From East to West
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From East to West

November 8, 2020

By Girija Madhavan

A new diplomatic posting, though eagerly awaited, brings with it some trepidation and qualms. So it was for me when, from Tokyo,  Japan, my husband was posted to the Indian Embassy in Bonn in the Federal Republic of Germany in 1988. Though both Japan and Germany, along with Italy, were Axis Powers in the 2nd World War, the two countries could not be more dissimilar.

In the early 20th century, members of our extended family were more familiar with Britain than European countries like Germany. In the 1920s, “England-returned”, in the eyes of aunts, uncles and cousins, enhanced the eligibility of young men of marriageable age.

However, Germany was familiar to us in Mysore. My father, M. Venkatesh, an engineer with the Mysore State Railways, was sent for further training, first to England and then  to Germany in 1932. He had to learn German and visit railway factories. He kept a diary of his stay in England and Germany, now barely legible.

As a child I had a treasure chest, a beige painted wooden box, hidden in a cabinet in the drawing room of my home, a heritage railway bungalow in Mysuru. There were family albums of a bygone time; sepia prints of unsmiling men in Mysore Petas [ready made turbans]and saree-clad women in Victorian style puffed-sleeved blouses. One poignant photo showed a bejewelled young woman in an elaborate saree, flowers in her hair, a sorrowful expression on her face, posing against a painted studio background. After her young husband died, she was photographed for one last time in all her finery before being subject to the stringent austerities of widowhood then.

An ink painting by Girija. A drone’s eye view of Gut Marienforst, the early 13th century barn and out buildings from her attic studio.

The box also contained postcards of Munich and its famous clock and a book on Essen illustrated with prints of old etchings. The 1932 Baedeker’s Guide and the pre-World War 2 street maps would have been of interest even now since Munich was bombed during the war and rebuilt. A set of small cards with coloured pictures of workers was later found to have been issued by the infamous firm of Krupps who supplied the lethal Zyklon B to the Nazi extermination camps. My father was in Germany only during the start of the Nazi era but he had seen enough to admonish unruly small grandsons, “Don’t behave like storm-troopers.” The treasure box and its contents have now vanished except in my memory.

We arrived at Frankfurt Airport in April 1988 and took the Lufthansa train to Bonn. The Ambassador’s Residence, “Villa Marienforst” in Bad Godesberg, had been rented by our Embassy from the current owner, Farmer Huttrop, from 1974 onwards. As we drove to our new home from Bonn Railway Station, our elderly Embassy driver, Ram Singh, proudly told me, “Aapka ghar kile ke jaise hai” [your home is like a fort]. Over  a hundred years old, it was a four-storey villa reputedly built in 1883 by the Engels family [of Friedrich Engels and  Karl Marx fame] and was first called “Villa Engels.” Renamed “Villa Marienforst,” it remained with the Indian Embassy until the capital shifted to Berlin. I recall German officials who lived in Bonn organising a “Laugh or Cry Party” to see which city would be the capital, crying if they had to move to Berlin!

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The 4th floor attic became my painting studio with a “drone’s-eye” view of the spreading grounds below. A barn dating to the early 13th century, bounded the estate on one side. It was of historic interest and the German Government gave Farmer Huttrop grants to maintain the antique tiles, uneven roofs of the barn and out buildings, the pond and willow tree in their original condition. 

The barn, now called “Gut Marienforst,” had originally been a nunnery and was disbanded. A monastery took its place. There was said to be a chapel on the grounds which disappeared. In 1802, following the movement for Secularisation, the property was sold and passed through several hands to its present owners, the Huttrops, who run it as a dairy farm selling organic produce and delicatessen items. The internet displays pictures of the unchanged antique walls and roof tops, the pond, the willow tree and the black and white Friesian cows I used to see.

