One Hundred Years Ago, Lawrence of Arabia killed the Railroad – March 1923: Transjordan

Zur deutschen Fassung.

Not quite a hundred, but still more than thirty years ago, I was in Australia as an exchange student. I don’t think I have ever told stories from that time, because back then, we still took pictures on transparent rolls of film, which I can’t upload here as easily as digital photos. If any of you have a slide-to-digital conversion machine and are interested in my photos from the 1990s, please feel free to contact me. (The more academically inclined among the readers are quick to shout: “Oh no, not more of your personal anecdotes! We want to learn about history. Just like university, but funnier.” We’ll get to that, I promise.)

The best roll of film, the one I photographed while jetting over the Olgas in a small plane, unfortunately got torn anyway. This used to happen more often than not, because you had to rewind the films by hand, but not apply too much force. Other common problems were accidental exposure to light, water damage or confiscation by the border police.

This was just after the Second Gulf War. That was the one with Saddam Hussein, Norman Schwarzkopf, Colin Powell and so on, you probably remember. It was about Kuwait or about oil, which may have been the same thing. Some of these small states are nothing more than glorified gas stations, after all.

“Of course everyone remembers the glorious victory of the Iraqi heroes against the cowardly armies of the infidel dogs!”

The Propaganda Minister didn’t actually step onto the scene until the Third Gulf War, but he just brings back such fond chilhood memories. Like Maya the Bee. Or Vicky the Viking. By the way, I was never quite sure if Vicky was a boy or a girl, which today somebody would surely turn into a gender drama and want to ban it from television.

Anyway, at the time, the uncle of my Australian host family explained to me that everything that ever went wrong in the Middle and Far East was the fault of “some stupid fucking pommy.” The latter being an endearing Australian term for British people.

This blog and especially this little history series have been criticized for constantly blaming the Germans for all historical mischief. But today, for once, I am going along with the theory of British collective and total guilt. (But honestly: If the Germans had not defeated the Romans in the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest, Pontius Pilate would never have had such an exaggerated fear of the uprising in Palestine. And Jesus could still be alive!)

“It was the Germans with their bloody anti-Semitism who got me into this mess!”

You know what? If I have already stepped into controversial waters here, we might as well stick to Palestine.

So, originally the area east of the Mediterranean, also called the Levant, was of course Roman. You can see that when you walk along the beach there and come across Roman aqueducts and amphitheaters, for example in Caesarea in what is now Israel.

Caesarea aqueduct

Perhaps there was someone else before the Romans, but I can’t take that into account. If the Carthaginians, Hellenes, Macedonians, Seleucids, Ptolemies and Phoenicians do not have the decency to use legible Latin script, then they will stay on the sidelines of this story.

There, on the sidelines, we also have to leave the many details that may have occurred in the small time span between King Herod and World War I. To put it crudely: The Roman Empire collapsed and the League of Nations had to reorganize the world. (The League of Nations was the forerunner of the United Nations, only without the Cold War. Instead, it had a few other quirks, but who of us is without flaws?)

From the bankruptcy estate of the former great empires (Austria-Hungary, the Russian Empire and, in this case, the Ottoman Empire), many new countries were founded in this period immediately after World War I. We have already covered examples such as Czechoslovakia, the Free State of Fiume, the Kingdom of Mongolia, Finland, Baranya-Baja and Tannu-Tuva, Hungary and Greater Romania.

“Self-determination of peoples” was the buzzword of the time, and anyone who wanted to could declare independence. Well, at least every white European. (The Mongols benefited from their collaboration with the Nazis.)

On the other continents, things were slightly more complicated.

For sub-Saharan Africa, the Europeans agreed that such complicated things like independence, countries and administration were not for Africans. “They don’t really want to be bothered with all that,” said the colonial masters, just as today the representatives of the export industry say that one should “not impose Western values on the world.” As if the Chinese would gladly let themselves be tortured and imprisoned so that Volkswagen and Apple can make even higher profits. Cynical nonsense.

In the Middle East, people could not be so easily labeled as subhuman. After all, they had invented mathematics, medicine, agriculture, astronomy, the Bible and beer.

“Put away the saffron; it’s against the Reinheitsgebot!”

In the Ottoman Empire, they even had railroads already. Many, great, beautiful railroads. To almost every place you’d ever want to visit in your lifetime.

Most likely, you are familiar with the Orient Express, if only from Agatha Christie’s crime novel or one of its many film adaptations.

No wait, sorry, wrong murder on the wrong train! Here is the one:

Less known (and with no film adaptations at all) is the Balkanzug, a German-Imperial competitor train, connecting Berlin with Constantinople exclusively across the territory of allied countries.

But once you go to to the Bosporus, the real fun was just about to start.

Having advanced through the Anatolian mountains to Aleppo (marked on the above map with the Turkish name of the city: Haleb), one could hop on the Baghdad Railway and chug through Mosul to Baghdad, Babylon and Basra on the Persian Gulf. This delighted the beach tourists, albeit a few decades late because construction was repeatedly interrupted.

But then, it was a complicated engineering project. For that reason, the Ottomans handed it over to the Siemens Corporation from Germany. Or maybe that was due to bribes, one of the core competencies of Siemens AG until this day. (When asked which countries are the most corrupt, I don’t know why Germany doesn’t come to people’s mind. At least half of the companies in the main stock market index DAX have been involved in criminal activities.)

For those more interested in prayers than in parties on the beach, you could get the train towards the south from Aleppo, going to Damascus, Haifa, Jerusalem and Medina. The last section to Mecca, which was really the reason for the entire project, was never realized because – well, we are going to get to that later. But you can already guess that the British are to blame.

I have personally been to the old strain stations in Damascus and in Jerusalem, both of which don’t look very active any longer. And they are not even connected with each other anymore. Maybe it’s true when people say that everything used be better in the good old days.

That project, the Hejaz Railway, was also managed by Germans, including Heinrich August Meissner and Paul Levy. The latter suffered a tragic fate. As a railway engineer (rising to the rank of director) of the German Reichsbahn, he was deported to Auschwitz concentration camp by the same German Reichsbahn in 1943. – As I have been telling you many times: Don’t ever think that your employer is your friend.

Now you will understand the historical background when you come across small train stations while hiking in the Arabian desert next weekend, wondering why they look exactly like those in the Neckar Valley or in Franconia. Even with pitched roofs against the snow and chimneys against the harsh winters. You never know with this capricious climate. (This is typicsl of Siemens. They even cheat when building a railroad to the Holy Prophet.)

The photos are from this website, which lists all the stations on the route from Damascus to Medina, including the sad railroad cemeteries. (You can really find railroad freaks all over the world, which emphasizes the cosmopolitan and peace-building nature of this mode of transportation.)

Speaking of friendship between the peoples of the world: We had been talking about the division of said world after the Great War, with which, as this series shows month after month, so much
began that has scarcely yet left off beginning. And – that’s actually what the little excursion into the history of the railway was supposed to illustrate – I had just been explaining why the Europeans were not able to subjugate the Arabs quite as obviously as they did the Africans.

The solution was that certain territories were effectively declared minors: They were to be granted independence at some point, in the distant future. But because they were not yet ready, they were declared protectorates or mandates in the meantime. Grown-up states were to be placed at their side, like a guardian.

In the Middle East, France and Great Britain took on this burden. Together, they bent over a map and drew the Sykes-Picot Line. Just like that. “It’s all sand anyway,” the diplomats thought, because they had no idea about Sunnis, Shiites, Druze, Kurds, Zoroastrians, Sufis, Copts, Marsh Arabs, Mandaeans, Alawites, Chaldeans, Nubians, Yazidis, Jews, Arameans, Assyrians, Berbers and the Templars.

That’s what the gentleman from Australia had alluded to.

Europeans, who proudly declare every old compost heap to be a Celtic wall, had never heard of places of advanced civilization like Philae, Hegra, Ctesiphon or Hatra. And let’s be honest: Who of us knows any of the places? (The pictures are listed in the sequence of the place names.)

One of these conferences at which Europeans sought to plant the seeds for future Middle East conflicts took place in San Remo, Italy, in April 1920. France took guardianship of the territory that would later become Lebanon and Syria. Great Britain took charge of the area that would later become Israel, Palestine, Jordan, Iraq and Kuwait.

