Begeistern. It’s one of my favourite German words. It means to inspire, to fill with enthusiasm but I find its etymology to be particularly stirring. Geist means spirit but it also connotes both breath and wind, so the word can be conceived as a moving force and as the essence of life. Hence begeistern literally translates as to have ones spirit moved – and that’s what happened to me last Saturday.
I went to Leipzig for a short meeting, then could hardly wrench myself away. In the sunshine strolling musicians busked outside the stunning 16th century Altes Rathaus. Students cycled past Saturday shoppers queuing for ice cream. Couples held hands outside Auerbachs Keller, a wine bar-cum-restaurant founded in 1525 and mentioned in Goethe’s Faust. At the Nikolaikirche speakers recalled the 1989 democratic revolution when East Germans protested against the communist regime, speeding the downfall of the Wall, re-making Leipzig as the Stadt der Helden (the city of heroes).
Leipzig – an hour south of Berlin on sleek, 190 kph ICE trains -- has always been of an independent frame of mind. It was long a rich trading capital, situated at the intersection of the Via Regia and Via Imperii during the days of the Holy Roman Empire. Its wealth (enhanced by the discover of silver in the Erzgebirge hills) enabled it to grow into an important centre of learning and culture. Bach lived in the city for almost thirty years. Wagner was born and Mendelssohn died here. Schumann and Grieg were frequent visitors. Johann Wolfgang Goethe studied at its university between 1765 and 1768.
On Saturday I stumbled in awe between the great men’s statues, from memorials to museums, through the Art Nouveau Mädlerpassage shopping arcade to the Apelshaus, where Peter the Great and Napoleon once stayed (not on the same night). At St. Thomas Church – where Bach had been choirmaster and director ‘musices lipsiensis’ – I happened upon a rehearsal of the St. Thomas' Boys Choir, their voices filling the building with a Bach cantata. As I listened I glanced at a plaque which noted that Martin Luther had preached in the church.
Leipzig begeistert me, nowhere more so than in the Zeitgeschichtliches Forum, a bold and moving museum which chronicles the history of communist East Germany. As the exhibition’s introductory text states, in the DDR ‘pretension and reality were far removed from each other’. To create a museum about the aspirations and collapse of a country was a task which required great courage and honesty. The Zeitgeschichtliches Forum Leipzig does not disappoint. Its exhibits include ubiquitous Trabants, uniforms and East German foodstuffs, as well as ex-president Wilhelm Pieck’s office furniture. Much more chilling – and revealing -- are the Stasi’s tools of espionage, the models of Iron Curtain border fortifications, the footage of Soviet tanks putting down the June 1953 general strike and original Leipzig 1989 protest placards. The exhibition impresses visitors not to forget the reality of the East Germany.
Too soon I had to catch the train back to Berlin. As the Stadt der Helden fell away behind me, I found myself scheming how soon I could return. If nothing else, I still had to visit Auerbach’s Cellar – out of which Faust had ridden on a flying wine barrel – to taste the spirit, the essence of Leipzig as Goethe once did.