Young on Hagen, 'Preservation, Tourism and Nationalism: The Jewel of the German Past'

Joshua Hagen
Patrick R. Young

Joshua Hagen. Preservation, Tourism and Nationalism: The Jewel of the German Past. Burlington: Ashgate, 2006. x + 340 pp. $124.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-7546-4324-1.

Reviewed by Patrick R. Young (Department of History, University of Massachusetts-Lowell) Published on H-Travel (May, 2007)

Hometown for a Nation

After completing his final novel in 1963, the famed German novelist Erich Maria Remarque decided to head to the north Bavarian town of Rothenburg, instead of to his own hometown. When asked why, Remarque provided an answer that testifies to the town's enduring power to trigger German national memory:

"As I, after the burning of my books, loss of my citizenship, and more than 15 years of absence, returned to my hometown for the first time, I could not find it again. The city had become a pile of rubble, in which I got lost as I searched for the streets of my youth … then I came to Rothenburg. And here was suddenly the peace. The town stood there as always with its nooks and walls and alleys and dreams, undisturbed by all the terrible, like a bastion of hope, of solace, and a second home for the distraught soul. It has remained that for me. Since then my other hometown has been rebuilt with diligence, faithfulness, and lots of skill. The war is already almost forgotten, and tomorrow we will perhaps be flying to the moon--but Rothenburg remains unchanged with its magic.… [H]ome is not a geographical idea, but rather emotional, and that is not dependent on built-up stone, but rather open hearts. Do come also! Still only a few tourists there!" (quoted, p. 260).

Remarque's suggestion that the town had managed to remain aloof from Germany's catastrophic modern history is of course a claim that invites critical skepticism; so too does his suggestion that Rothenburg had remained largely "undiscovered" by tourists, nearly a half-century after the genesis of a modern commercial tourist industry. For Joshua Hagen, Rothenburg's continued resonance as a national "hometown" in modern Germany has in fact owed a great deal to tourism, and to the historically specific efforts of local leaders and residents, preservationists, national politicians, and tourists to repeatedly reinvent the town as a place of enduring national meaning. Hagen's scrupulously researched study of Rothenburg's "discovery," remaking, and partial diminishment as national symbol and site builds upon a rich body of recent cross-disciplinary scholarship. In hoping to explain how the town came to assume its "central place in the Germany memory landscape" (p. 290), the author embarks upon a line of inquiry well established by recent work on collective and national memory. Such work has called attention to the importance of cultural markers as sites of convergence and tension in processes of national identification. Recent books by Rudy Koshar, Alon Confino, and Celia Applegate and others in German history have explored how ideas of German nationality have commonly been premised upon certain manifestations of the local and traditional, and more specifically upon the deeply resonant notion of Heimat, or "home." In pursuing this theme, Hagen takes up the suggestion, implicit in the work of Maurice Halbwachs and Pierre Nora, and of the cultural geographer J.B. Jackson, that collective remembering has always required a spatial component--in other words, landscapes that could become sites of reflection and identification. Borrowing from work in the field of cultural geography, and from Simon Schama's magisterial history of landscape memory and myths, he views Rothenburg's urban landscape as one that over time was made to accommodate different cultural and political desires and agendas. Indeed, Hagen speaks to historians' concerns about contingency and agency, notably that of the local actors, who played so pivotal a role in framing the town as an important part of the German nation, and that of the German and international tourists, who negotiated the town's meaning both during their visits and in their travel narrations. In line with Dean MacCannell's (1976) and John Urry's (1990) pioneering work on modern tourist practices, Hagan understands tourism as an active and negotiated process of meaning-making. Recognition of how tourism has contributed to modern nation-building in the West and elsewhere is still emerging, and Hagen seeks to contribute to it by moving beyond one-dimensional readings of tourism as a passive medium for the transmission and reception of fixed national meanings. If, as he ultimately argues, tourism was essential in helping to elevate Rothenburg as a national symbol, it did so only because it could accommodate underlying tensions and uncertainties, and adapt to dramatically changing historical contexts.

