Essays, History, Memoirs.

Here’s the Thing about equal rights

Herein lies a tale of history misunderstood, and then of history revived. It begins in Heidelberg, Germany in 1975. I was then a young soldier in the US Army, and with a fellow soldier, had taken a day trip to visit the storied university town of Heidelberg. While strolling along the Philosopher’s Way, where students and professors had trod for hundreds of years (the walk afforded a great view of the Heidelberg castle on the opposite bank of the Neckar river), we chanced upon an unmanaged but well-trodden path that went up the hill towards the Heiligenberg (holy mountain), which other people were clambering up. There was no sign that described that path, nor could it be found on our map.

-CC BY-SA 3.0, BishkekRocks

Amphitheater on Heiligenberg, Heidelberg. Attrib: BishkekRocks, CC BY-SA 3.0.

Now very curious, we followed the path, and came finally into a cleared area which was an uncared for old amphitheater! It had a fairly large proscenium, and semi-circular stone seating for maybe 5,000-10,000 people. I stood on the front of the proscenium, my friend climbed the steps to the top of the spectator seating, and I began to speak in an ordinary voice; He heard what I said from the top of the theater, without my shouting or projecting my voice! This little acoustical “test” convinced me that this was, by general shape and acoustical behavior, built in the style of an ancient Greek amphitheater, no other information being available. I leapt to another conclusion, that since Heidelberg was, in the first century AD (or CE, whichever you prefer), one of the outposts of the Roman Empire, we must be standing on the site of an ancient Roman amphitheater (the Romans copied the Greeks in their architecture)!

-CC BY-SA 2.0, Rainer Ebert

St. Michael's Monastery, Heiligenberg, Heidelberg. Attrib: Rainer Ebert, CC BY-SA 2.0.

Another unmanaged path continued from this site further up the Heiligenberg, and we walked on to discover at the top of the hill the site of a set of ruined brick and mortar buildings, very different in style from the amphitheater.  Our best guess was that it was an old monastery, based on its layout.  Again, it was not marked on our map, nor was there a sign for it.  This seemed very odd.  Because both sites appeared very old and neither were identified by map or sign, I came to the wry conclusion that there were so many ancient ruins in Europe that some simply went unmarked, and unremarked.  I tried to research both buildings later, but with no Internet, the task was too large.

Recently I wondered again about this little mystery, and, with the power of the Internet and Google Earth at my fingertips, set out to learn more about these buildings.  I started first with Google Earth, and within minutes I was looking down virtually on both sites; first I examined the “monastery”, and found it via photos and Wikipedia (only the German version) to be in fact the St. Michael’s Monastery, built in the 10th century on the very top of the Holy Mountain.  Today it is clearly marked on maps, and a small portion of it has been restored.

As for the site of the old amphitheater, the accompanying photographs proved that it was the place I had visited in my youth, and a Wikipedia link provided the description of the site: Rather than an ancient Greek amphitheater, it was in fact a Nazi-era Thingstätte, built in the Greek style! Although I turned out to be right about the architecture, I was only off by 1800 years in its age; so much for a career in archeology. The Thingstätte was part of a curious and shortlived phenomenon; it was a meeting place built in 1935 as part of the Nazi effort to link its Kultur to ancient German tribal habits and to the old Holy Roman Empire.  Goebbels, the educated Propaganda Minister, wanted to build many Thingspieler, Thingstätter, and Thingplätzer, all variations on the same idea, as a link to the past. Perhaps 50 of them were built (find some of them here, including one in Bad Windsheim, no more than 10 kilometers from Illesheim, where I lived for a short period as a young boy!), but the Nazis, for one reason or another, gave up on this cultural thrust after a few years.

-CC BY-SA 2.5, Andreas Fink

Walpurgis Celebration, Heidelberger Thingstätte. Attrib: Andreas Fink, CC BY-SA 2.5.

The Thingstätte in Heidelberg as of this writing is still essentially unofficial; It is not maintained by the city, although is protected as an historic site, and episodic, mostly informal events have been held there following World War II, including the perhaps à propos Walpurgis Night celebrations (in German it is also Hexennacht, or Witches Night). It would appear that its unofficial status is shared by many Nazi era structures; most which have not been deliberately destroyed have been deliberately neglected.

And so what exactly is a Thing (pronounced TING) or Dinge in German tribal history?  Here things, so to speak, get more interesting.  The old German Thing was a communal meeting or assembly of tribal freemen to discuss and make decisions and even laws; all of its decisions were made by a majority of freemen, each being given a single vote!!  The Nazis, of course, had no intention of promoting this form of political structure; their Thingspiele died after a few years, perhaps because the symbolism was all but empty, or too deeply ironic and hypocritical.

But here we leave the Nazis, and note the the Thing is a very old institution, and is found, one way or another, early in the history, and consistently, throughout the ages, in many Germanic tribes and their modern ancestors. In fact, the Thing is one of the primary sources of the United States’ basic political ideal – that of equal rights for all men under a system of laws – and its basic political structure, that of a representative democracy.

These concepts can be traced to multiple historical influences, but one of the most basic, the Magna Carta, which was thrust upon King John of England in 1215, was in part a reflection of England’s German tribal past.  The great majority of the feudal barons who forced this on King John were of German heritage, either Anglo-Saxons of Northern Germany, or Scandinavian (Danes, Norwegians, and Normans).  The institution of the Thing was in wide use in England from the time of the first Anglo-Saxon invasions in the sixth century, and continued in various forms up to the time of King John. It was a primary influence on the expectations of the barons to have a more direct say about the leadership and the laws of England. There are still traces of the Thing in some English and Norwegian county governments, and Scandinavian parliamentary bodies.


Mayflower in Plymouth Harbor by William Halsall, 1882. PD-US.

The Magna Carta, considered a part of the English constitution today, was largely ignored after it was signed.  Nonetheless it was influential, particularly for the perpetrators of the English Civil War some 400 odd years later.  The Calvinists who killed king Charles I in those times justified it in part by reference to the rights of freemen defined by the Magna Carta (their subsequent rule under Cromwell was just as anti-democratic, one of the many ironies of history), and the reinstatement of royal rule following Cromwell’s dictatorship came with real limits on the King’s power, and more power to the Parliament.  Many of those Calvinists who did not participate in that Civil War had otherwise departed to the American colonies, and carried this inherited idea of the Magna Carta, and with it the influence of the Thing, to the future United States.

That it took the United States another 170 years from the implementation of their constitution to approach a more full realization of the idea of equal rights for all men under a system of laws is another story.

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