Prof. Dr. Hans-Albrecht Koch - Dresden: Crossroads of Europe

The Splendor of Dresden was the title of a major museum exhibition staged at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. in 1978. The Library of Congress' current exhibition from the same splendid city highlights treasures from the Saxon State Library. In terms of importance and beauty, these treasures certainly rival the pictures and sculptures from the museums. Perhaps even more than the art treasures, the documents impart a feeling for the specific combination of politics, economics, technology, and society, as well as arts and culture which gave Dresden, the residence of the Saxon rulers, a distinct historic character and made Dresden "the crossroads of Europe."

In 1356, the Golden Bull, the principal constitutional document of the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation, granted the newly created Duchy of Saxony-Wittenberg the status of an electorate. After the last Duke of Saxony-Wittenberg died, in 1423, the title of duke and the electoral privilege passed to the House of Wettin. The electoral privilege was granted by the Emperor to the Wettin Frederick the Pugnacious in return for his support in fighting the Hussites. During the next centuries this history was characterized by frequent territorial partitions in the course of dynastic successions.

The Leipzig Partition of 1485 split the House of Wettin into the Ernestine and Albertine branches. The partition became an important event in world history because Ernestine Elector Frederick the Wise, in order to compensate for the loss of Leipzig University to the Albertine line, founded in 1502 a university in Wittenberg. Here Martin Luther spent time as a lecturer. The Reformation was an ecclesiastical, theological, and political event, which owing to Luther's translation of the Bible into German, was a linguistic event as well, having its origins in Ernestine Saxony. Until 1539 the ruler of Albertine Saxony, Duke George, inspired by the great humanist, Erasmus of Rotterdam, had taken the position that a necessary ecclesiastic reform could only occur within the old church.

In 1539, the Reformation reached Albertine Saxony. Duke Moritz converted confiscated monastic estates into the Royal Saxon Schools in Meissen, Grimma, and Schulpforta, which later became so famous. Responsibility for education and ecclesiastical matters was transferred to the state. Moritz sided with the opponents of his Ernestine cousins and obtained from Emperor Charles V the electoral privilege together with territorial gains at the expense of the Ernestines. The Albertine Electorate of Saxony prospered; the Leipzig Fair, which had been so important to commerce and traffic since the Middle Ages, continued to flourish, as did silver mining in the Erzgebirge mountains.

Although the Thirty Years' War (1618-1648) ravaged Saxony, the country managed, largely due to immigration from other territories, to recover relatively quickly and by 1700, it had a population of approximately 1.4 million. In contrast to other territories, its economic success depended less on agriculture. Since the late 17th century, manufacturing industries were a major source of income in addition to commerce and mining. Textiles, glass, mirrors, machinery, armaments, and musical instruments were important industries. Governmental support for industry guaranteed success, as is illustrated by the excellent example of china manufacturing. A modern banking system and the Leipzig stock exchange promoted the economic boom. Exports linked Saxony to France, England, the Netherlands, Scandinavia, Russia, Italy, Spain, and Portugal. Coffee was imported from Vienna and became available at inns and the homes of ordinary citizens, replacing brandy as the favorite beverage.

After the Thirty Years' War, many royal courts within the German-speaking world experienced a cultural upswing. Saxony not only joined this general trend, but even assumed a leading role during the Augustan Era from 1694 to 1763. Saxony was a country of religious tolerance, which was manifested in the reception of exiles from Bohemia and by the exemplary Christian lifestyle of pietists and the Moravians under the leadership of Count Nikolaus von Zinzendorf, who was also a missionary in America.

The Electorate of Saxony was the fourth German-speaking polity in size — after Austria, Brandenburg-Prussia, and Bavaria. Only once did Saxony attempt to take an active part in shaping dynastic powers at the European level. Elector Frederick Augustus I (d.1733) called the Strong, dreamed of an East European empire under the leadership of Saxony. In 1697, after opportunistically converting to Catholicism, he was elected King of Poland. The Polish monarchy with its elected sovereign was actually an aristocratic republic. In his capacity as King of Poland and Grand Duke of Lithuania, his name was Augustus II. In the meantime, Charles XII of Sweden, supported by Denmark, had embarked on the establishment of a Baltic empire. In 1706, Augustus the Strong was defeated by Charles XII and had to renounce the Polish throne. However, he was able to regain it three years later, after the Russian Czar Peter the Great had defeated Charles XII. To offset the rising power of Russia and Brandenburg, Augustus sought to establish closer political relations with the House of Hapsburg and the Pope.

