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‘Kings and governments may err, but never Mr Baedeker.’
AP Herbert, La Vie Parisienne, 1929
Dr Johnson said that ‘a man who has not been to Italy is always conscious of an inferiority from not having seen what it is expected a man should see.’ Unaffected by this perceived inferiority, Johnson made only one trip outside the British Isles, a tour of France in 1775 shortly before his death. On his return he remarked that the continent made him appreciate England all the more.
An avid admirer of Johnson’s famous dictionary, Karl Baedeker was born at Essen in 1801 into an established and prosperous literary family. After training as a bookseller in Heidelberg he set up a printing press in Koblenz at the age of 26 and soon established himself as a publisher of scrupulously researched, urbane travel guides. The English translation of his volume on Italy – which might have shamed Johnson – was one of the most acclaimed works. In a matter of weeks it became a must-have accessory for the Grand Tourist. (With a characteristic touch of historical accuracy, James Ivory puts it in the hands of Maggie Smith and Helena Bonham Carter as they scuttle round the Piazza della Signoria in his film version of ‘A Room With A View’.)
The diminished but still formidable Baedeker empire is to this day the largest publisher of travel books in Germany. In its pomp, the company was revered for the 19th-century forerunners of the Rough Guide and Lonely Planet series. The books even had an influence on rulers and statesmen. A chestnut of an anecdote describes how in the 1880s Kaiser Wilhelm would often break away from morning meetings at his Unter den Linden palace and observe the changing of the guard from a corner window. Returning to his guest he would excuse himself with: ‘Yes, it’s a terrible bore but Baedeker is on record as saying that I do this every day and I mustn’t disappoint his readers.’
The books are characterised by crystalline but personable prose and are infinitely more accessible than a swathe of modern imitations. Their enduring appeal owes much to the author’s human concern for his audience and devotion to its welfare. He sought to provide readers with a protected mode of travel, allowing them to dispense with paid guides.
Baedeker advises on intensely personal matters, recommending a precise thickness of tweed for hill walking in Switzerland and counselling the elderly on how to ward off chills when visiting continental cathedrals: ‘As everybody knows, it is harmful to bring an overheated horse to its stall, and it is no better for men.’ He was a devotee of tincture of arnica and enthused on its ‘bracing, invigorating effect when rubbed on the limbs after much fatigue.’ (As I write this piece, the impossibly smug resident GP on the BBC’s ‘Breakfast News’ has dismissed arnica remedies as fraudulent quackery.) Baedeker frequently warned readers against eating too much tropical fruit and suggested castor oil and charcoal tablets as cures for indigestion.
In one of the very few debates over Baedeker’s factual accuracy, Mark Twain questioned the author’s claim to have reached a peak above Lake Lucerne in three-and-a-half hours. Twain’s quibble is tongue in cheek; he had spent three days on the ascent and made two overnight stays, which he narrates hilariously in A Tramp Abroad.
From TS Eliot to TE Lawrence
The contemporary travel writer Eric Newby is enamoured of the maps, once describing them thus: ‘made as if by spies for fellow spies.’ Another author to have revered the guidebooks was the English philosopher Bertrand Russell who said that his literary models included John Stuart Mill, Milton and Baedeker. The volumes even prompted TS Eliot to write his obscure, and allegedly anti-Semitic, poem Burbank with a Baedeker, Bleistein with a Cigar.
As an archaeology student, TE Lawrence was inseparable from his guide to Palestine during field trips to the Holy Land and prompted his superiors to issue Allied officers with facsimile copies on the outbreak of WWI. This unauthorised edition raised a few eyebrows at headquarters in Leipzig but the founder’s grandson was placated when the books were destroyed after the Armistice. Inwardly he probably appreciated the compliment.
The Shakespearean scholar, Gisbert von Vincke (1813-1892), was fond of relating a story which reveals the scrupulous nature of Karl Baedeker’s research and the publisher’s insistence on doing his own legwork. On his own Grand Tour in 1847, von Vincke climbed the seemingly endless staircase to the roof of Milan cathedral behind a wheezing but cheerful compatriot with mutton chop whiskers and a pronounced limp.
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Von Vincke was curious as to why the tourist was placing a coin on every 20th step during the ascent. It happened that the two Germans found themselves on the same dinner table at the Palace Hotel later in the day and von Vincke asked his neighbour what he had been doing. Baedeker always travelled incognito in order to catch hotels and restaurants off their guard. With much reluctance he revealed his identity and explained his behaviour: ‘I picked up the coins on the descent in order to check the number of steps. There is no room for inaccuracy in these matters.’
Baedeker’s pet hates included Neapolitan oysters which he described as potentially lethal and village dogs. He usually repelled strays with a riding whip but confessed: ‘Stone-throwing is perhaps still more effective.’ The editor made it a rule not to comment on or describe anything he had not seen with his own eyes. This intractable approach led to a wonderful piece of self-control in a guide to Germany and the Austrian Empire: ‘The writer of these lines made the steamer trip from Pola to Fiume at night. He regrets that he can report nothing about it.’
The postilion has been struck by lightning
I was introduced to Baedekers when my father presented me with a copy of the 1898 guide to Spain as he dropped me off at Gatwick for a trip to Madrid last November. I spent the flight flicking through the appendices that included a phrase book. Reviving schoolboy Spanish, I memorised invaluable sentences such as: ‘Postilion, stop; we wish to get down; a spoke of one of the wheels is broken …’ and ‘Are the drivers insolent? Lightning has struck; the coachman is drunk.’ I was working on my Castilian in the hope of being able to chat up women. At Toledo I was introduced to a bevy of charming and ostensibly available Carmen-look-alikes but being linguistically challenged, I drew a blank.
Baedeker’s signature publication, Travels Along the Rhine from Mainz to Cologne, appeared in 1828. The bulk of the text had been acquired from another publishing house but the volume has many characteristics that would become trademarks. It is set in a serif type of no more than nine points but is remarkably easy on the eye. The popularity of this gilt-stamped volume on Dьnndruck or ‘bible paper’, which featured marbled edges impregnated with Icelandic moss, extended to three acclaimed editions within 12 years, buoyed by a rising tide of tourism in continental Europe led by writers including Byron and Shelley on ‘The Grand Tour.’ Consummately modest, Baedeker immediately invited suggestions and corrections.
An avowed Francophobe, Baedeker delayed his visit to Paris until 1855. After observing street children singing ‘Sur le Pont d’Avignon’, transcribing the notation and making a few allusions to his beloved Schiller, he made straight for Pиre-Lachaise cemetery which he awarded two stars. He was appalled that there was no accurate ground plan so he spent two days traipsing over the cemetery’s 110 acres creating a map while rapping out learned asides on the resting places of Moliиre, Chopin, and the 12th-century theologian Pierre Abйlard. It would be interesting to know what Baedeker might have made of the graves of Oscar Wilde and Jim Morrison.
