The Island of Rügen as Mythic Site of Germany

The island of Rügen has a curious relationship to what one might term a German national sentiment. Towards the end of the 18th century, poets and philosophers found in Rügen a place which, like no other, lent itself to stylisation as a space of national identification. In Germany, as elsewhere, the radical changes stemming from the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars lent a new vehemence to the national question. The Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation lay in the throes of death, with Germany fragmented by the particularist interests of the individual principalities. The nation’s deep sense of humiliation due to French occupation culminated in the dissolution of the old empire in 1806. In this historical situation Rügen appeared as if from nowhere and very quickly became a source of strength for the would-be nation. The island became a site on which dreams of a united and free fatherland could be projected. The fact that Rügen was so rapidly attributed mythical traits was due not to its being an object of political agitation, but, on the contrary, to its very remoteness from the historical process. Far from sober political considerations, Rügen became a site for the invocation of a vision of national unity. Against the backdrop of the island’s chalk cliffs, the Romantic cult of friendship, a retreat to inwardness, emotive notions of liberty and a fascination with death were fused together to constitute the elements of a sacred national sentiment. Rügen became the site on which national sentiment entered the realm of the sacred. The nation became something holy, and the Stubbenkammer cliffs became the altar of the fatherland.

The actual history of Rügen and the changing political affiliations of the island were eclipsed by this metaphysically charged national idea. The numerous traces of pre-historical and early historical settlement, of the Germanic Rugieris, the Slavonic Ranes, rule by the Danish crown from the 12th century onwards and the attendant process of Christianization, and finally Swedish rule following the Peace of Westphalia in 1648 were welded to the notion of the Germans as the direct descendants of the unbending Germanic folk and reinterpreted to constitute a unique coherent Nordic-Germanic history of Rügen. The fact that the island belonged to the territory of Swedish Pomerania and became part of Prussian only in 1815 was not allowed to hinder this process of mythologization. On the contrary, Rügen’s geographical location, its seclusion as an island, its dour landscape and the cultural-historical evidence pointing to a heroic Germanic past all contributed to the island’s being perceived as an extra-territorial enclave of the true Germany. Stylised as the stronghold of a national past, a national landscape and national virtues, Rügen was declared the fountainhead of a united German nation.

It was this national perspective which first transformed Rügen into a site of particular significance at the end of the 18th century. The island was discovered, as it were, in a dual sense. The source of this discovery and the inventor the Rügen myth was the theologian Ludwig Theobul Kosegarten, who made his way to Rügen at the age of seventeen. Inspired by the great discoverers of the 18th century, Cook and Forster, the young Kosegarten saw himself as the discoverer of a new type of national sentiment. He compared the remoteness of the island not only with the exotic “island of Taprobana,” an old term for Sri Lanka, but also with the sunken Atlantis of distant prehistory. This dual projection into the spatial and temporal distance enabled Kosegarten to plot the co-ordinates of national renewal at an early stage: like the navigators who set out to discover the last uncharted corners of the globe, Kosegarten set out for Rügen with the intention of providing content for the structure of German national feeling.

The island subsequently disappeared so completely from memory that when I came here as a student in 1775 it was spoken of as if of the island of Taprobana, and certain chalk hills referred to as if to they were the magnetic hills of fable. The Wittow peninsula was known to no-one, and when I decided to take a journey through the landscape, no-one knew how to instruct me as to where to begin. When I nevertheless set out and then returned after a journey of fourteen days and many an adventure, burnt by the sun with my clothes all but in tatters, yet wholly inspired and as if drunk, I was stared at in wonder, as if I had come from the sunken Atlantis or from the oases of Egypt.[1]

This discovery of Rügen existed in the realm of poetics, a discovery which began in 1775 and was transformed by the landscape of chalk cliffs and megalithic graves into a wild adventure into an Ossianic prehistory. For Klopstock, the young Goethe and even still for the Romantics, Ossian, the “Homer of the North,” the poetic mouthpiece of a wild, uncivilised folk living amidst the exotically murky primal mists of the Scottish Highlands, was the archetype of the original genius. Ossian represented the opposite point to Mediterranean classicism. Kosegarten now attempted to invest the poetry of Ossian with national significance, and the landscape which he saw as the German counterpart of the Scottish Highlands was the island of Rügen in the Baltic Sea. From the closing years of the 18th century onwards, the chalk cliffs, above all the Stubbenkammer area featuring the Königstuhl formation and the Herthasee – the Hertha lake - represented Rügen’s biggest attraction. A conspicuous natural monument, the formations aroused strong emotions in the sensitive observer. It was the achievement of the eighteen-year-old Kosegarten, as author of the poem “Ode to the Stubbenkammer,” to make Rugen a region of general German interest. In this flowery poem, he describes first an encounter with the sinister Herthasee. The poetic subject then sees the sea shimmering through the beech trees and makes his way to the edge of the chalk cliffs:


