The Demigod's City - Ralph P. Güntzel - ebook

The Demigod's City ebook

Ralph P Güntzel

42,99 zł


In this fast-paced narrative, historian Ralph P. Güntzel explains how a settlement that started as a small royal court in the middle of the wilderness became the capital of a kingdom and eventually morphed into the thriving metropolis of North Hesse. Narrated in a user-friendly style, this book places local events into the larger context of German and European history. It offers a fresh perspective on the major developments in the history of the city and brings to life numerous intriguing characters. Loaded with wry commentary, it takes supposedly great men from their pedestal and gives credit to hitherto unsung heroes who have helped shape Kassel's fortunes in past and present. A native of Kassel, Ralph P. Güntzel studied in Göttingen, Berlin, and Montréal and earned his Ph.D. in history from McGill University (Montréal). He has held teaching positions in Montréal, Franklin (Indiana), and Salzburg, and currently is the chair of the Department of History at Franklin College. His most recent monograph is entitled "Understanding 'Old Europe': An Introduction to the Culture, Politics, and History of France, Germany, and Austria" and was published by Tectum in 2010. Praise for "Understanding 'Old Europe'": "Güntzel's style is elegant and easily understandable for students and teachers of French or German Studies, history, political science, or European civilization. Americans planning a trip abroad be it as informed tourists or for professional reasons; and Austrians, French, and Germans interested in their own culture and the historical roots of many of the customs and policies in place today would likewise profit from Güntzel's narrative.

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Ralph P. Güntzel

The Demigod’s City. A Short History of Kassel

© Tectum Verlag Marburg, 2012

ISBN 978-3-8288-5622-6

Bildnachweis Cover: © Jens Haines /

(Dieser Titel ist zugleich als gedrucktes Buch unter der ISBN 978-38288-2962-6 im Tectum Verlag erschienen.)

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Table of Content


The Lie of the Land

The Setting: A Brief Historical Geography

The Karlsberg and Park Wilhelmshöhe

The Fulda, the Karlsaue and the Medieval Nucleus of the City

The Northwestern and Northeastern Rims of the City Center

The Western Sections

Pathways to the Present

Medieval Beginnings

The Landgrave’s Seat, 1264-1518

Pivot of Protestantism, 1518-1567

Culture, Cruelty, and Calvinism, 1567-1650

Versailles on the Fulda, 1650-1760

A Golden Age for the City but Not its Citizens, 1760-1785

Crook, Prankster, and Revolutionary

The Making and Un-Making of a Royal Capital, 1785-1813

A Motley Crew

Citizens versus Rulers, 1813-1866

The Great Leap Forward, 1860s-1910s

Imperial Summer Residence

The Center of the Counter-Revolution, 1918-1919

The Stewardships of Scheidemann and Stadler, 1919-1933

Inglorious Interlude, 1933-1945

The Long Climb Back, Mid-1940s-Mid-1970s

Lauritzen and Branner at the Drafting Board, 1954-1975

The Cold War in Kassel

A Time of Transition, Mid-1970s-1989

Unification and Fragmentation

From One Mayor to the Next, and One Party System to the Next


The Era of Religious Conflicts

The Eighteenth Century

The Nineteenth Century

The Twentieth Century

Suggestions for Further Reading

Overviews, Travel Guides, and Travelogues

Surveys of the History of the City

Surveys of the History of Hesse and Germany

Studies of Specific Historical Issues

Autobiographies und Biographies

Coffee Table Books

Photo Credits

View from the Karlsberg across Schloß Wilhelmshöhe and Wilhelmshöher Allee toward the city center


The venerable archivist and historian Franz Carl Theodor Piderit once stated that few German cities can boast a history as rich and eventful as Kassel’s. Piderit’s assertion, which comes at the end of his painstaking four-hundred page survey of the history of the city, is remarkable not only for its content but also for the period when it was written. It was made in the 1840s, a time when the most dramatic events in the city’s colorful history had not yet happened.

When Piderit penned his account he could not know that a few years later Bavarian troops would occupy Kassel; that a few decades later, a German emperor known to his detractors as “Mad Willy” would make the palace on the western outskirts of the city his annual summer residence; or that after the First World War, the German general staff would set up shop in the same palace and from there direct military activities against radicals bent on transformring Germany into a socialist republic.

Piderit could not know that in 1943 three-quarters of the city’s buildings would be destroyed in air bombardments; that by the early 1960s, the city would once again have risen like a phoenix from the ashes but find itself merely a few miles from an impenetrable border that divided the whole world in half; or that in 1970, Kassel would become the scene of high-risk diplomatic efforts aimed at easing Cold War tensions amidst demonstrations and violence in the streets.