The British territory was larger. In return, France received a quarter of the oil produced in northern Iraq (the province of Mosul). In general, one could almost get the impression that the great powers were more concerned with oil than with the development of statehood, but we don’t want to become cynical here. Surely, they were driven by purely noble intentions. (Besides, France soon invented atomic energy and was thus able to withdraw from the Middle East. For uranium, Africa is much more important.)

Because the conference took place in San Remo and because the Western states divided up the Middle East among themselves like a pizza, “San Remo” is still a popular name for pizza parlors today. And that’s why pizzas – in contravention of the mandatory EU-wide decimal system – may still be cut according to the British-imperial hexal, octal or duodecimal system. (This is part of the popular series “Facts you’re surprised you haven’t noticed yourself”.)

The Kurds did not find this funny at all, because yet again, they had missed out on statehood. But this might be a topic for July 1923, when we deal with the Treaty of Lausanne. The Armenians did not find this funny at all. But most of them were dead. The Jews did not find this funny at all, especially when the Arabs suddenly became best friends with the Nazis. But that’s another story.

There were always problems in the British Mandate for Palestine. The Jews wanted a country. The PLO wanted a country. Hamas did not want a country, but didn’t want the PLO or the Jews to have a country either. The Pope wanted control of Jerusalem. The people from Jerusalem complained that the people from Tel Aviv were partying too loud. The Austrians were getting involved. Yogurt prices were going up. Every day, nothing but problems.

Say what you will about the British, but they do have education. So they remembered the old Roman motto “divide et impera” from Latin class and thought: “We’ll do it like in Ireland or in India. We divide the land and let the people fight each other.” The whole thing was an idea by Winston Churchill, who was British colonial minister at the time. We already got to know him in this role.

The British divided the Mandate territory of Palestine along the Jordan River into Cisjordan (today’s Israel and Palestine) and Transjordan (today’s Jordan). This river, by the way, is a disappointingly small trickle. You always read about it in the Bible and in the Tanakh, in the Old Testament and in the New Testament. And once you get there, the river is so meager and tepid that you could easily cross it on foot. But you don’t want to suddenly appear like a prophet, just because of some stupid water crossing story. Nobody needs that kind of stress.

Transjordan became an autonomous emirate and was handed to the Hashemite family. They are directly descended from the great-grandfather of the Prophet Muhammad, but if you have ever been to the Orient, you know that everyone is directly descended from the Prophet Muhammad or one of his relatives, friends or companions. Just like in New England, everyone is descended from the Pilgrim Fathers. And in Europe, everyone is descended from Charlemagne.

During World War II, the Jordanian emir supported the Allies against the Nazis. This was quite remarkable, because Iraq, ruled by his Hashemite brother (also installed by the British), was more on the side of the Nazis, at least at times. (This episode is too convoluted even for me, who is generally not afraid of bouncing back and forth all over the timeline and the world map.) Abdallah was promoted to king in 1946, and Transjordan became the independent Kingdom of Jordan.

This seems to have gotten to King Abdallah’s head, and he went on a crazy spree. A few hours after the state of Israel was established, Jordan (along with Egypt, Syria, Lebanon and Iraq) attacked its new neighbor and annexed the West Bank and East Jerusalem. King Abdallah had himself proclaimed “King of all Palestinians,” but was then shot in Jerusalem in 1951. By a Palestinian. From the circle of the Nazi Mufti, whom you saw above having tea with Adolf Hitler. (Perhaps the Germans are to blame for the Middle East conflict after all?) The king bled to death in the arms of an Austrian nurse. (Austria is not as innocent either as it always pretends to be.)

By the way, I once met Queen Noor of Jordan. It was 2009, and I was studying economics at the London School of Economics. I dropped out later because mathematics in English was too difficult. It’s funny, because I was studying philosophy in English at the same time, and I would have been willing to bet that philosophy in a foreign language is more complicated than mathematics. But then, it was rather advanced mathematics. On top of that, they were using these stupid British units of measurement, like ounces and shillings.

Anyway, at LSE there were lectures every evening, often with famous speakers, some of them even interesting. And one evening, there was a talk about the abolition of nuclear weapons. It was November and London, therefore cold and rainy, and I didn’t feel like going back to my little mouse-infested room in Tottenham. (I didn’t want to tell the landlord about the mice after he had killed the first ones and said that the dead mice had to be left in the hallway as a deterrent. They looked like the guinea pigs that people eat in Peru.)

Abolishing nuclear weapons was a topic close to my heart in 2009. Because in April of that year, I had been in Prague to attend Barack Obama’s speech in which he presented his plan for a world free of nuclear weapons. And on the train there – it was a coincidence, I swear – I had met three Iranian lawyers who were also headed to Prague, because they had an appointment with Hillary Clinton. Something about human rights. And two months later, in June 2009, the Green Revolution erupted in Iran (unfortunately just as unsuccessful as the nuclear abolition plan).

Better to be beaten up than to be shot at.

As you can tell, I was a bit interested in politics at the time, so I flew to Iran, went to demonstrations, got beaten up by the police, dodged sniper bullets, and was ultimately arrested along with one of the Iranian lawyers.

Naturally, we were detained and interrogated separately. (I didn’t meet him again until years later.) But there’s no point in lying if you can’t assume that the other person is making up exactly the same lie. So I had to tell the truth when asked how we had met:

“On the train from Amberg to Prague.”

“And why did you travel to Prague?”

“I wanted to attend a speech by Barack Obama.”

You should have seen the looks on the faces of the Iranian intelligence officers in the room! Frankly, I didn’t see them myself. I was blindfolded the whole time. Anyway, what followed was a very intense questioning about why the U.S. president had invited me of all people to his speech (it was a public event), what he had said (it was in the newspaper and probably on YouTube), and about my personal opinion on Iran’s nuclear program. The ensuing discussion was so interesting that I am saving it for the book I may one day write about this little episode.

My lawyer and prison friend, Mohammad Mostafaei, has written a book, so far only available in Norwegian. But I have heard that Norwegian is very easy to learn. If the country wasn’t so expensive, I could try studying mathematics there again. But I think I’ll do sociology in Spanish first.

By the way, the first room in which I lived in London was smaller than the cell at Evin prison. That shows you how crazy the real estate market there is. But then, the whole idea of private land ownership is rather crazy.

In any case, that’s why I didn’t want to go home that night and stayed at university instead. I was quite puzzled when armed bodyguards were present in the lecture hall. And that a talk about abolishing nuclear weapons drew such a large crowd. And that everyone wanted to get a selfie with one of the speakers. – Especially in the UK, where people get to see a Queen every day. Every time they lick a stamp or hold a banknote in their hand. By the way, all the money and stamps have to be destroyed and reprinted now. And over 100,000 mailboxes in the country have to be replaced because the Queen’s initials are on them, which the new king obviously can’t tolerate.

Whoa, now I really digressed big-time!

Almost like Švejk. But he had the excuse of alcohol, at least.

This little history series is really supposed to be about events that took place exactly 100 years ago. So it is rather fitting that on 25 March 1923, the formal separation of Cis- and Transjordan took place, finally providing us with the date which serves as the pretext for these far-fetched connections. But on this blog, after all, we are always more about the big picture. The context of humanity. The rail tracks on which the train of world history is roaring forward.

If only that train were still going.

Alas, it is lying in the desert sand, rusting instead of roaring. For the last 100 years.

Because the First World War, the end of the Ottoman Empire, the division of the region into new areas, territories and states, all this sealed the end of the railroad.

Ad it was this man’s fault: Thomas Edward Lawrence, a British officer in World War I, later known (and turned into a movie) as “Lawrence of Arabia.” He was an avid motorcyclist and had an almost pathological loathing for railroads.

The railroad, in Lawrence’s view, was an instrument by which the peasantry and the petit bourgeoisie could go on journeys and adventures to which they were not entitled. “Any housewife from Hackney can now visit the holy sites” and “soon, they’ll have Tupperware trips to Tripoli,” he raged, blowing up railroad bridges, embankments, and trains.

