Reading the new translations of Walter Benjamin's radio broadcasts, made between 1929 and 1932, you are aware of how quickly the world in which they went out would disappear. The final set of programmes about the catastrophes of history now seems to point towards the disaster that would shortly engulf Germany and eventually Benjamin himself. The broadcaster was, in Benjamin's imagination, a guest in people's homes but, as Peter Conrad wrote in his review of Radio Benjamin, 'when the Nazis took control of Germany’s airwaves, such polite protocols were suspended. A welcome guest no longer dispensed sage advice or told cautionary stories; instead, one man harangued a crowd, shouting tirades at top volume.' How many Berlin Youth Hour listeners, you wonder, would grow up to fight in the Wehrmacht ten years later?
The programme I want to highight here, 'Fontane's Wanderings through the Mark Brandenburg', begins with the idea that the landscape surrounding the city was 'discovered by the youth of Berlin'. This Wandervogel movement would soon be outlawed, along with other groups distinct from the Hitler Youth. However, as its title indicates, the main subject of Benjamin's broadcast was not these young walkers, or the wider groups of Bündische Jugend. What he proceded to talk about was a remarkable topographical project, conceived one day in 1858 on Loch Levan in Scotland, by Theodor Fontane.
'In the middle of the loch lies an island, and on the middle of the island, half hidden behind ash trees and black firs, rises an old Douglas castle, the Loch Levan Castle of song and legend. On returning to land by boat, the oars rapidly engaged, the island became a strip, finally disappearing altogether, and for a while, only as a figure of the mind, the round tower remained before us on the water, until suddenly our imagination receded further into its memories and older images eclipsed the images of this hour. They were memories of our native land, an unforgotten day. It was the image of Rheinsberg Castle that, like a Fata Morgana, hovered over Loch Levan...'In that moment Fontane realised that the landscape made famous by Walter Scott was really no more beautiful than the sandy terrain of his native Mark Brandenburg. And so he began his wanderings, selecting material to write about like 'a walker picking individual ears of grain'. In 1860 he wrote to his friend Theodor Storm that the result might run to twenty volumes; in the event it was published in five, between 1862 and 1889. The result was, as Benjamin told his listeners, 'far more than tedious descriptions of landscapes and castles, these books are full of stories, anecdotes, old documents, and portraits of fascinating people.' It is not hard to imagine this appealing to Benjamin. It sounds as if it would be enjoyed by English readers too if a modern selection were published, perhaps by an editor/translator looking, like Benjamin, to illuminate our understanding of culture and social change. Although Fontane's novels have appeared in English (Before The Storm is one of my father's favourite books), I've not come across a translation of the Wanderings through the Mark Brandenburg, either in full or abridged form.
Carl Blechen, Rural Landscape in the Mark Brandenburg, c. 1831-8
Benjamin concluded this broadcast with his own description of the broad, expansive landscape of the Mark - quoted below again in the translation by Lecia Rosenthal - and some verse by Fontane that hardly needs to be translated.
'Its sandy, marly soil does not lend itself to strong shapes; however, one is occasionally surprised to come across a steep precipice, or a gorge ripped into the earth. But the plain of the Mark, with its birch forests and cast acres of fields stretching to the horizon like a broad sea of gray and green, is the landscape's most beautiful feature. It is so shy, subtle, and unobtrusive that sometimes, at sundown, on the water amid pillars of pine, you think you're in Japan, and other times, in the limestone hills of Rüdersdorf, you imagine yourself in the desert, until the names of the villages here call you back to reality. Fontane strung some of these names together in a few light and airy lines, which we close with today.
And on this tapestry's flourishing seam
the laughing villages prosper and teem:
Beetz and Gatow,
Dreetz and Flatow,
Bamme, Damme, Kriele, Krielow,
Petzow, Retzow, Ferch am Schwielow,
Zachow, Wachow and Groß-Behnitz,
Marquardt-Ütz at Wublitz-Schlänitz,
Senzke, Lenzke and Marzahne,
Lietzow, Tietzow and Rekahne,
And lastly a garland of lively haunts:
Ketzin, Ketzür and Vehlefanz.'
Landscape view in the 1986 TV adaptation
Theodor Fontane, Wanderungen durch die Mark Brandenburg
Footnote: Michael Rosen's excellent programme on the Benjamin broadcasts can be heard on the BBC archive. Although he doesn't explore the countryside of the Mark Brandenburg, he visits the Benjamin archive in Berlin and locations described in the original programmes .