An Artist’s Colony; imagine that

There are much better accounts of the Künstlerkolonie Mathildenhöhe in Darmstadt than I could ever write. With maps, diagrams and professional photographs. There are people much better qualified to write about the architects and dates and styles and influences and influenced. I was just a bystander for the day, a casual observer, soaking up the impressions and colours. It’s quite a walk from the train station to Mathildenhöhe but I’d already spent a disproportionate amount of time in travelling. It might have sense to wait another half an hour for a bus but I wasn’t in the mood. And besides, I wanted to have a walk around Darmstadt.

I found one lovely house from 1903. But not much else. A great deal of the city was flattened during the Second World War. It was used as a ‘test’ site, an experiment in how to create a fire storm. First the high explosive rained down to smash open the roofs of buildings and then thousands of incendiary bombs were dropped. The intention was to overwhelm the fire fighting defences and create so much fire that all the oxygen is burned up. Those who are not killed by the high explosive bombs, collapsing buildings and fire are asphyxiated. The heat becomes so intense that people burst into flames. The arial bombing of Germany killed perhaps one and a half million people; mainly women, children and old people – the young men had been conscripted into the army.

WG Sebald wrote an account of the impact of this (and on post-war German culture) in The Natural History of Destruction. There is little evidence that such destruction of people, buildings, art, objects and social relations did much to damage the Nazi war effort. But it continued almost until the last days of the war. Sebald argues that once a giant machine had been created for the aerial bombing of people and cities it developed a terrifying life of its own. With all those aeroplanes and pilots and bombs some use had to be made of them. In April 1945, towns and cities which had hitherto not been bombed were suddenly destroyed in 20 minutes or so. There was no German airforce left and not much in the way of anti-aircraft guns so large formations of planes could fly over, drop bombs and fly away.

Capitalism suggests a rationality and efficiency but it is not those things at all. It is a horribly wasteful system; not just of raw materials and the outputs of production, but also of human life which essentially has little value within the system itself. To obliterate a town of 40,000 people or so (and much larger places) is an outcome of vast war industries, bureaucratic indifference and the strange psychopathic character of the ruling class. Each person in power seems to gain more power based on the number of corpses they can create. Hitler, Stalin, Putin all have this death-cult nihilism.

In Britain it was personified in the Arthur Harris, the head of Bomber Command. It is difficult to imagine what he thought about during the day or what his thoughts were late at night. Here is another report. Darmstadt has been destroyed. Perhaps 25,000 dead. How could someone accept this knowing that there was little, if any, strategic value? And that the majority of those killed weren’t fighting soldiers and that a fair number of them weren’t Nazis, and that a cohort of the dead had always been anti-Nazi. But the British ruling class never thought like that. They never do.

A footnote should be added here that ‘the Queen Mother’ was a great friend of Harris. Is it true that she suggested to him that only the working class districts of Hamburg should be bombed, on the basis that she still had friends and connections in the bourgeois areas? We will never know what conversations really took place. Or what these people thought. But by their deeds they can easily be damned. To order such destruction at the end of a war, a war which was coming to a certain end, raises plenty of questions. Not least in how that same British ruling class which was forced into fighting when it’s own interests were so directly threatened, had expressed substantial support for fascism in the 1920s and 1930s. And that Edward VIII had fascist sympathies. As did the Queen Mother herself. As did Churchill in his support of Mussolini. As did the Daily Mail with its support for the Blackshirts.

The train station is on one edge of the city. There are a lot of technical, science and university buildings to walk through to reach the centre. I like these. There is an air of deep and serious study. But Darmstadt is nothing like I imagined. There was a picture in my mind’s eye of some Grunderzeit and other stuff. I had an image of red brick buildings in quite narrow streets and flower boxes and hanging baskets. Instead there are wide and busy roads and a lot of nondescript glass and concrete buildings.

But how does a city recover from such destruction? What stories have been passed down through the past three generations? How do the people who survived deal with it? What about the next generation? The generation after that? Standing at the traffic lights waiting for the green figure to appear so the road can be crossed. What was it like the day after the fire storm? What was it like here in the ruined city in May 1945 when the war finally ended? What was it like for people who remembered a well worn, lived in, loved city that was now nothing but ruins? Where many friends, relatives and acquaintances were now dead? Images of a leg among the ruins, the smashed bloody face of a child. Sebald argues that this was never really discussed. That there are rare references in the post-war literature. Only brief references in film. Perhaps more in the fine arts?