Eighty-five years on, General Nikolaus von Falkenhorst found himself in charge of the Third Reich’s plans to invade Norway. In March 1940, at notice of 24 hours, Hitler asked him to produce a set of maps. Von Falkenhorst sprinted down Berlin’s Bendlerstrasse to a secondhand bookshop and bought a 1931 Baedeker. Reprographic technicians at the Lichterfelde Kaserne worked overnight and presented the Fьhrer with charts at 9.00 a.m. In the following month a German convoy breezed through the Skagerrak unmolested. Two years later, as a reprisal for the RAF’s misguided assault on the scenic but strategically unimportant Baltic port of Lьbeck, the Luftwaffe launched a devastating attack on notable British cities. Hitler’s instruction to his bomber command was simple: ‘Flatten everything to which Baedeker gives two stars.’
The 1929 Egypt edition is still regarded as the finest guidebook produced by any publishing house to date. It is authoritative and erudite while remaining personable at all times. The introductory section mentions that there is an Imperial Airways service to Egypt from Croydon Aerodrome with stops at Paris, Genoa, Rome, Naples, Athens, Tobruk and Alexandria. (No mention is made of what must have been a hectic schedule of in-flight meals.)
The volume includes an outstanding monograph on hieroglyphics and sage advice on how to treat donkey handlers: ‘The proclivities of the donkey-boys for prodding the animals with pointed sticks and urging them to gallop should be sternly repressed.’ Baedeker suggests that the pyramids should be ascended ‘using three Bedouins, one holding each of your hands and another pushing from behind.’ He continues with these warnings: ‘All requests for baksheesh should be refused and it is wise to keep an eye on your pockets.’
Karl Baedeker died of heart failure induced by overwork on 10 April, 1859. There is a story that an American hiker breezed into Koblenz a week later, guidebook in hand, to be confronted by the funeral party. He enquired of a bystander as to who had died and received a terse, Teutonic response: ‘The man who wrote the book you are holding.’ The legend is that the American took a place at the back of the funeral cortиge, salmon pink volume in hand, without breaking his step.
Baedeker Handbooks can be great fun to collect and one does not have to unlimited resources as prices start at Ј20. From 1830-1943 there were nearly 1,100 editions published on over 40 countries in three languages. The guides provide a mine of information on social history, urban development, arts, archaeology, entertainment, sport and tourism and are ideal for the armchair traveller. Listed below are five unusual titles for the collector to find.
Indien, published in 1914. This title was only published in German just before the First World War and covers Burma and Ceylon as well as India. (Ј700-Ј900)
Russia (English language edition), published in 1914. This volume was the last one published by Baedeker to cover Tsarist Russia before the Revolution and the First World War. (Ј700-Ј900)
Mediterranean, (English language edition), published in 1911 – the only title in English to cover Constantinople and North Africa. (Ј70-Ј90)
Austria- Hungary, published in 1911 – this guide is devoted exclusively to the Austria-Hungarian Empire and the Balkan countries adjacent to it. It shows the Balkan countries before the Balkan Wars of 1912-13 but after the Austrian annexation of Bosnia and Herzegovina in 1908. (Ј50-Ј70)
Germany: Handbook for Motorists, published in 1936. There was only one English edition covering the whole country. It was published to celebrate the 1936 Berlin Olympic Games. Some copies were even issued with plans of the Olympic Stadium inserted loose inside. (Ј130-Ј170)
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The “Baedeker” effective options trading system
F or more than a hundred years, Karl Baedeker was Europe’s ideal parent. In his “Handbooks for Travellers,” which by 1914 described all of Europe and North America, and much of Asia and Africa, he did more for his readers than guide their way to agreeable hotels, picturesque churches, and sublime vistas. He also set an example of private and public virtues ranging from thrift to patriotism, comforted the timid and encouraged the daring, taught the proper response to courtesy or cunning, combined moral probity with practical wisdom, and even while warning his readers away from unseemly pleasures let slip the knowledge of where they might be found.
The name Karl Baedeker designates both a man and a corporate personality. The man was a patriotic German in the early-nineteenth-century mold. The corporate personality was fluent in a dozen languages, and managed during the later nineteenth century and early twentieth to be a patriot of three or four fatherlands at the same time. The man was born to a line of printers and booksellers in Essen in 1801 and died of overwork in Coblenz in 1859. The corporate personality—an adaptation by his sons and grandsons of the personality of the man—grew in energy and authority from 1860 to 1914, resumed much of its strength after 1918, found itself in bad company after 1933, and raised itself from the rubble, chastened and subdued, in 1948. The corporate personality still survives as a publisher of guidebooks, but with little of the style and less of the authority it enjoyed during its years of empire. This essay will distinguish the two personalities by reserving “Karl Baedeker” for the man, “Baedeker” for his corporate successor.
Karl Baedeker’s ascendancy could have occurred at only one moment in history. Twenty years before, Europe was too preoccupied with other matters to have any use for his talents. Twenty years after, the tasks he accomplished on his own had become too large for any one man to attempt them. (After his death, the Baedeker family maintained its preeminence largely because he had been astute enough to father three sons capable of continuing his work.) Earlier centuries provided no audience for the kind of practical guidebook Karl Baedeker devised. Travelers in the era of the Grand Tour, in the seventeenth and much of the eighteenth centuries, brought with them servants able to supply most of their needs, and letters of introduction to those whose servants could supply the rest. Travelers in the later eighteenth century, for whom travel was increasingly a matter of consciousness rather than of class, pursued exotic experience as a means toward more intense self-awareness, and the guidebooks that began to appear for their benefit emphasized the picturesque more than the practical. The climate propitious for Karl Baedeker emerged abruptly, after a twenty-year interval when pleasure-travel in Europe ceased. This was the interval that began in 1792, when revolutionary France went to war against the established monarchies, and ended only with the defeat of imperial France. When the roads of Europe, which had been improved at Napoleon’s command, once again offered safe passage, armies of travelers were quick to occupy them. The diligence , or public stagecoach, provided a new degree of comfort for the traveler who could not afford a carriage of his own, and the more cautious traveler could sign up for the new conducted tours first offered in 1815 by the publisher Galignani from his offices in Paris. The ordinary traveler, and not only the connoisseur, began to seek out painting and sculpture in addition to mountain and gorge. The era of mass travel had begun in earnest.
