The historical relevance of locality is elusive: a blur of merging narratives. Seldom coincidental, rarely evident.
Take German Nobel Laureate Heinrich Böll’s 1950 short story, Wanderer, kommst Du nach Spa (Traveller, if you come to Spa). As I did, to the thermal resort of Spa, as poolside reading for a weekend taking the waters. And it was good reading. But for unexpected reasons.
Because Böll’s story does not take place in Spa at all, but in a small German town on the Rhine to which a young, severely wounded German soldier is taken for treatment at the close of WWII. As he is carried through the rooms of a makeshift hospital, he becomes aware that the infirmary is located in the school that he left, some weeks ago, for active service. The story culminates with the soldier’s recognition of his own handwriting on a classroom blackboard: the opening words of the famous epitaph by Simonides to the Spartan soldiers who fell at the Battle of Thermopylae: “Traveller, if you come to Spa(rta) …” is what it should have read but didn’t—for lack of blackboard space.
Böll’s story takes aim at the senseless loss of life in battle as well as the high-minded tenets of Germany’s then classicist educational ideals. It also makes implicit reference to the fact that along with Versailles, Spa became emblematic of Germany’s post-war humiliation. It was at a conference held here in 1920 that the terms of Germany’s crippling reparation obligations to the victorious Allies were set out.
Ask yourself as I now did – why Spa – and the filament unravels further. It was here, pretty much 99 years to the day that the German Supreme Army Command set up headquarters in early March 1918 when it relocated from Bad Kreuznach in western Germany to the Western front, choosing Spa in occupied Belgium because of its large number of upscale infrastructural facilities. Upon this small town in the Ardennes some 3000 German soldiers and 800 officers (with 800 horses) descended, requisitioning without compunction manpower and housing—and enforcing what amounted to a state of siege. And so, in 1920, Spa was the place to properly humble German pride.
When the Imperial Supreme Army Command took up occupancy in Spa’s Hotel Britannique in early March 1918, the last major German offensive of the First World War was beginning. By August 8, following its defeat at the Battle of Amiens, the German command was considering conditions for an honourable defeat.
Far less aware, indeed kept deliberately ignorant of this situation and still convinced of his troops’ loyalty and fighting spirit, Emperor Wilhelm II followed the Army Command to Spa at the end of October 1918, leaving German soil never to set foot on it again. He was given the run of four residences. And it was at one of these, the Chateau de la Fraineuse, that the Emperor’s abdication and Dutch exile were effected. On November 9, 1918.
Yet barely a trace of these events remains in Spa, and certainly not around the chateau (which is currently associated with a sporting facility). As I trail around its classical exterior and through sparsely wooded grounds, history is as elusive (as elided, in fact) as it is in Böll’s story. No signs, no plaques. Of what marked, for Belgium and the Allies, the end of four blood-drenched years of war.
Squinting through glass-paned terrace doors, I wonder how all this might have played out elsewhere, had the Emperor been closer to the operations center at Supreme Army Headquarters, where he might still have attempted to rally his commanders? Or been forced to confront head-on a hopeless situation.
Up here, in the little chateau above the town, the history of a doomed monarchy descended steeply from tragedy into farce. The Emperor passed his days in a haze of delusion and misapprehension, unaware until the very end of the mutinies and rampant social discontent spreading through the empire. Revolutionary forces approached Spa to forcibly dethrone him. In Berlin, the Reich’s Chancellor entreated him repeatedly to abdicate.
Cocooned from reality amid the privileged peace of woodland paths and high-ceilinged salons, the flustered monarch called for a constitutionally unworkable proposal renouncing the imperial but not the royal throne as King of Prussia. By the time it was drafted and relayed to Berlin, Chancellor Max von Baden had taken matters into his own hands and announced the Emperor’s abdication from both offices. Learning of what now amounted to a deposition, Wilhelm retired incensed to smoke by the chateau’s picturesque fireplace. It was early afternoon, just after lunch on November 9, 1918, and he’d been abdicated.
Picture him: a portly, mustachioed figure, overwhelmed by destiny on a vortex of marbled tiles, pressed upon by advisors to leave Spa before the same fate befell him as the now spectral Romanovs. The Netherlands were considered safe. Enquiries were made. Wilhelm and a small number of persons from his entourage were driven to the station to await the Dutch Queen’s response. Around midnight, the imperial train began inching towards the border but fearing an attack, the royal party left the train at La Reid, a few kilometres down the line, and transferred to cars.
I drive to this spot—or where I think it might be. Just outside Spa, at a small level-crossing where the road passes close enough to the single gauge railway tracks to enable descent to a waiting car. Is this where stout post-imperial legs stumbled to ignominious gloom, suddenly fearful of the assassin’s bullet?
It may be. But by now, it’s Sunday morning and I haven’t taken any waters yet in Spa. I return to the town and its uneven glories. A very mixed bag of flea market goods is spread out in the fetching wrought-iron galleries at the foot of a funicular railway ascending steeply to the thermal baths and to the city’s more familiar, more comfortable past.
It really is. History. Just one damn thing after another.