I no more believe that all German people were Nazis than I believe that all English people were slave owners or supported slavery. Or that all English people have always supported the monarchy. At the end of the eighteenth century, under the influence of the French Revolution, there was a radical republican current in England. Tom Paine gave it voice and popular theory; William Cobbett organised tremendous support for the degraded agricultural labourers and the poor and never ceased in exposing the Tory corruption; Blake and Turner found illuminating and powerful artistic expression. There are connections between the anti-fascism current among the German working class the Republican tradition in England. When its approached like this, the lines are different. The acts of solidarity and resistance are horizontal and democratic. And are in opposition to hierarchy and nationalism.

I walked slowly through Darmstadt. I was looking for a bakers and wished I’d bought something to eat at the railway station. The rolls looked appetising and fresh. Just before I was due to turn off to the Mathildenhöhe I found what I was looking for. And for the first time managed to respond properly to the woman worker in there. After I selected the roll (I’m still not sure what the filling was), she asked, and I understood;
‘Senf oder Ketchup’.
‘Senf bitte’. But the response was without hesitation.

I have learned a great deal of vocabulary in bakeries. Sit in or take away, anything else? and much more. These bakery workers are an interesting class. I have never experienced any affected labour or people trying to be ‘characters’. No, what you get is hard workers who give off an attitude of demanding respect. I have never encountered any who have tried to speak to me in English although I bet quite a few can. They look at me as they say the price. And more and more I get that right. And they say ‘Schone Tag’. And hand you a roll or Mohnkuchen and then serve the next person or go about their business

It’s the small words. I had an annoying day in getting to Darmstadt. There was a file to print but no means to do so. This was made worse by falling down a hole of Marxist criticism. ‘If only printing was socialised! There must be thousands of printers in Frankfurt but I can’t get so much as one file printed!’. Someone very helpfully sent me their email address but I misread it and then couldn’t send the file to them. Cue a Marxist criticism of the private ownership of the means of production, the grip of the big five tech companies (Alphabet, Amazon, Apple, Meta, Microsoft), the need for open standards. I re-read their message and realised I’d missed a ‘dot’ in the email address. Panic over they knocked on the door with exactly the print out I needed.

Then I missed the train at Frankfurt Sud and had to wait 30 minutes for the next one. And I went the wrong way out of the station at Darmstadt and got lost in ‘Europlatz’ and had to re-trace my steps. I could have got a bus to Mathildenhöhe but I couldn’t find the stop. I thought it would be easier to walk. But when I tapped my phone for the route the wrong screen came up and something about Siri wants to know if you’re having a great day. As I went into Galeria to see if they had a cafe with lentil soup a very old man with brown wrinkled skin came slowly to the door leaning on a wheeled frame. I stood and waited and held the door open for him. He was slow and each step was a great effort. But time slowed down for me too. I was going to help him here. As he walked past he nodded his head to me with a burst of a smile and well-worn sparkling eyes so full of life.
‘Dankeschön’, he said
‘Alles gut’, he added
‘Alles schon’, he concluded.
It was if Goethe had just walked past. Perhaps it was. He completely changed my day and from them all the silly hassles evaporated and suddenly I was in Darmstadt proper.

The Mathildenhöhe was much lovelier than I was expecting, but I not really sure what that expectation was. I sat in the park and added the senf and ate my roll. A group of women were playing boules. They kept moving around as if the different locations were part of the game. It had something of a medieval enigma about it. An elderly man moved around with his stroller. A family walked past, I think the man was American and the woman German. They had three children. He lifted one of them up onto his shoulders to the child’s great delight. The woman sang a song to the other two children who looked as if they were listening intently. Then she passed a finger across her lips like a zip and said ‘, Stop!’ I made some notes about ‘non-commodified space’ (which it is) and ‘no sense of consumption’ (which is true).

I went up to the top of the Wedding Tower in the lift and found myself to be the only person there. And stood for a long time looking out over towards Frankfurt and to Darmstadt and a hill that might become a mountain. And some good quality housing from the 1900s and some good quality housing from a later time. And there was Peter Behren’s house which looked so much grander than in pictures, and the architecture of Joseph Maria Olbrich and the church and the pool with the art nouveau pattern and the park.

I added another note; ‘An Artist’s Colony – Imagine That’.

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