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Book Review | The House by the Lake: One House, Five Families, and a Hundred Years of German History

Book Review | The House by the Lake: One House, Five Families, and a Hundred Years of German History
Disclosure: Please note that some links are affiliate links, and at no additional cost to you, we earn a commission if you make a purchase. I recommend this book because I loved it. I was not asked to review this book, and I purchased my own copy. If you are ready to buy a copy, and would like to support this website in some way, using these links will help do exactly that.

Finally! A German history book I couldn't put down. I’m not kidding. I read it in one week. I’ve been on a literary quest for a year to try and teach myself the history of Germany, and I’m here to proclaim to anyone on the same lifelong learning journey that you will love The House by the Lake: One House, Five Families, and a Hundred Years of German History by Thomas Harding. And shockingly, despite the history it's covers it has a happy, inspiring resolution.

So, why is it a page-turner? Harding narrates the history of the home and its inhabitants in second person, describing the details in a way that I found myself rooting for the subjects in a way I would a fictional story. The families he describes are three-dimensional, and very human.

A Hundred Years of German History
The House by the Lake covers one hundred years of German history, specifically including World War I, the Weimar Republic, World War II, the GDR, and after the Berlin Wall comes down. Although the topics are complicated and heavy, when it's discussed in terms of one house and how it impacted it's residents, it's easier to empathize and comprehend. Putting a face to history is a great way to make the past come alive. The book is set up so the reader progresses through the history chronologically as the house itself would have experienced it, with the chapters broken up by times and entitled with the family name. Despite there being five families in total, I never once lost track of the names. Intermittently included throughout is, the author’s journey and his progress on researching the house. You don’t need to be deeply familiar with German history to enjoy this book. Actually, I found myself appreciating Harding’s explanations and summaries more than I had in broader Germany-centric history books. He's successfully pared it down in a way that makes sense. Not an easy feat!

I highly recommend this book! This also would be a unique gift idea for someone traveling to Germany. I discovered The House by the Lake on Amazon, and took advantage of the new paperback edition that released this year. If you’re interested, you can find it on Amazon here, (available on the Kindle, or in hardcover or paperback) or it can also be downloaded from iBooks®.

Do you have any recommendations for nonfiction books about German history? I'm always looking for suggestions. Leave a comment below or send us an email.

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What You Need to Know Before Visiting Wartburg Castle

Wartburg Castle is more than just a castle, it's a symbol of German unity, and sometimes called the ‘most German castle’, similarly to how (a previous post from us) St. Peter in Frankfurt is called the ‘most German church’. It's a fair assessment when you discover how much happened at this castle! Here are tidbits of history you need to know to get the most out of your visit of Wartburg Castle.

Standing in front of the cistern and bergfried in Wartburg Castle, Germany

Medieval Hilltop Castle Architecture
Any self-respecting medieval castle is built on a hill, and Wartburg Castle is no different. Wartburg castle went through four periods of construction. Hang on to your chair, we’re also going to introduce German castle vocabulary words that might prove helpful during your visit. The German words, as always, will be italicized. The initial building period of the Palas (great hall building) was between 1157-1162. The Romanesque-period gate arch, located inside the Vorburg (front castle) is from 1200. The majority of the Vorburg, which includes the Ritterhaus (knight’s house), Torhaus (tower house), Vogtei (castle bailiff’s lodge), and the sentry walks are all timber framing and built in the late medieval time, 1478-1480. Finally, the last building period, the historicist (1853-1860), included the Bergfried (free-standing fighting tower), Neue Kemente (Fireplace Room), the Torhalle (porch), Dirnitz (heated hall building), Gadam (granary), and the Ritterbad (knight’s bath). During the historicist period the Palas was opulently furnished with the fantastical frescoes of Moritz von Schwind and the Festsaal (festival hall). In 1912-1914, the final addition of the Wartburg hotel was built.

Wartburg is a medieval hilltop castle

What is a Landgrave?
I wouldn’t be surprised if you had never heard of a landgrave before, which means ‘provincial count’. The title was first invented in 1131 solely for the German state of Thuringia, and intended to put landgraves on equal level with dukes, and ultimately could become imperial princes. Becoming a landgrave was in thanks for the dynasty’s help to Saxon Lothar von Süpplingenburg in the election of a king of Germany against Emperor Heinrich V.