Ha Babel shore! Giddiness seizes

The never-giddy one before you,

Before you! You split,

At once steep and precipitous and sharp and smooth

Three hundred fathoms down,

And drink the sea tide.


The poetic subject then climbs down to the shore and begins a very dangerous ascent of the slippery rock face. Finally he reaches the top and breaks into a national effusion, which recasts the chalk cliffs as a towering symbol of the fatherland:


Greetings in the ray of sunshine

Greetings you boldly scaled rock,

Greetings, oh Königsstuhl!

You, my German fatherland’s

Sublime boundary stone, call far

To the ocean wanderer!


Stay still, you ocean wanderer! Stay

And bow your head and bend your knee

Before Germany’s glory,

For great is Germany. Its might

Is great as the ocean tide, and wild

As this shore wall.[2]


Here, Kosegarten discovers anew the Stubbenkammer as the symbol of a national religion.

Kosegarten also found other sites in the topography of Rügen which he was able to charge with a national significance: He transformed the Rugard, a ninety meter high mountain, into a Ossianic wilderness and, in a time of political powerlessness, implicitly yearned for wars of liberation. He saw the island’s megalithic graves as playing a morally supportive role, poetically investing them with heroic Germanic virtues which he saw as a source of strength for the struggle for national liberation.

Kosegarten discovered Rügen in poetic terms. By charging the island with an enthusiasm for Germany, a sentimental cult of friendship and even effusive concepts of the hereafter, he founded the myth of the island of Rügen.

Kosegarten was already a successful preacher and poet in Altenkirchen on Rügen when, in 1796, the twenty-nine-year-old Wilhelm von Humboldt made his only visit to the island. In accordance with his classical Graecophile ideal of harmony, Humboldt’s interest in Rügen initially focused on a search for charm and beauty rather than the sublime. Whether looking out from Rugard or from other points, Humboldt’s descriptions – in a direct echo of Quintilian – of his discovery of colourful, picturesque “laughing sights” did not express a quality specific to Rügen and did not challenge his classically trained eye. However, in the northern part of the island he slowly began to develop a taste for its curious character: he climbed arduously over rolling beds of stone to the sea, sampled the water, remarking on how long its salty tang endured, and visited sacrificial sites and graves dating back to the pagan period. The Herthahain – the Hertha grove - triggered religious feelings in him, a sense of sacred authority:

However, it is undeniable that that embankment has been made by human hands, and since it could not possibly have served as some kind of fortress, it is highly probable that the lake, embankment and grove served the purpose of some form of worship. This is reinforced by the powerful impression that the wonderful natural environment of the site necessarily leaves on one. The solitary, undisturbed, blackish lake, the dense beeches with their thick foliage, the complete silence, which is only interrupted by the rustle of the thick layer of beech leaves under the feet of the wayfarer, and the mysterious meaning of the space enclosed by the embankment and the lake immerse the soul in a sacred and silent menace. It is hard to imagine another place imbued with such a character of sacredness and reverence.[3]

The uniqueness of the location, which offered a view akin to looking out a window in a quiet room or an enclosure onto the endlessness of the ocean, produced in Humboldt a tendency to ennoble its character. He sought to snatch the Herthahain from its rough, barbarian prehistory and to project it into the sphere of “noble simplicity and silent greatness”. He attempted to strip the Herthasee of all connotations of menace and to transform it into a place full of “silent reverence,” “gentle peace” and “pious holiness”. Here, then, we see an expression of Humboldt’s concern with transcribing Hellenic culture, as it were, onto the northern lands with their pagan Germanic ancestry, thereby ennobling the rough barbaric prehistory of the Germans.