But for every traveler who joined a guided tour, there were others—the many thousands who combined within themselves a romantic personality and a bourgeois character—who insisted on traveling alone. For these travelers Karl Baedeker perfected his wholly new kind of guidebook. “Its principal object,” he wrote in the foreword to his guide to Germany and Austria, was “to keep the traveler at as great a distance as possible from the unpleasant, and often wholly invisible, tutelage of hired servants and guides (and in part from the aid of coachmen and hotelkeepers), to assist him in standing on his own feet, to render him independent , and to place him in a position from which he may receive his own impressions with clear eyes and lively heart” 1 ( Deutschland , eighth edition, 1858).
When Karl Baedeker set up shop in Coblenz in 1827, after studying at Heidelberg and working in the book trade at Berlin, he had no intention whatever of providing this or any other kind of guidebook. The first of his travel books, which he published more or less by accident, was written by someone else. A bankrupt publishing house that he bought out in 1832 had recently issued a scholarly survey of the history, scenery, and art of the Rhineland, Professor Johann August Klein’s Rheinreise von Mainz bis Köln. Around three years later, when the stock of the German edition ran out, he decided to revise the book himself. He kept Klein’s name on the title page, but he simplified Klein’s prose, added practical information on transport and accommodation, enlarged the range of the book so that it extended from Strasbourg to Rotterdam, and described excursions down tributary rivers and to other cities in Holland. The Baedeker empire stirred, and began to grow.
A rival empire began stirring at about the same time. In 1829, John Murray (son of the publisher whom Byron regarded, not always affectionately, as “My Murray”) began organizing the notes he had taken on his travels through Europe. Murray’s A Hand Book for Travellers in Holland, Belgium, and along the Rhine, and throughout Northern Germany (subtitled “The Continent”)—appeared in 1836. It enjoyed an immediate success, and was followed by a handbook for southern Germany, Austria, and Hungary in 1837, and by another for Switzerland in 1838. Among the most appreciative readers of these books was Karl Baedeker, who also became one of the most appreciative friends of their author. In 1839, when Karl Baedeker published two new guidebooks of his own, one for Holland and one for Belgium, he borrowed Murray’s most important innovation, the arrangement of descriptive and practical information along numbered “routes” that extended from one large town to another. Karl Baedeker also adopted Murray’s word handbook (and in doing so reclaimed for the German language a word Murray had borrowed from it). He subtitled each of his new guides “Handbüchlein fur Reisende.” When Karl Baedeker issued his guide to Germany and the Austrian Empire in 1842, he styled it as a full-fledged Buch rather than a modest Büchlein, a Handbuch für Reisende (durch Deutschland und den Oesterreichischen Kaiserstaat. Karl Baedeker’s guide to Switzerland followed two years later. By this time, the brown cloth covers of Murray’s handbook to Germany had become a familiar sight in Coblenz. In 1846, Karl Baedeker bettered Murray by introducing the bright red cloth that was later imitated by most other guidebook publishers, eventually by Murray himself.
Karl Baedeker acknowledged in his prefaces the debt he owed Murray (in 1839 he called Murray’s handbook “the most distinguished guide ever published”), and he repaid it by sending regular consignments of new information from his travels. But he also pointed out, in later years, that while he borrowed the outer form of Murray’s handbooks, he used different principles in choosing what to put inside. Most guidebooks, he observed, suffered from one of two opposing defects. Either they offered bare lists of landmarks without any practical advice or historical instruction, or they provided such detailed and evocative accounts of anything worth seeing, and of the emotions to be felt on seeing it, that the traveler was effectively spared the trouble of going to see it for himself. Karl Baedeker chose a middle way. In his descriptions of a place worth visiting, he gave his readers precisely the information they needed to find their way cheaply and conveniently, and precisely the information they needed in order to appreciate what they saw. He trusted them to provide their aesthetic and emotional responses for themselves.
What his readers could not provide on their own—hints on foreign customs, cures for local ailments, caveats on clothing and diet—Karl Baedeker provided in plenty. His tone was reassuringly steadfast and proverbial. He warned walkers in Switzerland that, “As everyone knows, it is harmful to bring an overheated horse to its stall, and it is no better for men.” He also warned them that “A warm bath weakens the entire body for the following day.” A natural philosopher of the time, using the new vocabulary of the time, might have noted that a traveler with a Karl Baedeker guidebook in hand constituted a system. To the traveler himself, the relationship he enjoyed with Karl Baedeker seemed more like a personal intimacy. And like all worthwhile intimacies, it both nurtured and liberated.
In his earliest guidebooks Karl Baedeker identified himself only as publisher, not as author. He abandoned this transparent pretense of anonymity in 1849 with the sixth edition of the Rheinreise, on the title page of which “K. Baedeker” first named himself as author and editor. (He claimed to have been reluctant to put himself forward. In the prefaces to some later volumes, he wrote: “There are certain peculiar persons who take an anonymous book in hand with mistrust; they are not infrequently met with by the author. To satisfy these doubters, the name has been appended to the title page.”) This first signed opus provides a convenient illustration of Karl Baedeker’s mature method. He wasted no time in calling attention to the special merits of his book. On the title page he listed the eight city plans included within, and mentioned large-scale maps and other illustrations as well. (Karl Baedeker and his sons always provided more and better maps than anyone else did; nothing less would adequately serve the traveler who wanted to move quickly and freely through medieval streets or mountain passes. ) After practicality came patriotism: on the verso of the title page appeared three stanzas from a poem praising not only the Rhine but, inter alia, German kings, German words, and German wines. The name of the poet, Max von Schenkendorf, and the date of the poem, 1814, were enough to remind every German reader of Prussia’s triumphant uprising against Napoleon. (Karl Baedeker’s patriotism, at a time when Germany was still a loose confederation of duchies and kingdoms, tended to be more poetical than practical. B ut he included in his guide to Deutschland the full legal argument for the liberation of Schleswig from the king of Denmark—the only foreign power who gave German nationalists someone to unite against.) Then, in the preface, came the emphatic statement that “The entire contents of the book are based exclusively on personal experience.” This set the stage for everything that followed.
The handbook itself opened with a fifty-page introduction. This first described various means of travel through the Rhine valley (a walking tour was best), then gave a full table of steamboat fares and a list of railway lines (with a history of each), followed by passport requirements (not stringent). Next came prevailing rates for meals and rooms, and—a Karl Baedeker specialty—two pages of thoroughly exhaustive advice on tipping. A porter in Mannheim, for example, should receive twelve kreuzer for carrying a trunk weighing more than forty pounds, eight kreuzer for one weighing less; in Mainz the same sums applied, but for trunks of more and less than fifty pounds; in Coblenz the sums were four Silbergroschen and two-and-a-half; and so forth through a half-dozen different varieties of trunks and cases in a half-dozen cities. (Karl Baedeker called tipping a “wicked practice.”) After this came more agreeable matters: Rhenish art, history, geology, geography, and wines. The introduction came to a rousing close with the text of an eighteenth-century “Rhine Wine Song.” Only then was Karl Baedeker ready to take the reader along the book’s thirty-four routes, each with its own occasions for enthusiasm and grumbling, each with its detailed listings of hotels, theaters, coffeehouses, baths, Bierstuben, and bazaars, and each with its appropriate pearls from German poetry.
