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Jack Smith

In the shadow of wars and reconstruction stand testaments to the glories of the past

October 30, 1985|Jack Smith

From Munich our tour bus rolled on through such beautifully restored medieval towns as Augsburg, Nordlingen and Dinkelsbuhl, with rows of half-timbered, high-gabled houses on cobblestoned streets.

In Dinkelsbuhl we stopped for lunch. My wife and I found a small sidewalk cafe at the heart of town, looking up and down the streets of freshly painted fronts--pink beside green, blue beside tan, no two alike.

It was pleasant sitting in the October sun. Except for a few vehicles there was no reason to believe we weren't back in the 16th Century. What little we had seen of Germany had been so beautifully reconstructed, in period style, that it looked like a movie set. I thought of a line in one of William Buckley Jr.'s novels of international intrigue to the effect that it did a town good to be destroyed every generation or so.

As I reflected on this, the air was shattered. A terrifying explosion echoed in the street. We heard a shrieking and looked up to see a point of reflected sunlight followed by a white cloud trail.

It was a jet. Very likely an American jet, from one of the nearby North Atlantic Treaty Organization bases. Its boom had awakened me from my fantasies about war and reconstruction. After the next war there would be nothing left to rebuild and no one to rebuild it.

That evening we stayed in Rothenburg in yet another charming hotel on our tour itinerary. From our balcony we could look down, a few feet away, on the town wall that still stands after 500 years. There is a legend that during the Thirty Years' War the Protestant town was surrounded and marked for destruction by the army general of the Holy Roman Empire. All pleas for mercy failed, until the burgomaster offered a cup of the town's best wine to the general, who liked it so much he agreed to spare the town if one of its prominent citizens could drain a six-pint tankard of the wine in one draught. A former burgomaster took that challenge and the town was spared.

Having downed merely a two-pint mug of Bavarian beer on the day before at the Oktoberfest in Munich, I could all the more admire that hero's superhuman sacrifice.

That evening after dinner my wife walked up the cobblestone streets in her new fuchsia boots, but I discovered that the television set in the lounge was showing the German-Czechoslovakian Davis Cup matches in Frankfurt, and I stayed to watch.

Before the matches the players sat for a rather formal press conference, much as if they represented NATO, taking questions from a crowd of seated reporters. Boris Becker, the German boy wonder and winner of Wimbledon, spoke in German, of course, but I noticed that he said, "OK." Ivan Lendl, the Czech, and No. 1 tennis player in the world since defeating John McEnroe in the U.S. Open, spoke awkwardly but effectively in the language of his new country, the United States. I had never cared for Lendl. He had seemed too icy. But I began rather to like him. I had no idea then that we would meet him later on this trip.

The next morning we arrived in Nuremberg, which is best known to most Americans, I suppose, as the seat of the postwar trials of the Nazi war criminals, nine of whom were hanged.

We did see the outside of the bulky gray stone courthouse in which the trials were held. I would like to have seen the courtroom in which Spencer Tracy presided over those notorious proceedings.

We stopped at a cemetery whose graves and monuments were covered with fresh-cut flowers. It was dazzling, like a painting by Monet. Our tour guide told us why it was so fresh and well-kept. It is a cemetery that "recycles" its residents, so to speak, every 30 years. Thus, none of them are so long dead as not to be remembered by someone. Sounds more sensible than the illusory idea of "perpetual care." (I don't know what they do, by the way, with the recycled customers.)

Nuremberg is said to have been one of the most beautiful medieval cities of Germany before the war. It has been rebuilt into an industrial center making trucks, tractors, motorcycles and electronic equipment, thus adding to the general din of European street life.

We lunched on little sausages and sauerkraut under a pink stone church with green bronze steeples, and then drove on to Wurzburg to see what our guide called Another Bloody Castle.

It was well worth seeing. It was built in the early 18th Century as a residence for the prince-bishops of Wurzburg. It is one of the largest baroque-rococo palaces in Germany, and as a monument to its builders' self-esteem it perhaps has no equal in pretentiousness.

The vaulted ceiling of the spacious vestibule at the top of a double flight of stairs is decorated in fresco by the famous Venetian, Tiepolo. Its theme is the apotheosis of his patron prince-bishop, who is shown ascending behind Apollo's chariot with an escort of gods and goddesses. It is a fact of 18th-Century life that an artist as great as Tiepolo could be engaged for two years in the glorification of a prince-bishop of doubtful divinity.

Whatever Tiepolo's doubts may have been about his subject, his work remains a great masterpiece. In World War II, the roof was destroyed by firebombs and the fresco was in grave danger. But an American Army officer ordered a temporary cover built, and it was saved.

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