In an extract from Ghosts on Shore: Travels along Germany’s Baltic coast Paul Scraton explores the idea of Hiddensee, a thin sliver of an island off the larger island of Rügen on the north-eastern coast of Germany.
Gerhart Hauptmann first visited Hiddensee on his honeymoon in 1885. The playwright and novelist would later return many times, spending all but one summer on the island between the years of 1916 and 1938. In 1930 he bought a house on Hiddensee that would become his refuge, a place of work and contentment, a place of peace even during those final four summers, from 1940 to 1943, when war raged across Europe.
By the time Hauptmann established himself on Hiddensee he was already famous. Born in 1862, in what is now Poland, he wrote his first play for his brother’s wedding, and following some years of travel and study in places as varied as Rome, Dresden, Jena and Berlin, he found his calling. Three plays – The Reconciliation (1890), Lonely People (1891) and The Weavers (1892) – made his reputation as a playwright of both talent and social conscience. In 1912 he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, although this accolade did not reflect the opinion held of him by the establishment in his own country. Kaiser Wilhelm II disliked his work so much that he personally vetoed any further awards for Hauptmann until the outbreak of the First World War, when, like his fellow writer Thomas Mann, he supported military action and finally gained official recognition. After the war he was a supporter of democracy and was even, at one point, offered the position of Chancellor. But by this point Hauptmann was enjoying his position as the distinguished grand old man of German letters, making plenty of money in the fledgling film industry while spending his summers hidden away at his island retreat on the Baltic coast.
If it was the isolated beauty of Hiddensee that first attracted him to the island, it was his fame that kept him coming back. To this day, cars are banned from the island and the population is limited by planning restrictions and the need to get a ferry over there. For a man like Hauptmann it was a place to escape from the attention and responsibility, and I could imagine him stepping on to the ferry from Stralsund or Rügen with a sigh of relief, watching as everyday life retreated in the churn of the waters off the back of the boat as the low, flat, silent island of his summers came ever nearer. On Hiddensee he could work without distraction and then take to the garden, to breathe in the clear, Baltic air.
But as the Nazis rose to power everything in Germany changed, and Hiddensee would be no different. By the mid- 1930s the island had become something else.
In the beginning Hauptmann made his peace with the regime, signing an oath of loyalty in 1933 even though he believed himself above politics. This was, like Thomas Mann’s earlier vision of himself as a non-political man, a ludicrous position at any time, but especially as the Nazis tightened their grip on the country. Like Hans Fallada, he stayed in Germany throughout the period of the Third Reich and the Second World War, sometimes finding his work censored but at other times finding himself celebrated. During his eightieth birthday celebrations he was feted by leading members of the Nazi Party, and in 1944 he was granted the status of ‘irreplaceable artist’ which meant that as total mobilisation approached, even this genuinely old man of German letters was exempt from combat.
Hauptmann survived the Nazis – only just, dying of bronchitis in 1946 – but his accommodations with the murderous regime threatened his reputation and his literary legacy. But as with Hauptmann’s own motivations during that period, working out what Hauptmann meant to German literature and society when he died was not a simple matter. Despite his generally accepted status during the Nazi period, he was considered an important part of the literary tradition in the German Democratic Republic thanks to plays such as The Weavers, and his funeral was attended by the GDR President Wilhelm Pieck. His Hiddensee house was turned into a museum to this writer of social conscience and it remains so in the second decade of the twenty-first century.
But Gerhart Hauptmann is still a controversial figure. After all, this was a man who joined Goebbels’ Reichstheaterkammer while trying to do his best by his Jewish friends, including attending the funeral of one of his closest colleagues despite being expressly forbidden to do so by the regime. When thinking of Hauptmann, the same question comes to mind that always appears when considering stories like this: what would you do?
I tried to imagine Hauptmann in the summer of 1941 or 1942. The war was turning and he must have known, should defeat come, that the compromises he had made with the regime would surely come back to haunt him. And not only in his lifetime, for he was already well into his seventies, but in his reputation long after his death. He knew the books of his contemporaries had been burned on the streets of Berlin, and perhaps that elsewhere, not far from where he was born, Heine’s prophecy had come to pass and people were being burned too. He must have seen that island in the Baltic as a true escape then, a utopia located far from the flags and the slogans and the hysteria of the city at war. Untouched and untouchable, like Fallada’s house at the end of the lane. How nice for them.
In any event, utopias don’t exist. There is always another ferry, another newspaper to land on the mat. The sanctuary of the sea can only ever be a temporary one. Reality, and its judgement, will come. I think of Hauptmann on Hiddensee a few years earlier, in 1937 or 1938, walking the dunes as Thomas Mann had been doing in Nidden all those kilometres to the east. Hauptmann could never really escape on Hiddensee. As Mann found, the only true escape was exile. And in the landscape of the mind and the imagination, not even then.
I have only ever seen Hiddensee from across the water. On the island of Ummanz, attached to Rügen by a bridge, I walked through a marshland landscape past a campsite and a kitesurf school, the water glassy in the still of an early evening. It was summer, on a trip north that I barely remember. A school group had set up an encampment on the edge of the site, and the kids were down by the sliver of beach, squealing with mock fright as they dipped their toes in the Baltic waters. From a vantage point just above the beach I could see beyond them and across the straits to Hiddensee.
Despite having never been there, the island has long fascinated me. I had seen pictures of low-lying grasslands and empty spaces, the rolling dunes beneath big Baltic skies. I had heard how there were no cars on the island, and of the quiet and the absence of light pollution at night. I scrolled along its length on Google Maps, imagining walks and what it would have meant to know this place as a kid. To name the slight rises in the landscape and the bays and sandbanks; to camp out at night on the beach, as we did on Anglesey when we were younger. This self-contained world. This is the possibility of islands, and I have been in love with the very idea of islands ever since I was young and read Swallows and Amazons for the first time. Islands were places of exploration, but ones which you could map and know in their entirety. They had defined boundaries – small, orderly worlds – upon which to base your stories and your adventures. With Hiddensee there was also its remoteness to consider, something shared with Scottish islands but not so much those along the German Baltic coast. I once used it as a setting for a short story, centred on the delirium of a Stasi agent a long way from home and the morality of spying on our neighbours. And yet, despite my interest in the place, I had never been. What had stopped me stepping on the ferry to make the short crossing? As I stood on Ummanz I did not have an answer, and I do not have one now, other than to say that it is perhaps my fear that it cannot live up to what I imagine it to be. That is all I have, and it is not very much. There is no real excuse not to catch the boat, although part of me does enjoy the fact that – for now – it exists only in my imagination.
At the campground the kids were called back from the beach by a teacher’s whistle, their place taken by a couple of local lads on bicycles. One had a bag of charcoal strapped to the back of his bike, the other was transporting a case of beer. Gathering rocks on the beach they quickly built their barbecue, using twigs and a television listings magazine liberated from the coffee table at home to get the thing going. They sat back with their beers, smoking cigarettes and talking in a low murmur until the coals were hot and two further friends had arrived with the grill and the polystyrene trays of shrink-wrapped meat. I wondered if any of these boys had been to Hiddensee, just over there, across the water. There was every chance that they had not, and every chance that it had never occurred to them. As they began to eat, I left them to their meal.
Ghosts on the Shore: Travels along Germany’s Baltic coast is published by Influx Press and available from the publisher’s website. Paul Scraton is a British writer and editor, based in Berlin. He is the editor in chief of Elsewhere: A Journal of Place. You can find out more about his work on his website.