Ludwig van Beethoven was born in Bonn in 1770 and lived there till he was twenty two years old. The Austrian composer Franz Joseph Haydn helped him to relocate to Austria in 1792 and Beethoven never returned to his home though he ardently wished to “see Father Rhine again” before his death. As a young boy he had played the organ at the church of St. Remigius in Bonn. A question I was often asked by fellow diplomats was whether Beethoven had also performed in the chapel of the Marienforst monastery. Though the dates of his stay in Bonn before the disbanding of the religious order in the 1800s would tally with this story, there is no tangible proof of it. I will never know the truth. I imagine the strains of Beethoven’s music wafting over the pastoral landscape of Marienforst as his spirit drifts over his beloved Rhine.

14 COMMENTS ON THIS POST To “From East to West”

  1. Strangeworld says:

    “Though both Japan and Germany, along with Italy, were Axis Powers in the 2nd World War, the two countries could not be more dissimilar”
    The Axis powers were a collaboration of the 3 dictatorial nations: Germany, Italy and America during WWii to wage wars against Europe and America The difference obviously is where as Japan has been an Asian country , Germany for example has been an European country: 2 different cultures.
    I have been to Bonn including the then West and East Germanys. Interesting that after WWii, when Germany was partitioned into East and West Germanys, the East Germany (GDR) maintained its part of Berlin as its capital, which included the Bundestag-the Germany parliament building in ruins, but West Germany, wanting to move away from the memories of the Nazi capital, made a small city Bonn its capital.
    “I recall German officials who lived in Bonn organising a “Laugh or Cry Party” to see which city would be the capital, crying if they had to move to Berlin!”
    Not clear when the above recollection was, because only after the Berlin Wall came down in 1989 and the controlling powers: Britain, France and US allowed Chancellor Kohl to reunite the 2 parts of Germany and indeed the 2 Berlins, and after a very heated discussions in German Parliament still located in Bonn and votes taken there, the parliament and hence the capital was moved to Berlin in 1991. Until then it was not definite, given the heavy opposition from political parties led by the SPD, which wanted to keep Bonn as the capital for a few more years.
    I was visiting reunited Berlin in 1990. just after the Wall came down, and there was still no assurance that Berlin would become the capital of Germany, given the above opposition and its notorious connection with the Nazi period.
    As an end note, India had recognised both East Germany *GDR) and West Germany (Federal Republic: FRG), and maintained embassies in both Bonn and Est Berlin until the reunification of Germany.
    Also interesting to note that Beethoven’s full name was Ludwig Van Beethoven, whre the middle name was “Van” and not “Von”! “Van” is a Dutch middle name , and ” Von” is Germanic noble name. This is because Beethovan’s grandfather was from the Flemish ( Dutch) part linked to Austria then. Dutch and Germans are ethnically-connected races

  2. Strangeworld says:

    Note: There has been 2 Frankfurts in Germany: Frankfurt am Main, where there is a large international air port and Frankfurt (Oder), north of Berlin.
    I should further add to the above that by 1970s, Germanys-both East and West, had seen many young Indian engineers, getting either training there: for example Indian engineers, hundreds of them, from the then NGEF ( AEG collaboration) and MICO from Bengaluru, were sent for further training in West German places like Berlin and Frankfurt am Main . Where as young engineering academics particularly from the IIT Madras were sent for further studies/research in West Germany. The West German cities like Aachen, Braunschweig.. , where there were (are )technical universities, as well as the city, Dresden in East Germany which had (has) a large technical university. There was hence a moderate presence of Indians in West Germany by 1970s.
    Years before, Indian engineers and businessmen were attending the famous industriai Leipzig fairs in Leipzig in East Germany where the 2 Germanys came together then, and after the reunification of Germany these fairs were shifted to Hannover , and is held every year in the Spring.

  3. Govind Pai says:

    Always enjoy the comments by Strangeworld, Jalandara and a couple of others!
    My father-in-law, an electrical engineer in the railways, was one of those sent to Germany for training and spent 2 years in Cologne (his brother also an electrical engineer with the railways was posted for several years in Switzerland) in the 1960s. He was an aficionado of Sanskrit and he developed a love for the German language. During Janmashtami, he would recite Sanskrit slokas followed by Max Mueller’s translations in German, while we waited patiently for the goodies to be distributed! That a country with such a rich and vibrant culture could descend to the inhuman depths of carrying out the Holocaust with the majority of Germans (with a few honourable exceptions like Thomas Mann and others) complicit in the depravity is a warning to all of us!