If you ever wondered what your room would look like if you were a medieval princess, look no further! Named the Ruler’s Room, although the furniture is not original to the room itself, it's been collected, the effect is jaw dropping. The views of the Thuringia forest from the windows, to the chandelier and the stencil ceilings, it's decadent.

Wartburg Castle Fuerstenzimmer, Ruler's Room

What are Minnesingers?
A minnesinger is a 12th-14th century German lyric poet and singer who performed songs of courtly love. All medieval courts had minnesinger contests, but it's alleged that Wartburg Castle held the most famous contest of the age with the six most famous minnesingers of the time: Walther von der Vogelweide, Wolfram von Escheenbach, Reinmar von Zweter, Heinrich von Ofterdingen, Heinrich Schreiber, and Biterolf. When imagining a minnesinger, be on the lookout for one of their instruments in the museum, the Quinterne, a small lute, likely made from a single piece of maple in 1450 with the marks of Hans Oth of Nuremberg, a master craftsman of the time.

Top: Dürer cupboard c. 1515 | Left: Lute from 1450 | Exhibits at the Wartburg Art Collection

St Elizabeth
First, St Elizabeth lived here for most of her life. What you need to know is that Elizabeth was a Hungarian princess who was betrothed to Ludwig IV of the Ludovingians. She was sent to the castle to be groomed as a wife at age four. She gave everything she could to take care of the poor in the surrounding area. If you’d like to read more about St. Elizabeth and the miracles associated with her, click here and you’ll be redirected to a Catholic Encyclopedia article.

The Refuge of Martin Luther
The second reason the Wartburg is a religious destination, is because Martin Luther found refuge here. You can visit the room where he stayed. This is the place where he did some of his life’s best works and translated the New Testament from Greek to German. The castle is fortunate to have a copy from 1541 that belonged to Wolfgang Wesemer with an inscription on the inside cover by Luther himself and his collaborator Philipp Melanchthon.

1817 Wartburg Festival
Four years after the Battle of Nations in 1813, and the 300th anniversary of the Lutheran Reformation, student corporations met in Eisenach and marched to the Wartburg. They hosted speeches and symbolically burnt items. Five hundred students marched for the creation of a unified German Empire. It is said that one of the fraternity flags from the city of Jena that was carried during the march became the inspiration for the final German flag. You can read more about the stories behind the German flag in our earlier article here.

Where Martin Luther Translated the New Testament From Greek to German | Furnishing are reconstructions

Historicism
Historicism is architecture inspired by and recreates another period’s architecture. In Wartburg Castle’s case, the Romantics were inspired by the medieval architecture and sought to recreate it and expand the castle in the same style. Often, when castles were expanded or renovated, they wanted to replace the out of fashion architecture, in this period they loved it and wanted more of it. Historicist architect Hugo von Ritgen lobbied passionately for the commission to restore and continue building.

Goethe & Museum Treasures
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe was emotionally impacted by the castle’s history; he demonstrated this through his writing, letters, and sketches. He hoped there would be a museum installed within the castle that would inspire even more pilgrims to visit. Inspired by Goethe’s idea for a museum and in Goethe’s memory, Grand Duchess Maria Pavlovna and her son Carl Alexander of Saxe-Weimar-Eisenach, began the process of a European art collection which would focus on the time period of the castle. Today, the Wartburg Art Museum has collected over 1,000 years of European art from the time of Wartburg Castle’s heyday.

Recommended Souvenir From Wartburg Castle
The souvenir to get from Wartburg is definitely the small booklet (60 pages) about the history of the castle, the architecture, and the legend of St. Elizabeth. The Wartburg, Part of the World’s Heritage by Günter Schuchardt, Translated by Margaret Marks. In such a slim, light volume, there’s a wealth of information alongside historical drawings, paintings, and color photos. Without it, I could not write this post with any credible facts.

Wartburg Vogtei (castle bailiff lodge) has a copy of the late Gothic oriel on the South Side. The Vogtei is where you'll find Martin Luther's room.

Still want to see more? There's certainly more to see! This is a nice video overview of the castle.

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The Most 'German' of German Churches

Outside the Römer, where a beautiful sandstone pedestrian bridge connects over the street, sits a church that’s not a church, that most Germans know very well. Paulskirche, or in English the Church of St. Paul. As an American, I had never heard of it, and without doing any research about it beforehand, went inside.