However, his subsequent encounter with the Stubbenkammer made a powerful impression on him, one that transcended the notion of “noble simplicity and silent greatness”; the romantic archaism of the chalk cliff landscape generated in Humboldt an absolute sensation of sublimity.


From the Herthaburg onwards, one climbs still higher and higher. Gradually the lake comes into view, shimmering through the trees, and suddenly one is standing on the edge of a vertiginous drop with the lake in full view. Two five-hundred-and-fifty foot chalk walls rise facing one another in a multitude of columns, and the opening that they form reveals a view of the ocean in all its immensity. This is the Stubbenkammer. It presents a view which is unparalleled in its simplicity and sublimity – a mere opening to the ocean, but the infinite expanse lying there so free and vast, and the viewing point from which one observes it so boldly and firmly based, so wonderfully formed by the corners and angles of the cliffs, so vividly defined by colour where the white chalk walls meet the blue ocean, and so amicably and menacingly holy due to the green, shadowy forest from which one has just stepped. It is a view that brings one to standstill for a long time.[4]

This very emphatic centrepiece of Humboldt’s travel writing impresses due to the unique claim to absoluteness of what is seen: on the edge of the “vertiginous” precipice, i.e. out of danger and yet close to it, the gaze is spellbound by the infinite when it sweeps over the ocean through the opening in the chalk cliffs. The clause following the declared incomparability of the view of the Stubbenkammer is notable for its five “so” constructions (“lying there so free and vast”, “so boldly and firmly based”, “so wonderfully formed”, “so vividly defined by colour”, “so amicably and menacingly holy”) which for the reader seem to require resolution in the form of a further phrase which concludes the thought, as in a “so .... that ...” construction. Yet Humboldt consciously refrains from such a resolution. For him, in this place at this time, there is no comparison, no metaphor, no causality, and in this sense the unresolved tension of the “so” constructions acts to render the view of the Stubbenkammer absolute. It refers to nothing and nothing refers to it. The site itself is rendered sacred, a process which no longer refers to a higher power but which in itself is able to evoke “menacingly holy” feelings.

The image of Rügen is given a new dimension in the correspondence between Friedrich Schleiermacher and Henriette Herz, where Rügen becomes a byword for the cult of friendship. In contrast to the travel writings of Humboldt, which attempted to delineate a concrete image of place, Schleiermacher and Henriette Herz reshape Rügen in a highly abstract manner into a shibboleth for emotional qualities. It seems that by 1800, twenty-five years after Kosegarten’s literary discovery of Rügen, the island and above all the Stubbenkammer had already attained mythological status, making it the object of religious, emotional and national desires. This provided a foundation on which the early Romantics could already build and stylise Rügen into a pure emotional value, which required only indirect sensory experience.

Henriette Herz, the salonière of the Berlin Romantic movement, met Schleiermacher at her salon in 1798, and immediately found in him a kindred soul. In 1801 the two friends travelled to Prenzlau together, where they met the twenty-three-year-old theologian Ehrenfried von Willich, who came from Rügen, and who became the third member of this spiritual alliance.

In his religious philosophy, Schleiermacher propagated a maximum degree of personal freedom in the cultivation of the individuality of each person, and called for gatherings of like-minded persons in private religious communities to replace the structures of a state church. Here Schleiermacher established what might be termed the religious-philosophical conditions for his own cult of friendship.

The founding of the Schleiermacher-Herz-Willich alliance in 1801 seems to have fulfilled Schleiermacher’s need for intimate friendship. However, before this alliance could ossify in mutually effusive protestations of friendship, a fourth, spatial figure entered into this community of three: the island of Rügen. It provided a surface on which could be projected all kinds of desires and passions, and it had the capacity to assume a binding religious dimension.

The plan to meet on Rügen and to spend time there together runs through the correpondence between the three friends like a basso continuo. This plan, which had to be postponed from each year to the next, gradually develops into an idee fixe, making Rügen seem all the more desirable. Everything that is routine , grey and adverse in the lives of Schleiermacher and Henriette Herz finds its positive counterpart in Rügen.

