Wednesday, 2 March 2011

Viva Colonia!

In the Rhineland, the area of Germany in which I live, from Thursday onwards the celebration of Carnival reaches its zenith. And in no other city in Germany is the festival celebrated with as much fervour and dedication as in Cologne – despite what potential rivals in Düsseldorf and Mainz may claim. For in Cologne Carnival goes beyond a joyful expression of the Dionysian aspect of the human spirit to become a very statement of identity; from Thursday (Altweiberfastnacht) to the following Ash Wednesday the Cologners show the rest of Germany and the world – as well as restating it for themselves – that they regard themselves to be a particularly blessed portion of the human race, eternally proud and thankful for the fact that they are residents of the greatest, most wonderful city in the world.

As has already become clear in this introduction, decent understatement is not part of the Colognian character. But, lest anyone misunderstand me, there is little of overweening, arrogant superiority in this attitude; adopting such a position would mean having to take oneself seriously and, perhaps, even having to work hard at it and such an attitude is generally foreign to the Cologne nature. For the Cologner generally cultivates an extremely relaxed attitude to life – secure in his conviction that his city is the one most beloved of God on earth, he tends to watch the struggles for power and influence between other cities and countries with equanimity, as signs of their gnawing fears of being seen to be inferior. The serene self-assurance of the Cologner keeps him above such petty competitiveness.

Cologne is one of the oldest German cities. Originally founded by a German tribe under the patronage of the Roman general and friend of the emperor Augustus, Agrippa in 38 B.C.E., it derives its name from his granddaughter, Agrippina, the wife of the emperor Claudius and mother of the infamous Nero. Having married Claudius, Agrippina persuaded him to rename the city of her birth as Colonia Claudia Ara Agrippinensium (Colony of Claudius and Altar of the Agrippiner), which in the following centuries became shortened to Colonia/Cologne [in German Köln, in the local dialect, Kölle]). In this, Agrippina was acting in a fashion which would be immediately recognisable to all her compatriots over the following almost two thousand years; using influence and charm to her own good advantage and to the greater glory of her native city. A real Cologne girl (ein echte kölsche Mädche), as they would say today in her home town.

For large periods in its history Cologne was a more or less independent city, and I think this was formative for the character of its inhabitants. Following the Roman period (many of the excellent Roman archaeological remains can today be viewed in the Römisch-Germanisches Museum near the cathedral), Charlemagne put Rome under the control of the Archbishop, who became a powerful figure within the Holy Roman Empire, ruling over extensive territories in the Rhineland. With one notable exception – Cologne! After a long period of increasing tension the city basically threw the archbishop out in 1288. A compromise was subsequently reached in which the city became generally free, the archbishop retaining only control in purely ecclesiastical matters and, oddly perhaps, the administration of justice, torture and capital punishment. However, the archbishops moved their residence to nearby Bonn and it would be over five hundred years before they returned to live in Cologne. This is just one example among many of the typical “Kölsche” way of doing things – complex compromises based on the trading of influences and advantages, incomprehensible (and often illogical) to outsiders, but comfortably accepted by Cologners.

In the end, the archbishops and the city needed each other. During the reign of Barbarossa in the 12th Century, the then archbishop, Rainald, who was also Chancellor of the Empire, had basically stolen the relics of the Three Wise Men from Milan and deposited them in Cologne Cathedral. The relics became a major centre of pilgrimage in the middle ages and were thus economically important for the city.

There’s a story told in Cologne about the events leading up to the building of the present magnificent cathedral, which began in 1248. The merchants of Cologne, conscious of the commercial possibilities provided by the relics, were unhappy with the old unspectacular cathedral they had and they’d been hearing reports of the wonderful new buildings being erected all over Europe. So they went to the bishop to propose building a new one. As the one who would have to pay for it, bishop Konrad wasn’t enthusiastic. A few weeks later, the old cathedral just happened to burn down …

Cologne Cathedral (Kölner Dom)
They’ve been building the new Gothic cathedral ever since; there’s a saying in Cologne that the world will end when work on the Cathedral finally stops. But the most prominent and famous trademarks of the Cathedral, the magnificent twin spires, were only added in the 19th Century, paid for by the King of Prussia into whose domains Cologne and the rest of the Rhineland had come after the defeat of Napoleon.

Prussian rule was not very popular in Cologne; there can hardly be two mentalities in Germany more different than the fun-loving, easy-going attitude of the Cologners and the disciplined, duty-driven, tightly-organised world-view of the Prussians. Unable to resist Prussian might militarily, the Cologners resorted to ridicule. Many of the traditional customs surrounding Carnival – dressing up in fantastically bombastic uniforms, bestowing each other with masses of meaningless medals and according each other wildly exaggerated titles – were originally parodies of Prussian behaviour. It was a typically relaxed way of dealing with the harshness of reality, following the most basic rule of life as expressed in the old Cologne saying

Et es wie et es!
Et kütt wie et kütt!
Un et hätt noch emmer joot jejange!

[That’s the way it is,
That’s the way it goes,
And it always works out for the best in the end!]

