Backtracking to April 1st via 600,000 Years Ago




The late March/ early April weather in this part of Germany is, like climate in most parts of the world, slightly off its rocker. A string of warmer than normal days have infected Heidelberg’s residents with spring fever and created a relaxed, festive air that pervades even the side streets. Winter is over, flowers are bursting out, and people are happy to be wearing t-shirts and short skirts rather than the scarves and overcoats of the past five months.

I see beer bottles in the hands of men and students at mid-day, and street cafés are full of people chatting, drinking, always eating, and of course smoking as well. Hauptstrasse is always nice to stroll because there are no cars and the stores are inviting, plus there are public squares full of chairs and tables that are serviced by nearby restaurants. It’s a civilized and, lest we forget, privileged scene made possible by Germany’s great economic clout as well as the discipline and conscientiousness of its citizens in complying with state and corporate goals.

What fascinates me about Heidelberg is its role as a historical crucible for any number of significant events that have shaped European and, more broadly, Western civilization. So as I am strolling through the old town en route to the hillside “Philosopher’s Walk” footpath above the city, I’m thinking about some of these historical milestones:

  • Not far from the city was the site of a major archaeological discovery: the so-called “Heidelberg man,” with a jawbone unearthed by a worker at a construction site in 1907. “Homo heidelbergensis is an extinct species of the genus Homo which lived in Africa, Europe and western Asia from at least 600,000 years ago, and may date back 1,300,000 years. It survived until about 200,000 to 250,000 years ago. It is very likely the direct ancestor of Homo sapiens (in Africa) and the Neanderthals (in Europe).” (Wikipedia)
  • At a site in northern Spain, a large pit contained the bones of over 32 homo heidelbergensis individuals and a number of animals. Axes found at the site are fashioned from rare red quartzite, leading archaeologists to suggest that they were a kind of ritual offering for a funeral. If true, it would be the oldest evidence of funerary practices. By extension, these offerings make the burial pit, dated at 350,000 years, one of the oldest known religious sites on the planet.
  • Heidelberg was occupied in the 5th c. BCE by Celtic people, who venerated a nearby mountain as sacred, naming it “mountain of the saints” or Heiligenberg. Mountains as portals to the other world is common in China, India, Tibet, and Japan, with some of Japan’s most ancient Shinto shrines starting out in this way. My second book (Enduring Identities) has an entire chapter devoted to “sacred geographies” in general and the importance of mountains in the Kyoto area in particular. 
  • In 40 BCE, the Romans set up a garrison on the banks of the Neckar river, and stayed until around 240 CE when local Germanic tribes drove them out. That’s 280 years of continuous Roman settlement, or 42 years more than the history of the United States. One can imagine the Romans must have felt they were on the edge of the known universe, separated from Rome (and “civilization”) by the Alps and hostile tribes. That they could stay for so long is testament to their supply routes and the relative military control they had over the area.
  • After the Romans left and the area reverts to local chieftains, the city becomes a valuable pawn in any number of continental power plays. Catholic monasteries were founded in 868 and 1130, the first occupying the old Celtic fortress. 1196 marks the first historical reference to the city in a document originating at Schönau abbey. Control over the city goes back and forth between a number of local princes and lords, until things heat up during the Protestant reformation. In 1518, Martin Luther came to Heidelberg university (which had been founded in 1389) to defend his 95 thesis protesting the domination of and sale of indulgences by the Catholic Church.
  • By the late 1500s, the region was thoroughly Protestant, and yet conflict was persistent between Lutherans and Calvinists. But nothing compares to the “Thirty Years War” (1618-1648) which ravaged Central Europe from the brutality of the conflict caused largely by mercenary soldiers in the employ of Protestant and Catholic forces. Here’s an etching of a Catholic priest giving last rites to executed Protestant prisoners, (good Christians all, of course).