The psychopath with the methods of a terrorist had managed to sell his personal crusade against the railway as politically advantageous to the British Crown. The argument went like this: Great Britain was at war with Germany. The Ottoman Empire was allied with Germany. So you hurt Germany by hurting the Ottomans. The Ottomans ruled the entire Middle East, from Cairo to Karbala. So the British would equip the Bedouins living there with weapons and incite guerrilla warfare. The Ottomans would have to send troops into the desert, thus being left with fewer troops to support the Germans at Ypres or Verdun. That’s the short version.

Because Lawrence promised the Bedouins and the Arabs that they would all get their own states and become kings, they played along. Moreover, the Bedouins in the Arabian desert had always been against the railroad, because they used to enjoy a monopoly on pilgrim caravans to Mecca and Medina. They also had a monopoly for transporting goods to cities that could not be reached by ship. So the railroad was bad for their camel business.

The British and French were not only concerned with the war (which would never have been ignited in the Middle East without them in the first place). They were also suspicious of the railroad to the holy sites of Islam because it made it easier for Muslims from their colonies (from Algeria to Kashmir) to make the hajj, the pilgrimage. Islam at that time was different from the one we know now, where mosques wait peacefully in front of the railroad crossing. At that time, mosques were meeting places for the political opposition, for burgeoning liberation movements, even for revolutionaries. The Muslim Brotherhood is probably the best-known example.

And after World War I, oil also began to play a role.

If, like Saudi Arabia, which was established in its current form only in 1932, you live exclusively off petroleum and diesel, you naturally have no interest in rebuilding the railroad.

Not unlike the murder on the Orient Express, the Hejaz and Baghdad Railway died from many stabs, carried out by many hands, for a bewildering array of reasons.

And thus, 100 years after World War I, derailed locomotives are still lying in the desert. The drier the climate, the longer the old stuff lasts. Like in the ghost town in the Atacama Desert, where even decades later it looks as if the population had only left yesterday. I even found a few locomotives there, which provides at least some thematic connection in all this otherwise nonsensical jumping from continent to continent.

With the new countries that emerged after World War I, the memory of the common past, when they had all been part of one large rail network, quickly faded. The countries wanted to create their own national identities; cultural exchange was not desired. Peace was no longer dependent on good relations with neighbors, but on good relations with London or Paris, later with Washington or Moscow. No Arab wanted to take the train through Israel, no Jew wanted to take the train through Syria to Iraq. Most borders were sealed. Hostile minefields instead of generous train station buffets.

And thus disappeared the good old world, when you could buy a ticket to Baghdad at the train station in Bromley, Braunschweig or Brno without any trouble. Try that today! Dunkirk-Diyarbakir-Damascus or Aarhus-Aleppo-Amann are also no longer offered.

Today, if you want to visit the historical sites in Mesopotamia, you have to hitchhike. (Oh yes, that is possible in the Middle East. Example 1, example 2, example 3 and hopefully, some day, example 4 on this blog.)

Among the desert cities listed above, you may have missed one. The only one that is really known all over the world: Petra, the capital of the Nabataeans, in what is now Jordan.

I have even been there myself. It has become a bit touristy since the Hashemites took over from the Nabataeans. But maybe that’s the fault of UNESCO. I mean, these guys are interfering everywhere instead of fighting world hunger. The people of Dresden have something to say about this.

And I have to admit, even if I like to skip tourist highlights and take the routes off the beaten track instead: Petra is absolutely worth the visit. It’s not just the one canyon and the one temple you know from TV. There are dozens of magnificent buildings spread across several valleys. And you can climb around pretty much unsupervised and find a quiet spot on the roof of an ancient palace where, in the setting sun, you can ponder the transience of advanced civilizations.

I went to Petra with two friends. Because all three of us were lawyers, we could even afford a rental car. I was the oldest (which happens to me quite often), so I was supposed to drive and navigate (which happens less and less). I knew we needed to head north from Aqaba, and then surely a sign would point to the World Heritage Site. Easy peasy.

Unfortunately, I took the wrong exit at the very first roundabout and drove onto road no. 65, which goes north very close to the Jordan River. The direction was right, but it was a restricted military area.

Soon, we came to a checkpoint with Jordanian soldiers, who told us in a friendly way that this road was sadly and unfortunately closed to foreigners. But at that time, there was some European or World Soccer Cup, and when they realized that we were from Germany, they only wanted to talk about soccer.

“Where do you want to go?” they asked at one point.

“To Petra.”

“Hm. Wrong road.”

“But this is going north, isn’t it?” I asked, to show that we could talk from professional to expert.

“Yes, but only for military vehicles. Also, there is no road connecting this road and Wadi Musa. So you’re approaching Petra from the wrong side.”

I said nothing.

The soldiers conferred until one said, “If you turn back now, you will lose a lot of time. So we’ll let you through and radio the next checkpoint. Just tell each of the checkpoints that you want to go to Petra. The guys will point you in the right direction.”

No sooner said than done. Two more checkpoints, and at the last one, I received instructions to drive exactly 3 more kilometers after the village of Ar-Rishah, and then turn right onto a desert path that would take us to the correct road after about 20 kilometers.

On the photo you can see the military road in the background, the “desert path” branching off from it (if I had missed that, nobody could blame me, right?), the vehicle not exactly designed for such trips, and me on a hill to explore the area and hopefully spot a route. (This was all in the days before GPS and cell phones and such.)

Most likely, my friends took the photo because they were struck by a sense of impending death and wanted to convey to posterity who was to blame. We almost got stuck in the sand a couple of times. We ran out of water. When I drove through a flock of sheep, the shepherd was not pleased and shot into the air. The car steamed and hissed. But finally we found our way back onto a paved road, road no. 35, the correct, official route to Petra. Great relief! (The friends from back then are still friends, which is really what matters most.)

Anyway, I can tell you that I have rarely been in a country with such friendly and humorous soldiers and border guards. Although we were in Jordan for only one day, I have kept the country in extremely positive memory. I should really visit again, maybe to walk that long hiking trail.

And from Amman, an 80 kilometer long section of the Hejaz Railroad still works. With the original carriages even, it seems.

Let’s hope that there won’t be some other mad Englishman wandering by and blowing up this last piece of train history.


Posted in History, Iran, Islam, Israel, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Technology, Travel, UK, World War I | Tagged , , , , | 13 Comments

Hiking on the First Day of Spring

Zur deutschen Fassung.

Whatever the weather forecast, the calendar, meteorologists or theologians say – for me, yesterday was the first day of spring.

And so I went for a hike:

  • From Müggelheim to Gosen, thus crossing the state line from Berlin to Brandenburg.
  • Always along the shore of Lake Seddin, until I reached the Oder-Spree-Canal, which leads to wonderful Eisenhüttenstadt.
  • From Wernsdorf to Neu-Zittau I hitchhiked for a few kilometers; thanks to the two friendly guys from Müggelheim who gave me a ride!
  • And then I continued on foot to Erkner, which prides itself on Gerhart Hauptmann having lived there for a few years. Apart from that, well, let’s say there are more beautiful towns in Brandenburg.

As always in this area, plenty of water, requiring large detours on foot for what looks like a short distance on the map. Around here, a boat license is really more useful than a driving license.

But maybe this problem will dissipate when the Tesla factory in Grünheide, the next village, will take out all the groundwater. We really should rely more on ships rather than on cars. After all, we already have all the canals, and on those, you can get to almost anywhere in Europe.


Posted in Germany, Photography, Travel | Tagged | 7 Comments

One Hundred Years Ago – the episodes you missed in 2022

Writing two blogs, one in German and one in English, is a lot of work. Not quite twice the work as writing one blog, because I can use the same photos twice. But it’s more work than some might think. Because my articles in English cannot be a simple translation of the German original. No, I need to change the links, reinvent the jokes, come up with new metaphors and alliterations, and explain things for one group of readers which another part of the esteemed readership might already know. After all, readers from the Bayou come with a different background than those in Bavaria.

Some articles – or parts thereof – are practically untranslatable. There are things that only work in one language, and not in the other. Knowing two languages very well is also to know the limitations of each and not to try brute force, as machine translation would do.

