’re having a pretty good time.

Bardentreffen Main Stage Nuremberg

Pavements alive with music

With normal rules and regulations swept aside, it’s not the hills but the pavements that are alive with music. Elvis impersonators, slack shouldered reggae slouchers, schoolgirls with recorders, Oasis cover bands – and the single trumpet and those endless chiming church bells.

The chill of history returns.

Nuremberg is a beautiful, thriving city but one where the shadows of past deeds follow you around by the heel if not the throat. The violet, glowing stage set in the ruins of a church destroyed by Allied bombs. The lopsided steep-sloped roofs whose medieval character disguises the 50s and 60s blocks below. The curve of the colosseum as seen from the hilltop castle: the legacy of Hitler’s megalomaniac dreams and the home of the Nazi Rally Grounds.

And they pose an awkward question: why should we be visiting Nuremberg? To investigate the history of the holocaust and previous war crimes or to laugh and drink and dance with people from around the world?

Why should we be visiting Nuremberg? To investigate the history of the holocaust and previous war crimes or to laugh and drink and dance with people from around the world?

A quick strum of the guitar, a splash of sun and good cheer and the question seems answered, those historic shadows flutter like minor chords into the night into the realms of the forgotten.

But is that right?

Soneros de Verdad in Nuremberg

A Beacon for Human Rights

Almost everyone I speak to mentions, in one way or another, their “inglorious past” as one journalist described it.

Nuremberg has “learned its lesson” as the same journalist tells me. It now stands as a beacon for human rights, organising rallies to protest Jewish boycotts and hanging rainbow gay pride flags from its town hall. “We hope to be a symbol for tolerance now,” he says.

“The Nazis never got a majority in Nuremberg,” another local tells me. “Not during free elections.”

And it’s difficult to know quite how to reply – since (for once) I didn’t ask the question. We were talking about something else. They brought it up themselves.

Rain in Bardentreffen

One of the many blessings of music, I suppose, is the chance to have fun with someone when neither of you know quite what the right words are to say.

One of the many blessings of music, I suppose, is the chance to have fun with someone when neither of you know quite what the right words are to say.

“That’s what we want,” says Andreas. “ We don’t want to invite people here to depress them. Each of these artists, they really believe that their music, their message can make a difference.”

“But,” he smiles “we want people to leave with optimism. People come here, they experiment with music that’s different to what they know. They can go home happy.”

I almost finished writing right here, right at this point. But I felt uneasy, things felt unfinished.

Nuremberg at Night

The Other Nuremberg

I wanted to tell you about the other history of Nuremberg. The majority of its history, the time when it was one of the most respected places in Europe. The time when Albrecht Durer’s art flourished, when Nuremberg led the emerging watch-making industry, when its talents for science and craftsmanship produced the world’s first ever globe (you can still see it, by the way, in the German National Museum. Look out for the one that’s missing America.)

But on a deeper level, Bardentreffen brought into focus a conflict on the globe of my soul.

Just what is the point of studying history? Of travelling around the world seeking out the stories and the relics of the past. Why relive, in however mild a form and for however fleeting a moment, such misery – be it walking into Auschwitz, looking back at slavery, or hearing what it’s like to have lived through Hiroshima or Nagasaki.

Is it time, as one friend of mine put it, for “Germany to ‘get over it.’”

(The German example is just because I’m in Nuremberg, by the way. Don’t think for one moment that I don’t know about nor think about the crimes my countrymen*committed before I was born – or in the time thereafter.)

Before the Bardentreffen Festival in Nuremberg

Global Amnesia

Yet it is reasonable to entertain the thought that sudden global amnesia would fix many a problem that faces the world. Northern Ireland, Israel & Palestine, Cuba & the USA. If no-one cared who did what to whom when and just looked at the situation as though everyone was on the same side, it would cause a seismic shift in the solutions available to put on the table.

While remembrance pays respect to those who “gave their today for our tomorrow,” isn’t there a risk that #lestweforget just brings pain at best and fuels vengeance at worst? And by now, don’t we all know that war is bad, that slavery is vile, that genocide is reprehensible? What do we hope to achieve by visiting it over and over again?

And amidst such swirling thoughts, my pretzel, sauerkraut and Nuremberg sausages arrive (a Nuremberg sausage, I’m told, is smaller than most so that citizens could slide them through keyholes and still eat them during the plague. Allegedly.)

And now I’m sitting in Naples, on the second leg of this mustlovefestivals project

But before I left Nuremberg, there was time for one last act.

One final performance when crowds filled the Hauptmarkt flagstones and sent cheers into the midnight blue air.

British songwriter Billy Bragg  strode onto stage, threading jokes about Twitter, mugs of tea and England’s woeful performance in the recent World Cup in between his energised, foot- stomping numbers.

The Point of It All

Bardentreffen Stage Nuremberg

But he also told a story about a photograph of a young Jewish man in a museum in Hannover.

“This citizen of Hannover, this man, looked happy. He looked excited, dressed in his military uniform, ready to go to war.

“My grandfather, my own grandfather, cycled 20 kilometres to join the crowds outside Buckingham Palace. He joined the crowds to celebrate the outbreak of war…and when he got home, he wrote about it in his diary.

“There it is, written 100 years ago to this day, it simply says war.

“And with it, there’s a faded piece of paper, there’s a flag he picked up that day at the palace, with the crowd.”

