Thursday, 1 March 2012

Gransee - Walls, Waldemar, and Queen Louise

Kirchplatz, the centre of Gransee

Gransee is a historic walled town in Brandenburg about 55km NW of Berlin, and takes about three quarters of an hour to get there on the RE4362 (the Wittenberg to Rostock train). On 4th September 2011 we took our bikes on the train to Gransee with the plan of cycling from there to Neuruppin (about 25km SW).

The settlement here grew up on the cross-roads of important trade-routes, and in 1226 was given city status and the right to impose duty on goods entering its walls. In 1319 it pledged allegiance to the Grafen (counts) of Lindow-Ruppin and had its first town council.

It was a heavily fortified frontier town, with Mecklenburg just to the north and the much disputed Uckermark to the NE. In 1316 it had been the venue for the Battle of Gransee, when the forces of Brandenburg under Margrave Waldemar clashed with those of Mecklenburg and Denmark during the so-called North German Margrave War. It was something about Waldemar supporting the town of Stralsund's independence from Denmark, and ended up with him being on the wrong side of a coalition of Mecklenburg, Denmark, Poland, Sweden, and the Welfs (the House of Welf eventually gave Great Britain its King George I). The result of the Battle of Gransee was 1:0 to the Meck-Danes captained by Henry II. Stralsund went on to be mostly under Swedish control and only became part of Prussia in 1815. Waldemar was the last of his line (the Brandenburg Ascanians) and died in 1320. Or did he? More to come soon.

Part of the Town Wall, Gransee
Theodor Fontane (1819-98) wrote that Gransee was "die festeste Stadt der Grafschaft Ruppin" - 'the most fast (as in locked-up / closed / secure) town in the county of Ruppin'. Of the 2000m long walls that encircled it, 1750m still survive.
Whenever I see town walls still standing, I usually take it as a sign that nothing much has gone on there over the past few hundred years. After all, if it had prospered then the town would have outgrown its walls, which would have been used for building new houses, churches, hospitals and factories. In the case of Gransee I would be pretty much correct. The town was severely damaged during the Thirty Years War 1618-1648 and its population destroyed, fled, or ravaged by plague and hunger. It barely recovered until the main trainline north of Berlin to the coast came through and revived its fortunes. This is a dispiriting pattern that you see repeated across Brandenburg, if not most of Europe. Great Britain was lucky to be too busy having a civil war than to get involved.

Tower on the town walls, Gransee
One thing you often find with these town walls, are that there are usually allotments or gardens close up against them on the outside facing wall. I guess that at one time the walls were also surrounded by a moat, or at the very least all the rubbish and effluence from the town would be thrown outside over the wall. This of course made the soil rich for horticulture.

The Pulverturm
Another relic you often see of the city fortifications is a Pulverturm, or tower where they kept all the gunpowder. Gransee doesn't disappoint. However, as Gransee has had many devastating fires in its history - the last major one on 19 June 1711 razed the town completely - I would bet that only the lower part of the tower is anything like original, and the rest of it in brick is to replace what went shooting off like a sky-rocket.

City walls also usually have gates, which are there mainly to impose a tax on any goods coming into the city to be sold at market. That and to keep out anybody with a Mecklenburgian / Danish / Swedish accent. Berlin's wall was perhaps unique in that it also served to keep deserting soldiers IN. Gransee's main gate, the Ruppiner Tor, survives to this day. Here it is hoving into view when approached from the Mauerweg (wall walk):

Ruppiner Tor and town walls, Gransee
The Ruppiner Tor still straddles the road to Neuruppin and is constructed in the Backsteinbau style common to northern Europe. It was once known as the Waldemar Tor.