The fundament of this basic optimism is the assurance that one is a child of the most wonderful city in the world. Cologne has survived emperors and kings, bishops and chancellors, invaders and floods, plagues and bombs. When the smoke has cleared and the excitement died down, the Rhine will still be flowing and Kölle will still be there on its banks.

Kölle! No-one else in the world can proclaim the name of his home town with so much emotional sentimental love more than the Cologner. This is something which quickly becomes clear to any visitor to Cologne, as soon as he or she visits any of the thousands of bars in the city. Friendly and outgoing as they are, you’ll quickly find yourself in conversation with the locals and before long they’ll be listing the reasons why their city is the greatest in the world. Indeed, listening to them extolling on their favourite subject, you come to the conclusion that Cologners are capable of becoming homesick even when they are at home. This is a capacity they share with the residents of only one other town I know, the city of Cork in Ireland; so it comes as no surprise to learn that the two cities are actually formally twinned.

All this relaxed local patriotism reaches its annual peak on Rosenmontag [Rose Monday], two days before Ash Wednesday when the great Carnival parade, watched by around a million people (most of them costumed), wends its way through the streets of Cologne. Tons of sweets are thrown from the floats into the jubilant crowd, kisses are freely exchanged and hundreds of thousands of gallons of the local beer, kölsch, are drunk. Residents of the rival city of Düsseldorf may claim that kölsch is a liquid which passes unchanged, apart from its temperature, through the human body; such claims do not seriously worry the Cologners. They regard the Düsseldorfers as johnny-come-latelies, insecure status-seekers obsessed with fashion and money.

All of this accompanied by lively music played by one of the famous traditional Cologne bands like De Höhner or Brings, the lyrics generally in the local dialect. But even more serious rock bands from Cologne have had the courage to sing in their local dialect and enjoy German-wide success, the most notable perhaps being BAP. Wofgang Niedecken, the founder and lead singer of the band, is also a respected painter (he’s an art-school graduate). This is not surprising, for Cologne is a centre for all sorts of artistic endeavours. The 1972 Nobel Prize winning writer, Heinrich Böll, came from Cologne and the city is today one of Germany’s main media centres. It is also the unofficial gay capital of Germany and the large Christopher Street Day Parade every summer is even more shrill and colourful than the Rosenmontag parade. It’s certainly great fun.

For that is one of the best characteristics of the Cologners; their capacity for celebration. One of my abiding memories is of a balmy summer evening – the festival in question being the Kölner Lichter [Cologne Lights], a fireworks display accompanied by music on the great river, held in July. At the height of the celebrations, Henning Krautmacher, the front man of the band De Höhner, proclaimed to a huge jubilant throng on the banks of Rhine:

“Ich jläuve, der leever Herrjott es ene kölsche Jung!
[I believe that the Lord God is a Cologne lad!]”

The crowd cheered their agreement with the sentiment.

Typical Cologne understatement.

There was a wide array of music available to accompany this post. I’ve decided to put musical links to the bands mentioned directly into the text and to finish this with a quieter song, sung in standard German, by the lesser-known but excellent band “Zinnober" (thanks to Lara for the tip!).

Pictures retrieved from:


  1. Indeedy, Carnaval is late this year! Whatz up with that huge Mexican sombrero in the first photo? Is that traditional?

  2. No, Colleen, the sombrero is no more traditional than anything else. On the streets of towns in the rhineland this weekend you'll see Mexicans, orcs, ogres, huns, princesses, whores, clowns, hippies, witches, elves and all sorts of other figures too.

    Jeder Jeck ist anders [Every carnivalist is different]! - that's what they say here ...

  3. Gah it's a long time since I've been to Cologne.

    The Romano German museum was excellent!

    As for carnivals, The mother of one of my closest friends is from Euskirchen. He has always extolled the virtues of Cologne's carnival,

  4. I may not be a religious person, but I know a beautiful building when I see one.

  5. I've never been to Cologne but after reading this wonderful piece you've written, I'm homesick for the place too. I'd love to see the parades, the cathedral, and meet some of the people. The tactic of making fun of those of the Prussian persuasion was a brilliant concept that seems to have worked out beautifully.

  6. Hi Francis, thank you for sharing the history of this town. The celebration must be wonderful to be a part of. I studied the German language and culture for one year in high school and I have always been fascinated with your country and it's culture :)

  7. That cathedral is amazing! And it's just so mindblowing to think of history stretching back to 1248 and beyond. I'm so used to the very young U.S., I guess.

    Francis, this is more great writing and such interesting info. Thank you.

  8. The Carnival looks like fun, in the photo, but I kept musing about what it would be like for me in that setting...wondered if I would have fun or simply a fun time observing. There are different sorts of fun, I guess.

    The cathedrals always amaze me. The faith and dedication to that faith that kept multiple generations of workers at it until it was finished. And it is never really finished.

    Sorry to return so late to this one, Francis. I had started to read it a few days, was interrupted and here I am, back.

    Good Sunday!


Your comments are, of course, welcome. I've had to reinstall captchas recently as - like most other bloggers - I was being plagued by spambots.


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...