For travelers who preferred to sample the treasures offered by his handbooks rather than consume the entire feast, Karl Baedeker introduced the star system. Beginning in 1844 he marked with an asterisk those few points of interest that hurried travelers should not fail to see. Later he added a second asterisk for especially stellar attractions, and extended the system to his lists of hotels and restaurants. Karl Baedeker’s asterisks served as his laconic substitute for the adjectival raptures of competing authors, and he awarded them with careful and sometimes idiosyncratic discretion.
Mont Blanc, during his lifetime and for almost half a century after, earned no stars at all: “The view from the summit is unsatisfactory.” The view from the Eggischhorn (one star) was better, from the Rigi-Kulm (two stars) very satisfactory indeed. The view from the Rigi-Kulm at sunrise was enough to excite Karl Baedeker to a manner that can best be described as cautionarily ecstatic:
An hour before sunrise the Alphorn sounds the reveille. [In the hotel] all is again bustle and confusion, everyone fearful of missing the sun’s ascent. Little by little the corridors empty, as, with drowsy eyes, wrapped in shawls, cloaks, even blankets, all hasten to the summit to hail the sun’s first rays. Happy is he on whom they shine unobscured! Scarcely one out of four travelers to the Rigi can boast such good fortune, and the old visitors’ book records many hopes deceived by fog, rain, or snow. Yet the struggle of the sun against the fog and cloud is often extremely striking, and the Alpine hunter in [Schiller’s] Tell says justly:
And under his feet lies an ocean of mist,
He perceives no more the cities of men;
He beholds the earth only through rifts in the clouds,
Beneath the deep waters, the verdurous plain.
[ Die Schweiz, fifth edition, 1853]
Although Switzerland gave Karl Baedeker countless opportunities to quote Schiller, it could not distract him from the requirements of scholarship—he reportedly hired Theodore Mommsen, no less, to prepare notes on Roman settlements—or from the petty annoyances of travel. His notes on the Bernese Oberland concluded with this heartfelt paragraph of warning:
Patience and Small Coin are indispensable to the traveler in the Bernese Oberland, especially in the Grindelwald. Attempts are made on his purse under every pretence and in every form. Here strawberries, flowers, and crystals are proffered to him, chamois and marmots displayed; urchins stand on their head and wave their feet; cretins and cripples implore his aid; nearly every hut dispatches a troop of mendicant infants or squabbling urchins; at every turn a virtuoso on the Alphorn is heard, or a quartet of underage Alpine songstresses on parade; often a pistol shot is fired off in order to waken an echo; finally, there are the many unavoidable gates, which a half-dozen children expect a gratuity for opening. All this is an inevitable consequence of a massive invasion of foreigners, which has exercised a pernicious influence on the morals of the valley.
Readers responded with gratitude to Karl Baedeker’s protective care for their purses. As an English journalist of the 1850s wrote, “He is the great terror of continental extortionists!” His incorruptibility and thrift became proverbial, so much so that no one seems to have objected that he might have been thinking of his own interest, as well as the traveler’s, when he warned that “no sort of frugality is more ill-suited to a journey than to travel with the aid of an outdated edition of a guidebook.” But at last his long campaign against grasping innkeepers and rapacious porters took its toll on his spirit. When he published his handbook to Paris in 1855 he dispensed with the poetry that normally graced his opening pages, and began with some straightforward prose: “The first, second, and third most important thing in travel is money. With money, most other deficiencies may be remedied.” Nonetheless, Paris itself managed to stimulate him to his customary enthusiasm. If any patriotic indignation against France still remained with him, he gave few signs of it—although he was careful to soothe the sensibilities of his countrymen by noting that the handbook’s summary account of French history was designed to elucidate the monuments of the capital, and only for that reason emphasized events glorious to France. Early in his introduction, even before listing the opening hours for museums and galleries, he printed transcriptions of streetpeddlers’ cries and children’s songs, complete with music for “Marguerite” and “Sur le pont d’Avignon.” These pleasures were available gratis.
Paris was the last of Karl Baedeker’s conquests. After his death in 1859 his empire passed to his sons, and his charismatic authority gave way to a bureaucracy of editors and agents. The first expansionary thrust of the new generation was linguistic, and rendered the Baedeker empire trilingual. Near the end of Karl Baedeker’s reign French translations of the guides to the Rhine and Switzerland had begun to appear regularly, and at the time of his death preparations were in hand for French versions of his other handbooks. Under his sons’ administration, a full line of English translations was added, starting in 1861 with A Handbook for Travellers on the Rhine. By the end of the decade Baedeker had seized much of the English-language market for continental guidebooks; a “Baedeker” was becoming a synonym for a guidebook, and relations between the House of Murray and the House of Baedeker were turning noticeably chilly. John Murray had meanwhile expanded his own territory to include his native England, an island stronghold that must have seemed safe even from Baedeker. Baedeker invaded in 1878 with an English-language handbook to London, and overran the entire island in 1887 with an English-language handbook to Great Britain. Two years later, and thirty years after the death of Karl Baedeker, an embittered John Murray publicly accused his old friend of plagiarism. He also intimated that Karl Baedeker’s sole contribution to the art of the guidebook had been the addition of lists of Bierstuben to material lifted from Murray. The next edition of Baedeker’s guide to Great Britain made a point of urging readers in search of more detailed information to consult the guidebooks published by “ Messrs. Baddeley and Ward.”
Karl Baedeker’s three sons administered the firm one after the other. The first, Ernst Baedeker, extended the family empire to London and northern Italy before his early death in 1861. He was succeeded by his brother Karl, who expanded the empire upward through his exploration of Alpine peaks, and made preparations for expanding it outward to Egypt. In paragraphs like this one from the 1864 edition of Switzerland the younger Karl Baedeker honored his father’s principle of writing strictly from “ personal experience”:
The Silberhorn , once deemed inaccessible, was ascended for the first time, Aug. 4th, 1863, by Ed. v. Fellenberg and the editor, accompanied by the guides P. Michel, H. Baumann and P. Jnäbenit of Grindelwald. The party started from Bellevue at 4 a. m., traversed the entire Eiger and Month glaciers, ascended the Schneehorn to the r., and crossing the N. slope of the Jungfrau, attained the summit of the Silberhorn at 4: 30 p.m. The following night was passed on the precipitous icy slope of the Schneehorn, not one of the party daring to close an eye.