  4. Strangeworld says:

    Interesting that you mention electrical engineering and Germany. After I took my degree in EE, in early 1960s,my first boss in Bengaluru was a German, who was an ace Luftwaffe pilot in Germany during WWII, not a Nazi, but a brilliant electrical engineer. I learned a lot from him. Germans always excelled in EE technology , then and now. A wonderful manufacturing nation. I visit the country these days.
    Interesting that you mention Sanskrit and German. I studied Sanskrit at the Sanskrit College , Mysore as a part-timer in my high school days, completing a Sahitya course-equivalent to a degree course then.
    The beauty of Sanskrit is the concatenation of words, creatively done ( read Bana Bhatta in his Kadamabri, magnum opus), and in German too. you see long words concatenated together. Sanskrit excels in using passive tense , German too. The Grammars of Sanskrit and German are similar. Hence, Max Mueller was able to “digest” Sanskrit well!
    Even today, the best Sanskrit scholars are in the University of Heidelberg ( Those days, we saw them visiting my father who was a Sanskrit scholar). German degree students , even in engineering for example, are exposed to philosophy, through a nicely complemented curricula. A medical specialist there would also have studied for example Kant in his earlier days. Oppenheimer, the Manhattan project leader, a brilliant Physicist, a Jew of German extraction , could quote Bhagvat Gita, witnessing the power of the nuclear explosion.
    About the Holocaust: It was a heinous crime under an evil dictatorship imbued with anti-Semitism.. Germans today are ashamed of this anti-Semitic legacy. It took a long time to make Wagner, a brilliant composer, but whose composition was hijacked by Hitler in his rallies, acceptable,, and his symphony was played first time in Israel conducted by Zubin Mehta, a few years ago. Germans have moved away from that legacy. Their politicians are always very educated, with PhD just like Merkel who has a PhD in nuclear chemistry, and the current EU president Ursula von der Leyen, a German who has medical, business graduate degrees and doctorate.
    It is a pity that India has not taken the German example in higher education, healthcare and in industry sector.
    But look at what Americans did: chucking two nuclear bombs on innocent civilians in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, who never did any thing wrong to America, and were too under a dictatorship in Japan with their King in collusion.
    Do not forget, that under successive American presidents: Kennedy down wards, massive bombing, some times using Napalm bomb in Vietnam, which burned humans. You have the indelible picture of a naked young Vietnamese girl screaming with fear running on the street of Vietnam, after Napalm bombs were exploded there. I was teaching/researching in an university in the US as well as working in a company then, and got disgusted with this barbaric act. Nixon finally had to pull out his soldiers in a hurry. I lost many of my American class mates and colleagues , brilliant engineers conscripted through the social security number lottery and sent over there to die or maimed. If you lived in US then , you would have felt a constant cloud of anxiety and fear. Again look at what happened in the massive bombing of Iraq-the country was reduced to rubble. There were better ways of getting rid off Saddam Hussain. Now, you see that country is in shambles without leadership, and the war created terrorists like the ISIS.

  5. Srikrishnabhagwan says:

    I am watching documentary, “The War”, produced and directed by Ken Burns(who also has produced the other brilliant document , “The Civil War”). “The War” is about Second World war from the perspective of few people Chosen from 4 different American cities. In that we can see how Japanese treated allied POWs during the occupation of Philippines and the POWs stationed in Mainland Japan. 1000s of allied Soldiers died during Bataan Death March and also due to horrific and inhuman treatment at POW camps. Japanese people hated Soldiers who would Surrender rather than die fighting and had a very dim view of Allied soldiers. Japanese regime refused to Surrender and Allies had 2 options. One is to invade Japan which would result in hundreds of thousands of Allied Casualty or Drop the bombs and force the Japan to Surrender. They chose the later and the rest is history.