Schleiermacher somewhat dramatically describes the sojourn on Rügen he longs for as the “only piece of life” that he sees before him, whereby Rügen in conjunction with the friends develops into an extra-territorial dreamland:

You cannot believe how much I am looking forward to our sojourn on Rügen. Amidst all the strange changes within and around me, it is the only fixed point on which I have focused for a long time and always with the same happiness, It is the only piece of life that I see before me, like a small island in a desolate sea.[5]

Rügen thus becomes the counterpart to the world in the sense of secularity. Rügen is the holy realm, the earth of which Henriette Herz would like to kiss; it is the “true homeland”, an earthly paradise:

when I think of Rügen, it is as if I am thinking of my true home – I believe I would lie on the earth and kiss it, if I were to once again see that beloved island. [...] If we again assemble at holy places, on Rügen, then he [a friend of Schleiermacher] should be there, for he is worthy of standing with us on Stubbenkammer and looking out into infinity.[6]

The Stubbenkammer plays the role of an inner sanctum; it affords a view into infinity, and through this function and through the community of like-minded friends it becomes a religious site par excellence. Since the Protestant church in any case provided for few ritualistic elements in its liturgy, this site offered a new space external to the church and Biblical exegesis where a perfect, natural form of worship could be practised which fulfilled all Schleiermacherian conditions for the true religion of the heart: the view out from confinement into infinity and the community of kindred-spirit friends, who could not only stand on the towers of the temple but also look down into the deepest depths. After standing on the chalk cliffs himself, Schleiermacher speaks of a vision of infinity which almost produces an unio mystica, a mystical union of the friends. Thus we find numerous subsequent references to the “holy celebration on the Stubbenkammer” and the “celebration of our union.” In contrast to Kosegarten, effusions of national sentiment are not found in the case of the early Schleiermacher. Only after 1806, in the Napoleonic period – in reaction to Napoleon’s opposition to Protestantism – did Schleiermacher preach devotion to the fatherland, thus initiating the fatal connection between Protestantism and patriotism.

The sanctification of a landscape, and in this case of Germany’s most northern tip, ultimately became in Schleiermacher’s case a sanctification of the entire nation when he devoted his preaching activities in Berlin to the service of Prussia-based patriotism. Due to the paucity of ritual, the holy celebration on the Stubbenkammer had become a substitute form of worship. The portrayal of Rügen remained empty. The cult of friendship which was evoked indulged in superlatives and abstraction. In what the fulfilment of the friendship and its associated union consisted remains unclear. It is the nation which is able to break suddenly into this empty space and promise to fulfil it. Now “devotion to the fatherland” is no longer merely an abstraction and, as such, demands action. In 1813, Schleiermacher became involved in the recruitment of volunteers and considered setting out with the them as an army chaplain.

Now the unio mystica with the friends has become the unio mystica with the congregation, a mystical union which is only realised via the binding power of the nation.

Schleiermacher’s and Herz’s abstract romantic effusions over Rügen represent an endpoint. However, before Rügen could be rarefied to the status of a mere byword, a new voice emerged in the German intellectual landscape: the clear, powerful voice of Ernst Moritz Arndt, who, since he was born and bred there, saw in Rügen something other than an extraterritorial dreamland. For Arndt, Rügen represented the directly formative reality of his childhood and youth, and as a young man he was therefore not able to romantically transfigure and elevate it. He was in fact thirty-four when in 1803 he first wrote about the island of his birth in the rather sober study, Towards a History of the Bonded Peasantry in Pomerania and Rügen. As the son of a free peasant, Arndt himself had an impressive career, managing in 1809 to be accepted into the highest circles of Prussian and European diplomacy. Between 1812 and 1815, at the side of the Freiherr von Stein, Arndt become the most popular publicist and bard for the unity and liberty of the German nation.

How did it come about that someone growing up in a childhood paradise – the idyll of Rügen – which in political terms belonged to Sweden, became the “true troubadour of the German liberation movement”[7], the “magician from the north” and the “Homer of his time”?