Outside the Römer, where a beautiful sandstone pedestrian bridge connects over the street, sits a church that’s not a church, that most Germans know very well. Paulskirche, or in English the Church of St. Paul. As an American, I had never heard of it, and without doing any research about it beforehand, went inside.

Entrance to the Paulskirche, with the mural The Path of the Representatives by Johannes Grützkeby just beyond.

When I walk in, I’m in the outer ring of a round marblesque room that instantly feels more like a contemporary art museum because I’m confronted by a larger than life mural depicting an incredibly stylized procession of people hugging the entire inner core of the building. Displays and exhibit cases line the outer core of the building.

Lower Hall of the Paulskirche with the mural The Path of the Representatives by Johannes Grützkeby

As I wind my way around the mural, I discover it really does continue around, and I find stairs. Ah! Now I’ll find the church!

No, not really. I climb the stairs and discover a very modern-looking, non-church arrangement of chairs, a lovely organ, and various German state flags hanging from a soaring ceiling. No one else was around, just me and a bleary-eyed security guard.

Upper Hall of the Paulskirche where the annual awarding of The Peace Prize of the German Book Trade takes place. The Paulskirche organ was designed by Maria Schwarz.

I was really confused. What was this place?

This is a prime example of how important it is to read up on the history of monuments before visiting, a tourist’s mistake I still make from time to time. However, my curiosity was piqued. So I resolved to figure this out at home and pass along the highlights.

In 1833, the Evangelical Lutheran Church of St. Paul was a beacon of modernity in its classical architecture style while surrounded by ‘old’ gothic architecture, and it was the largest hall in Frankfurt. For these two reasons, in 1848 it was an appropriate place for the first all-German Parliament. The first democratic constitution for a united Germany was born here, and this is why Paulskirche is often called the Cradle of German democracy.

What German Church is the MOST German?

The German democracy was short-lived, and the Prussian king was unimpressed, but the building’s symbolism continues. After the building’s complete destruction during World War II, this was the first building to be reconstructed and it was consecrated in 1948, on the 100-year anniversary of the German National Assembly.

Paulskirche Highlights
The mural, The Path of the Representatives by Johannes Grützke, was installed as part of a larger renovation effort in 1991. Along with the mural, there is a really helpful permanent exhibit along the outer walls called "Symbol of Democratic Freedom and National Unity," that you should spend time reading. Speaking from experience, it is really difficult to find information on this topic in English, and the exhibit is bilingual and illustrated with diagrams, drawings and photos. Otherwise you can 'see' everything within 10 minutes, but to get more value out of your visit defintily soak up the details in the exhibit cases.

Now, Paulskirche, the Church of St. Paul, is a space for public events and awards, the most famous being the annual awarding of The Peace Prize of the German Book Trade, as part of the larger annual Frankfurt Book Fair.

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What You'll See at the Imperial Castle of Nuremberg

The Imperial Castle of Nuremberg sitting on its hill with the odd juxtaposition of a modern parking lot in front of a medieval castle

Although the sun was shining brightly, it was bitterly cold as we walked up the steady incline towards the Imperial Castle of Nuremberg. When we reached the base of the castle, a parking lot stood just before it, posing an odd juxtaposition of modern and medieval. We were early, the castle hadn’t opened yet, but there were still school groups already posing for group photos in the frost bitten castle gardens. I admired their youthful daring as they leapt onto craggy rocks for selfies. I was timidly walking on the inclined cobblestones, wondering where the handrail was.

What You'll See at the Imperial Castle of Nuremberg | Double-Headed Imperial Eagle Ceiling Mural

Heathen Tower and Stables from the Imperial Castle of Nuremberg, Germany

Inner Courtyard & Kunigunden Lime Tree
Sebastian and I were hoping that perhaps the ticket area had a heated waiting area, and ventured in towards the castle’s inner courtyard. After all these years, Germany’s castles still make my jaw drop. I was torn between wanting to take pictures while there were few tourists in the viewfinder, and wanting to find heat. We found the inner courtyard and saw several other like minded couples sitting on frozen benches looking at the Kunigunden lime tree 3.0. The original tree was replaced in 1934, but that planting did not have enough space for the roots between the rocks, and the current tree was planted a few years ago.

