The German region Rheinhessen (Rhine Hesse, or Rhinehessen) is where I was born and spent my childhood, adolescence, and early adulthood. Its name is as confusing as its tumultuous history, which I can only paint in very broad brushstrokes. The triangular area west of the Rhine river, today bordered by the cities Bingen, Mainz, and Worms, has been populated since the Stone Age some 20,000 years ago. In antiquity, it became a major center for the stationing of Roman legions, and ruins and relics dating to that era continue to be unearthed during modern-day construction projects. Once the Romans were run off, various Germanic tribes called it home.
When Karl the Great, King of the Franks and Roman Emperor, died in 814 AD, the fraternal feuds erupting among his progeny led to centuries of animosity and warfare, in which the land that bordered both Germany and France was kicked back and forth like a soccer ball between the two countries.
During the Napoleonic era, it become part of a French Département, “Mont Tonnerre,” named after the most prominent mountain, Donnersberg (thunder mountain). In 1818, following Napoleon’s defeat and the Vienna Congress, the heretofore unnamed region was christened Rheinhessen and was attached as a new province to the German Grand Duchy of Hessen-Darmstadt on the opposite side of the Rhine. The Versailles Treaty in the wake of World War I rearranged European borders once again, and Rheinhessen was occupied by French forces until 1930. At the close of World War II, it became part of the newly created state Rheinland-Pfalz (Rhineland-Palatinate), an act which rendered its name slightly confusing, as it is no longer part of Hessen. Mainz, the capital of Rheinland-Pfalz, is where, in more recent history, I attended university and met my now-husband. Tumultuous history indeed. 😊
My roots, though, lie nearer the city of Worms, known as one of the sites where the Nibelungen Saga played out. As opposed to the mythical events relayed in that legend, the (not-so-appetizing) Diet of Worms actually did take place there in 1521. Martin Luther was summoned to appear before Emperor Charles V and asked to denounce his theological teachings, then considered sacrilegious. When he refused, he was declared an outlaw and had to flee for his life. In the safety of the Wartburg he translated the Bible into German, making it possible for native speakers to read and hear its words in their own language, rather than in Latin, which was understood only by the privileged and well-educated.
Rheinhessen’s many cities and even more numerous villages are steeped in a rich history, while the landscape is steeped in the richness of Father Rhine, which borders it in the East and North. This statement is true both figuratively and literally, as the region’s riverine portions experienced repeated episodes of flooding before the watercourse was straightened. Flat stretches of fertile land are interspersed with rolling hills, with some steep sections abutting the river. Because of the semi-embrace of one of Germany’s major streams, the area is blessed with a mild climate well-suited to viticulture, i.e. the cultivation of grapes. It is one of the country’s major wine-growing regions and is particularly known for its numerous white wine varieties. Other agricultural products, including cereals, potatoes, and sugar beets also do well, but heavy and prolonged cultivation has led to loss of natural habitats, exploitation and depletion of the soil, and a host of other attendant undesirable and detrimental effects.
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Arriving in Germany from America’s drought-stricken West in September, my first impression of a very verdant countryside through the window of the airplane never left me throughout my visit. My visual sense kept enjoying the greenery while my skin and mucus membranes relished the higher humidity. Even though my second home Colorado might be geographically more varied with its vast prairies, majestic mountains, and big sky, I seemed to feel the pull of my native country more strongly than during previous stays. A result of my, or my Dad’s, advancing age? My missing him and other loved ones? My increasingly nostalgic childhood memories? A growing disillusionment with the goings-on in my current home nation? I suspect it’s a combination of all of the above.
Leaving one’s birth country for a new one is often fraught with the melancholy of parting from old family and friends, and with the perpetual state of feeling the pull of two worlds, while possibly never being completely at home in either one of them.
Ach, I long for [Germany’s] Southwest and know exactly, that near the root of a tough, crooked vine, lies my own.
This is my translation of „Ach, ich sehne mich wieder nach dem Südwesten zurück und weiß genau, daß irgendwo bei der Wurzel irgendeines zähen, krummen Rebstocks meine eigene liegt.“ The nostalgic lines were written by Rheinhessen-born teacher and author Elisabeth Langässer (1899-1950), in a letter from postwar Berlin in 1947, only a few years before her death.
The featured photo above shows the famous gothic Katharinenkirche in Oppenheim through the window frame of an old castle ruin, with the tree-lined Rhine River in the background.