Heaven can wait but Valhalla here to stay

 

FINDING GERMANY:King Ludwig I’s temple thrusts one into the cold heart of Germany’s 19th-century hero cult, writes DEREK SCALLY

THE TEMPLE perched on the hill over the river Danube is a dead ringer for the Parthenon in Greece – only gleaming white and fully intact.

Take the road up the hill near Regensburg and you reach your destination, where a sign reads: “Valhalla and public toilet.” Visit the mythical heavenly abode of fallen Germanic heroes without taxing your bladder.

Valhalla is perhaps one of Germany’s oddest and most troubling memorials. Some 75m long and 25m high, the temple of 46 imposing Doric columns sits on a massive stone base, criss-crossed with staircases.

Built on the orders of Bavaria’s King Ludwig I, grandfather of the more famous “mad” King Ludwig II, Valhalla was conceived in the years after Napoleon’s defeat of Prussia in 1801 to offer a proud expression of German identity in the face of foreign humiliation. Designed by his favoured architect Leo von Klenze, it opened after 12 years’ construction in 1842.

“May the Valhalla promote the strengthening and growth of German consciousness,” said King Ludwig at the opening. “May all Germans, to whatever tribe they belong, always feel that they have a common fatherland, a fatherland of which they may feel proud.”

The hall, built to impress, is as bizarre inside as out. After passing a small kiosk, you’re thrust into the cold heart of the 19th-century German hero cult. Plaques on the front wall honour early heroes such as Charlemagne and Arminius while, on the side walls, friezes tell the story of early German history. But the hall’s main focus is the three rows of white marble busts running along each pink marble wall, 128 in all, staring blankly at each other.

Alongside busts of Luther, Bismarck, Gutenberg and artists such as Dürer, Bach and Handel, visitors see William of Orange and Erasmus. King Ludwig’s wish was to include all noteworthy speakers of Germanic languages.

Just 11 women are here, including Catherine the Great of Russia, looking remarkably like Chancellor Angela Merkel. The more recent busts are among the least dignified: Albert Einstein looks like cartoon character Mr Magoo while Sophie Scholl, a leader of the White Rose resistance against the Nazis, has an oversized head. Spoiling the mood somewhat is the tarpaulin and scaffolding necessary for renovations that will continue until 2013.

The latest arrival in Valhalla, just last month, was an emaciated-looking bust of the poet Heinrich Heine. Considering he died in 1856, it is a remarkably late addition and all the more peculiar considering how he once mocked the memorial as King Ludwig’s “place of marble skulls”. Valhalla administrator Robert Raith suggests the Jewish poet was likely embittered after Catholic advisers to King Ludwig blocked his bid for a professorship at Munich’s university.

Valhalla is still open for business: new candidates can be nominated and, if approved by the Bavarian state, those who made the nomination are asked to commission and pay for a bust.

Valhalla is far from universally loved in Germany. For some it is an anachronism from another planet, a relic from a parallel Germany that no longer exists. Germans these days prefer to celebrate in “safe” categories, like footballers and actors. “National pride” is still a loaded term.

Valhalla’s defenders say it has to be seen in the context of the time, when even a king of Bavaria was interested in promoting a kind of national unity of co-existence among states.

“After the experiences with Napoleon people finally realised that the small collection of German kingdoms was going nowhere,” said Mr Raith, “because they could be played off against each other.”

Outside, German visitors cast a jaundiced eye over “their” memorial. Reactions to the monument seem to fall cleanly down old West-East Germany lines. A construction worker from the east doesn’t mince his words about the building. “It’s much too pompous,” he said, asking not to be named.

Heribert ob den Hövel from the Black Forest, as West German as it gets, says: “It’s important for every country to have something like this.The Germans aren’t a bad people or anything and memories change over time. In 200, 300 years’ time I can imagine them putting Hitler in there.”