Geraint Talfan Davies reflects on a recent trip to Germany and the UK’s links with Europe
I missed the Royal wedding. It was not a stubborn republican gesture – though I can do without the fawning overkill of the British press – but simply that my wife and I and friends were on a train in Germany. At about the time the wedding started we were changing trains, appropriately enough, at Hannover, a city that provided us with a new dynasty of monarchs 330 years ago – eventually, four Georges, William and Victoria – before handing over to the Saxe-Coburgs in 1901.
This is not to make cheap gibes about our royal family, but rather to underline the fact that our historic links with the rest of Europe are many, and long predate the existence of Easyjet and Thomson Holidays. In the small span of ten days, it was surprising how often we came across more contemporary linkages. As citizens of Europe – at least for the next ten months – we can take pride and pleasure in a relationship that had been steadily widening, though deepening the regret at the unnecessary rift in store.
We had just left Cologne, known the world over for its Gothic cathedral’s twin spires that miraculously survived allied bombing in the Second World War. It is now Germany’s fourth largest city and, like towns and cities all over Germany, seems to go on adding to its store of cultural investment at a rate that anyone in austerity Britain – at least, outside London – must envy.
Its Museum Ludwig, handsomely endowed by a chocolate manufacturer, Peter Ludwig, displays an encyclopedic collection of twentieth century art, but the city has another museum, Kolumba, that just takes the breath away with the exquisite economy of its stunningly lit displays. Ostensibly built to display some of the religious artefacts belonging to the Archbishopric of Cologne, as well as others from the city’s separate Romano-Germanic Museum, it also mixes in a fair ration of contemporary art, including at present two pieces by Welsh artist Bethan Huws, one of the contributors to Wales’s first presence at the Venice Biennale in 2003.
It is all housed in a building by the Swiss architect, Peter Zumthor, a winner of the Pritzker Prize, the world’s top architecture award, and renowned for a minimalist approach that, in his own words, strives for ‘a beautiful silence’. At Kolumba he certainly succeeds.
Whereas many modern museums now seek to engage their audiences through digital displays, this museum is resolutely analogue. The rooms are simple grey cubes. There is no labelling or signage on the walls, only occasional pools of light. All information is contained instead in a small white paperback catalogue provided with your ticket. The focus on the object is intense, the effect ethereal. Zumthor’s building also encases the excavations of the St. Kolumba church destroyed in the Second World War, thus encompassing a slice of European history that takes us from Roman times through the phases of Christianity, the destruction of war, reconstruction and German reunification. We, too, are part of that history.
A change of trains at Hannover took us to Göttingen in Lower Saxony – a small university town, whose university has produced 14 Nobel laureates, across chemistry physics and medicine, while no less than 31 other laureates had worked there at some stage in their career. But this week, it is the arts that are to the fore. It is the week of their annual Handel Festival. Soprano, Fflur Wyn – familiar to Welsh audiences for her roles with WNO in two Handel operas, Jephtha and Orlando – is taking part in a performance of Handel’s seldom-performed oratorio The Choice of Hercules. Only language distinguished the audience on this sunny evening from that at any summer music festival in Wales. Such was Handel’s life, divided between England and Germany, that he has sometimes been described as England’s greatest composer. So there is something quite natural in this collaboration between a small German orchestra, British soloists and choir, led by the festival’s English artistic director, Laurence Cummings. It is also an artistic exchange that Brexit puts in jeopardy.
Next day, the train again, to Hamburg and to Lubeck in the north.
[A digression is necessary. Will those responsible for the new GWR trains between London and south Wales, as well the Keolis/Amey team appointed to build and run our new Metro, please note that the German Inter-city express provides screens that not only tell you whether you will be arriving at the next stop on time, but also the departure times of up to 12 bus services from the next station, including whether any of those bus services are themselves behind schedule. One fears this is a degree of integrated customer service beyond the imagination of our own authorities. But we must live in hope.]
Hamburg is Germany’s second city and Europe’s third largest port (after Rotterdam and Antwerp.) It also claims a title that Cardiff aspires to, a city of music. This is not just because of Hamburg’s past association with the Beatles, or for being the birthplace of Brahms and Mendelssohn, but because of the opening last year of a lavish new concert hall spectacularly perched atop a derelict brick warehouse on the dockside. Initially budgeted at €50m, it eventually cost the city an eye-watering €789m, yet despite this the citizens of Hamburg now seem to have forgiven everyone, since it has become a magnet for tourists. The architects, Herzog and Meuron, also Swiss, were responsible for the equally crowd-pulling Tate Modern in London.
