Thursday, April 8, 2010

Haut-Kœnigsbourg Castle

Easily the single most spectacular sight of the Route des Vins, the Chateau of Haut-Kœnigsbourg surveys a great swath of Alsace from its moutain top. This castle's interest comes less from its place in medieval history and more for what it has come to represent in more modern times.

The castle, built of the red sandstone typical of the region's important buildings, saw its heyday between 1479 and 1633. A castle on this site was first mentioned in 1147. After a coalition of cities attacked and burned the castle in 1462, the Theirsteins acquired and rebuilt it. The castle was destroyed again in 1633, this time by the Swedes, who were allies of France against the Holy Roman Empire in the Thirty Years War; the castle was beseiged, pillaged and burned. It remained a ruin for more than 250 years. And here's where the story starts to get interesting.

As I've recounted in other posts, in 1871 the new German Empire annexed Alsace and the Moselle region of Lorraine in the aftermath of the Franco-Prussian War. By the turn of the 20th Century, Kaiser Wilhelm II--the same Kaiser Wilhem who so intently Germanified Metz--wanted to assert his imperial power in the face of continuing unpopularity in Alsace and to stamp Alsace as historically tied to Germany.

In 1900, he embarked on an ambitious restoration of Haut-Kœnigsbourg to its glory of the 17th Century, risen again as a symbol of the success of German power against France and its allies. The restoration, led by Bodo Ebhart, recreated the castle as he imagined it before 1633. The work took eight years and involved building a railroad up the mountain for hauling materials.

The result was basically a brand-new Renaissance castle, full of medieval details such as working drawbridges. The restored castle harkens back to other restorations driven by visions of an imagined chivalric era, such as Viollet-le-Duc's over-restoration of Carcassonne. Haut-Kœnigsbourg became a ceremonial place, a museum rather than a working fortress or a palace. Parts of the interior, such as the dining hall, were elaborately painted and furnished to convey Wilhelm's vision of the castle as a link to Germany's Hapsburg past.

Wilhelm left his mark on the castle rather literally. His monogram appears everywhere--painted as a decorative motif on the ceiling of the dining hall, and carved as an insignia on hearths in bedrooms.

The restoration of Haut-Kœnigsbourg became itself a locus of conflict.
Alsaciens unhappy with the Kaiser's rule could, in effect, criticize the Kaiser by criticizing his architectural ambitions. For example, there were heated claims that Kaiser had built the tower of the central keep significantly higher than that of the original castle he sought to resurrect. The Kaiser's alleged overreaching in building the tower thus served as a counterpart symbol to the might of the castle itself.

Wihelm II abdicated under pressure in the wake of the First World War and the German Revolution; he fled into exile in the Netherlands. I was astounded to learn, when we visited Haut-Kœnigsbourg, that he lived until 1941. A raving anti-semite, Wilhelm blamed "the tribe of Judah" for his downfall and called for the extermination of the Jews. And as Hitler rose to power, Wilhem apparently hoped that Nazism would renew interest in the German monarchy.

And this brings me to the other main point of interest in Haut-Kœnigsbourg. Ironically enough, given its resurrection by Wilhelm II as a symbol of German imperial might, the castle served as the chief setting for the Jean Renoir's 1937 anti-war film La Grande Illusion, one of the greatest movies ever made. The film, banned in Hitler's Germany, recounts the experience of French prisoners of war in the First World War; Haut-Kœnigsbourg played the part of Wintersborn, their "inescapable" mountain-top prison. As soon as you enter the castle, you see the staircase where the film's character de Boeldieu played his flute to distract the guards while his comrades escaped.

The close quarters of the interior of the castle contrast sharply with the extended views its ramparts provide.

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