This was an improvement even on the elder Karl Baedeker, who once demonstrated his refusal to trust anyone else’s eyes by writing in the 1851 edition of Deutschland : “The writer of these lines made the passage [from Pola to Fiume] by night and regrets that he can report nothing about it.”
During the 1860s Baedeker published guidebooks to Italy (in three volumes) and to London. But it concentrated its energies less on territorial growth than on revisions of earlier volumes (much of northern Italy had already appeared in the handbook to Austria), and the character of the guidebooks remained essentially as the founder had left it. During the 1870s, around the time when the younger Karl Baedeker’s health failed and the youngest brother, Fritz, took his place, the firm began its great period of expansion. In 1872 it moved its editorial offices to Leipzig, the center of German publishing. From there, every few years it issued an entirely new handbook, each with a front cover whose lettering declared ownership of some vast new region. Baedeker’s Palestine and Syria appeared in 1875, Baedeker’s Lower Egypt in 1877, Baedeker’s Sweden and Norway in 1879, Baedeker’s Russia and Baedeker’s Greece in 1883, Baedeker’s France in two volumes (later four) in 1884-85, Baedeker’s Great Britain in 1887, Baedeker’s Upper Egypt in 1891, Baedeker’s United States in 1893, Baedeker’s Canada in 1894, Baedeker’s Spain and Portugal in 1897, Baedeker’s Riviera in 1898, Baedeker’s Constantinople and Asia Minor in 1905, Baedeker’s Mediterranean (which added North Africa to previously occupied territory) in 1909, Baedeker’s India in 1914. 2 Before enlarging its territory Baedeker often gave advance warning in the form of an “excursion” appended to an existing handbook. Southern Italy, for example, included an “excursion to Athens” fourteen years before Baedeker published Greece. London included excursions outside the capital thirteen years before publication of Great Britain. An excursion to Peking was added to Russia in 1904; only the outbreak of war in 1914 halted Baedeker’s advance into China and Japan.
Like any ascendant empire, Baedeker had the power to expand because it had the power to change. Karl Baedeker’s handbooks continued to serve as the basic model for the firm’s later productions, but in the hands of Fritz Baedeker important aspects of content and construction were altered. As in the work of Karl Baedeker, the practical needs of the traveler still received full attention—readers learned how to treat themselves for sunstroke and frostbite, learned where to find water closets in London and shoeshines in Cairo, learned in Rome to be wary of “practitioners styling themselves ‘American dentists’ without warrant” and in Turkey to be wary of border guards who might confiscate their Baedekers—but the romantic enthusiasm of the father gave way to the scientific exactitude of his son. The quotations from Schiller and Schenkendorf gradually disappeared. In their place appeared surveys of geology and religion, statistical summaries of ethnography and education, historical accounts of architecture and archaeology, plus annotated bibliographies, outlines of grammar and vocabulary for languages ranging from Norwegian to Hindustani, and, in almost every edition of every title, newly drawn and ever more detailed maps. In the 1870s Baedeker began replacing its old engraved city plans with two- and three-colored lithographed versions. The first map that made its initial appearance in the new style was that of Jerusalem, the city of David and Jesus; the first of the existing maps to be replaced was that of Potsdam, the city of Frederick the Great.
For its new handbooks, and for many of its revisions of older ones, Baedeker relied on specialists. The guide to Palestine and Syria was written by the Professor of Oriental Languages at Basel (who later moved, like Baedeker, to Leipzig); the guides to Egypt by professors at Berlin, Tubingen, and elsewhere; the guides to France by “A. Delafontaine, notre collaborateur français depuis 1872”; the guides to Britain and America by James F. Muirhead, who also supervised other English editions; and the guide to India, begun by the general director of the North German Lloyd shipping line, was finished by Dr. Georg Wegener while traveling in the region with the Crown Prince of Prussia. None of these authors was named on a title page, although each received full acknowledgment in the prefaces. There was some justice in this. Despite the diversity of authors who gathered material for the handbooks, the finished works sustained a remarkably consistent style throughout—and did so in three languages. This was the result of Fritz Baedeker’s firm administration, exercised through in-house editors who enforced a consistent style. (In the 1860s, before Fritz took charge, some of the English editions, prepared by a Scottish law professor, sounded positively florid.) The name “Karl Baedeker” on all the title pages accurately reflected an authorship that was uniquely corporate and personal at once.
Personal as the style of “Karl Baedeker” continued to seem, it was no longer quite the style of Karl Baedeker. Under Fritz Baedeker’s direction, the handbooks’ prose grew more efficient and compressed, and by far the most striking element of the new style was a device that deserves to be recognized in handbooks of rhetoric as “the Baedeker parenthesis.” One of its many functions was to juxtapose, without irony, the poetical and the practical. The best example of a Baedeker parenthesis was written not by Baedeker but by E. M. Forster in imitation of Baedeker. In Where Angels Fear lo Tread, while Mrs. Herriton “was not one to detect the hidden charms of Baedeker. Philip could never read ‘The view from the Rocca (small gratuity) is finest at sunset’ without a catching at the heart.” Philip might have been overcome had he read these sentences about the Frankenburg, near Aix, in the 1878 edition of The Rhine:
The pond surrounding the castle was once a large lake, in which, according to tradition, was sunk the magic ring of Fastrada (p. 130), the last wife of Charlemagne. Attracted to this spot by its influence, the monarch is said to have sat here for days, gazing on the lake, and mourning for his lost consort.—(As far as the Gillesbach, near the Frankenburg, ordinary cab-fare is charged. )
Baedeker used the parenthesis most often as a rapid indicator of the quality of hotels and restaurants, as in these descriptions of small towns chosen at random from the 1896 Southern Italy. “Pescara (Alb. Rebecclano, near the station, with trattoria, clean; Railway Restaurant, mediocre), a fortified town with 5000 inhab., is situated in an unhealthy plain”; or “ Sala Consilina (Alb. Morino, dirty; cab to the town, 50 c.), the seat of a sub-prefect, picturesquely situated on a slope, overlooked by a medieval castle and the wooded summits of the Monte Cavallo.” It was this sort of economy and precision that Bertrand Russell had in mind when he identified Baedeker as one of the two major influences on his prose style. (The other was Milton. )
A Baedeker parenthesis among the listings of unpretentious hotels in Jaffa, in the 1894 edition of Palestine and Syria , caused the firm some difficulty:
Palestine Hotel (landlord, Kaminitz), in the German colony, Hotel de France (pl. 14 3 ; landlord, Bost), on the Jerusalem road; Howard’s Hotel (pl. 13; landlord, Howard, an Arab), on the road to the German colony. These are second class hotels and a little cheaper; bargain with the landlord advisable.