Although it was the cradle of the Reformation, Saxony had been ruled by a Catholic dynasty since the conversion of Augustus the Strong. Hence, Catholic and Protestant architecture existed side by side in harmony. The financial resources of the House of Wettin were not sufficient for total rebuilding of the two capitals, Warsaw and Dresden. Hence, P”ppelmann's grandiose plans for palace grounds in both cities never proceeded beyond the blueprint stage. Nevertheless, until 1945, no city other than Prague featured more baroque palaces and bourgeois houses than Dresden.

In 1733, Augustus the Strong was succeeded by his son, Frederick Augustus II (d. 1763), who, following a dual election, was not crowned King of Poland as Augustus III until 1734. He focused on cultural issues and was a great patron of the arts. Augustus III initiated the construction of the Catholic Hofkirche, a task he assigned to Roman architect Gaetano Chaveri. The Dresden gallery of old master paintings, housed at the former Stallhof, was also established on his initiative. He ordered the purchase of large collections of paintings, establishing the worldwide fame of this gallery.

Johann Joachim Winckelmann studied the antiques and paintings of the Dresden collection under the guidance of Adam Friedrich Oeser, Goethe's future art teacher. In his Thoughts on the Imitation of Greek Works of Arts in Painting and Sculpture, published in 1755, he developed a new, influential concept of art history.

Winckelmann, sponsored by Augustus III, went to Rome in 1755, where he became the father of Classic Archaeology. Professor Boorstin, the Librarian of Congress Emeritus, notes in his book The Discoverers that: Winckelmann "became first Librarian and finally Controller of Antiquities in the Vatican."

With the publication of his History of Ancient Art in 1764, Winckelmann's fame reached across the continent. Later, Goethe would compare Winckelmann with Columbus, saying that to read Winckelmann's texts is to become a new man. Among the artists Winckelmann met in Rome was the famous English architect Robert Adam (1728-1792), who adopted the neoclassic motifs from Winckelmann's discoveries. Josiah Wedgwood, the china manufacturer, put Winckelmann's ideals on countless middle-class dinner tables. Yet, the best examples of the change Winckelmann brought about in architecture are the neoclassical buildings of America.

During the first half of the 18th century, Saxony also became a center of literature. Early figures in the Enlightenment such as Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz had connections to Saxony dating to student days in Leipzig. The Leipzig Book Fair had long outranked the Frankfurt fair, in part because of a more restrained approach to censorship. Thanks to Luther's translation of the Bible, the language used by the Meissen Chancellery established itself as the language of German literature. Theater and literary life in Leipzig were energized by English comedies and translations of English literary weeklies.

Saxony committed its financial resources to economic and cultural development. Unlike Brandenburg-Prussia, Saxony did not build up a strong army, even after the defeat by Charles XII. Augustus III left the business of politics to his prime minister, Count Brhl, who sided with Austria in the Seven Years' War. The alliance system emerging in 1757 made Saxony the theater of the conflict between Austria and Prussia. The Electorate of Saxony was placed under Prussian administration, and its economic resources were committed to funding the war. Frederick II had poor-quality coins minted by a Leipzig banker, and inflation ruined Saxony. Prussian occupation and bombardments took a heavy toll on Dresden.

When the war was over, an attempt was made to reorganize the country's finances. However, in the late 18th century Saxony once again became mixed up in the turmoil of European politics. Always too anxious to maintain neutrality, Saxony initially sided with Prussia in fighting Napoleon and shared its fate after being badly defeated by Napoleon in 1806. Subsequently Elector Frederick August III changed sides; in return, Saxony was upgraded to the status of a kingdom within the Confederation of the Rhine under the control of Napoleon. As a result, Saxony was viewed as a traitor to the German cause among the parties to the Vienna Congress, and following Napoleon's ultimate defeat, the country ceded large portions of its territory to Prussia. Later, in 1866, Saxony would once again be caught in the middle during the conflict between Prussia and Austria.

Outstanding authors of the Romantic era were associated with Dresden. Ludwig Tieck moved from Berlin to Dresden, where he started his popular readings, influencing Romantic German literature, with an impact that lasted into the times of Heine and Wagner. They were introduced to France by Mme de Stael, and American writers Edgar Allan Poe and Nathaniel Hawthorne took them up. Tieck also translated the work of Spanish writer Cervantes, and in cooperation with August Wilhelm Schlegel and Wolf Graf Baudissin, translated Shakespeare's dramas into German.