In fact Arndt later stylised Rügen as a source of strength for his entire life, as a place where – in keeping with its untamed natural environment and the heroic prehistoric past of the megalithic graves – angular, original, earthy peasant patriarchs could grow unhindered. The most important of these for Arndt was his uncle, of whom he wrote: “I call the doughty old peasant poetic and romantic and ought to call this county of Putbus the same, which, with its hills, forests, megalithic graves, burial and sacrificial stones, coasts, islands and peninsulas, is itself a romance and a poem.”[8] He confirms the “strong, hot Arndt blood” of many of the “forebears” rooted on Rügen and continues: “the people were at that time less cultivated, but more peculiar, many-sided and poetic than they are now; the natural character was still not levelled to a smooth monotone, one could learn more from them, have more from them.”[9]

There is a contrast here between Arndt’s position and other nostalgic gestures of the time, which tended to lament the loss of the genuine heroes of the distant past with reference to the remnants of classical Hellas or the northern megalithic graves. Instead Arndt demonstrates that he still has direct family contact with the race of giants from another temporal stratum, which drew its strength from the untamed natural environment of Rügen and was able to provide him with a talent that qualified him to become the most famous bard of the German nation. Arndt is torn between the silent island of his home and the national struggles as between the beautiful and the sublime. Within this process, the beauty of the charming island of Rügen increasingly becomes a refuge for reverie, a sentimental interim. It seems as if Arndt seeks on the Rügen of poetry a refuge from the struggles of the fatherland, a retreat into private seclusion. In the Restoration period after 1818, the reactionary spirit triumphed over the “old estate conviction of a patriot of the first hour”[10] When Arndt spoke out in support of “freedom of the press” he was banned from holding a teaching post, prosecuted for “demagogic activities” and declared an “enemy of the state”. In Bonn on the Rhine he devoted himself to, among other things, the translation of Swedish, Old English and Old Scottish folksongs, and produced – very much in the Ossianic tradition – a monograph on the Orkney and Shetland Islands. His romantic dream of a linguistic alliance with the Scandinavian north and of a pan-Germanic realm that would also include the Scandinavian countries and the Netherlands, shows once more the enduring influence of Arndt’s Rügen origins. While other great nations were pressing to the south, Arndt, proceeding from the notion of Rügen as an interface between Sweden, the German nation, Germanic prehistory and Protestantism, sought the German conceptual place in the Nordic midnight sun.

Rügen is a mythical site of identification for the Germans. The yearning for cultural and national identity found in Rügen its ideal fulfilment. As myth, Rügen is in the first instance a text, the essential features of which were already formulated in the 1800. It subsequently also found expression in the fine arts. The translation of myth into image followed its textual delineation and began to emerge around the turn of the century. This development is inseparable from the name of Caspar David Friedrich. Just as Kosegarten is not the only writer to have engaged in the mythologization of the island, Friedrich is certainly not the only painter to take Rügen as a motif. The island was also an artistic theme in the work of painters like Philipp Hackert, Carl Gustav Carus, Friedrich Schinkel, Carl Blechen and Friedrich Preller the Elder. However, just as Kosegarten’s writings represent the first crystallization point within literature, the work of Caspar David Friedrich was decisive for the visual elaboration of this theme. Indeed, Rügen was for Friedrich a lifelong theme, and through his work Rügen as myth found pictorial expression.

The elevation of the Rügen landscape, its visual mythologization, began in 1801. In the summer of that year, the twenty-seven-year-old Caspar David Friedrich drew a series of island views. Reviews from the time clearly show that Friedrich’s images were perceived as a new intensification of landscape representation and the moods associated with it. Their fluid delicacy and retrained inwardness were praised repeatedly. Caspar David Friedrich’s famous Chalk Cliffs on Rügen is thought to have been painted around 1818. Here, Friedrich managed to bring together the different aspects of the Rügen myth – unspoilt nordic nature, national community, deep spiritual feelings – in latent form. While not adding anything new to the Rügen myth, it presupposes the elements of that myth. The achievement of this artwork lies solely in its reflection of the constitution of this myth in its aesthetic structure. The painting, like the myth, is an expression of a vague yearning.

The image is virtually empty – it shows a view over the sea from the chalk cliffs – and this emptiness is the prerequisite for its aesthetic achievement. The picture’s fascination lies in its charged dramaturgy. Depth and giddiness, distance and silence: the picture holds both in readiness. Two different perspectives overlap one another. The image powerfully suggests both a sense of being pulled downwards while at the same time being drawn outwards to the horizon.

