If you want German efficiency, go to Switzerland. That is what they say in Germany these days, anyway, and there is distressing proof of it on the once-matchless German railways. As I sought to reach Lübeck in time for a decent dinner, my train came to a sullen stop somewhere near Essen, menacing a key connection. Pleasant staff did what they could, just as they do here, but from then on the journey was as doomed as any in Britain.
Essen station itself was shabby, with cracked panes of glass and a general air of having seen better days. And so it has. The old West Germany of the 1980s, lapped in wealth and satisfaction, has begun to peel and rust, and the bruised bones of the country are showing through. If this does not worry you, it should.
Lübeck, when I eventually got there, was a mixture of delight and distress. My treasured 1936 Baedeker guide to Germany, often a good source for what was lost and what is now hidden in Germany (in any major city you can find out where the Adolf-Hitler-Straße was), was of surprisingly little use, its map small and its descriptions terse. But the first impression is of height and austerity. This is handsome redbrick Protestant North Germany, with tall sharp steeples and high, whitewashed brick vaults, not the sweet, ornate, curly beauty of the Catholic South. From a distance, all seems well. But the bareness of many of the interiors swiftly reminds you that the RAF bombed this place severely in 1942, having chosen it because its medieval timber buildings would provide a good test of the latest incendiary bombs.
They proved highly effective. In the most glorious of the city’s churches, the Marienkirche, the ancient bells lie where they fell, smashed and partly melted. High on the walls lie the remnants of 18th-century memorials, adorned with death’s heads, as seems to have been the fashion of the time in Germany and England. Hidden behind some modern sculptures is a black metal cross, inscribed with scores of names of those from the parish who died in the 1914 war. Nobody in Germany really knows what to do about these Great War memorials now. Once, they had more or less the same status as their equivalents in Britain, commemorations of patriotic sacrifice. Now the shadow of the Third Reich has engulfed all military commemoration, before and during the Hitler period.
I cannot excuse our bombing of Germany. But I also know that many Germans came to see it as some sort of divine punishment for the evil they knew was going on in their midst. Was it? How much responsibility did they bear, especially the women and children who died in great numbers? And what about those who opposed Nazism when they could?
The Lübeck city fathers infuriated Hitler in 1932 by refusing to let him campaign there. And one of the town’s churches, near the incongruously fine building which housed the Gestapo headquarters, commemorates the Lübeck Martyrs, four men of God (three Catholic priests and one Lutheran pastor) who were guillotined for their opposition to the regime.
The Lutheran Karl Friedrich Stellbrink had begun by supporting Hitler, fooled by his pretence of being a Christian, but had turned away from him as he learned the truth. He was especially struck by the funeral of a Nazi official, during which his fellow National Socialists covered up the chapel’s crucifix with an overcoat.
The four men’s blood, witnesses said, mingled on the floor of the execution shed. A modest museum preserves their memory, and shows, continuously, upsetting film of the ancient spires burning and falling.
Why do people automatically turn southwards when they head to the Continent? France aside (which is special), I have had just as much pleasure and instruction by heading north and east as I have by going south.
From Lübeck I went on to Copenhagen, where a neat little Danish train slots into the ferry like a toy. There I was finally able to answer a childhood puzzle about how big the dog was in Hans Christian Andersen’s tale of The Tinder Box, which had eyes as big as the Round Tower. I can say now that it was very big.
I also went, as any English visitor to Denmark surely must, to view the battlements of Elsinore. And then it was time to cross the amazing Øresund Bridge up to Stockholm, which, among many delights, boasts in its Old Town cathedral the most wonderful sculpture of St George and the Dragon you will ever see. The dying monster clutches the shaft of the saint’s broken lance in its enormous claw. It reminds you that the outcome of battles between good and evil is not a foregone conclusion.
Peter Hitchens is a columnist for the Mail on Sunday