Our story begins in Chile in 1647. When a monumental earthquake levelled the entire capital city of Santiago, the fall-out was unique. Down on the ground, presumably, the survivors were engaged in the usual disaster zone activities: mourning their dead, salvaging what they could from the wreckage, wondering where they would sleep that night. In the distant taverns of Europe, however, refined voices were raised in feverish debate about the nature, and indeed existence, of God.
Once Lisbon had met a similar fate a little over a century later, the floodgates opened. Voltaire became the latest philosopher to hold forth on divine intervention. We are more interested, however, in the Frenchman’s nemesis. Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, who was long dead by the time of Voltaire’s blasphemous broadside, had taken as his point of departure the question both raised and answered by St Augustine of Hippo over a millennium previously: Si deus est , unde malum?, or ‘If there is a God, why is there evil too?’. In so doing, he launched a new school of theodicy and, eventually, prompted playwright and countryman Heinrich von Kleist to write a short story ostensibly about a doomed couple reunited by the Santiago catastrophe but which, in actual fact, mulls over the themes of deliverance, chance and social reflexes in the wake of annihilation.
It is, perhaps, ironic that the man who had made so fashionable the question of God’s influence on terrestrial events should now be associated most readily with a city that, in the year of our lord 1943, appeared even more forsaken than most. Unlike the King of Prussia’s confidant, after all, the House of Hanover’s paid intellectual had concluded that events such as the mass loss of life in Santiago were not evidence of God’s negligence, still less of his being a figment of the collective imagination, but rather of his capacity for retribution. Not that the Allied onslaught on Hanover in the Second World War could be attributed to a higher power in any sense other than the literal. Although those bombing raids, one hundred in number, can ultimately be traced back to the whims of one man, it is most definitely not their cause but their effect that borders on the biblical.
It may well be that the paucity of genuine architecture on show has rubbed off on the locals. Certainly, for a populace credited with speaking the purest German in the land, the Hanoverians display a stingy attitude towards words. Beginning with the aged passer-by almost moved to tears of mirth at the thought of there being anything so exhilarating as a town centre in the vicinity, and ending with the gasthaus waiter who merely inclined his head with an air of self-evident majesty when asked if the beer soup on the menu was made to a secret recipe, they combine the self-deprecatory sense of humour and residual pride that come with public decline. Even the River Leine is so unobtrusive as to go almost unnoticed.
Here and there, the city’s golden age tugs at your sleeve. Hanover boasts several town halls, and the oldest of them also happens to be the most graceful. A deft interpretation of the turreted Gothic aesthetic so common in these parts, it speaks in its isolation of a lost lustre promptly made manifest in the adjoining market square. Opposite the oppressively high church, a faded pink building studded with heraldic symbols and currently housing the Lower Saxony regional parliament looks as sorry for itself as any building might that had once been commandeered by the Nazis for the purposes of forced labour.
In this, if nothing else, modern day Hanover has been vigilant. The sign admitting to this darkest of interludes might be found across Germany, but the Holocaust memorial is striking for its frank exposure not only of the town officials complicit in the deportations but of the burghers who turned a blind eye. On the promenade of the Maschsee reservoir behind the indecently large ‘new’ town hall, meanwhile, the swastika has been scrubbed off a plinth commissioned by Hitler and topped by a classically clad Olympic torchbearer with arm raised in eerily ambiguous salute. The alleged Nazi connotations of the cherub riding a carp hard by are harder to fathom.
In the face of such desolation, the archway proclaiming the familiar Hanoverian motto Dieu et mon droit is inescapably poignant. At the sight of his city in ruins, Leibniz might struggle to write his way out of this one.