Elena Cabrera: Leipzig, 2010 (CC)

This must have been how Leipzig saw its future in the 1910s, I said to myself as I took in the measure of its massive Hauptbahnhof and the long row of six ironwork train sheds distantly modelled, as all railway stations are, on the arches of Europe’s cathedrals (that’s why ‘sheds’ doesn’t seem quite right). A hundred years after its construction, this railway station, Europe’s largest in terms of floor space, still dominates the city. Most of the city’s tram and bus lines draw up outside, on Willy-Brandt-Platz; on the other side is the Brühl, an important street in the old town: it used to be part of the city’s Jewish quarter and at one time was world centre of the fur trade. Richard Wagner was born there, in 1813.

I hadn’t spared a thought for Leipzig since autumn 1989. I’d just got married and was living with my wife’s family near Munich; smoggy Leipzig was on the news every day in that fateful week of October. The city had drawn attention to itself – in what was supposed to be a celebration of the fortieth anniversary of the GDR – with a mass demonstration of seventy thousand people outside the St Nicholas Church, made famous by J S Bach, all of them chanting, ‘Wir sind das Volk’. It was a bold step to take, since many expected state forces to intervene and suppress the protests bloodily, much as the Chinese had done only months before. But a month later, the Berlin Wall proved permeable, not to say friable, and a government committed to liberalising the country was soon sitting in East Berlin. That December, after what is called die Wende (‘the Turning Point’), East German television screened a documentary with the ominous title Ist Leipzig noch zu retten? (‘Can Leipzig Still be Saved?’). Aside from some high-visibility modernising projects carried out in the GDR period, such as the construction of a new home for the city’s famous Gewandhaus Orchestra and a thirty-six-storey skyscraper in the shape of an open book, the city was crumbling away.

This same documentary was now showing as one of the exhibits in the museum dedicated to Leipzig’s history in its Old Town Hall, built in 1556 in the Saxon Renaissance style; it has been a museum since 1909. Curious, I thought, since the concept of the ‘city museum’ became a common notion in the English-speaking world only in the 1990s. But perhaps I shouldn’t have been so surprised: the oldest museum of book culture in the world had been set up in the city in 1884, and is now the Museum of Books and Writing, part of the Deutsche Nationalbibliothek complex in the southeastern suburbs. Perhaps this historicising impulse was why Nietzsche – who had studied classical philology at the University of Leipzig – once argued that the Germans were becoming overwhelmed with the sheer volume of antiquarian knowledge, most of which he considered paralysingly trivial if not downright life-negating.

“Bach, Bombs & Books”, Iain Bamforth, Literary Review

pixel.fabian: Leipzig, 2013 (CC)

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