It is an image for the German Bürgertum around 1820. Friedrich’s painting of the chalk cliffs represents the reference to nature as culture. In the process it deals with an experience of nature oriented to emotion and elevation. The view in this image does not express concrete patriotic or religious hopes, but rather gives expression to the national aspirations of the Bürgertum in a form which was always at the core of these aspirations: as Weltanschauung. For the bourgeois stratum, this unpolitical ideality is a means of legitimation and delimitation. It opposes the process of being in the world of civilisation with the idealistic protest, which finds its preferred place in the sphere of art. Friedrich does not instrumentalize the Rügen myth as a means to a specific end. His far subtler approach entails the comprehension of this myth in its absolute structure, thereby enabling it to claim supra-historical status. The Chalk Cliffs on Rügen represent the sum and climax of the Rügen myth and lend it an iconic validity.

Worth noting in conclusion is also Wilhelm Müller’s poem cycle Muscheln von der Insel Rügen (Shells from Rügen Island). This collection is not nearly as well-known as his earlier cycles Die schöne Müllerin (1816-20) and above all Die Winterreise (1821-24), which is certainly due in part to the fact that the Rügen cycle was not set to music. Nevertheless, it did have an influence on Heine’s North Sea, which was published around the same time and in which Heine even quotes from Müller’s Vineta poem. Moreover, Heine thanks Müller for his popular musical tone – “how pure, how clear are your songs, they are all of them folksongs” – and openly admits that his own poems owe their “most secret intonation to Müller’s songs.”[11]

Following the publication of Arnim and Brentano’s song collection Des Knaben Wunderhorn (1808) the folksong was seen as potentially able to provide a broadly accessible spiritual centre for the emergent nation, to overcome the rift between the intellectual upper strata and the lower classes, and as a subtle means of divulging personal feelings in the guise of folk characters.

This cycle of poems also represents a search for originality. In 1825 it was obviously no longer easy to make discoveries of poetic immediacy, since the island was already over-constituted, as it were, by a diverse range of aesthetic structures. Kosegarten had already sung the praises of most beautiful parts of the island, and this work was followed by enthusiastic travel journals. Rügen then advanced to become a byword for patriotism and the cult of inwardness, and even a Rügen anthology was published. Finally, Caspar David Friedrich’s images of the sea, the megalithic graves and the chalk cliffs transformed the island into the “Friedrichian landscapes”. Rügen was thus aesthetically occupied, and the search for immediacy proved increasingly difficult. As a result Müller had to look for other routes in constructing his poem cycle on Rügen.

The poems are devoid of enthusiastic descriptions of the Stubbenkammer or of the tourist delights of the sea. Instead Müller slips into the role of fishermen’s wives, boatmen, chalk workers and local girls, who in supposedly simple songs bear novel witness to the island of Rügen. Rather than the pronouncements of an individual, we hear the voices of the folk of Rügen:


The Way from Wittow to Jasmund


Damned long narrow heath!

To both sides mutters the sea

Hidden within an ashen gown

The sky descends deep and heavy.


In the way lie stones

And cut into my soles –

Is it a wonder that I sigh and cry,

Whenever I must part from here?


In Wittow’s wheat-green meadows

There lives my lovely reaper: I must cut chalk on Jasmund

In the meantime I’m a ne’er-do-well.


The last poem in the cycle, Der Adler auf Arkona (The Eagle on Arkona), presents Müller’s political demand for national unity and liberty in a form that is so undisguised and powerful that it has a retrospective effect on the whole cycle. Apart from his Greek songs, this is the most politically direct of Muller’s poems, and it is certainly no accident that it is set on Rügen: it seems that no one wanted to or could elude the patriotic myth of the island.

This represents an endpoint in the formation of the Rügen myth. It was formulated, experienced its highpoint with Friedrich’s chalk cliffs and was rounded off by Wilhelm Müller’s poem cycle, a mixture of lyrically suspended, despairingly patriotic and new realistic tones. The myth was complete. Everyone who travelled to Rügen was now, whether they knew it or not, influenced by this myth. Anyone seeking to give aesthetic voice to Rügen had to enter into a dialogue with works of art and not merely directly with the natural environment. And whoever attempted this became an imitator. For this reason we see an increase in the number of texts and images taking Rügen as their subject but a rapid decrease in the number of aesthetic products of real quality.