Ruppiner Tor, Gransee
The arch on the right looks like it was built to allow modern two-way traffic. Not so, and hereby hangs a tale. I said before that Waldemar, the last of the Brandenburgian dynasty of House Ascania, was dead and buried in 1320. Brandenburg went back to being part of the Holy Roman Empire, under the rule of the House of Wittelsbach from Bavaria. However, twenty-five or so years after his supposed death, Waldemar turned up again before the Bishop of Magdeburg claiming that his burial had been staged and that he had meantime been on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. Within months he gained gullible supporters who backed his claim, especially amongst those Brandenburgers who objected to being ruled by Bavarians, and many towns switched allegiance. Being such an important stronghold in those days, the Falscher Waldemar (False Waldemar) set his sights on capturing Gransee. As a result the Waldemar Tor was ordered to be bricked up to stop invading supporters, and the smaller gate on the side (since widened) created to control entry to one person at a time. It was not until 1818 that the King of Prussia allowed the Waldemar Tor (now renamed Ruppiner Tor) to be re-opened, by which time the threat had probably passed. Nobody is really sure who the False Waldemar really was, but he was given rule of Brandenburg for two years by Emporer Charles IV until he was exposed as a cheat in 1350. He spent the last years of his life, until dying of natural causes in 1356, with an 'Ascanian' court in the pricipality of Anhalt-Deassau. The House of Ascania thrived elsewhere in Europe by the way, later producing Catherine the Great, Empress of Russia.

Close by the gate, within the town walls, is the Spitalkapelle.The 'spital' part is nothing to do with fluids emanating from one's mouth, but is a contraction of 'hospital' (same as in Spitalfields in London). 'Kapelle' is chapel, so this is a 'hospital chapel' though here 'hospital' is used in its original meaning of a place where you would receive hospitality. I said Gransee was built on a crossroads, but not just trade flowed along those routes but also pilgrims. The first thing they would do on reaching a new town on their pilgrimage, is check in at the local hospital for the chance of food and lodgings, and offer prayers for a safe journey at the chapel. As with many of these institutions, it did become a charitable hospital in the sense of an infirmary, and also a poorhouse. The remaining buildings were used as a retirement home and chapel right up until 1990.

Spitalkapelle, Gransee
Close by here is now the local history museum and tourist information centre. It was closed when we visited.

Heimatsmuseum, Gransee. The Spitalkapelle is to the right.
Predating anything else in Gransee are the remains of a former Franciscan Monestry, founded in 1280 and operational until being dissolved by the Reformation in 1541.

Franziskanerkloster, Gransee
Whilst little but the massive brick walls of the roofless hall survives of the monastery, the no-less massive church attached to it has survived, much altered, as the protestant St Mary's Church on Kirchplatz.

Marienkirche, Gransee
Here is a photo of detail of the elaborate Backsteingotic on the church:

Marienkirche, Gransee (detail)
Close-by on Schinkelplatz is a heavily gothicised, cast-iron memorial to Queen Louise (Luise) of Prussia, Princess of Mecklenburg-Strelitz (1776-1810).

Luisendenkmal am Schinkelplatz
This so-called Luisendenkmal was designed by Karl Friedrich Schinkel in 1811 and marks the spot where the body of Queen Louise (or Luise Auguste Wilhelmine Amalie Herzogin zu Mecklenburg, to give her her full name) stopped off on the funeral procession (Trauerzug) from Neustrelitz (where she died 19.07.1810) to Berlin. This is somewhat reminiscent of the 12 Eleanor Crosses to be found in England - the most well-known probably being Charing Cross in London - that marked the funeral procession for the body of Eleanor of Castille, Queen to King Edward I, in the late thirteenth century. The Lusiendankmal also echos the original gothic architecture of the Eleanor crosses, and this was a time when Schenkel was re-inventing the mediaeval Gothik as an authentically 'German' style in contrast to the French Neoclassical one.

In Berlin the Queen's body was laid out for three days in the Berliner Stadtschloss, then buried in the Berliner Dom (the cathedral) on 30th July. Five months later Louise found her final resting place in the Doric-columned mausoleum built for her (by Schenkel again) in the grounds of Schloss Charlottenburg. Her body was joined by that of her husband King Friedrich III in 1840.