Howard, a Maltese of Syrian ancestry whose name was Awwad, claimed that Baedeker had libeled him by calling him an Arab, and had compounded the libel by telling travelers to bargain with him. A British jury in Malta agreed. Baedeker was obliged to excise the offending paragraph, but Howard then offered to refuse damages if Baedeker would continue to list his hotel in the handbook. Baedeker instead added a sentence to the preface, noting that “hotels which cannot be accurately characterized without exposing the editor to risk of legal proceedings are left unmentioned.” Howard went out of business not long afterward. Baedeker, the target of many similar lawsuits, tended to win in the marketplace on the rare occasions when it lost in court. It similarly triumphed over the complaints of native Roman druggists against the handbooks’ recommendations of their German and English rivals, and the complaints of Neapolitan tradesmen against the handbooks’ reports that thefts had occurred from trunks left in Italian baggage-cars. Baedeker was supremely confident of its own rectitude, and its confidence was wholly shared by its readers.
As these examples suggest, Baedeker’s ethnography, like all the other scientific learning in the handbooks, was very much of its age. Baedeker’s science was first of all classical and Baconian: it concerned itself entirely with the object under observation, and took the observer for granted. At a time when natural philosophy had long since ceased to believe it concerned itself with the manifestations of a creating deity, Baedeker was scarcely alone in assuming not merely that the observer was separate from the observed, but that the observer was therefore superior. And Baedeker was also scarcely alone in assuming that the observing northern European was consequently the most superior form of humanity. Although, like any ethnographer of the time, Baedeker recognized a degree of cultural relativism (“Orientals accuse Europeans of doing everything the wrong way, such as writing from left to right, while they do the reverse, and uncovering their head on entering a room, while they remove their shoes, but keep their heads covered”), the Baedeker handbooks never seriously doubted that in lower latitudes morals grew slack and manners coarse. Honor and dignity could be found in every climate, but less frequently and less predictably in southern ones. Whatever the beauties of Italy, “there are few countries where the patience is more severely taxed.” However well educated a Spaniard might be, the traveler should “avoid turning the conversation on serious matters, and should above all refrain from expressing an opinion on religious or political questions.” (In contrast, the only thing Baedeker found objectionable among Norwegians was an occasional excess of piety.) As for the peoples of the eastern Mediterranean, Baedeker’s advice on “Intercourse with Orientals” noted that “many are mere children, whose waywardness should excite compassion rather than anger, and who often display a touching simplicity and kindliness of disposition.” The westerner’s chief obligation in the East was to live up to his own highest standards, and “do all in his power to sustain the well established reputation of the ‘kilmeh franjiyeh,’ the ‘word of a Frank,’ in which orientals are wont to place implicit confidence.” (When a westerner violated western standards, especially for commercial gain, Baedeker’s judgment was merciless. The handbook to Canada reported that a certain cliff was “defaced with the staring advertisement of a Quebec tradesman, whom, it is hoped, all right-minded tourists will on this account religiously boycott.” Especially despicable was the all-too-frequent con man who, pretending to be Baedeker’s agent, extorted advertising fees from hotelkeepers; Baedeker insisted that he “be denounced without pity to the police.”)
True to its time, the corporate Baedeker, although it spoke as the epitome of the educated European bourgeois, regarded national (i.e., ethnographic) character as more significant than social class. While Baedeker had no hesitation in recognizing class loyalties— “the fiendish proceedings of the Communists during the second ‘Reign of Terror,’ 20th —28th May, 1871” received no stars in the handbook to Paris—these loyalties were clear and consistent only in northern Europe. Elsewhere, matters were different. “The Spaniard of the lower classes,” for example, “possesses much more common sense and a much healthier dislike of humbug than his so-called superiors.” Similarly, much of the blame for the corruption of municipal government in America could be attributed to “the indifference of the better class of citizens, who are apt to neglect the duty of voting at municipal elections, or when they do vote condone the faults of a Ring which professes to belong to their own political party.” Baedeker’s confidence in northern Europe allowed the firm to encourage national pride in French and English readers as well as in Germans. When in 1866 the first French edition of the handbook to London appeared, any reader who hesitated before visiting la perfide Albion was comforted by a footnote explaining that the book’s summary of English history was designed to elucidate the monuments of the capital, and only for that reason emphasized events glorious to England. With the substitution of one or two words, this was the same sentence Karl Baedeker had written to comfort German visitors to Paris. Even the Franco-Prussian war put only a mild strain on Baedeker’s tact; the reference to the “fiendish proceedings of the Communists” appeared only briefly in the French editions, although it persisted in the English for some years. Reading from his Baedeker, a French visitor to Calais could be proud to learn that although the English had “seized the city in 1347 after a siege of eleven months,” in 1558 “le duc François de Guise retook it in seven days.” At the same time, an English visitor could be proud to learn from his Baedeker that in 1558 “the Duke of Guise with 30,000 men succeeded in finally expelling the small English garrison (500 men) after a siege of seven days”—which put rather a different complexion on the matter.
This international outlook permitted Baedeker to recover in part from the disaster of the Great War, when the firm lost most of its wealth and Fritz Baedeker lost one of his sons. During the 1920s new editions appeared of most of the guides to western Europe, some of them far more detailed than anything attempted before. But the handbooks to France, although still reprinted, were no longer revised, and outside western Europe the Baedeker empire was reduced to Canada (in a middling revision) and Egypt (in a magnificent one). After the death of Fritz Baedeker in 1925 and the succession of his son Hans, Baedeker continued to adapt to changing times. Travelers by air found this characteristic reassurance in the 1931 English edition of the handbook to Belgium:
Persons ordinarily subject to sea-sickness may possibly find themselves troubled by air-sickness; it is advisable to keep the extremities warm and to have plenty of fresh air around the face. Chewing gum (obtainable on the aircraft) is recommended as a preventative. There is no cause for alarm when the aircraft “banks” when turning or “dips” owing to gusts of wind, or when the engines slow down, a sign that the pilot intends to fly at a lower height.
Meanwhile, the class loyalties of the prewar Baedeker altered to accommodate what a preface called “the evolution of historical and artistic conceptions.” Through 1914, all editions of the handbook to Belgium and Holland had noted airily that “During the 13-15th centuries revolutions seem almost to have been the order of the day in Ghent.” The 1931 edition altered this to read: “As in the rest of Belgium, Ghent in the 14th. cent. rang with the struggles of the artisans, to whom the prosperity of the city was really due, to obtain the upper hand.”
