'There is no doubt Ireland stands out against a backdrop of tragedy like hardly any other . . . '
Germans' fascination with and empathy for the Irish, particularly in times of adversity, dates from the 18th century, writes EOIN BOURKE
MODERN IRISH-German relations, today dominated by the ongoing euro zone crisis, go back further than many think. Many Germans and Irish think of Heinrich Böll's 1957 Irish Journal as triggering the first "Irland-Welle" or German fascination for things Irish.
In fact, there was already such an impetus in the 18th and 19th centuries. The trend began with Letters from Ireland, written in 1783 by a young man called Carl Gottlob Küttner, who was employed as a house tutor on Lord Waterford's estate near Portlaw.
His friend, to whom the letters were addressed, who signed himself as M Schenk, found them so riveting that he decided to bring them out in book form in time for the Leipzig Book Fair of 1785 where they immediately became a bestseller as the first German account of Ireland by an eyewitness.
Up to then, German readers had had to rely on translations
of English accounts of Ireland such as author Eberhard Werner Happel's depiction of the "wild" Irish as suffering from diarrhoea caused by the prevailing dampness, occupying themselves with adultery and incest, stealing by night and sleeping by day.
As a result, Schenk suggested, Germans were unable to form an idea of Ireland different from the one that suited the English to present to them.
"This is partially due to the fact that for a long time Ireland has not seemed important to us," he wrote, "and that it did not matter to us whether what we heard about it corresponded to the truth or not."
That all changed with Küttner's book. It spurred a series of
further accounts of Ireland, the most famous of which by Prince Hermann von Pückler-Muskau became the most widely read German book in the whole of the 19th century. (See panel)
Pückler made a pilgrimage on horseback from Kenmare to Derrynane Abbey in Caherdaniel in 1828 to encounter the already legendary Daniel O'Connell. His account of O'Connell's struggle for Catholic emancipation was`so glowing that an O'Connell cult grew up in the German territories.
Poet Heinrich Heine was moved to the point of calling upon the peoples of the continent to form a volunteer army to go to the rescue of "Poor Green Erin".
By 1844, a Dr Leopold Schipper found that "the civilised world has probably never given more widespread attention to any matter than Ireland's relationship to England"; Victor Aimé Huber wrote in 1850 of the by now acute German awareness of the country and its problems.
"The very mention of 'Ireland' evokes among those who are not completely ignorant of the circumstances a whole range of earnest thoughts and sorrowful feelings in addition to charming, cheerful and even comical impressions," he wrote, "but there is no doubt that it stands out against a backdrop of tragedy like hardly any other name of a people or country!"
It was German travel writing that had brought about this enormous change of consciousness in the intervening years.
Between 1783 and 1865, some 29 German authors - including two women - travelled to Ireland and wrote about their experiences there.
The more politically motivated authors were chafing under the very backward and restrictive political conditions in their
native Germany or Austria. Some lived in political exile because of their outspoken criticism of oppressive regimes of
petty German states.
Those resident in Germany, subject to its arbitrary censorship practices, used the coded form of travelogues to signal to their German readers what civil rights had been established in other European countries, above all France and Britain. By this means, it was possible to spread a sense of dissatisfaction with their own conditions in the petty states of Germany.
Most German commentators just happened upon Ireland having visited Great Britain - which they saw as the "cradle of democracy" and "stronghold of liberty".
This view was by no means without reason: in comparison to Germany, Britain was greatly advanced in its industrialisation, free trade, extraordinary wealth-creation, progressive civil rights and, above all, its parliamentary democracy.
Many of these writers added on a trip to Ireland, then part of the political entity of the "United Kingdom" and ruled since the Act of Union directly from London.
Expecting to see more of the same, they encountered the most abject poverty any of them had ever experienced - including ethnographer Johann Georg Kohl, who had been all over Europe and as far as Siberia.
The palpable shock of discovering the dark side of the British paradigm brought about a change of mind.
Pückler wrote that in Ireland he had witnessed conditions and seen extremes of destitution that were unheard of even during the times of bondage in Germany or in the countries with slavery.
Frederick Engels, as a young manager of his father's textile firm in Manchester, had first adopted English stereotyping in declaring that Irish conditions were due to the character of the people themselves and their "sensuous, excitable nature".
"The cause of Irish misery, which now seems to come from abroad, is really to be found at home," he once wrote.
Until, that is, he fell in love with the second-generation Irish worker, Mary Burns, in Manchester, who brought him on a trip around Ireland. After that he concluded that "one can look upon Ireland as the first English colony, and one which, due to its proximity, is still ruled in the old way.
"Here you become aware that the so-called liberty of the English citizen," he told German readers, "is founded on the oppression of the colonies."
This German empathy for the Irish, particularly in times of difficulty, continues uninterrupted to this day.
Eoin Bourke is Professor emeritus of German studies at National University of Ireland, Galway. His book on German travel writing in Ireland from 1798 to after the Famine, Poor Green Erin, is published by Peter Lang, Frankfurt.
"The shock of discovering the dark side of the British paradigm brought a change of mind