Marek Kohn, the author of The Stories Old Towns Tell, describes the Christmas market in the medieval German town of Rothenburg and reveals a story that the tourist service doesn’t tell.
‘Once a year the medieval town of Rothenburg transforms itself into a fairytale winter
wonderland,’ the town’s tourism service tells the visitors who make a seasonal pilgrimage
there in search of midwinter enchantment. ‘Ever since the 15th century the festive time prior
to Christmas (Advent) has been accompanied by a delightful Christmas market. Looking back
on over 500 years of tradition little has changed over the years and the historical customs
have been closely followed.’
In the Bavarian town’s market square, surrounded by buildings that seem grandly
indifferent to the passage of time, the past framed by half-timber lattices, it’s a story that is
beguiling and easy to believe. It is the winter variation on the story that Rothenburg ob der
Tauber has been telling about itself since the middle of the 19th century, when people began
to fall under the spell of an old town that seemed like a magically unchanged survival in a
tumultuously changing world. It’s the story that visitors want to hear, telling them that the
Rothenburg spectacle is both magical and real.
But there is an alternative story; one which would never be told in a tourist leaflet. This
story places the origin of Rothenburg’s Christmas market not in the 15th century, but in 1936,
three years after Hitler came to power in Germany. The Nazis were as captivated by
Rothenburg as the town’s admirers across Europe and America were, seeing in it a vision of an
ideal German folk–community. They exploited it energetically for ideological education,
organising domestic tourist trips to the town that their promotional material described as ‘a
shining monument to German community in olden times’. Nazi illusionists turned it into a
theatre in which modern Germans would believe they were ‘seeing a fairytale of a long-gone
golden age resurrected’.
The admiration was mutual – two-thirds of Rothenburg’s population joined the
National Socialist party – and the fairytale would not have been complete without a Christmas
theme. Nor would the Nazi Rothenburg scene have been complete without its central, hateful
myth. One of the market’s leading promoters was Ernst Unbehauen, an artist whose most
salient contribution to Rothenburg’s public space was a set of antisemitic ‘warning’ plaques,
placed at the town’s gates, featuring caricatures of money-clutching Jews and texts recalling
the expulsion of Rothenburg’s Jewish residents in the 16th century. These, the local paper
explained, were installed ‘to defend against everything un-German and foreign’.
At the end of the war, more than forty per cent of the town’s buildings lay in ruins,
destroyed by an American air raid. Reconstruction, guided by heritage authorities, was the
priority. Conservationist guidelines recommended that the replacement buildings should
harmonise with the survivors, but not try to pass themselves off as originals. In the event, the
reconstructions were so similar to the originals that the differences were largely unnoticeable
to anybody without an architecturally trained eye, enabling observers and commentators to
perpetuate the myth that Rothenburg has remained almost unchanged since the Middle Ages.
Nowadays, that suits the international community of tourists who want to believe in
the Rothenburg fairytale. In the post-war period, a town that looked as though the twentieth
century had not happened offered an enticing illusion to Germans who wanted to pretend
that the century’s fourth and fifth decades had not happened. Joshua Hagen, an American
historian who has explored the stories behind the Rothenburg fairytale, observes that people
could follow the town’s history as far as the 20th century, ‘and then fast-forward to 1950, because as the tourist guides will tell you, nothing happened. It was asleep, timeless, and nothing ever changed.’
As for the Christmas market, fitful attempts were made to relaunch it in the early 1950s, but
failed to spark much support. It eventually made a comeback after a campaign by Ernst
Behauen and Friedrich Schmidt, who as the town’s mayor had supported the establishment of
the market in 1936. Unbehauen, who later became the town’s conservator, described the
market as ‘a piece of genuine old tradition’. Before the war, he had implicitly made the same
claim for his antisemitic plaques.
The 20th-century story casts an unflattering light upon the fairytale. But the fairytale is
so much more powerful, sustained as it is by the suspended disbelief of countless tourists and
other distant admirers. The diligently crafted innocence of modern Christmas festivals offers
something precious – something closely kin to the peaceful conviviality of the old town spaces
in which many of them are set. Perhaps the two Rothenburg stories could be synthesised and
reconciled; perhaps they don’t need to be. They can co-exist, one engaging with the real
world, and the other offering a welcome escape from it, once a year.
About the book
A journey through Europe’s old towns, exploring why we treasure them—but also what they hide about a continent’s fraught history
‘I will never be seduced by such cosy nostalgia again. . . . A timely rallying call for retrospective inclusion and historical empathy.’
Charlie Connelly, New European
About the author
Marek Kohn is a Brighton-based writer of non-fiction. He writes on themes of diversity, identity, nationalism, and the social implications of science.