While Piderit could not have anticipated any of these events, perhaps he would not have been unduly taken aback had somebody foretold him that Kassel would be the scene of so much commotion. His studies of the city’s earlier history had shown him that exciting incidents were hardly alien to the city. It was in Kassel that medieval rulers and citizens first had bitterly fought each other but then valiantly stood together against the fiendish designs of foreign knights; that early Lutherans had resisted courageously all attempts of Catholic conquerors and clergymen to reconvert them; that Jérôme Bonaparte, Napoleon’s youngest brother, had run the gayest court in all of Europe, wasted fabulous sums of money, and simultaneously brought equality before the law to central Germany.

Whether one looks at the distant past or at more recent developments, the annals of Kassel are anything but dull. In fact, they make for a fascinating story. This book tells this story. It does so in a userfriendly way.

This book does not eulogize. It takes a critical yet sympathetic view of Kassel’s history without glossing over the flaws, faults, and flimsiness. Above all, it portrays the major characters that shaped events and were, in turn, shaped by them. In the process, it debunks historical myths and takes supposedly great men down from their pedestal.

Like all histories, the history of Kassel has its heroes and its zeros. Its heroes were gifted individuals such as Georg Forster, who brought learnedness to a city in which few people read books; Gustav Mahler, who overcame unhappiness to compose great music; and Sara Nußbaum, who survived the Holocaust and then walked hundreds of miles by foot to return to Kassel.

Its zeros included Friedrich Wilhelm, the last ruler of Hesse-Kassel, who broke his promise to respect his citizens' civil liberties; Philipp Scheidemann, the mayor who found it beneath him to do humdrum paperwork; and Herbert Ahlborn, the police chief who almost ruined a summit meeting between leaders from the East and the West during the height of the Cold War.

In the pages of this book readers will encounter likeable villains such as Rudolph Raspe, the author of the Adventures of Baron Munchausen who embezzled coins from the ruler’s collection; tragic heroes like Georg Engel, who became the victim of a gross miscarriage of justice in a faraway land; and malevolent thugs such as Landgrave Hermann II, a medieval ruler who quartered citizens who challenged his ruthless methods of governance.

In narrating the story of Kassel, this book puts the history of the city into a larger context. It does not limit itself to recounting events within the municipal boundaries as if they happened in isolation from the rest of the world. Rather, it shows how developments in Kassel related to developments on both the German and European stages.

The first chapter acquaints readers with the geographical setting and major features of the urban landscape. Subsequent chapters take readers through the major stages of the city’s development from its emergence as a medieval settlement on the bank of the river Fulda to the present day.

In the process of nurturing this book through various drafts, I have benefitted from the support of a number of people whom I would like to thank but who are not in any way responsible for my interpretations or errors. I am indebted to Canan Aslan-Akman, Cylvie Claveau, Jochen Frey, Ute Gallmeier, Ute Göttmann, Erika Güntzel, Paul-Andre Linteau, Elena Novozhilova, Roberto Perin, Olga Safonova, Tim Schröder, Charly Stark, and Thomas Weigel. Their insights and perspectives were most useful. I am grateful to Eric Petenbrink who read the entire manuscript and Joe Belser who read part of it. They made innumerable editing suggestions that greatly improved the final product. Last but not least, I would like to thank Heike Amthor and her colleagues at Tectum for having adeptly steered the book through the production stages.

May this book inspire those who have not yet done so to visit the north-Hessian metropolis, and may it help those who already know the present-day city to become better acquainted with its past.

The Setting A Brief Historical Geography

The Lie of the Land

Even a cursory glance at the map of Germany shows that no other sizeable city lies in close proximity to Kassel. This lack of proximity does not mean that Kassel is isolated from the other urban centers. On the contrary, it is located at the junction of two superhighways, one from the densely-populated Rhine/Ruhr area to the west and the other connecting Hamburg in the north and Munich in the south.

The railway station at Kassel-Wilhelmshöhe is part of the country’s highspeed train network. Travelers from and to Kassel-Wilhelmshöhe are able to cover the distance to Frankfurt-on- the-Main in less than 90 minutes; to Berlin, located some

350 kilometers (217 miles) from Kassel, in less than three hours; and to Munich, located some 385 kilometers (239 miles) from Kassel, in less than four hours.