But the new guide to Belgium also gave indications that Baedeker had not fully learned how much adaptation and change were required by postwar conditions. In 1932 the small towns of Dinant and Aerschot sued Baedeker for damages over statements in the handbook that German forces had been acting in response to civilian sniping when they destroyed the two towns and shot hundreds of townspeople in 1914. It was noted that Baedeker had inserted these statements into the German and English editions of the handbook, while the original French version had said nothing of the kind. When the Belgian courts ruled evenhandedly that the handbooks should have included both the Belgian and the German versions of the events, Hans Baedeker could only accept the justice of the decision. It was difficult to maintain the family’s traditional self-assurance when the matter in dispute was not errors in arithmetic by Italian waiters but massacres of civilians by German soldiers.
After 1933 Baedeker lost even more cause for self-assurance. When the handbook for the Mediterranean was revised (in German only) in 1934, the description of the Mediterranean peoples that had appeared in the first edition in 1909 was transformed into a description of the Mediterranean “races.” A few new editions of other handbooks appeared in the 1930s, but Baedeker’s energies were clearly at an ebb. In 1943 the firm was directed to publish, for the benefit of the German army, a guide titled Das Generalgouvernement, the name used by the Nazis for the puppet state they set up in what was left of Poland. The book makes depressing reading, even if its justifications for the German conquest and its exclamations over the New Order are limited to an introductory chapter by a functionary from the Institut für Deutsche Ostarbeit. Late in 1943 Baedeker’s headquarters in Leipzig were totally destroyed in a fire set off by a Royal Air Force bomb.
In a crucial sense, however, the end had come fifteen years earlier. It was marked by the publication of a few sentences whose significance probably went unrecognized at the time. In the revised handbooks to Italy that appeared between 1928 and 1932, Baedeker wrote: “The traveller in a foreign country should do his best to win its respect and friendship for the nation which he represents, by his tact and reserve, and by refraining from noisy behaviour and contemptuous remarks (in public buildings, hotels, etc.) and especially from airing his political views. Conduct of an overbearing nature appears little less than barbaric to the Italian. ” With these words Baedeker tacitly, perhaps unconsciously, acknowledged that the conditions that had made its empire possible no longer existed. The fixity and certitude of knowledge in the nineteenth century had given way to the relativity and uncertainty of the twentieth. The detached and autonomous observer no longer reigned over the object; in his place was the observer who was implicated in the act of observation. Had a prewar traveler, intent on a journey south, been able to read the words of the postwar Baedeker, he might well have been shocked enough to stay home. It would never have occurred to him that the people in the countries he planned to visit might observe him as he observed them—much less that they might be qualified to judge whether he was worthy of two stars. Or one. Or none.
1 Because printing is technologically less advanced in the twentieth century than it was in the nineteenth, I cannot hope to reproduce the rich typographic variety found in almost every paragraph of a Baedeker guidebook. I have used italic type to represent Baedeker’s large and small capitals, letter-spaced roman type, boldface type (including oversize boldface), as well as his ordinary italics.
2 The guides to France (outside Paris) were written in French, and never appeared in German. The guide to Canada appeared only in English. Most of the other guides appeared in three languages, although plans for translated versions of the German guides to Constantinople and to India were interrupted by the Great War.
3 This indicates the number identifying the hotel on the map of the city.
Destroying cultural heritage: more than just material damage
By Stephen Stenning
21 August 2020 – 10:14
DVIDSHUB, licensed under CC BY 2.0 and adapted from the original.
Only a few weeks ago, the UK government vouched to ratify the 1954 Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict. Meanwhile, the British Council’s Stephen Stenning provides some answers about why we should care about preserving the world’s cultural heritage.
What is cultural heritage?
The word ‘culture’ is sometimes used to refer to the highest intellectual endeavours and the pursuit of perfection and beauty. As the poet and critic Matthew Arnold put it, culture is ‘the best that has been thought and known in the world’. We now more commonly think of culture as being about beliefs, customs, language and arts of a particular society, group, place, or time and the symbols and expression of shared values, traditions and customs.
Cultural heritage is typically understood to be built heritage, monuments related to culture such as museums, religious buildings, ancient structures and sites. However, we should also include the slightly less material things, i.e., stories, poems, plays, recipes, customs, fashions, designs, music, songs and ceremonies of a place, as cultural heritage. These are vital expressions of a culture and just as important.
Why should we protect cultural heritage?
Societies have long sought to protect and preserve their cultural heritage, for reasons ranging from education to historical research to the desire to reinforce a sense of identity. In times of war and conflict, cultural identity and cultural heritage become all the more important. Buildings, monuments and symbols of culture that speak of shared roots acquire an increased significance. Accordingly, they can become targets of violent and oppressive action that seeks to destroy the symbols valued by enemies or the iconography associated with alternative faiths and traditions.
What are the main recent examples of this type of destruction?
Two examples immediately spring to mind. The first is Palmyra, the world heritage site and ancient city in the Syrian desert, which has this year fallen into the hands of ‘Daesh’/ ‘Islamic State’ (henceforth: ISIL). The other is the Taliban’s destruction of the Buddhas of Bamiyan in Afghanistan in 2001.
To date, ISIL seem to be using the site of Palmyra as a shield, knowing that others will not want to risk damaging it, but they have blown up a number of tombs on or near the site.
The Buddhas of Bamiyan were the world’s two largest Buddhas, standing well over 150 feet high. The Taliban used tank and anti-aircraft fire to destroy the 1,700-year-old sandstone structures. Additionally, and in response to an edict from the then Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar, holes were drilled into the torsos and dynamite inserted in order to complete the destruction. His foreign minister, Mullah Wakil, was quoted as saying: ‘We do admit the relics were the cultural heritage of Afghanistan, but the part that contradicts our beliefs we would not like to have them anymore [sic].’
In the last few months, we’ve seen footage of ISIL fighters taking sledgehammers to 3,000-year-old statues in Mosul museum and using explosives to destroy the ancient city of Nimrud in Iraq. Beyond that, and the damage done as a result of conflict to other heritage sites such as the Ziggurat of Ur (also in Iraq), the threat to cultural heritage continues.
Verity Cridland, licensed under CC BY 2.0 and adapted from the original.
Pillaging as a result of the conflict has prompted the World Monuments Fund to list Iraq itself as an ‘endangered site’. It is the first time it has ever listed a whole country. Of 15,000 artefacts looted from the National Museum in Iraq, only around 3,500 have been recovered, resulting in a growing trade of stolen treasures. As with Iraq and Syria, Libya has a wealth of archaeological and heritage sites suffering accidental and deliberate damage, and similarly, looting has meant that the trade in stolen artefacts is just as serious a problem in North Africa.
Which historic sites have been destroyed for good? Have any been rebuilt or are they lost forever?