Largely obscure and economically stagnant until the late nineteenth century, Rothenburg gradually emerged in the aftermath of German unification as a "national monument" and "image of the national community" (p. 57), a "collective hometown for the new German nation" (p. 18). The effort to reinvent Rothenburg began with the isolated efforts of local figures and scholars to identify the town's distinctive grounding in the past, and particularly its medieval heritage. One early example was the retrieval and lionization of the figure of Heinrich Toppler, a medieval mayor who was pivotal in establishing the town as a prominent city-state, and so became a kind of prototype of middle-class civic identity. More vital to the "remaking" of the town was the creation of the Meistertrunk, a historical pageant based upon a legendary episode during the Thirty Years War in which, through wily fortitude, Rothenburg was able to avert the razing suffered by the town of Magdeburg. First staged in 1881 in the Rothenburg Town Hall, the play repackaged an uncertain local legend as a prompt for civic, and increasingly national, identification. For Hagen, the great success of the Meistertrunk in bringing new attention to the town signaled the ascendancy of a specifically middle-class nationalist appropriation of the past. The local figures, who took the initiative of staging the event and promoting the town as a sanctuary of the preserved past, and the growing crowds of German and even foreign visitors, who flocked to the pageant, worked together to reinvent Rothenburg as a site of German national heritage. The pageant remained a centerpiece of the town's growing allure as a "national hometown" and tourist attraction, and spurred newly coordinated efforts to preserve the town as a national monument. To the largely middle class Heimatschutz (preservationist) movement that emerged in Germany in the 1890s, safeguarding older small towns like Rothenburg took on a patina of national service. Hagen again emphasizes the local origin of the most significant initiatives of preservation in the town, focusing in particular upon the efforts of the Verein Alt-Rothenburg (Old Rothenburg Historical Society, or VAR), founded in 1898. In winning passage of an ordinance of formal legal protection for the town in 1900, the VAR pressured businesses and residents to help preserve and even enhance the historic quality of the town. The group encouraged homeowners to do such things as chip away at the plaster on their facades in order to expose the timbering that visitors could more legibly read as "historic" and medieval. Such efforts, Hagen shows, were not always warmly embraced: local economic needs and commercial ambitions, and the more restrained and methodical approach to conservation--which some academics espoused--at times coexisted uneasily with the dictates of the tourist picturesque, especially since the latter eventually came to weigh more heavily in preservationist deliberations. The revival of tourism to the town in the 1920s--albeit a tourism marked by greater mobility and commercialism--prompted some disagreement within the town over how best to balance preservation and modernization. The economic, political, and cultural upheavals of the Weimar period altered the investment in Rothenburg as a German icon. Gradually more resolutely nationalist leanings came to dominate over the middle-class, more liberal tendencies that had held sway during the prewar years. Town leaders, preservationists, and tourists alike increasingly cast the town as a German place, as against merely an "old" one or still less a harbinger of liberal Buergertum and civic attachment. Rothenburg's shift to the nationalist right by the late 1920s to early 1930s, was certainly of a piece with broader political changes in the German nation as a whole. Rothenburgers warmly welcomed such a shift to the hard right--a full 87 percent supported Hitler in his losing bid for the German presidency in 1932. The town undertook multiple initiatives to shore up its reputation as "the most German of towns" during the Nazi period, coordinating with the regime's "Strength through Joy" leisure programs and attracting tourists-cum-pilgrims, from all over the newly expanded Reich. Indeed, Hagen shows how town promoters even outdid the Party in recasting the town as a "Nazi utopia or showpiece" (p. 220) and visual embodiment of Nazi values. They launched a campaign of beautification and purification that staged folk culture and eliminated foreign and "impure" elements. Most disgracefully, town leaders installed a set of "warning plaques" on the town gates that reproduced anti-Semitic texts from the past and present, complete with racist caricatures, to alert tourists to Rothenburg's pure German bona fides. With nearly half of its buildings destroyed by Allied bombing during World War II, Rothenburg could not simply reclaim its mantle as Germany's "hometown." Still, as Hagen shows, the town was able to adapt remarkably well to the radically changed circumstances of the postwar recovery and to repackage itself as a site of a much-needed, and largely non-political, connection to a German past that was now deeply problematic. Here, in the troubled aftermath of Nazism, Rothenburg's traditionalism became a resource for an uneasy postwar re-normalization of German nationhood, providing access to a longer past while clearly repressing many aspects of the town's more recent history. As tourism became a key engine for postwar reconstruction, in Rothenburg and elsewhere in West Germany, rebuilding efforts hewed (at times imperfectly) to established criteria for maximizing the town's cultural capital in the tourist economy. Hagen offers a detailed account of the debates and conflicts accompanying the town's rebuilding in the 1950s and 1960s. As they had in the past, planners tried to reconcile the needs both to preserve and to modernize. In order to maintain the town's visual harmony, they sought to avert visual-historical dissonance on the one hand, and a "Rothenburg style" kitsch on the other. While the 1970s and 1980s brought a new wave of public concern and legislation around issues of historical preservation across West Germany as a whole, preservationist commitments and initiatives in Rothenburg flagged, and criticism of the town's having either neglected or excessively commercialized its past became more common. By the century's close, little of "Old Rothenburg" remained. Transformed by war, modernization and tourism, Rothenburg was only recognizable as a slightly faded, and mildly kitschy, "historicist" image of itself. Hagen's study is one that will be of immediate interest to historians. Scholars working on issues of memory and tourism in other disciplines will find it valuable as well. Perhaps its signal contribution to the history of national memory is to demonstrate the dynamic and even interdependent relationship