It is worth noting here a final voice on Rügen: that of Theodor Fontane, who – over a hundred years after the discovery of the mythical island – radically rejected the Rügen myth with his novel Effi Briest (1889-1894). Rügen is treated as a brief episode in a mere four pages. Arriving on Rügen, in Saßnitz, Effi is presented in all her conventional enthusiasm:

In the best of moods the two took an evening stroll on the rocky beach and from a promontory looked out on the silent bay shivering in the moonlight. Effi was delighted. “Oh, Geert, this is Capri, this is Sorrento. Yes, we will stay here.”[12]

But the next morning the trivial spell already disintegrates when Effi learns the name of the neighbouring village, Crampas, which is by chance the name of her former lover. On a completely private level, this place name becomes something terrifying for Effi, a feeling that is intensified by the sacrificial stones at the sinister Herthasee. Rügen becomes a nightmare for Effi. She wants to depart immediately from the dark, cruel, oppressive world of Rügen for the beautiful, light, classical Thorvaldsen world of Denmark. While looking out onto the sea from an inn near the Stubbenkammer, Effi and Innstetten talk:

“I cannot stay here.” “But yesterday you thought it the Gulf of Naples and everything else that is beautiful.” “Yes, yesterday.” “And today? No trace of Sorrento today?” “A trace, but only a trace; it is Sorrento as if it wanted to die. “Good, Effi,” said Innstetten and reached out his hand to her. “I do not want to torment you with Rügen, and so we will give it up. Agreed. We do not have to cling to Stubbenkammer [...]” “[...]For me, being here feels as if I will never be able to laugh in my life and never have laughed at all, and you know how much I enjoy laughing.” Innstetten showed complete sympathy for her feelings, all the more so because he largely agreed with her. For all its beauty, it was really all so melancholic.[13]

Here we see the negation of the Rügen myth. Rügen becomes a torment from which one must escape. One must let go of the Stubbenkammer so as not to be overwhelmed. With this small ironic Rügen pirouette, Fontane takes his leave of a myth which, despite this, continues to retain its power until today.[14]


Lecture given at the Visby conference on "The Baltic in Literature and Art" in November 2002

[1] Ludwig Kosegarten, cited in Karl Lappe, Mitgabe nach Rügen. Den Reisenden zur Begleitung und Erinnerung (Stralsund, 1818) p. 92

[2] Ludwig Kosegarten, “Ode über die Stubbenkammer,” cited in J. C. F. Rellstab, Ausflucht nach der Insel Ruegen durch Mecklenburg und Pommern, (Berlin 1797) p. 90.

[3] Wilhelm von Humboldt, “Reisetagebücher”, in: Wilhelm von Humboldt, Gesammelte Schriften, Berlin 1916, vol, 16, p. 284 f.

[4] Wilhelm von Humboldt. “Reisetagebücher” in: Wilhelm von Humboldt, Gesammelte Schriften, vol. 16 (Berlin 1916) p. 284 f.

[5] Rainer Schmitz (ed.), Bis nächstes Jahr auf Rügen. Briefe von Friedrich Schleiermacher und Henriette Herz an Ehrenfried von Willich 1801-1807 (Berlin, 1984), p. 104 f.

[6] Rainer Schmitz (ed.), Bis nächstes Jahr auf Rügen. Briefe von Friedrich Schleiermacher und Henriette Herz an Ehrenfried von Willich 1801-1807 (Berlin, 1984), p. 135 f.

[7] Gustav Sichelschmidt, Ernst Moritz Arndt (Berlin, 1981), p. 13.

[8] Ernst Moritz Arndt, Erinnerungen 1769-1815 (Berlin, 1985), p. 70.

[9] Ernst Moritz Arndt, Erinnerungen 1769-1815 (Berlin, 1985), p. 72.

[10] Rudolf Raxler, “Ernst Moritz Arndt. Geist der Zeit” in: Kindlers neues Literaturlexikon (Munich 1988) Vol. I. p. 724

[11] Heinrich Heine, “Brief an Wilhelm Müller”, in Heine, Sämtliche Schriften in 12 Bänden, ed. by Klaus Brigleb (Frankfurt/M, Berlin, Vienna, 1981), vol. 4, p. 808.

[12] Theodor Fontane, Effi Briest (Frankfurt/M, Berlin, 1988), p. 209.

[13] Theodor Fontane, Effi Briest (Frankfurt/M, Berlin, 1988), p. 212.

[14] This essay is based on the book by Roswitha Schieb and Gregor Wedekind, Rügen. Deutschlands mythische Insel. Berlin 1999.