One example is the episode for February 1922, which I wrote on my German blog: one 2,180-word sentence, which would read completely stilted, unnatural and horrible in English, but which in German sounds as melodic as the birdsong of sultry sirens. (The Greek sirens, not air-raid sirens, mind you.) I guess it’s no coincidence that the occasion for it, the Day of the Convoluted Multi-Clause Sentence, celebrated or, I should, in line with readers’ justified expectations regarding this blog, be completely honest, open and forthcoming, mostly ignored on the 25th day of the, for reasons having to do with misgivings between Julius Caesar and Pope Gregory XIII and their respective ways of measuring time, unusually short month of February, hasn’t been adopted worldwide.

Lastly, I often simply lack the time (or energy) to write two versions of the same article. After researching, thinking and writing about a topic for several days, it can feel tedious or tiring to spend another day translating it. Especially when my mind is already toying with ideas for new stories instead.

For these reasons, there has been quite a gap in the English-language episodes of this little history series “One Hundred Years Ago …”. For those of you who either speak German or are not intimidated by the mediocre qualities of machine translation, I shall point you to the episodes that you may have missed in 2022.

In April 1922 (or really in April 2022), I covered the long, slow and arduous history of trying to decriminalize homosexuality in Germany, as ever slightly complicated the existence of quite a number of different Germanys in the past 100 years. Although already debated in 1922 (and before), including in parliament, homosexuality was only decriminalized in West Germany in 1994. (East Germany had long ago legalized it, and reunification talks almost collapsed over this issue. In the end, East Germany negotiated an exception from federal criminal law.)

“Now, don’t get reunited too much, guys.”

In May 1922, Germans were outraged not so much about French and Belgian occupation of parts of their country (which would widen in January 1923), but by the occupying powers using – oh, gosh! – African soldiers.

Of course, Germany had also used African soldiers in its colonies and in World War I. But when did logic ever stop racism?

Germans started a nationwide, and indeed international, racist campaign, inventing many of the stereotypes that are still around today: Africans bring disease, Africans rape women, Africans are generally inferior, bla bla bla. Maybe the worst thing about this campaign was that it was not some losers on Facebook, but actual government agencies who orchestrated it. They printed racist pamphlets and newspapers, they ran racist movies, and they tried to rally international opinion. Not quite unsuccessfully, sadly.

And maybe there is a direct line from there to November 1922, when a certain Adolf Hitler made his first appearance. Noticed by the domestic and the international press, he was initially dismissed as a loudmouth, a rabble-rouser, an agitator with no substance, a mere local and passing phenomenon.

How wrong they were, as we know now. Not for the last time, either.

Come to think of it, maybe I didn’t deem it worthwhile to translate these articles, because I thought that German history wouldn’t attract too much interest beyond this little country. (Now considerably littler than in 1922, for reasons not wholly unconnected.) Sadly, though, in the early 1920s, Germany was where the action was. And, naturally, it’s the country that I know most about.

But in December 1922, when I covered the polar expedition of Fridtjof Nansen, there was really no excuse, except that by the end of the year, I had run out of time to translate that article jumping back and forth between Yetis and passports, Mongolia and climate change.

For 1923, I hope to cover more international topics again, of interest to readers on all continents, from Sumatra to Suriname, from Alaska to Australia, from Buenos Aires to Baikonur. – Or machine translation will become so good that I will simply ask you to subscribe to the blog in German. ;-)


Posted in Germany, History, Language | Tagged , , | 6 Comments

Gastronom No. 4

If you can’t afford shopping at the delicatessen store Gastronom No. 1 or if, for political and moral reasons, you don’t want to travel to Moscow right now, I can recommend Gastronom No. 4 in Solotvyno in Ukraine instead.

It’s not quite as fancy as their flagship store, but they really have everything that you need.

I personally like the method of simply numbering shops, restaurants, schools, universities and hospitals, even law firms if you want, instead of some marketing guru having to come up with a semi-creative, but non-descriptive name. This method also boasts greater long-term durability than the strange habit of naming institutions after (more or less) famous people, which, decades later, will often spark a debate about re-naming.


Posted in Food, Photography, Ukraine | Tagged | Leave a comment

Müggelheim, where Berlin looks like Sweden

Zur deutschen Fassung.

Staying in Berlin for two months, I get plenty of calls from readers, fans, friends and foes who happen to live in Berlin and want to meet up in person.

“So, where in Berlin are you?” they ask.

“Müggelheim”, I reply.

Most of them have never heard of it.

Then, they look at a map or whatever electric equivalent of maps people use nowadays, and they say “oh, that’s terribly far”. Which is kind of a weird statement, because the concept of “far” is relative, and surely, Müggelheim is closer than Samarkand or Saigon. (Although, I have to admit, the latter two can at least be reached by train. For Müggelheim, you have to take bus no. 169 from Köpenick.)

In any case, the people who called me are suddenly very busy, lose interest or have a family/work/health emergency.

Well, their loss and my gain, because it gives me more time to enjoy a part of Berlin that most Berliners never set foot in. They are missing out on a natural reserve, full of pine and birch forests, dotted with lakes and hills, crisscrossed by canals, and so peaceful, you can’t imagine that you are still in a city with 3.6 million people.

In fact, whenever I leave the house (the forest begins right there), I feel like I am in Sweden or on the Curonian Spit.

Because of the similarity to the Baltic Sea, there are even Vikings, rowing to ransack Rahnsdorf.

But of course they are no match for the Water Police.

Even the public transport happens by ferry, like in Stockholm.

And the best thing? While there is a Water Police, there ain’t no Fashion Police, so you can go about your daily business in jogging pants. Even if it’s a very serious business, like sitting in the forest and reading books.

It’s a tough job, but somebody has to do it.

Many people who live in the countryside tell me that they could never live in a city like Berlin, with all its noise and traffic and violence and drugs. I have no idea what they are talking about.

You do have to watch out for sharks in Müggel Lake, though.


Posted in Germany, Photography | Tagged , , | 14 Comments

Journey to the Center of Europe – Kremnica, Slovakia

Zur deutschen Fassung.

For the project “Journey to the Center of Europe”, I am going to visit all the places that have ever laid claim to being the geographical center of Europe or the European Union. And write about them.

This time, we are going to visit a country which half of you will miss on your road trip around Europe, because you will confuse it with Slovenia. We are going to Slovakia, though. But then, it doesn’t really matter where you end up, because both of these countries are among the most beautiful ones in Europe.

Many of the places that claim to be the geographical center of Europe are surprisingly out of the way.

The train ride to Kremnica in Slovakia positively celebrates this remoteness. At about 50 km/h, the train puffs up a winding track, going nothing but uphill. I’m deep in the mountains. Deep in the clouds even. The train stops at lonely stations, from where passengers still have to walk several kilometers to their mountain villages. Each time the train doors open, the air blowing in feels a few degrees colder. A couple wraps a blanket around their dog for protection.

After one hour on the train, I have covered the 35 kilometers from Zvolen to Kremnica.

The walk from the station to the town takes another hour and is even steeper than the railroad. But now it’s downhill, because the town lies in the valley, while the railroad steams from peak to peak in an engineering feat reminiscent of the Semmering Railway. I don’t know if this is very practical, but it does allow an overall view of the town and the surrounding scenery. Both of them equally appealing.

The difference in altitude between the town and its train station is almost as much as in La Paz, where you have to traverse an entire kilometer of difference in altitude, and thus difference in temperature, even climate, between the lowest and highest parts of the town. But in La Paz they have cable cars for that purpose. Not so in Kremnica. The people here must be quite athletic.

The path from the station to the town is so long, steep and far that it is lined with small rest houses. Unfortunately without catering. Experienced travelers would have brought provisions, but I am proof that you can travel a lot and still make the same mistake over and over again.

It’s a Saturday afternoon and all the stores are already closed. The supermarket: closed. The bakery: closed. The little grocery store on the other side of a small stream: closed. The whole town seems deserted.

Only two houses have lights in them, the town hall and the cultural center. And only one chimney is smoking, on the cinema. I like that, especially because, according to the relief on the wall of the cinema, they are still showing communist partisan movies.