  6. Strangeworld says:

    Let me first say, while I was working in the US in 1960s, there was a talk of using a nuclear bomb on Vietnam, when US was losing war unable to fight with guerrilla kind of war fare. When Russia came to know of this, and China too, they threatened to use their Atomic bomb on USA. That silenced American generals.
    The futile argument for using the nuclear weapons, often very ill-informed. Many scientists who were involved in developing the atomic bomb, wanted president Truman to explode it in the sea to show the Japanese what the weapon can do, He under the pressure of generals refused this. People who ignorantly argue about the righteous use of the bomb, often forget something called radio activity, which can last for generations. In Hiroshima and Nagasaki, deformed children were born for generations, and families suffered for generations from the radio activity. I have good friends among them.
    Even the pilot who dropped the first bomb from the B-29 bomber suffered mentally until his death.
    Any justification of using these bombs, which Gandhiji rightly condemned is a wicked argument. Nothing justifies using them,
    Watching film is one thing, but analyses is very difficult..
    If India in the event of a nuclear war between it and Pakistan, gets one of these bomb dropped on it by Pakistan, then how would Indians feel then?
    Robert Oppenheimer, the Manhattan project leader, which developed the atomic bomb, himself cited the destruction of the atomic weapon then quoting Bhagvat Geetha where Lord Krishna says: Kalosmi”, looking at the destruction of many innocents who fought for Kauravas. It was a message from him to the American government then.
    Finally, the question sis often asked: “if Japan had a nuclear bomb” would America had dropped one? That was why scientists who worked in the Manhattan project leaked details to the Soviet Union, so that it too got the bomb, to balance the world power.

  7. Hare Krishna! says:

    I could only pity those who justify the use of atomic weapons. @Hey Bhagavan has put his foot in his mouth once again!!
    Tens of Thousands of Germans died in WWII. The carpet bombing of Dresden – hundreds of sorties of bombers dropped heavy bombs on that city, killing more people than the invasion of Japan would cause, though destroyed the city, but because of the absence of radio activity in the land, that city was rebuilt quickly after the WWII, and today is a beautiful city. This has not happened even today to Hiroshima and Nagasaki, after 70+ years of the bombs drop, as there is residual radio activity.
    Indians should be cautious as India faces two enemies: Pakistan and China, both are nuclear powers. While India can retaliate with nuclear weapons, China the mightiest power in the region can cause total destruction, if it uses its missiles carrying nuclear weapons.
    Iran is trying o become a nuclear power, and when it does acquire the nuclear weapons, it will be a dangerous enemy. Joe Biden is trying to release the shackle on Iran by allowing it to develop so called peaceful use of atomic energy!! some irony!!

  8. Jalandara says:

    The above article’s author blames only the company Krupps which helped Hitler, and not Mercedes, which was involved in many of the activities of Hitler! Mercedes built special bullet-proof car for their Fuhrer, supplied tank engines and many more machinery used in Nazi activities!
    What a selective observation!
    Not surprisedat all. In the Indian context:
    The Janata Party praised the famous lawyer Nani Palkhiwala for resisting Indira Gandhi and made him the US ambassador! They forgot that Palkhiwala defended Indira Gandhi ( Mr Ganapathy cites this in his article above), and at the same time Janata party blamed Justice Krishna Iyer, who interpreted law correctly which favoured India Gandhi, forgetting that Justice Krishna Iyer was the champion of the poor. He may be a leftist, but he helped the poor.

  9. Srikrishnabhagwan says:

    @Strangeworld @Hare Krishna. Where in my posting did I justify the dropping of the bombs ? I just mentioned what I learned from watching the documentary. BTW, if you get an opportunity please watch it. It is really Educational. Scientists didn’t leak rather it was stolen by the Soviet Spies planted in Las Alamos . Stalin knew about Manhattan project all along.