Jacques Callot, 1632, “The Miseries of War”

  • The fighting and plundering was bad enough but there were also plagues and famines, not to mention witch-hunts. Who else to blame for all the misfortunes and calamities that rained down on innocent peasants and village people? Estimates of population decline due to this war and its consequences are between 25 and 40% in Central Europe, with some places losing up to two-thirds of their citizens. It must have been a wretched time to be alive. (Some of the history of this period is evoked in The Meeting at Telgte (1981) by German author Gunter Grass.)
  • Heidelberg was devastated by a French-Catholic force that besieged the city in 1622 for two months. This etching below shows cannons positioned along the north side of the Neckar river in some of the exact same places I walked and took photos. How the city could hold out for two months facing this kind of firepower and dwindling resources is beyond me.


  • Heidelberg also claims the spotlight prior to World War II. It was a Nazi stronghold where some of the early excesses against non-Aryan citizens were committed. Jews were singled out, synagogues burned on “Krystallnacht,” and some 1000 were deported to die in concentration camps. Streets that seem so peaceful and commercially-oriented today once conducted mobs of young men wearing black armbands with the swastika as they went about their self-righteous “purifications” of German society. At the end of the war, the departing Wehrmacht forces dynamited 3 of the arches of the lone bridge across the river. Ironically, this was the only destruction to the city during the entire war.  
  • When Allied forces occupied Germany, Heidelberg became a major garrison town since so much of the Wehrmacht infrastructure was left in place and undamaged. After so many battles and close calls, the commander of all Allied forces in Europe, George S. Patton, was severely injured in a car accident near Heidelberg and died some 12 days later in a hospital here.
  • Immediately after the war, Heidelberg university was re-established and guided by a number of leading scholars, including the philosopher Karl Jaspers. ( To his great credit, he resisted the Nazis to the best of his ability whereas philosophers like Martin Heidegger openly supported the National Socialists (as they were called). Jaspers started his career as a psychiatrist but then moved into theology and philosophy. Because of his friendship with the sociologist Max Weber, he was later accused by philosophers like Adorno and Lucaks that he had “contaminated” philosophy with concepts drawn from sociology and anthropology. (Clearly, he is my kind of interdisciplinary guy.)   The Allied forces quickly chose him as one of the top scholars to administer the university.

It was in a building dedicated to Jaspers that my main public lecture would take place on April 7th.

All this history may bore readers who have never visited the city, but to me it provides nuance, depth, and significance for the present day. Perhaps that’s because I come from such a young nation, or maybe it’s because I have a great respect for the lessons of history which we just can’t seem to learn or, having learned them, can’t seem to remember when circumstances require. I was also predisposed to historical perspectives due to my travels in Greece and Turkey where I visited some significant (and significantly ancient) Greek ruins dating back to the 5th century BCE. On the island of Naxos, I encountered Mycenaean burial sites from the 8th c. BCE.

 I guess this summary of Heidelberg’s history helps me understand my own a little better. The settlements, the conflicts, the proclamations, even the witch-hunts remind me of the forces at work within myself. Like the Treaty of Westphalia that established peace after the 30 Years War, this trip I’ve been on has contributed to a demeanor of stability and calm. That is not to say I was “at war” or embroiled in conflict beforehand or during the trip. Anyone who has followed even a fraction of these reports knows that is not the case.

 And yet there is a retrospective “historical” awareness, based on one’s own experiences, that can be useful in navigating the present. A historical perspective can get heavy and rather dark sometimes, but it can also peel back the glittering surfaces to show that human nature hasn’t changed very much. We still want protection and stability, as long as we feel that we are not being exploited. We still hunger for resources that we think will enhance our lives. When we rally together around some supposedly noble cause, whether it is breaking away from the Catholic Church or creating a political party to support a leader called Hitler, we appropriate some of the best and worst tendencies of the human heart and mind.


On the stroll that provided the photos above, I descended from the Philosopher’s Path and ended up by the river where many people were lounging and enjoying the late-afternoon sun. A group of girls were doing flips and cartwheels with great energy, and seemed delighted that I wanted to take their photo. The girls with glasses were German, whereas the other two identified themselves as Germans with a Turkish background. I got their permission to post the photos, and now hope that they will eventually check out this report about their city, culture, and society…and the dynamism that is part of Heidelberg’s cultural pulse, whatever the historical era.



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