Here I could get to know the local intelligentsia. But, as my colleague Bertolt Brecht put it: Before culture, you need to consume some food. A walk through the empty town, which ends in front of many closed shop doors and with a desperate look at the opening hours advertised there, reveals that a different biorhythm prevails in the mountains. The stores here open from 5:30 a.m., but close early in the afternoon.

I’m already preparing to survive a whole night solely on fresh mountain air and the books I’ve brought with me, when, on my way to the accommodation, I notice one small store still offering its wares beyond the otherwise locally accepted operating hours. It’s the liquor store. Or rather the one liquor store that has taken over the 24-hour emergency service for today.

“Better a beer than no calories at all,” I am thinking to myself, confident that Bertolt Brecht must have said something similar once. And then, between all the casks and kegs, the girl behind the counter even finds a bag of chips. Hallelujah!

The next morning, the clouds have cleared, the rain has evaporated, the cold has given way, and Kremnica lies before me like a fairy-tale town in perfect sunshine.

This is it, golden October, perhaps the last beautiful days of the year. I should be looking for the geographical center of Europe, that’s why I’m here, that’s what you came along for. It’s supposed to be by a small church a few kilometers outside of Kremnica. Very officially, confirmed by Romano Prodi. (If you don’t know him, you are too young for this blog. Sorry).

However, this highly significant place will have to wait. Because I feel more energy than I have in weeks, and an irrepressible desire for nature and for hiking. Kremnica is surrounded by mountains, each of them more tempting than the next.

But only one is called Kalvária.

A word that can be understood in any language, thanks to Latinization and Christianization. I do not want to descend from the high intellectual horse down to common hiking tips, but one thing I have learned during my wanderings around the world: Where there is a Mount Calvary, you better climb up and enjoy the spiritual edification (for Christians) or the beautiful view (for atheists, agnostics, pagans and heretics). In fact, Christians can also enjoy the view, as long as they are not puritans.

The view from Golgotha is wonderful, that much even Jesus knew. A sea of clouds retreats slowly between the perfectly curved hills, as if it wants to reveal the beauty of Slovakia very carefully, so that I – and presumably most of the readership – is wondering why we haven’t visited the Kremnica Mountains, the Great Fatra, the Western Carpathians and Slovakia before. Especially as it is so easily accessible, right in the center of Europe.

Ah yes, the center of Europe, that’s why we are here after all: Far away on the horizon, to the north, I spot a small church that looks suspiciously like the exact and geodesically determined point without which I would never have come to this intoxicatingly beautiful place.

Whatever you can spot with the naked eye, you can also hike in one day. Hopefully, the photos give you an impression of the following hours, which I was walking through forests and across hills, with a general uphill tendency towards Kremnické Bane.

In the small church there I learn that the village is also called Johannesberg, a German name. The inscription of the stations of the cross is bilingual, Slovak and German. The outline about the history of the church is bilingual, Slovak and German. The war memorial is monolingual, German only. It was the Germans and Austrians who wanted World War I, but the Czechs and Slovaks ended up with their own country as a result.

It was also the Germans and Austrians who wanted World War II. At the end of that one, they were expelled from Czechoslovakia, out of revenge. At least most of them. Near Kremnica there is said to be a village where even today, so many Germans live that German is the second official language: Krahule (in Slovak) or Blaufuss (in German).

But first, let’s get to the final climb to the little church where I suspect the geographical center of Europe to be. I am excited, but don’t expect too much, because some of these carefully measured midpoints are quite unspectacular. It’s probably like reaching the North or South Pole after you’ve struggled 2,000 km through ice and snow. And then there’s just a little menhir in a field.

But what a view!

Strictly speaking, if you want to believe in such suspicious coincidences, the geographical center of Europe is exactly where the church is located. Details are not given, but a sign claims that this is the oldest center of Europe. So it probably dates back to a time when people didn’t even know how far Europe extends, possibly before the discovery of the Canary Islands or the Azores.

The church itself is also a central point. It stands on an open field because the five surrounding villages could not afford their own church in the 14th century and therefore built a communal church on this equidistant point. I praise such frugality and cooperation. Better than today, when not only every village, but also Catholics, Protestants, Unitarians, Mormons, Baptists, Seventh Day Adventists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, New Apostolics, and the Brotherhood of the Holy Spirit each want their own church.

Even the esotericists have already been here, because another sign in front of the church warns:

Here you can see yourself as you really are. As the centre of your life. As the centre of all the action around you. Material and spiritual. Your life is all yours. Live it. Stop waiting for a more suitable moment. The best moment is now. The best place is here. Start. Live. As Barbora lived. Her decisions resulted in torture and death. Your decision may mean for you the beginning of a new life. It may be filled with struggle, fight against your embodied patterns of behaviour.

Among all esotericists, Christian esotericists are the most annoying ones. They always want to crucify or torture or stone someone to death. And it seems to me that we already have far too many people who think of themselves as the center of the universe. That’s a worldview which really doesn’t need more encouragement.

But there is also an official memorial stone. And a fountain, spouting euro coins, unfortunately already turned off for winter. Financially, I always have bad luck on my trips. Well, it’s going to be another hobo lunch then, instead of a business lunch. But a very comfortable one, lying in the meadow, listening to the twelve o’clock chime, enjoying the sun, and letting all doubts about the validity of the local claim to be the center of the continent to be whisked away by the clouds. I am just happy that this absurd project led me to discover one of the most beautiful places in Europe.

On the map, I see that the aforementioned village of Krahule/Blaufuss is only a few kilometers away, always uphill. I try to hitchhike, but none of the drivers stop. The man on the bicycle does not stop. The girl on the horse does not stop.

So I finally reach Krahule/Blaufuss on foot, where I have to realize that my information seems to be outdated. I do not catch sight of any signs in German. No sign of “Blaufuss”. The sign with the history of the place is exclusively in Slovak. As is the sign pointing to the petting zoo. The only thing in German are the gravestones in the cemetery.

I can’t read the sign with the bear, but I guess it asks hikers to take some food for these cute animals when walking into the forest. Therefore – and because I am already quite hungry myself – I look for a shop or a restaurant. To no avail. The only thing I discover is a small pub. Two men are sitting over what seems to be neither their first nor their last beer of the day. On the TV in the saloon, they are watching the James Bond movie “Quantum of Solace”, dubbed in Slovak or Czech. I don’t even know if there is much difference between the two languages. Probably not. After all, the two peoples and parts of the country must have understood each other well before their amicable divorce in 1992. Maybe this is one of those job-creation programs for translators, like the splitting of Serbo-Croatian into four languages.

In any case, I ask if there’s something to eat.

“No,” says the girl behind the counter.

“Too bad,” I say, but this discreet reference to my empty stomach doesn’t make the young lady reconsider her gastronomic offer.

“Do you have a Coke?” I ask, trying to get at least a few colaries.

“No,” says the barmaid, “we only serve alcoholic drinks.”

The two James Bond fans chuckle.

“I see a bottle of Coke behind you,” I remark with my eye trained on discovering Coca Cola even in the farthest corners of the world.

“That’s for Whiskey and Coke,” the beverage specialist replies in a tone as if the consumption of unadulterated Coca Cola is against the law. The grim look on the faces of the two men in lumberjack shirts does actually suggest a violation of some unwritten municipal regulation. “Kanun” is what we experts call it, and it can end up deadly.

Only my reference to the hike of several hours, which I have both behind and ahead of me, softens the rules, and I am granted a small ration. There will probably be a little more whiskey in the Whiskey and Coke later tonight. But I can’t imagine that anyone will mind.

Krahule/Blaufuss is a small village. There is not much going on here, but the ski lifts promise that this will change in the winter months.

Unless climate change interferes and the skis can only be used for decoration.

If you know my blog, you know, fear and often curse that my wanderings are merely a pretext for historical digressions. I have already touched on the history of Czechoslovakia elsewhere (for example in Plzen or in the article about Švejk). Especially in Kremnica, whose population before World War I consisted of one third Slovaks, one third Hungarians and one third Germans, there would be the perfect opportunity to talk about the German-Czechoslovak relations, from the Sudeten crisis to the expulsions after the so-called Beneš decrees.

But because an amazing number of centers of Europe are located on the territory of the Czech Republic, there will be plenty of reason to do so. And the Hungarian Trianon trauma will soon get its own article anyway.