    You are right about Oppenheimer having change of heart after seeing the effects of Atomic bomb after Trinity test conducted on July 16th,1945)

  10. Govind Pai says:

    Yes, nations and their leaders have been guided by self interest (Machiavelli considered it a necessity for creating a stable state in his ” The Prince”). Order within the nation at the expense of exploiting and laying waste the rest of the world, its plant, animal, mineral and human resources. I think, Tolstoy, in his “War and Peace” tried to wrestle with this problem and attempted to go beyond the transactional to a larger ethics. This larger ethic, at its heart, requires nations, communities, individuals to commit to sustainability. (I remember his short story ” How much land should a man have?”) Something Henry Thoreau (who was profoundly influenced by our Upanishads) also explored in ” Walden”. Only with sustainability is it possible to live without exploiting other nations, people, animals, nature. What do you think?

  11. Hare Krishna! says:

    @Hey Bhagvan
    You are really something” You are putting your foot into your mouth once again! Only Lord Bhagvan should help you, but may not!!
    See what you said above; “I quote your words in your post above: ” Allies had 2 options. One is to invade Japan which would result in hundreds of thousands of Allied Casualty or Drop the bombs and force the Japan to Surrender. They chose the later and the rest is history” without any further comment from you, this means you support the bomb drop. It was not Alliies , btw, it was Truman.
    Oppenheimer was disgraced and shunted into oblivion accused of leaking out the bomb secrets to Russians. That is documented well. Spies do not get the secrets unless one of the major scientists leaked the details out, as the team were sworn to secrecy. McCarthy’s witch hunt for communists started with Oppenheimer’s alleged leaking.
    Next time, when you comment, which I will ignore, make sure that you get facts, not from the Internet or War movies, but from well written books.

  12. Strangeworld says:

    Although and engineer and computer scientist of roughly 6 decades worth, I was fortunate in having a good grounding of Sanskrit and Upnishads , not to speak of the Veda sect to which I belong to.
    India had the original Machiavelli in the form of Lord Krishna. Reading about Lord Krishna’s machinations in the Mahabharata war,one finds that Machiavelli was just a milder version of Lord Krishna! Lord Krishna’s part in removing aside Dronacharya, Bhisma and Ashwathama too in the midst of the war, through very questionable and unethical means thus facilitating the defeat of Kauravas underlines the approach that ” end justifies the means”, which Machiavelli too proposed. In our Upanishad classes in 1950s, we used to debate about the above applying the complex and abstract mimamsa core of metaphysical Dharma and Karma.
    Sustainability loses its meaning if there is a cry of resources, which underlines the increase of population. In my opinion, it is this cry of resource need -real or mistakenly assumed that has driven individuals and politics to ends that have been abhorrent. In societal terms, the manifestation of corruption and nepotism, which are ripe in India have direct relationship to this resource needs.
    When there was a discussion of Dewans in another thread, there was no underlying fact that they were successful in what they did because of the fact that Mysuru’s population was modest and hence the resource needs could have been properly planned. The Wadiyar rule was clean as a result. I n today’s India , this ugly materialism born out of the resource need outpaces everything else, and hence politics, institutions and society are corrupt. Nature and environment are pushed behind.
    In Europe and to an extent in the North America, the baseline societal sense of right and wrong is not yet gone, although it is wearing thin.

  13. Strangeworld says:

    Correction: an engineer

  14. Vijay says:

    Yes, Lord Krishna and later Kautilya- Chanakya were also the advocates of politics who Machiavelli would have appreciated.
    The modern Machiavellian has been Henry Kissinger, the Secretary of State for president Nixon, who brokered with Mao, and ended the Vietnam war in return for inducting China as a permanent member of the UN security council, kicked out Taiwan.
    I remember an interviewer asking Kissinger, why the current generation of people are often very ill-informed. Kissinger said, because, they get the “instant knowledge” from the Internet, which is often wrong or has n provenance.
    Interesting that a poster here, @Bhagvan seems to gain his instant knowledge from movies-about East Germany or about Pacific WWII and the dropping of bombs etc..!! Well, no need for visits or reading and sifting facts from reliable resources!! Movies change or leave out facts, slanted what the producers wnat as they are the funders, and are often shot in countries where costs are not high!
    Well, that is India to day, particularly in regards to education.


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