Kassel is the only major city located in the northern half of the Bundesland, or state (or province), of Hesse. As a result, the city has been nicknamed “the metropolis of northern Hesse.” While the city has only about 200,000 inhabitants and, thus, is relatively small by German standards the greater urban area is home to about 320,000 people. Besides Kassel, the greater Kassel urban area includes two small cities – Baunatal (28,000 inhabitants) to the south and Vellmar (18,000 inhabitants) to the north – and a set of minor municipalities. These minor municipalities form a ring around Kassel that comprises (clockwise from the north) Fuldatal, Niestetal, Kaufungen, Lohfelden, Fuldabrück, Schauenburg, and Ahnatal.

Kassel and the smaller municipalities on its perimeter are located in a scenic basin that stretches roughly north-southward and is embedded in forested hills. Through the basin runs the river Fulda, which has its spring some 190 kilometers (118 miles) to the south of Kassel and joins together with the river Werra some 30 kilometers (18.6 miles) to the north. The confluence of the Fulda and the Werra creates one of Germany’s largest rivers, the Weser, which flows into the North Sea.

Throughout the centuries Kassel’s location has elicited much praise. The famous British political economist Thomas Hodgskin, who spent three years touring the continent and who visited Kassel in 1818, was one of those who put their enchantment onto paper. He noted that “few towns, indeed, are more beautifully situated than Cassel. It lies at the eastern foot of some commanding, well-wooded, and beautiful hills, and overlooks a fertile, cultivated plain.”

The hills to which Hodgskin referred belong to the Habichtswald, one of four hill ranges that surround the basin. The other three ranges are the Reinhardswald to the northeast, the Kaufunger Wald to the east, and the Söhre to the southeast and south. The highest peak in all of the four ranges is the Hohes Gras in the Habichtswald, which has an elevation of some 615 meters (672 yards).

The Karlsberg and Park Wilhelmshöhe

Both the Habichtswald and the river Fulda are very important to the layout and identity of Kassel. The eastern edge of the Habichtswald lies within the city’s municipal boundaries. It is there, on the easternmost peak of the Habichtswald, called the Karlsberg (525 meters/574 yards), that the city’s most famous tourist sites are located.

These tourist sites include Schloß Wilhelmshöhe, a palace that houses a world-renown collection of art by old masters; Park Wilhelmshöhe, Europe’s largest mountain park; and, towering above all, the iconic Herkules monument. Designed by the architects Simon Louis du Ry and Heinrich Jussow, Schloß Wilhelmshöhe was once the residence of monarchs, including the rulers of HesseKassel who initially carried the title of landgrave and, subsequently, of elector; the king of Westphalia; and the emperor of Germany. It is now open to the public and home to an art gallery that features some of the world’s greatest paintings, including among others, masterpieces by Rembrandt, Peter Paul Rubens, Frans Hals, Albrecht Dürer, Titian, Lovis Corinth, and Max Lieberman.

The Schloß and the view from it have inspired many enthusiastic comments from visitors. “It certainly is one of the handsomest palaces of Germany,” Hodgskin declared. “Its situation, about three miles from Cassel, and commanding view of it and all the surrounding country, is noble and grand.”

Park Wilhelmshöhe consists of beautifully adorned gardens with lakes, grottoes, cascades, a waterfall, a fountain, and several remarkable buildings such as a replica of an aqueduct of the type common in the Roman Empire; temples and pavilions; and a pagoda in Chinese style. The most extraordinary of this gathering of remarkable edifices is the Löwenburg, or Lion’s Castle, a replica of a medieval castle in a state of partial ruin. In combination with the other edifices, the castle gives the park a distinctively romantic atmosphere.

The Herkules monument, which is the city’s most distinctive landmark, stands atop the Karlsberg and can be seen from many places throughout the basin. Completed in 1717, the monument consists of a large octagonal building – the Riesenschloß, or Giants' Castle – that is surmounted by a tall pyramid, which serves as the basis for a colossal copper figure that depicts Herkules, a demigod and the hero of the tales of Greek and Roman classical antiquity. It was Herkules who famously cleaned the Augean stables and fetched the golden apples of the Hesperides.

Herkules monument and Giants' Castle

The Giants' Castle also serves as the starting point for the famous water games of Park Wilhelmshöhe. At regular intervals, water is unleashed from a cistern and cascades along a set of lengthy steps located at the foot of the Giants' Castle. From the lower end of these steps the water follows a course through the Park, across an aqueduct, and down the waterfall before it reaches the large pond near the Schloß, where it culminates in a huge fountain.