One starting point might be the seven wonders of the ancient world and how many remain. I live close to the only one that remains reasonably intact, the Great Pyramid of Giza. I don’t have technical expertise in preservation, but I know that rebuilding is not a straightforward issue. For example, experts have created scale models of what the Mausoleum at Helicarnassus might have looked like on completion around 350 BC. However, no-one is suggesting we rebuild from the ruins that are a heritage site in Turkey today. To do so would be regarded as a desecration. When there is minor damage to an ancient structure, there are attempts to sensitively restore it, but in the case of destruction, all you can really do is create a replica and, either actually or virtually, offer a sense of what has come before. For example, it is possible that, in the future, new giant Buddhas may be built again on the site in Bamiyan, but the structures that stood there for 1,700 years observed by passing generations and civilisations have been destroyed.
What could we put at a country’s disposal now to protect cultural sites or even secure them?
There is a great deal of expertise in the UK when it comes to preserving both tangible and intangible heritage. The British Council is able to share that expertise because it’s physically present in several countries, understands the local context, and is able to identify and work with the local infrastructure.
We work regularly with the national museums, but also broker direct partnerships between them and institutions in cities across the UK. The British Museum, for example, has been very active in Iraq over the last ten years, helping to preserve Iraqi cultural heritage, regularly sending survey teams to report and monitor sites and collections and, in 2009, carrying out a full inspection of Babylon on behalf of UNESCO.
There is, in the Middle East and in North Africa, a very clear need for better and more thorough recording and archiving of all aspects of cultural heritage. We are regularly asked to support programmes that seek to create archives of films, literature, music and performance, as well as for antiquities and artefacts. To date, we have been able to support one-off projects, whereas there is a need for sustained and co-ordinated action. Digitisation of records is also very important for the protection and preservation of collections, and again, we are in a position to bring in and share expertise from other UK institutions.
The potential of new media goes beyond better and more accessible archives. Scottish Ten, for example, is a project that set out, in 2009, to digitally document Scotland’s five world heritage sites along with five international sites to better conserve and manage them. The project has already scanned monuments in Japan, India and a world heritage site in China. Such technology and expertise could be used in vulnerable locations to digitally document and then produce virtual recreations.
Training staff in managing museums and sites is also a vital part of cultural protection, as is developing their skills and preservation techniques, and constructing sophisticated systems in response to threat.
A further area of enormous importance to heritage protection is the connection between heritage venues and sites on the one hand and the general public on the other. If collections and the institutions that house them are valued and seen as social, cultural and economic assets, it is easier to garner support for their protection.
What are the effects of cultural destruction?
It is a difficult thing to describe, so I will use a couple of bizarrely different examples to try and provide a short answer.
Hollywood movies that seek to terrify their audiences with apocalyptic scenarios tend to use the destruction of iconic buildings and structures as their climactic image. In one example, the audience knows that New York has turned into a wasteland, not because it sees a wasteland, but because only the torch held aloft by the statue of liberty is visibly poking through the sands that now submerge the city; the Golden Gate Bridge is torn apart by a tidal wave; the statue of Admiral Nelson lies in pieces at the foot of a crumbling column, and so on. Why can those images be so much more effective and horrifying than images of human beings dying? It is because they speak of the destruction of an entire city, a society, a nation, a civilisation, and a way of life. The destruction represents not just the destruction of those immediately living alongside these monuments, but of entire generations.
At the Syria: Third Space exhibition earlier this year, you could see Zaher Omareen’s disturbing footage, including from news reels, of death and destruction in and around Syria. He had created beautiful and sometimes harrowing films by putting poems, stories and music behind them. One piece showed the destruction of a mosque to an operatic score. I was told about the effect it had had on a Syrian who knew the building well. She was a Christian and had never been inside the mosque, but it was the symbol of the area she grew up in. It was devastating to her for much the same reason as the movie example. It wasn’t about the building alone, but its destruction was representative of all that was gone forever.
What motivates extremists to destroy cultural sites?
There is a form of extremism that sees the very existence of sites that are celebrating other people’s faiths or cultures as a challenge, as the above quotation by Mullah Wakil about the Buddhas of Bamiyan indicates.
People in Europe sometimes think they are very far removed from those attitudes, but they wouldn’t have to look too hard to find equivalents close to home, and not too long ago. As a child, I was regularly taken to churches and cathedrals in France and noticed that most of the statues adorning them were headless. Revolutionaries were perhaps not destroying them as a religious statement as much as a political one, but it was wanton destruction. In the UK, you don’t have to go back to the reformation to find examples of churches, monasteries and symbols of faith being destroyed for sectarian reasons.
There are also many other relatively recent examples of the deliberate destruction of another’s culture. In 1942, Nazi Germany had ordered the Baedeker Blitz, air raids on cultural sites in the UK in response to the destruction of Lübeck’s old town in the same year.
There is probably a number of similarities between the attitudes of the Third Reich and ISIL when it comes to cultural diversity. I am not sure that I recognise the notion that ISIL make themselves look even ‘more ridiculous’ by these actions, as is sometimes said. They inspire horror and fear, and I guess that is part of the point. It is ruthless in its mission to present its way as an uncomplicated, non-compromised and pure form of Islam. Its adherents wish to remove not only symbols of other faiths, but also anything valued by those who follow Islam in a different way. References to pre-Islamic history that could distract the faithful are therefore anathema.
What’s the international response to this? What more could be done?
When it comes to the immediate fears for the amazing world heritage sites in the Middle East that are already caught up in the battles, it is difficult to see what can be done until the military action ends. There is an online campaign to ‘Save Palmyra’ that boasts an astonishing alliance of peoples from different countries, faiths and political allegiances. It includes supporters of most of the factions currently fighting in Iraq and Syria. There is a need for a united and co-ordinated international response to support and strengthen local initiatives.
Signing up to the Hague Convention and committing to more robust action on cultural protection, as the UK government is now set to do, is important as a way of strengthening the international coalition and even opening the possibility of rapid response to impending threats.
With sites at risk, there is much more that can be done, for example through the virtual mapping of sites, so that they are preserved digitally, as well as working on the relationship between populations and their cultural heritage.
We need to give equal weight to preserving the intangible heritage. This is not least because there is often much more that can be done in that area, even while the conflict is raging. We have a partnership to that effect with Action For Hope, an organisation that works with Syrian refugees in Jordan. Initially a project that provided comfort to refugee families by helping them cook familiar, evocative and culturally important dishes, it has now expanded and become an important part of building resilience among them. Archives of photos, film footage, stories, poems and oral histories help those who normally see themselves as victims maintain their cultural identity and pride.
We are looking for UK partners to deliver four specialist courses for emerging museum and gallery leaders from around the world at our International Museum Academy in the UK in August 2020. The deadline to apply is 14 September 2020.
Editor’s note: This article was updated on 24 August 2020, following the destruction of Palmyra’s Baalshamin temple.
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