Besides, the attentive ones among you have already spotted during the hike that there is another topic of outstanding historical importance in and around Kremnica: mining.

But before we descend into the dark and humid depths of the earth, a few photos from the hike from Krahule/Blaufuss back to Kremnica/Kremnitz/Körmöcbánya.

In this region, you can walk in any direction, climb any mountain, you just can’t find an unpleasant spot! I didn’t meet any of the promised bears, though. Too bad, because I get along quite well with these cuddly animals. But then I should, after all I work with animals professionally.

Less professional is my approach to the concept of getting to the point quickly, because it is only now, after more than 2,000 words have been spilled and wasted, that I mention why Kremnica is so important. Or used to be important. Back in the Middle Ages, in the good old days, when you weren’t bugged with Bitcoins, but real coins were jingling in your pocket with every transaction. Because Kremnica wasn’t some random mining village like Coober Pedy or Manchester. No, in “golden Kremnitz,” as the town was called at the time, they mined the really valuable stuff: gold and silver.

And tons of it.

From 170 shafts, 110 adits and 205 kilometers of tunnels, so much gold was mined in the most productive period that up to 500,000 gold ducats were minted in Kremnica every year. In the mid-14th century, 80% of Europe’s gold came from the mining towns in what was then the Kingdom of Hungary, most of which are located in what is now Slovakia. After the city of Florence, the coins were called Florentines, practically something like the euro of the 14th century. The word lives on in today’s Hungarian currency, the forint, albeit with slight problems of inflation.

One of these towns, Banská Štiavnica, is even a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

No idea why Kremnica was not given the same honor. Because it is at least as pretty, as I can convince myself on many walks around town.

For the best view, one can climb the tower of the city castle, which sits on a hill within the city, surrounded by a fully preserved ring of walls. To climb the 127 narrow steps, a museum employee unlocks an iron gate – and closes it again right behind me. “If you want to get out, pull the bell. But in 20 minutes, I’ll be taking an hour lunch break. If you miss that, you’ll have to wait on the tower.”

I hurry up, because I don’t feel very comfortable in such windy and lofty heights. That’s why on this blog, there are no reports of balloon rides, flights with airships, and only rarely a trip to the high mountains. I prefer to stay on the ground, in keeping with my humble character. (With the one exception where firefighters in Brazil gave me a ride in a helicopter. But that’s another story.)

But I wanted to tell you about the history: Mining in this region flourished, making first the kings of Hungary and then the Habsburgs rich, gilding churches and palaces throughout Europe, and establishing the tradition of minting coins in Kremnica that continues to this day.

Gold is no longer mined, but the coins of Czechoslovakia have been minted here, Slovak crowns since 1993, and 500,000,000 Slovak euro coins since 2008. (You may not have noticed it if you only pay with electronic or paper money, but the backside of the euro coins are minted separately by each euro-using country. Except for Kosovo and Montenegro, but their use of the euro is semi-legal at best anyway.)

In addition, the local mint has already minted coins for Poland, Romania, Greece, Cuba, Mongolia, Algeria, Tunisia, Guinea, Sudan, Senegal, Mali, Cape Verde, Lebanon, Iraq, Slovenia, Bangladesh, India, Mauritania, Cyprus, Albania, Russia, the United Arab Emirates, Israel, Qatar, Nepal, Somalia, Andorra, Congo, Panama, the Cook Islands, North Korea, Namibia, Liberia, Hong Kong, Belgium, Spain, France, the United Kingdom, the United States, Norway, Argentina, Malaysia and Germany.

Having said that, mining in Kremnica went downhill since the 16th century, or the 17th century at the latest. The deeper people were drilling, the more complicated it got. (Like at the dentist.) Shafts and tunnels collapsed or filled with water. And politics got more complicated, too.

As you know, the Thirty Years’ War began in 1618 because the burghers of Bohemia wanted a wee bit more autonomy within the Habsburg empire. The emperor however didn’t want to hear anything about that, preferring to set all of Europe ablaze.

War costs money, and a Thirty Years’ War costs even more money. If it had been up to the people of Kremnica (and the other mining towns in Bohemia, Moravia and Silesia), they naturally would have denied the emperor and the Reich the money used to wage a war against themselves. After all, one can easily flood a mine “by accident”. Or blow it up. Or go on strike and sing protest songs.

In other words: Here, in this town, the Thirty Years’ War could have been averted.

Except that unfortunately, just a few years before, America – and within America, plenty of gold and silver – had been discovered. It was the Spanish who bogarted all that wealth, but the Spanish king Philipp III was also a Habsburg and a cousin or something like that of emperor Ferdinand II. And thus, the Spanish gold and silver from the new world financed thirty years of war in the old world.

Golden Kremnitz was superseded in its importance for the world economy by Potosí in present-day Bolivia, which I therefore also scouted out as part of this research. I even went into the mines myself, under the most dangerous conditions, with a backpack full of dynamite and surrounded by miners (and minors) who, under the influence of alcohol and coca leaves, blasted, hammered and risked their and my lives.

In Kremnica, I should now also seek out abandoned tunnels and dig for gold and stories. Or even, like the more scientifically minded colleagues from the “Journey to the Center of the Earth”, go looking for rhombohedral crystals, retinasphaltic resins, gehlenites, Fassaites, molybdenites, tungstates of manganese, and titanite of zirconium. At the very least, I should visit the archives, the museum or the local library.

But it’s a warm, sunny day at the end of October. Probably the last one this year, before the fog descends and winter hits.

So I go to the park instead.

A teacher whispers something to her kindergarten children, and as they – in neat rows of two – walk past the bench I am sitting at, they all wish me “dobrý deň.” And it is a good day indeed. You need such days, when you just read, smoke, enjoy the sun and evade and refuse the dictum of chrematistics. A day on which the phone is turned off and the watch left at home. A day at the end of which you have nothing to show, nothing achieved, nothing accomplished, except that for once, you were happy again.

But don’t worry, in the coming episodes we will delve into history in the usual detailed manner, from Emperor Barbarossa to the Vichy regime, from the Teutonic Order to the Polish-Lithuanian Union.

The next morning, as I’m about to catch the 5:40 bus to Žiar nad Hronom, I see how important mining still is in the region. Most of the connections are marked with hammer and pick and thus reserved for the miners. But the bus driver appreciates me getting up so early and generously lets me board between all the heroes of labor.

So this was the second stop on the “Journey to the Center of Europe”. As with the first center point, I was surprised by how much European history can be found in a small, remote valley.

After that came the winter break, but from spring 2023 on, things will really get going with this huge European project. Have a look at the map and the list of all the places to be visited. If you live near one of these points, I would be happy to meet you!

And the esteemed supporters of this blog will receive a postcard. In St. John’s Chapel, they still had some of these relics from times gone by. Which, unfortunately, is no longer the case is most places.

Do you want a posctard?

Actually, you would be surprised how hard it has become to find postcards in some places. But for you, dear reader, I’ll walk the extra miles!



Posted in Europe, Photography, Slovakia, Travel | Tagged , | 17 Comments

Köpenick – First Impressions

Zur deutschen Fassung.

Berlin, at least as you know it today, is a rather young city.

It was only created in 1920, when several surrounding towns, villages and rural estates were incorporated into Greater Berlin, which became 13 times the size of the original Berlin (although still tiny by other standards).

Because of this, many districts of Berlin maintain a unique – sometimes even rural – character. Last summer, I explored Köpenick, Berlin’s easternmost district, for a day. Instead of explaining a lot, I guess I should just show you some photos, and you will get a better idea of what I am talking about.

With all the life taking place near or in the water, it almost felt like Venice.

That factory on the other side of the river is a brewery, of course. I mean, what else?

Köpenick even kept its own railway, which is connected to the German, European and global railway system at Wuhlheide station.

The train leads through an enormous forest, with restaurants, concert areas, playgrounds and yet more water. Here, you also find the stadium of FC Union Berlin, the football club, which has been playing in the first-division Bundesliga since 2019 and qualified for the UEFA Cup (or whatever they call that now) for the first time last year.