The Herkules monument and the Park beneath symbolize the demigod’s victory over the giants, the victory of human design and labor over nature, and the victory of order over chaos. Before the creation of the Herkules monument, the Giants' Castle, and the waterway, the slopes of the Karlsberg were merely those of yet another hill. Once the monument, the castle, and the waterway had been erected, the slopes became a finely-crafted piece of art of grandiose proportions.

Park Wilhelmshöhe is linked to the center of the city through an avenue, the Wilhelmshöher Allee. This avenue, which is about 4.5 kilometers (2.8 miles) in length, runs in a straight line and extends the central axis of the mountain park between the Herkules monument and the Schloß. The combined length of park axis and avenue is almost seven kilometers (4.3 miles) and adds an appearance of symmetry to the grandiose panoramic view from the Karlsberg.

The boulevard’s eastern end is flanked by two large gate houses that date back to the early nineteenth century and once formed the Wilhelmshöher Tor, or Wilhelmshöhe Gate. The northern of the two gate houses was the home of the linguists Jakob and Wilhelm Grimm. It is here that they did most of the work on their seminal dictionary of the German language and that they compiled the collection of fairy tales for which they are known throughout the world. In the honor of the two brothers, the adjacent square is called Brüder-Grimm-Platz. On its northern side, near the guard house and amidst flower beds and benches stands a monument that depicts the two brothers.

The Fulda, the Karlsaue and the Medieval Nucleus of the City

The river Fulda forms the backdrop for two large parks, the Karlsaue and the Fuldaaue. The Karlsaue dates back to the Baroque period, and is located on the western, or left, bank of the river, between the Fulda and a brook called the Drusel. The Karlsaue features numerous gems of garden architecture such as artificial waterways and islands, manicured lawns, finelypruned trees, and impressive flower beds, which are beautifully adorned with sculptures. At its eastern end is a splendid building ensemble that consists of the Orangery Palace and two pavilions, one of which houses a bath made from Carrara marble.

Near the Orangery Palace, on the bank of the Fulda, stands a gigantic pickaxe, a sculpture that the American pop artist Claes Oldenburg created for the documenta 7 art exhibit in 1982. The spot in which the pickaxe is located constitutes an extension of the line formed from the Herkules monument along the Wilhelmshöher Allee. The object itself gives the impression of having been hurled there by the demigod atop the Karlsberg.

The Fuldaaue, which was laid out in the late 1970s and early 1980s, is located on the eastern, or right, bank of the river. It features a sidearm of the Fulda dedicated to boat races and an artificial lake with several islands that serves partly as an area of relaxation replete with beaches and playgrounds and partly as a nature preserve. In the summer months the Fuldaaue teems with people who suntan, swim, play, or have barbeques.

In earlier centuries the Fulda anchored the city center for it was on its banks that the first settlement sprang up in the late ninth or early tenth century. During the Middle Ages, this settlement grew into a full-fledged city replete with walls, gates, market squares, and Gothic churches. The oldest section of this medieval nucleus, the Altstadt, or Old Town, was located on the western, or left, bank of the Fulda. The palace of the rulers, also in close proximity to the river, was part of it.

Map of Kassel in 1648. The large church is St. Martin’s which still dominates the city’s skyline but now features two spires

In 1277, a second section called Unterneustadt, or Lower New Town, was built on the eastern, or right, bank of the Fulda. A third section followed in 1330. Located on the northwestern edge of the Old Town, it was called Die Freiheit, or Liberty, a reference to the fact its inhabitants were exempted from various taxes and levies.

Today, few medieval remnants have endured since the vast majority of the buildings in these three sections became casualties either of air raids during the Second World War or of urban renewal programs before and after the war. One of the prominent remnants is the bulk of the Martinskirche, or St. Martin’s, located on Landgraf-Philipps-Platz, in the center of Die Freiheit. To this day, St. Martin’s remains the largest church in the city.

Those who see St. Martin’s for the first time will likely be struck by the fact that the spires and bulk date from different eras. The building itself is distinctively Gothic in character and was completed by 1364, with additions made during the fifteenth century. By contrast, the spires are modern in style. Inaugurated in 1961, they replaced older spires that were destroyed in the Second World War.

The most important building that survived in its entirety both the Second World War and the urban renewal efforts in its entirety is the Gothic Brüderkirche, or Church of the Brothers, on Brüderstraße. The name of the church derives from the Carmelite brothers who created it during the late thirteenth and fourteenth century. Perennially short of funds, it took the brothers a staggering ninety years to complete the project.