between memory and history. In Hagen's account, the town's medieval character was never fully fixed, but rather evolved in line with changing historical contexts, political agendas, and visitors' needs. While Germans throughout the modern period have "looked to idealizations of the Middle Ages represented by places like Rothenburg as seemingly fixed reference points for national identity and history" (p. 290), the author shows how German conservatives and liberals could inflect their imagining of the town, and its past, very differently, and how visitors too could (even knowingly) project immutability and authenticity onto a landscape that was in fact far from stable. One of Hagen's key arguments in the book is indeed that it was precisely the "ideological ambiguity and elasticity" (p. 144) of Rothenburg that allowed it to have such a powerful and continuing resonance within Germany and even beyond it. In accommodating different and even conflicting appropriations of the past, Rothenburg provided a cultural space for the negotiation of national meaning outside of an often-divisive political sphere. Where much scholarship on memory and heritage has accentuated rupture and conflict as lying at the core of processes of national remembrance, Hagen's study is one that highlights a remarkable degree of overall consensus and continuity. The author's analysis of the overlapping local and national stakes of preservation is also very valuable, and invites cross-national comparison with similar cases in Europe and beyond it. Neighboring France, for example, saw its own "medieval revival" at roughly the same period of time; and the effort to preserve local histories, landscapes, and artifacts as national patrimony through state action and tourist development was one that proceeded in different forms throughout Europe, as well as in America, Japan, and elsewhere.[1] Far from merely supplanting local identities and cultures, in many countries nation-building has required the active mobilization of a locality for symbolic purposes. "The local" could provide an emotionally evocative and convincing means of means of accessing more abstract conceptions of the nation. As Hagen tells it, the story of Rothenburg is in many ways a very German one, based on a distinctively tumultuous national trajectory within which the town could become singularly valuable as a marker of continuity. It is worth wondering whether the overall success of Rothenburgers and tourists in adapting the town to larger frames of meaning represents an illustrative or an exceptional case. That national modernity and global postmodernity produce renewed longings for local place is indisputable, though the capacity of actual sites to satisfy those longings is highly contingent. One suspects that many such sites in Germany and elsewhere have witnessed a more discordant play of agendas than one sees in Rothenburg. In the latter case, local identifications lent themselves most readily to national ones until quite recently. Elsewhere, preservation and promotion of local sites has also served at times to ground regional-autonomist allegiances, and has also tended to stir more ambivalent feelings of loss and dislocation among visitors than enter into Hagen's account. With the nation-state continuing to recede as the principal referent for local place, and transnational and global economic forces intruding more commonly upon local economic deliberations, the largely self-directed and consensual promotion of Rothenburg as a national site may come to seem more exceptional still. Hagen speculates in his conclusion about what the town's role will be in an increasingly multicultural Germany, and he might have mused as well upon how German integration into an abstract "Europe" has changed the stakes of preserving and promoting local places. To raise such matters, though, is really to probe the outer limits of what is already an admirably ambitious and suggestive study. Finally, Hagen's book leaves room for further consideration of the tourist as a maker (and, I might add, un-maker) of national meanings. In returning throughout to tourist accounts of the town, Hagen notes the relative facility with which both German and foreign travelers were able to skirt the lines between authenticity and contrivance in their encounters with the town. That they did so attests for Hagen both to the flexibility of the town as a national symbol, and to the adaptability of tourist practices to changing conditions. One wonders though whether Hagen does full justice to the tensions that often exist within tourism itself, tensions which can profoundly shape tourist expectations and experience. The book's time frame is of course one that witnessed great changes in tourism: most broadly, a shift from elite to mass tourism, though also from the literary or artistic traveler to the modern tourist industry as the principal arbiter of value within tourism, and from an elite-cosmopolitan to a national and then global context for leisure travel. Hagen describes the emergence of a more commercialized tourism in the early twentieth century and the Nazi organization of leisure travel. However, he is not always fully attentive to the changing social profile of the clientele for tourism, or to the subtle and shifting hierarchies of tourist taste that surely structured visitors' encounters with the town.

The assumption that these tourists encountered Rothenburg as first and foremost Germans--as against, say, members of a self-consciously cultured or literary traveling elite, or as feminine arbiters of taste, or as workers enjoying their first experiences of leisure travel--is also an arguable one. If the national framing has always been a part of experiencing Rothenburg as a tourist, other more immediate identities have certainly always been at play as well. Indeed, part of the great significance of tourism, which Hagen rightfully accords as a domain of modern experience, lies precisely in its capacity for accommodating these different and sometimes divergent identifications. His study is a terrific stimulus to further consideration of how tourists have contributed to the making and remaking of nations, as they have gone about the often more pressing business of exploring the boundaries of their individual and social selves.


[1]. See Elizabeth Emery and Laura Morowitz, Consuming the Past: The Medieval Revival in Fin de Siècle France (Burlington: Ashgate, 2003); on discourses of preservation and loss in modern and contemporary Japan, see Marilyn Ivy, Discourses of the Vanishing: Modernity, Phantasm, Japan (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995).

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Citation: Patrick R. Young. Review of Hagen, Joshua, Preservation, Tourism and Nationalism: The Jewel of the German Past. H-Travel, H-Net Reviews. May, 2007. URL:

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