Particularly close relations to the culture of Italy were maintained by Prince Johann, who had traveled to that country on numerous occasions. He succeeded his brother and ascended to the royal throne of Saxony in 1854. One of the most remarkable fruits of his love for Italy is his translation of Dante's Divine Comedy. Published between 1833 and 1849, this edition is still one of the best German translations of Dante. Tieck, Baudissin, and Carus were among those he asked for literary advice.

Carl Gustav Carus (1789-1869) was one of the Romantic universalists who not only attempted to maintain the coherence of diverging areas, but who also made outstanding contributions in these individual areas. A native of Leipzig, he became professor of gynecology and director of the Dresden midwife institute in 1814. First published in 1820, his Lehrbuch der Gyn„kologie (Textbook for Gynecology) became a standard work. In 1826, during his studies in comparative anatomy, he discovered the blood circulation of insects. In 1846, he published a book titled Psyche. Zur Entwicklungsgeschichte der Seele (Psyche - Evolution of the Mind). It started with the phrase: "The key to realizing the nature of the conscious inner life is hidden in the region of the unconscious." The book builds the bridge between philosophical psychology as represented, for instance, by Schelling, and the later psychoanalytical theory of the unconscious developed by Freud. His friendship with Caspar David Friedrich inspired his theoretical publications on Romantic landscape painting.

Dresden can be proud of the fact that it was the first place in Germany to develop a sense for the representation of the North American landscape in painting. Between 1839 and 1842, the exhibitions of the academy featured paintings of North America by German artists.

Relations with North America became particularly close owing to the fact that many German emigrants came from Saxony. Among these emigrants were those who had participated in the 1848 Revolution and who, inspired by their Rhineland compatriot Carl Schurz, made their way to the United States. Others who stood on the barricades, such as Richard Wagner and Gottfried Semper, found refuge in Switzerland or London. Wagner had been royal director of music in Dresden since 1843. Dresden saw the premiere of his operas Der Fliegende Holl„nder (The Flying Dutchman) and Tannh„user. Semper, who gained fame for his spectacular public buildings in Zurich and Vienna, and who was to build in 1870 the Dresden opera which still bears his name, was professor of architecture in Dresden from 1834 to 1849.

Increasing industrialization during the 19th century aggravated the social divisions within Saxony. By the end of the century, industry accounted for almost 60% of the jobs, as compared to the German national average of 39%. Agriculture accounted for only 15% of jobs in Saxony, as compared to the national average of 36%. Hence, it was no wonder that the workers' movement had its origin in Leipzig, where Ferdinand Lassalle founded the Allgemeiner Deutscher Arbeitsverein (German Workers's Union) in 1863. Dubbed "The Red Kingdom," Saxony became a socialist stronghold.

From 1872 to 1907 Wilhelm Walther created a retrospective of the entire political and cultural history of Saxony. For the exterior of the Long Passage of the Castle, formerly used for rifle storage, he created The Royal Procession (a detail of which was used for the cover of the invitation for this exhibition opening) with a length of 102 meters made of Meissen porcelain tiles. The rulers were followed by representatives of the Kreuzschule, the University of Leipzig, and the Technical Academy established in 1828. At the end of the procession, there is also Ernst Wilhelm F”rstemann, the director of the Royal Public Library.

Dresden remained before the first World War the crossroads of Europe. In Semper's opera house four of Richard Strauss's operas premiered: Salome (1905), Elektra (1909), Der Rosenkavalier (1911) and Arabella (1933).

The closest links to Dresden were maintained by writer Gerhart Hauptmann, who was invited by Columbia University to deliver the Goethe address in 1932. On various occasions in Washington, Baltimore, Boston, and New York, Hauptmann expressed his agreement with America: "No matter how many antagonist forces exist within the United States, outside this country, the image of the American is synonymous with uninhibited vigor, self-confidence, and a natural, free spirit of progress, allowing any men of progress, even outside the United States…all over the world to identify himself with this nation. In the same way, he declares himself to be an American."

And so on that note, it gives me great pleasure that once again the American people will have an opportunity to experience, in this marvelous setting, a taste of the splendor that was Dresden.

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