Billy Bragg in Nuremberg\

Celebrating War

Bragg, like the rest of us, couldn’t fathom this reaction. “But then it occurred to me, that Britain hadn’t fought a battle that close to home since the Battle of Waterloo.**And it occurred to me that those parents, the parents of the children sent to war, they didn’t know, that they had forgotten the true effects of war and that that that that had allowed the notions of duty and honour and glory to sweep these young men off their feet and into their fates in the trenches.”

No Living Relative

Later, he told me “The survivors of the holocaust are dying out. Our children today will have no living relative to explain to them the reality of war.”

Backstage in Nuremberg Bardentreffen

And there, strangely, in the half-lit backstage light beneath the spires of this ghost-lit church and all the trappings of microphones, amps and rock n roll I realized I was hearing the same thing I had heard when speaking to a quiet, elderly lady in Nagasaki.

Is it ever time to put the past behind us, to forget about these wars?

From me: Is it ever time to put the past behind us, to forget about these wars?

“Never,” glinted steely eyes. “We must remember them over and over and over again so that naïve excitement doesn’t lead us to the next one.”

And with that, he wished me luck with travels and strode off to drink beer with his band.

They offered me one too but despite the roaring atmosphere I felt the sudden need to be alone.

 

*And women. I use it as a general term, not a gender specific one.

**1815

 Disclosure and a very big thank you

I have so many people to thank for allowing me to take part in this festival it is hard to know where to begin. Big thanks to Billy Bragg for taking the time to speak to me after a flat out few hours on stage. Thanks to the Nuremberg Tourist Board for assistance, the German Tourist Board and Lufthansa for the flights and to Expedia and the Must Love Festivals team for the impetus to head there at festival time. 

Thank you and good night!

Recommended Place to Stay in Nuremberg

Recommended place to stay: Hotel Sorat Saxx for modern flair and the most central location.Mmmm….

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About the Author

Hi, I'm Abi, a doctor turned writer who's worked with Lonely Planet, the BBC, UNESCO and more. Let's travel more and think more.

  • Darlene says:

    This is a well thought out and well written post. What an amazing event this must have been. Enjoy your next stop.

    • Abi King says:

      Thank you – this one really meant a lot to me. I was a little nervous putting it out there in case my words hadn’t quite said what I meant them to say. So THANK YOU for the encouragement!

  • Gayla says:

    Beautifully written and thought-provoking. I do wonder, however, when will ‘we’ not be led into the next war by “that naïve excitement”. I’d rather we all get excited about joining our neighbors to celebrate our culture, food, music, dance, art…Music festivals are a great place to start :-)

    • Abi King says:

      Couldn’t agree more! Far better to channel all that energy into a music festival instead. I think the vulnerability arises because we have so many stories in our cultures of the good guys conquering the bad guys and that being the end of it. I know that’s really simplistic but I think that people who don’t know much or who aren’t told much about the reality of war are more likely to believe that that’s how it works. Who knows if the cycle will ever end…we can but hope.

      • Gayla says:

        We can definitely hope. And work for peace. Travel helps to understand.

  • This post is beautiful and poignant and what I love to read.

    The quote: “Never,” glinted steely eyes. “We must remember them over and over and over again so that naïve excitement doesn’t lead us to the next one.” sums up my thoughts perfectly.

    • Abi King says:

      Thank you. It was remarkable to meet someone with so much passion and who must have put up with a lot of intense questioning when he could have just ignored all the issues, made a load of money and lived the hedonistic rock n roll lifestyle.

  • Alex says:

    How refreshing to read long-form, beautifully researched and contemplated travel writing on a blog. Thank you Abi!

  • Nikita says:

    Wow, this was really well thought-out, and beautifully written! I understand your dilemma… After all, things change. People change. And that may be hard to recognize if we’re caught up in the past. However, war isn’t just about statistics, it’s about human lives, and I personally feel like those deserve to be remembered, even if it does nothing for those who have died. And more importantly,seeing how these things begin cn (hopefully) let us catch the warning signs of history repeating itself. Not that that has worked so far, butone can always dream…

    • Abi King says:

      We can always dream…Although, I suppose we’ll never know the cases where that DID work because we’d never realise that war had been averted. Mull, mull, mull…

  • Laura says:

    Very interesting post. I’ve been to Nuremberg a couple of times, including for the Christmas market. As with this festival, there’s a pretty stark contrast between being in the square with twinkling lights, ornaments, and gluhwein, and thinking about the rally grounds nearby. But a visit to the grounds and museum (and indeed pretty much any Holocaust memorial) would certainly make one think that “Never” would be the response of the whole town.

    • Abi King says:

      I’d love to see Nuremberg all decked out ready for Christmas. Must be beautiful. But, yes, I expect that there’s a strange contrast for visitors then too. Let’s hope that “never” remains the response – there and elsewhere.

  • Uwe says:

    Thank you very much for sharing your thoughts and impressions. It is so good to see, that things may change and that we hopefully are able to learn from the past. And thank you for visiting my hometown Nuremberg, Abi!

    • Abi King says:

      Thanks for stopping by! It’s such an interesting hometown precisely because, as you say, it seems to have made plenty of changes while still remembering the past. Remembering, but not dwelling in it and not using it to fuel further conflict today. If only so many other places in the world could do the same!

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