Roll models

Germany specialises in a jowly, almost offensively bourgeois, species of folk hero. Just as the pasty features  of Martin Luther gleam not with a surfeit of rich food but a reforming spirit, so Ludwig Roselius’ fleshy countenance denotes a man of the people, rather than a sated coffee merchant with an uneasy conscience. Every bust dares you to question the sanctity of these pampered paragons.

At the risk of calling to mind a box of Dairy Milk, Roselius’ native Bremen is a workaday twenty-first century city with a sumptuous mediaeval heart. If German towns like a pudgy philanthropist, they are positively – and quite sensibly – devoted to the principle of keeping the undignified crush of the railway station far from the fragile identity of their squares and thoroughfares. Expressions of civic pride in the north of the country are always laced with a triumphalism born of a bolshy cocktail of vanquished Danish aggression and Hanseatic entitlement, and the Bremer Roland is no different.

Charlemagne’s nephew, a real-life Siegfried and probably the most fearsome man to wear his hair in ringlets, stands erect in the middle of the market square, effortlessly balancing the two-headed eagle of the Holy Roman Empire on a shield in the crook of his mighty elbow. Sword drawn, Roland is trampling a barbarian invader underfoot while eyeing the seat of the archbishopric with a steely insouciance. If the sculptor is to be believed, here was a giant of a man; a giant, moreover, whose attendant cloud of myth and legend meant that the image of the doomed young firebrand of a vast and indistinct Catholic entity could be kneaded into the physical incarnation of a Protestant town’s separatist impulses. As if afraid of such complexity, the bristly and ubiquitous Bismarck, here astride a horse by the cathedral steps, generously lends his weight to the proposal of the populist’s paunch.

It is, then, but one necessarily short leap from that notorious scourge of the Danes to Roselius. Past the spindly Gothic town hall, another flagstone in the northern European brick trail that attains giddy perfection in Lüneburg, and the chamber of commerce, which tapers into a one-dimensional cupola portraying a ship at sea under the unusually benevolent eye of Poseidon, we land at the entrance to Böttcherstraße. This winding short cut to the Weser river is a hide-and-seek of a street, alive with alcoves and alleyways. Without Roselius, though, it would have receded to a footnote in the city’s mercantile history. Fresh from doing good by inventing decaffeinated coffee, the local boy answered the call of two residents in the ailing warren by taking the oldest house in the neighbourhood off their hands and, soon enough, independent-minded Bremen had a renascent city state in its midst. The coopers and tub makers would never come back, but the social project was so successful that the local bank eventually bought Barrel Street – bust of the great man and all.

After all, as the Nobel laureate once sang, you gotta serve somebody. The beneficiaries of Roselius’ largesse were, and remain, a case study in a particularly dogged linguistic phenomenon: Plattdeutsch, or Low German. Over the gold embossed front door of the Roselius Haus, for example, an inscription declares that no harm will come to a devout house builder. It is neither the leaden rhyme nor the piety of the sentiment that catches the eye, but rather the confounding cluster of consonants necessarily contained in a single aphorism. Exhibit A is volgebowet for wohlgebaut (well-built), while the familiar vertrauen (trust) hides in plain sight as vortrowet. Back in the main square, the chamber of commerce even offers its own homespun take on ‘To dare is to do’. When you consider that Buten un binnen, wagen un winnen extends the classical motto to take in a sense of ‘home and abroad’, it is undeniably concise – but the utterly alien aspect of the first word leaves the conscientious student of High German feeling slightly cheated.

The very association of Platt with the city traders of the fin-de-siècle is an insight into the true quality of regional pride in Germany. This was not some patois to be muttered shamefacedly in the doorways of the poorer houses; it was a badge of pride. More than that, it was a prestige brand. In Thomas Mann’s Lübeck epic, Thomas Buddenbrooks of the eponymous family firm is a fluent speaker dependent on his facility to gain the respect of his dockers. But no man is the complete master of his upbringing, and a confrontation with one of his men during an uprising culminates in him unconsciously reverting to his mother tongue mid-harangue. Cowed, the underling backs down.

In Germany, and indeed elsewhere, popular revolution is for the upper classes.


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