Queen Luise died aged only 34, and was apparently a very beautiful, charming, fun-loving, and yet down-to-earth consort to the Prussian King. A Princess of the People, you might say; the Princess Di of her day. Luise lived in a time when Napolean was over-running Europe, and she is credited with persuading her appeasement-minded husband to make a stand against Napolean, an initiative that resulted in an alliance between Prussia and Tsar Alexander I of Russia. The defeat of the Russian and Austrian armies at Austerlitz by the French in December 1805 put an end to that idea, and on 27th October 1806 Napolean marched triumphantly through the Brandeburg Gate in Berlin. During the peace negotiations at Tilset in 1807 Luise ebcountered Napolean first-hand, and actually the two got on well together. Whatever, she was not allowed by Napolean to return to her palace in Berlin until December 1809. Napolean, you may remember, eventually met his Waterloo on 18 June 1815; Marshall Blücher is supposed to have remarked after the battle 'Jetzt endlich ist Luise gerächt!' (Now, finally, Luise is avenged!').

After her death, there arose a cult around the memory of Luise, as if she represented German (or at least Prussian) defiance against France and a rallying-flag for German nationalism. The famous Iron Cross military decoration was inaugurated by Friedrich III and was first presented on 10 March 1813, which would have been Luise's birthday. On the same anniversary a year later Friedrich instituted the Order of Louise (Luisenorden), a complementary decoration to the Iron Cross, for women who had made a significant contribution to the war effort against Napolean. Both decorations were designed by Schenkel, and made of iron from the foundries of Berlin - just like the Gransee Luisendenkmal.


That's about it for Gransee. Our impressions were that it is a quiet, clean, charming town set in beautiful coutryside. A little bit sleepy perhaps, with nostalgic DDR-style shop-frontages, splashes of brightly coloured flowers in the gardens, interesting history, and well-manicured parkland surrounding it. If it wasn't for the coming of the railway line, I think it would have just dissolved away. As it is, it is situated with the large lake Gehron See to the north (which we didn't visit but from the train looks like a haven for weekend boating enthusiasts and nature lovers), and does have a small industrial estate and leisure airport nearby.

I can't leave talking about Gransee without mentioning the events of the afternoon of 14th August 1977 at Dannenwalde, just north of the town. This former Luftwaffe ammunition dump had been taken over and expanded by the Soviet 2nd Guards Tank Army after WWII, who made it their top-secret base and built further large ammunition bunkers and rocket storage facilities.

At 14:00 hours on 14th August at Dannewalde, lightning struck  a stack of 122mm Katyusha rockets causing them to catch fire and explode. Their solid-fuel motors ignited and sent them propelling off over a radius of 20km. It is not known how many launched themselves, but probably at least a thousand went streaming off wildly into the forest and over Gransee and surrounding villages.

Trees are torn up, raging fires are started, buildings were destroyed. In the midst of the inferno, frentic Soviet soldiers tried to push burning ammunitions dumps apart. Other grenades caught alight and exploded, craters rip up the earth. People fled in panic - but where to when all hell seemed to be breaking out all around. It wasn't until 19:45 that no more explosions were heard.

There were no reported civilian casualties, but it is estimated that between 50 and 300 Soviet soldiers were killed in the incident. Since the Russian armed forces have imposed a forty-year secrecy on their activities after withdrawing from the former DDR, no-one will have access to their records until 2017, and even then it is unlikely that records about Dannerwalde will be declassified.

It is not known how much ammunition was left buried here by the Soviets, but in a clean-up operation in 2002, 207 Katyusha rockets were discovered. It's not even known if nuclear warheads were stored there, though it is probable that they were, along with chemical weapons.

And all that is awaiting discovery in the woods just a few kilometres north of  sleepy Gransee.

After Gransee we cycled off to Schloss Mesesberg en route to Neuruppin.

1 comment:

  1. Sehr informativ und sehr schöne Fotos. Dort waren wir auch noch nicht, aber jetzt steht Gransee mit auf unserer Liste:)


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