The Kunigunden Lime Tree in the Inner Court of the Imperial Castle of Nuremberg, Germany

The Legend of the Kunigunden Lime Tree
“The Empress Kunigunde planted it, says the legend, some seven hundred years ago. For once, when King Henry was a-hunting, he came in the pursuit of a deer to the edge of a steep precipice, and this in the heat of the chase he did not perceive, but would have fallen headlong had not a lime-branch, at which he grasped in his extremity, stopped and saved him. And he, recognising the special protection of the Most High, broke off a twig of the lime-tree in remembrance of his wonderful preservation, and brought it to his anxious wife, who planted it at once with her own hands in the earth, and it soon grew into a beautiful tree.” Excerpt From: Cecil Headlam’s “The Story of Nuremberg,” published in 1901 and available for free as part of The Gutenberg Project, click here.

Always punctual, an elderly German gentleman walks slowly with keys jingling in hand towards the ticket office. Our cold colleagues started to gather behind him. We bought our tickets, and went back out to the inner courtyard to enter through the Knight’s Hall. It was an expansive stone room devoid of furniture. On the wall with the windows overlooking Nuremberg, there was a moving illustrated border wallpaper of the imperial processional. I looked around and wondered how we would get into the next exhibit, as the only door in the hall was so impressive and authentic looking there was no way it was intended for our use. It receded into the wall with a pointed arch, and being at the top of a few steps it seemed so tiny. All around the door frame was a gothic mural of Emperors on either side, and Christ on the cross over the top of the arch. When someone else reached for the door handle, I still hung back, suspicious an alarm would sound. Instead, only an obnoxious squeak from the hinges and a smiling attendant greeted them from the other side of the door.

The Romanesque Double Chapel in the Imperial Castle of Nuremberg, Germany

Double Chapel
The door opened to the double chapel, the lower level. It's in the Romanesque style and survived the bombings of WWII for the most part. Graceful, simple columns connect the two levels, the lower for the court, and the upper for the Emperor. You can even peek down below your feet into St. Margaret’s Chapel. It wasn’t accessible to tour. In the back corner we found a stone staircase to continue up to the Emperor's level of the Chapel.

The Dining Hall now has modern exhibits explaining the Holy Roman Empire in the Imperial Castle of Nuremberg, Germany

Imperial Hall and Apartment
The next room was by far my favorite. They allocated the space that was the original dining hall for the Emperor and lengthened it an additional third and created a wonderful and modern interactive exhibit space that explains how the Emperors were elected in the Holy Roman Empire. It always seemed a contradiction to me that Emperors were elected, and not inherited. The German lands are unique compared to the United Kingdom and France in this aspect. This exhibit really brought the distinction to clarity to me. Do you understand how Emperors were elected? Let us know in the comments. We may do a post about the process in the future.

Imperial Castle Museum, a branch of the Germanisches Nationalmuseum
After going through a few more smaller rooms of the Imperial Apartment, we stepped into the Bowery. Here was endless artifacts from history, coins, toys, weapons, armor, shields (with deflection marks!), a throne chair, and more.

Suit of armor of a member of the patrician family Rieter, end of the 16th century, on display in the Imperial Castle Museum, a branch of the Germanisches Nationalmuseum, Nuremberg, Germany

Sinwell Tower & Deep Well
If you’re not opposed to steps or heights, definitely climb Sinwell Tower. The view of Nuremberg is fantastic, and they have black and white photos of how the city looked after WWII for comparison.

The Sinwell Tower and its beautiful views of Nuremberg | Imperial Castle of Nuremberg, Germany

For the Deep Well, you visit with a guide at assigned times, and yes it is more than a really deep hole in the ground. The guide pours water down the well so you can hear how long it takes for the water to splash. Then the guide lowers a candle all the way to the bottom with a video camera all while sharing the history of the well. It was really interesting and definitely worth the time.

Planning Your Trip to the Imperial Castle of Nuremberg
To do everything, tickets are 7 Euros. You can choose your own adventure and visit for less. Walking through the courtyards and gardens is free. Audio guides are an additional 2 Euros. Prices subject to change. Be sure to check the website for the most up to date prices and hours.
Imperial Castle of Nuremberg Admission Prices
Imperial Castle of Nuremberg Opening Hours
Printable English Brochure

View of the Heathen Tower and Inner Court of the Imperial Castle of Nuremberg, Germany

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