I guess there was a match that day, because I saw thousands of people in red UNION jerseys, as well as thousands of people in blue POLIZEI jerseys – the rival team, apparently. The blue team seemed a bit more aggressive, blocking all the roads and the tramway, but in the end, Union won 3-1.

Anyway, I really liked Köpenick.

And now, as luck would have it, I secured a house- and cat-sitting job in, you guessed it, Köpenick! In Müggelheim, to be precise, which is the easternmost part of the easternmost district of Berlin. And even more rural. In 1920, it was by far the smallest municipality to become part of Berlin. My hosts already warned me to look out for wild boar and foxes, whenever I open the door.

So, from next week, I will be in Berlin for two months. I just hope it will be as sunny and warm as it was on my last visit to Köpenick. And, if you are in the area, please say hello!


Posted in Germany, Photography, Travel | Tagged | 14 Comments

The Battlefield of Waterloo, Looking for the Bones, and a Surprising Supper

Zur deutschen Fassung.

“Little Napoleon wants to be picked up on platform 2, please. And hurry, or he’ll lay waste to the whole town!”

Only when I hear this announcement and look out of the train window, I realize what should have been obvious all along: Waterloo, that word on everyone’s lips and wafting around in the collective memory of mankind, is a real place. A rather average small town in Belgium, to be precise.

By the way: The name Waterloo is Dutch, so you don’t have to pronounce it in English just because ABBA have messed it up. However, the town is on the French-speaking side of the inner-Belgian language border, so you’ll have to parlance French there. But be careful if you take the train from Brussels, because the route crosses Flemish territory for a short time. Between the stations of Linkebeek and De Hoek, you have to speak Dutch. English is also possible, but only if you are not Belgian. German, however, is forbidden, because German is one of the Belgian national languages, but only in another, separately designated part of the country. (Yes, Belgium is really that complicated.)

I react too slowly and thus only get off at the next stop: Braine-l’Alleud.

But this is not even wrong, because it is here where you find the world-famous battlefield, the acres of agony, the meadows of mayhem, the pasture of pain. Still, more than two hundred years after the fateful battle of 1815, the ground is drenched in blood, the clouds hang low, and the sky weeps.

That is to say, perfectly normal weather for Belgium.

Why anyone would schedule the battle of the century exactly here, of all places available, is beyond me. But Napoleon had a soft spot for depressing locations: Borodino, Ulm, Austerlitz, Jena, Moscow, Landshut, Leipzig.

It should therefore not come as a surprise that between battles, he often withdrew to isolated islands to recharge his batteries. (From a travel blogger, you now rightly expect links to reports about Elba and St. Helena. But since I haven’t been there yet, I’ll instead provide a link to my report from Caprera, where another great, combative, but all the less controversial person of European history spent the last years of his life.)

If you know Belgium, you already noticed something in the photos of the Waterloo battlefield. If you don’t know Belgium, you noticed nothing. And it is precisely this nothing that puzzles me.

Because all of Belgium is dotted with military cemeteries and mass graves. There is no village that does not have two or three of them. And even between the villages, in the open countryside, you stumble across thousands of corpses each time you go for a walk.

Only in Waterloo, there is not a single grave to be seen. Although the most famous battle in the history of the world was fought here. Somewhere, the 20,000 to 50,000 dead must have been buried, though. Not to forget all the dead horses, dogs and military cats.

But more on that later, because now – and it will remain the only joyful event of this gray winter month – the sun comes out. There is the Lion’s Mound, visible from afar and of rather practical use in a battle. However, as is often the case with large infrastructure projects, it was not completed until ten years after the battle. A tiny problem with the building permit or a shortage of construction material because some drunk captain blocked the Suez Canal, and poof, Napoleon lost the battle of his life.

Although there is a bitterly cold wind blowing, I drag myself up all 226 steps – everything for you, esteemed readers – in order to let my gaze roam over relatively unspectacular fields. I still don’t understand why you don’t just lead your army around the field when you know the enemies are waiting there. But then, I didn’t attend the military academy.

And I still don’t see any graves. Nowhere.

Instead, there is a rotunda to marvel at, in which a 360-degree panorama of the Battle of Waterloo is shown. The building itself is also quite interesting, the whole interior is made of wood, with creaking stairs. The sound of battle is played over loudspeakers, and a few papier-mâché soldiers are dying in the most dramatic fashion, holding their stomach in horror.

This Waterloo Valhalla is supposed to take you back to the time of 1815, but I feel more like 1911, when the monumental artwork was opened, when the heroisation of battles and soldiers was still en vogue, and when no one could have guessed that just three years later, poor little innocent Belgium would become one of the main theaters of World War I.

Meanwhile, I have come up with a theory as to why there ain’t no graves around here.

Hold on to your hats, ladies and gentlemen: I actually think the Battle of Waterloo never happened.

I believe that Napoleon, Wellington and Blücher had no desire to fight yet another battle. Especially in such bad weather. They went to a cozy Belgian pub (best beer in the world!) and played cards instead. In the process, Napoleon wagered his hat, lost, and had to retreat. As men of honor, however, the three generals agreed, of course, that they would tell the press the story of an enormous battle. As Freemasons, they kept their word until their death.

„Merde Mau-Mau!“

As evidence for this theory, I point not only to absence of soldiers’ graves around Waterloo, but also to the fact that Napoleon’s hat is on display at the German Historical Museum in Berlin.

At the museum in Braine-l’Alleud, on the other hand, they show exactly one skeleton. A battle with supposedly tens of thousands of dead, and then there is one skeleton? Which doesn’t even have a name. Even some peasant skeletons that wandered across the Alps 5000 years ago have a name.

The museum is a subterranean one, like an underground garage under the battlefield. This means that there must have been quite a lot of digging going on. And during that whole excavation, they only found one skeleton!

I mean, it’s pretty obvious that something is fishy here. Don’t you think?

But because this is a scientifically, academically, morally and intellectually honest blog with a strict honor code, I will not conceal the fact that the three historians Bernard Wilkin, Robin Schäfer and Tony Pollard have just published a different theory. It goes like this:

The dead, both soldiers and animals, were buried on the battlefield in the days and weeks following the battle in June 1815. This was done by the local population, because the surviving parts of the army had already moved on; off to new adventures. Whether the people around Waterloo were forced to do this, whether they did it out of piety, or whether they thought “that’s good fertilizer” is unclear. We should also keep in mind that burying soldiers yields clothing, boots, weapons and perhaps even tobacco for the gravediggers, so the work may well have been worthwhile.

From 1819, four years after the battle, the newspapers on the European continent suddenly began to publish tons of advertisements from British merchants desperately looking for bones. They would buy up all bone material, without quantity limits and at good prices. Because of the proximity to the seaports, these ads were placed mainly in northern Germany, the Netherlands, and France. (Belgium did not exist at that time; it would not come into existence until 1830 when it seceded from the Netherlands. Actually, Germany didn’t exist yet either, to be precise.)

The great thing about the bone trade was that it was unregulated. There were no export taxes, no import taxes, no customs duties. There weren’t even EU directives or regulations concerning the bone trade. (That’s why the British were still happy at the time.) It was a lucrative source of revenue, especially for the poor on the continent.

The farmers around Waterloo thought it only fair to dig up the piles of bones again and turn them into money. After all, the armies had trampled the entire harvest in 1815. Incidentally, this is a tradition that is being repeated every year in June ever since:

Honestly, if I were a farmer at Waterloo, I think I’d get between the lines of those re-enactors with their big bellies, fake mustaches and hidden cell phones and blast a few of them over the head with real buckshot. Maybe that would teach them that war is not a fun weekend in the countryside.

But back to the story: What the heck did Britain need bones for?

Well, you need to know that bones contain phosphate. And phosphate is a good fertilizer.

For centuries, the British (and many other peoples) had fertilized their fields by emptying their chamber pots in the field, to describe it in the least unappetizing way possible. Those of you living in the countryside know it all too well, the dirt, the smell, the manure, all the disgusting stuff. But at the time, the Industrial Revolution (and cinema) drew people to the cities. The rural exodus led not only to a lack of workers who would work the fields, but also to a lack of human feces.

Hence the panic search for bone material.