Hamburg also has a reputation for ground breaking theatre, burnished some years ago by the Welsh theatre director, Michael Bogdanov, while Intendant of the city’s Deutsches Schauspielhaus – the country’s principal national theatre – from 1989 to 1992. Michael died last year. Born in Neath, he always kept a home in Wales and campaigned passionately for the creation of a Welsh national theatre. He also gave Hamburg audiences a chance to see Dylan Thomas’s Under Milk Wood. I fancy that Telemann and C.P.E Bach, who both worked in Hamburg, would have relished Organ Morgan.
The city’s other link with Wales is via Airbus Industries, a company that was one of the most active corporate campaigners against Brexit during the 2016 referendum. Hamburg, with Toulouse, is one of the group’s centres for the final assembly of aircraft, and it would be odd if it – like many other European cities with Airbus plants – were not, with the prospect of Brexit, casting a hopeful eye on the wing production plant at Broughton. Though there is no immediate threat to the north Wales plant, if and when Britain leaves the EU Hamburg and others will, I fear, have time and some economic logic on their side.
Lubeck, 40 miles north of Hamburg, is a city the same size as Swansea and also has a literary reputation. It is a city that produced novelists Thomas Mann and Gunter Grass, as well as a German Chancellor, Willy Brandt, the leading proponent of detente between East and West during the Cold War. All three were Nobel laureates. Lubeck was also the centre of the Hanseatic League – a medieval precursor of the Common Market that bound together some 200 Northern European towns in trading and exploration that stretched from London and Bristol to Novgorod in Russia. Many of the marks of war on the town have been erased through the rebuilding of churches and the many merchants houses with their distinctive Dutch gables.
The League’s own mark on the town is there not only in its medieval Rathaus, the town hall, but also in yet another new museum – the European Hansemuseum – opened three years ago and which has already played host to a meeting of the G7. The building, in warm brick, was designed by German architect, Andreas Heller, and won for him one of Germany’s top design awards.
Unlike Cologne’s Kolumba, the Hansemuseum is up to the minute digital in its approach. Your ticket is programmed from the outset to trigger display screens in German, English, Swedish or Russian. It can even be programmed to follow particular themes. The displays are all beautifully designed. If there is a downside, the capacity of digital display is such that there is almost too much information to hand.
But this week there is something else that catches the eye. In another gallery is an exhibition titled Consensus, that explores Europe’s culture of political decision-making. It is one of Germany’s contributions to this year’s European Cultural Heritage Year. It draws a parallel between the 16th century Hansetag, the governing council of the Hanseatic League, and the working of the European Council 500 years later. Both worked or do work by seeking consensus, although even in the 16th century there were complaints that meetings were too frequent, time-consuming and expensive. It is true that the European Council has, in recent years, used qualified majority voting – something that was rejected by the Hansetag in the 14th century – but even so consensus is the preferred route.
In 1518, 42 envoys from 19 Hanseatic towns convened at Lubeck. London was also asked to send a representative, despite the fact that England was then ruled by Henry VIII, who might have a claim to be the arch-patron of Brexiteers. As with the current European Council, the Hansetag also worked in plenary and private sessions with the aim of producing a communiqué – the ‘recess’ – to be read out at the end of the session.
Consensus is not a panacea. It does not do away with conflict, but it does help manage it. The search for consensus also helps take into account the interests of smaller entities, whether the smaller towns of the Hanseatic League or the smaller countries of the European Union. It is a principle that should have a place in our own United Kingdom, even if those more inclined to rely on the power of majorities, whether small or large, are more likely to describe consensus as a fudge.
It is difficult to imagine an exhibition such as this – that gives a balanced view of the strengths and weaknesses the European Council – being mounted in our own country with its adversarial traditions, exacerbated by our first past the post voting system and, in Westminster and Stormont – though not in Cardiff and Edinburgh – by the shape of our debating chambers. Our own democracy is a far from perfect model. In these partisan times the value of consensus is surely worth pondering anew. Ironic that I have to travel to Germany to be reminded of that.
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