Edifices that date back to the Renaissance – the era that followed the Middle Ages – are more numerous than are the medieval remnants. The three most important Renaissance buildings are the Renthof, the Marstall, and the Ottoneum. Situated next to the Brüderkirche, the Renthof has served a variety of functions throughout its history. It successively housed the ruler’s financial administration, an academy for the sons of noble families, the first university of Kassel, and now serves as a senior citizen’s home. In its courtyard, one can marvel at Hessian architect Wilhelm Vernukken’s Apollo-Brunnen, or Fountain of Apollo, which constitutes a fine piece of Renaissance craftsmanship.

The Marstall stands on the slightly more elevated area across the Brüderstraße. It once housed the ruler’s stables and armory on the main floor and his art collections and library on the top floor. Today, its main floor is the venue for the city’s highly popular farmers' market while the top floor holds the city’s archival collections.

The Ottoneum is located about five hundred meters (547 yards) further west of the Brüderkirche. It was the first theater building built outside Italy when it opened its doors in 1606, and it owes its existence to the enthusiasm for theater of Moritz the Learned, the ruler at the time. (The theater is named after Moritz’s son Otto.) Today, it houses a natural history museum. Near the entrance, a huge replica of a saurian advertises the building’s current purpose.

The City Center

The area where the medieval nucleus once stood no longer constitutes the city center proper. Over the course of the last three hundred years the center has moved away from the river to the gentle slope northwest of the nucleus. The presentday city center is surrounded by a ring road and comprises the area between Königsplatz, or King’s Square, in the northeast; Ständeplatz, or Square of the Estates, in the northwest; the city hall on Obere Königsstraße, or Upper King’s Street, in the southwest; and Friedrichsplatz, or Frederick’s Square, in the southeast.

Most of the present-day city center was developed in four distinct phases, the first lasting from the 1690s to the 1730s, the second from the 1760s to the 1780s, the third during the 1890s and the 1900s, and the fourth from the 1950s to the present.

Map of Kassel in the 1740s, which shows the symmetrical layout of the Karlsaue and the rectangular grid of the Upper New Town with Karlsplatz

During the first phase, the section surrounding Karlsplatz, or Charles’s Square, came into being. This section, called Obere Neustadt, or Upper New Town, was meant to provide living quarters for French Protestant refugees who arrived in Kassel in large numbers during the 1680s and 1690s. Today, the Karlsplatz ensemble that consists of the Karlskirche, or Charles’s Church – which served as the religious assembly house of the refugees – and the monument depicting Landgrave Karl, who invited the refugees, is the most important remnant of the original Upper New Town.

During the second phase, Landgrave Friedrich II wanted to enhance the aesthetic appeal of his capital city. For this purpose he ordered the destruction of the city walls and the creation of a new section connecting the Upper New Town with the medieval core. This project resulted in the creation of Königsplatz and Friedrichsplatz. Located in proximity of St. Martin’s, the Königsplatz is circular in shape. Located further to the southwest, the Friedrichsplatz is rectangular in shape and of enormous dimensions it measures no less than 305 by 137 meters (1000 by 450 feet).

The eastern side of the Friedrichsplatz features a genuine architectural gem the Fridericianum. Completed in 1779, the edifice was a pioneering achievement in more ways than one. It was the first truly classicist building in central Germany, and it housed the first public library and the first public museum on the European continent.

When Hodgskin, the British political economist and traveler, visited Kassel a generation after the Friedericianum opened its doors, he spent several hours scrutinizing the collection on display. In his account he enumerated the artifacts. Among other items, he noted “galleries of pictures, statues, urns, and antiques, collections of curious workmanship in ivory, of minerals, and insects, ofmedals, of mathematical and optical instruments, of old arms and armor, of figures in wax, particularly all the family of Hesse Cassel, dressed in the very clothes they wore while living.” Hodgskin was not, however, overly impressed with the collection and dismissed it as an assortment of curious oddities put together without a guiding idea. His experience inside the museum disturbed Hodgskin so much that he wondered if the display of such collections had any merit at all. After some ruminating on this question, he concluded that museums such as the Friedericianium did have some merit after all they were “of great use to idle men, by enabling them to pass their time without doing mischief.”

Since Hodgskin’s visit the artifacts on display in the Fridericianum have changed immensely. Today, the building serves as a venue for art shows, including documenta, an exhibition of contem porary art that is held every four or five years in Kassel. While documenta