Of course, the traders were looking for horse, cattle and whale bones. But, in times of need, you also put a Prussian or a Frenchman into your field. No one is looking that closely, and everything is crushed into bone dust anyway.

That went well for a few years. But as is always the case with new businesses, regulation soon followed. Export duties were imposed. Health regulations were enacted, prohibiting the temporary storage of bones at home. And finally, opening graves was made a crime. (At least for European graves. In Egypt, of course, people were allowed to keep digging for all they were worth. That’s why we are still suffering from the curse of Uncle Tutankhamun).

The British did not want to yield to this over-regulation from Brussels, and sometimes I myself am surprised at the constants that world history has in store for us. To make matters worse, a better fertilizer was discovered, namely saltpeter. It came from the desert in Chile, from the town of Humberstone, which I have already explored for you.

On that trip, I almost died of thirst. The Atacama Desert is really as dry as they say. One day, it will kill me that I always want to check everything myself. Like back in Bolivia, when I wanted to test how altitude sickness feels. Or in Montenegro, where I climbed into dark shafts and discovered a secret submarine base. Let’s see what I will come up with in 2023.

But back to the bones. From the 1830s, the sugar industry took the place of British agriculture as a major buyer of skeletons of all kinds. And now it becomes really mind-boggling how politics, wars, economy, agriculture, science and just about everything is connected. That’s why history is so much fun!

In Europe, there was originally no sugar production. All sugar came from sugar cane plantations in the Caribbean and other colonies, which is why sugar is not only bad for your teeth, but also responsible for slavery. In 1806, as part of the small conflict that ended with the Battle of Waterloo, Napoleon imposed the so-called Continental Blockade, an embargo against Great Britain and its colonies. Imported cane sugar became prohibitively expensive.

Unfortunately, people in Europe had already become accustomed to sugar. (That stuff is addictive, after all.) Thus, resourceful researchers set about finding a substitute. The German food chemists Andreas Sigismund Marggraf, Franz Carl Achard and Carl Scheibler experimented with various beets and eventually refined the regular beetroot into sugar beet.

It was even important enough for a stamp!

And so, wherever the soil allowed it, sugar beets were grown and pressed into syrup. However, to generate the refined white sugar that pampered customers insist on, it has to be filtered. And this filtering is done with – you already guessed it – bone char. The sugar industry needed tons and tons of bones to make the sugar look pure and white.

And the industry was booming! Here, for example, you see the Royal Belgian Sugar Refinery.

But oops, what is that in the background?

No, that can’t be the Lion’s Mound from the battlefield of Waterloo, can it?! They would never put the sugar factory right next to the battle field! After all, that could give people the idea that the factory is crushing the soldier’s bones into refined sugar.

Well, as Horace said: “How sweet it is, to die for the fatherland!”

Because Belgium suddenly had so much sugar, it needed cocoa to build up its world-famous chocolate and pralines industry. Where can you find cocoa? That’s right, in the Congo! Again, everything is connected to everything else, this time in a particularly tragic way. To put it in a nutshell: If the Prussian engineers had not experimented with beetroot, the Congolese would not have had their hands chopped off. And it’s better not to think about why Kinder chocolate is called that way.

On the fields of Waterloo, as if to confirm the theory of the fellow historians, they are still growing sugar beets.

Because the local restaurant is too expensive and because the museum pulled the last euros out of my pocket, I pull a few beets from the field – for compensation. All the way back, I’m excited that I will have real Waterloo battlefield sugar beets, with residues of gun powder, for dinner. Only when I get home, I remember that I don’t know how to cook.

In the end, I simply chopped the beets and fried them in a pan. It was actually quite good. Napoléon appétit!

And, what edibles have you already pulled from world-famous battlefields? Gherkins from Gettysburg? Sweetcorn from Stalingrad? Tuna from Trafalgar?

Practical advice:

  • It may seem counterintuitive, but Braine-l’Alleud station is closer to the battlefield than Waterloo station. From there, it’s only a few kilometers on foot. Or you take the bus with the “W” (for Waterloo) from either station.
  • The battlefield itself is open and accessible free of charge. The farmers only ask you to stay on the paths.
  • For the museum, the panorama and the hill, however, you have to dig deep into your pocket: 17 euros or 16 euros for students. I found that rather expensive.
  • The local restaurants are also expensive, so you better bring your own provisions.
  • Denzil from the Discovering Belgium blog has put together a neat walking guide around the battlefield.
  • For absolute Napoleon fanatics, there is a 90 km long Napoleon route in Wallonia, along which about 150 museums, monuments and important places are lined up. Bu I think they only get to such a number because they list every tree stump that Napoleon rested on. (Like with Garibaldi in Italy.)


  • More reports from Belgium, the little country that always pushes itself into the center of world history.
  • And even more history.
  • If you prefer listening over reading, there is an interview about the lost bones on History Hit.
  • And because 16 euros entrance fee for a museum is quite steep, I am happy about any support for this blog! In return, you will receive a postcard from the next trip.
Posted in Belgium, Food, History, Military, Photography, Travel | Tagged , , | 24 Comments

The most beautiful city in Germany that you never heard of

Zur deutschen Fassung.

It always makes me sad when people visit Germany, and their only plan is to see Berlin and Munich. Or maybe that silly castle in the mountains. Which is really just one of thousands of castles in Germany, but the tourists think there is only one, so they all flock to the same site.

Like in most countries, there is so much more to see in Germany!

Hundreds of medieval towns, thousands of castles, fairy-tale landscapes, and – because Germany only became a unified country in 1871 – a much more pronounced regional variation than in some other countries.

Now, if you are not quite as old, you may have thought: “Wait a minute, I thought Germany was only unified in 1990?”

And you have a point. Although this was a re-unification of what was only separated in 1945, even those 45 years of having been apart still show in the architecture, the urban planning and the people.

The best example for this is a small city in the very far east of Germany, which you have most probably never heard of. In fact, I hardly know any Germans who have visited it. It’s called Eisenhüttenstadt, which you could translate as Ironworks City or Steel Mill City.

That doesn’t sound very enticing, does it? It makes you think of that huge industrial area in the Ruhr region.

Which is not what comes to mind when people are looking for a holiday destination.

But Eisenhüttenstadt was in East Germany, the socialist workers’ paradise, and it was a city built from scratch in the 1950s. So, the city planners could build a perfect city, with wide avenues, with lots of green spaces, with palaces for plumbers, castles for cashiers, a balcony for every bus driver, and arcades for every assembly-line worker.

In Eisenhüttenstadt, you can see what city planning can do for people when real estate is not an object of speculation, where something profitable must be squeezed from every last square inch.

Walking around this town, you can feel the spaciousness, the airiness.

Or maybe it’s emptiness. Because from a peak of 53,000 people – with plans already in place to expand the city to 80,000 people -, the population has dropped to 24,000. That’s the problem when you are a company town, as many other towns around the world have had to learn. The steel plant is still active, but it employs far fewer people than it used to.

Meanwhile, the whole town has been protected as a monument – the largest in Germany. Walking around with awe, I realized that not only does Eisenhüttenstadt conserve socialist urban planning, it is also the only city in Germany, maybe in the world, where the time pre-1990s has been conserved with almost nothing new added.

In that supermarket, for example, they still had a poster calling “for a progressive relationship between supply and demand”. Now, those were the times, when you weren’t compelled to “buy 2 for the price of 1”, although you only need one.

Maybe I was just lucky, because I visited on a beautiful, sunny day in October, when everything would look beautiful everywhere. But if you ever come to Germany in spring or autumn, you may want to visit a place where not many tourists venture. (Although Tom Hanks loves the town, and a number of movies have been filmed here, understandably.)

On my German blog, I have a longer article about Eisenhüttenstadt, with many more photos, lots of history and a very friendly lady picking me up as I was hitchhiking. But it’s too much to translate it all. And I don’t even know if anyone of you is interested in urban planning and architecture. – If you are, you may also want to check out the Bauhaus architecture in nearby Weimar and Dessau when visiting.


Posted in Germany, Photography, Travel | Tagged | 14 Comments

Law School in Bolivia

In Bolivia, even irredentism is cute.


Everything is explained in my article on Bolivia and the sea.

Posted in Bolivia, Law | Tagged , , | 12 Comments