Reisen und Leben, Heft 23 / 1992

Travelling with the Intrepid Baedeker

by Karl E. Meyer*

Old editions of the guidebooks, collectibles now, recall a partly vanished world

In the past decade, my wife and I have fortunately managed an annual sojourn in Europe, ranging from the Adriatic to the Baltic Seas. We have usually taken with us a red jacketed companion: authoritative if old-fashioned, opinionated but with impeccable manners and a reliable guide to what has vanished in the blasts if war, and what has survived. This and much else we found in the pages of vintage Baedekers, published in Germany from 1828 until 1944. Convenient to carry in pocket or purse, these trim volumes are accurately called handbooks rather than guidebooks. Although widely imitated, they have never been surpassed - certainly not by the serviceable but humdrum modern Baedekers that began appearing from 1948.

I started buying old Baedekers in the 1960's, when they seemed to come fresh from the attic, often with pressed flowers and tram tickets still in their pages. Their cost was modest, the supply abundant. Alas, they are now pricey collectibles, and as a Baedeker guide itself might caution, the reader is advised to move expeditiously if a stray specimen turns up in a yard sale.

These wonderful volumes provide various rewards, the first being aesthetic. Produced with exemplary care, the classic Baedeker is to bookmaking what a Rolls is to motoring. Its edges are marbled, its cream pages elegantly printed and the maps - especially - are marvels of microscopic precision. As a Baedeker preface typically puts it:

"THE MAPS AND PLANS, numbering over one hundred, have been carefully drawn according to the best and most recent sources, and from the personal observation of the Editor and his staff, and it is claimed that the handbook is worth acquiring for their sake alone."

A further pleasure is Herr Baedeker's English prose. Bertrand Russell somewhere remarked that the inspiration for his own lucid style was Milton for passion and Baedeker for concision. One can choose at random, as in this passage on Germany:

"The special attractions of the HARZ MTS. are the concentration of scenic beauties within a comparatively small area, the girdle of delightful old towns, and the ease with which it can be reached from many of the great cities of N. Germany. while the Brocken, the 'Blocksberg' of ancient magic lore, is the chief goal of nearly every tourist, being scalable by railway of motor-car though 3747 ft. above sea-level, there is a large choice also of wooded valleys and gorges."

We were there in 1990, after German unification, and can say once again, ditto. But what gives the Baedekers and other old guides a distinctive character is their self-assured candour. Written when going abroad was the pastime of the affluent few, they speak frankly about the wiles of dragomen in the Middle East, the chicanery of Neapolitan innkeepers, and the perils of visiting (circa 1907) the less-frequented districts of Paris after nightfall (the visitor should be on guard "against the huge army of pickpockets and other rogues who are quick to recognize the stranger and skilful in taking advantage of his ignorance").

Jan Morris, an aficionado of old guides, has rightly praised their power of transference, their ability "to deposit you in the shoes of your great-grandparents, to see the world with their eyes." sometimes the effect is quaint, sometimes deplorably revealing of class and national condescension, as in the lofty dismissal of unlettered natives. And sometimes large, confident statements read like subtexts to the day's headlines. Here is Karl Baedeker's description of the Great Russians in a 1914 guide (this volume, "Russia, with Teheran, Port Arthur, and Peking", is among the scarcest, and is even hard to find in a 1970's facsimile):

"Their character has been influenced not only by a long history of subjugation to feudal despotism, but also by the gloomy forests, the unresponsive soil, and the vigorous climate, and especially by the enforced inactivity of the long winters.

"Even the educated Russian gives comparatively little response to the actual demands of life; he is more or less the victim of fancy and temperament, which sometimes leads him to a despondent slackness, sometimes to emotional outbursts. Here we have the explanation of the want of organization, and the waste of time which strike the western visitor to Russia."

Exaggerated, yes, but it partly describes what has survived seven decades of Communism.

On matters political, Baedekers are more commonly circumspect, on occasion embarrassingly so on questions close to home. The firm was founded by Karl Baedeker (1801-1859), born in Essen, later a printer and bookseller in Koblenz, the subject of his first guide. In 1828, in a handbook of the Rhine, he struck upon his rapidly imitated formula: first practical and historical information, and then detailed itineraries.

After his death, old Baedeker's sons, Ernst, Karl and Fritz, turned the house into an institution. The guides were translated into French and English, and extended to all Europe and much of the Mediterranean; in 1872, the expanding enterprise relocated in Leipzig, Germany's publishing capital. By then, the handbooks had introduced a new feature: one or two asterisks were used to designate sights of outstanding interest.

This starring caught on, and was memorably adopted by Michelin guides that ranked restaurants no less than cathedrals. Indeed, the old handbooks dealt with food mainly in terms of hygiene; written principally for German and Anglo-Saxon travellers, the Baedekers faithfully expressed the indifference of both cultures to haute cuisine.

Tragically, however, the asterisks played a part in Nazi Germany's notorious "Baedeker" raids. To avenge British bombing of German cities, the Luftwaffe in 1942 wilfully targeted the starred sights of Exeter, Bath, Norwich and York.

The Hitler years were in other respects disastrous for the House of Baedeker. A 1936 handbook for Germany was published in a special large edition, with added maps showing the Reichs-Sportfeld built for the Olympic Games in Berlin. Cravenly and unforgivably, the editors expunged the names of notable German Jews like Heinrich Heine. The prevailing Zeitgeist was reflected in the guide's reference to Danzig (now Gdansk, in Poland) as an old Hanse city "torn from the fatherland by the Treaty of Versailles."

Yet the 1936 guide has its special uses for the politically alert traveller. The picturesque towns in the Harz Mountains heralded the Nazi Reich by remaining their main squares for the Führer, a fact that today's residents are not apt to advertise. In Karl Baedeker's native Essen, Adolf-Hitler-Strasse facing the railroad station led to Adolf-Hitler-Platz. In Koblenz, where the first guide was published, the 1936 edition lists an Adolf Hitler bridge "with three arches of 330 ft. span." Like a palimpsest, the old maps reveal layers of a mutable political landscape.

The old Baedeker firm perished, along with much of the Europe described in the handbooks, in the flames of World War II. Allied bombs levelled Leipzig, which then endured decades of East German rule. The city's streets and avenues acquired the names of new Marxist gods; venerable Leipzig University became Karl Marx University. Now the wheel has turned again, and it's not inconceivable that the current publishers of the guides, now produced in several former West German cities, will restore the standards of their predecessors.

They cannot restore the world evoked in the old guides, whose pages reserve the leisurely age of steam and sail, pressed flowers and clacking trams. That world, for ill and good, has irrevocably vanished. We are lucky to have its Vademecum in Herr Baedeker's invaluable handbooks.

* Karl E. Meyer is member of the editorial board of The New York Times. This article was first published in The New York Times on Sunday, September 29, 1991. We thank Karl E. Meyer for the permission to publish his article in REISEN & LEBEN. First we got a copy of The New York Times from Prof. Karl Selig of New York and then we asked Karl E. Meyer for the permission.

Karl E. Meyer: Travelling with the Intrepid Baedeker
In "Reisen und leben" Heft 23, S. 3-5.
(Holzminden: Ursula Hinrichsen; 1992)
ISSN 0936-627X

Zu diesem HeftTable of contentsEin Deutscher, ein Engländer und ein Franzose

Reproduced by kind permission of Alex W. Hinrichsen. All copyrights acknowledged.

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