Brandenburg Gate, Berlin

There are probably few places on earth as woven into pivotal history as the Brandenburg Gate.  I visited it when it was darkly shrouded by the Berlin Wall.  For me it was a depressing experience.  Years later West Berliners with hammers and banners would clamber over it and chisel out their freedom.

Dark and dusty

Here the Nazi leadership was saluted as the river of uniform steel helmets marched through the Gate.  When Berlin was razed to the ground by bombing, the Gate, mercifully, survived.

Up to May, 1961, traffic through the Gate moved freely.  Then, overnight, the Wall was erected.  The Quadriga (the four bronze steeds on the Gate) were reversed to face eastwards.  Different from the way the architect Langhans and sculptor Schadow had planned it in the late-18th-century.

Not far from here, in 1961, John Kennedy delivered his historical speech “Ich bin ein Berliner”, support for the divided country.  In the seriousness of the moment — possible military confrontation with the Soviet Union — he made a grammar mistake that West Berliners would tolerantly have smiled at:  “ein Berliner” refers to a typical Berlin pastry, a cookie.  Correct, it would have been “Ich bin Berliner”.  Someone has also said that it was a good thing Kennedy didn’t make this speech in Hamburg.

Germany has been reunited for almost 30 years.  The Gate was restored at great expense.  The Quadriga again faces west.  The Brandenburg Gate is again the centre point of Berlin.  After two hundred and twenty years of tumultuous history, the Berliners and the Germans as a whole feel that the Gate can now be a symbol of peace.


© Will van der Walt

Les Semboules, Antibes

November, 2018



Brandenburg Tor – postcard

Quadriga –

Gate with soldier –

Gate with West Berliners  –

Gate with sun –



In some bizarrely indirect way, the Gate … as well as the proto-Prussian Magraviate of Brandenburg … also has bearing of sorts on South Africa’s own violently induced historical ‘make-up’ … Originally erected as the Friedenstor by the House of Orange-descended Friedrich Wilhelm, following the fragile peace established by the so-called Batavian Revolution which led to the Cape of Good Hope being ‘restored’ to a revolutionary, reconfigured ‘new’ Dutch Republic … Orange-Hohenzollen collaboration meant that many folk from a Huguenot-bolstered Brandenburg emigrated to the Cape of Good Hope … with its own Huguenot diaspora … one man in particular is most deserving of remembrance … Joachim Nikolaus von Dessin (1704-1761) … once page and later gentleman-in-waiting of the margrave Albrecht Friedrich of Brandenburg … who with the bequest of his wonderful library … laid the foundations of what has become South Africa;s National Library  –      Mansell Upham




Autumn poplars and a chapel

It was in West Berlin that I discovered autumn.  Perhaps not so much discovered as amplified my experience of it, coming, as I do, from a two-season country.  The camp site where we stayed was lined with poplar trees.  The road leading to the camp site was lined with poplars, as were the footpaths leading into the country side.  I left my fellow-travellers and took a late-afternoon stroll in the blood-gold of the large poplar leaves.  Autumn and spring had been things you read about in books.

On the way, by a field, I saw a chapel.  The door was open.  I ventured in.  Probably Lutheran.  I don’t have a clear memory of the interior, but what remains with me was the marble plaques on the wall, with a date over them – 1939-1945.  Yes, we’ve all seen them in our own world … those names … the ones that keep coming.  Somehow though, this was different.  I was a young man.  My new wife was a German-speaking South African.  Gradually, my stereotypes of Germans, the easy judgements about the war, had faded.  The process came to an end in that chapel.

There were, as I remember, about 150 names.  I couldn’t help wondering how many of these had fallen in the surrender of Berlin itself, a time of hell beyond any imagining.  How many of them had fallen further afield?  Who was this Hans?  This Klaus?  Somebody’s son, somebody’s father,  brother, cousin, friend … The easy judgements were gone.  These had been human beings like me.  Yes, they had fought my father in North Africa, at Montecassino in Italy.  Fate had placed them in that history, to use such language.  How many who had known them had sat on those worn pews in that chapel and wept?

I left.  The late-afternoon sun was fading on the reddish gold of the leaves.

© Will van der Walt

Les Semboules, Antibes

November, 2018


My drawings




Little Erna jokes

My years in a German community brought me into contact with a joke genre called the Klein Erna Witze.  Most cultures have jokes of this type — either someone arrogantly stupid like Van der Merwe in South Africa, or the Polak jokes in the USA, the Little Lulu jokes in England, the Dupont- Durand  jokes in France or the Schutz jokes in Germany.

Innocent versions for children

The Klein Erna jokes are characteristically risqué, sometimes outrageously so.  They are associated with Hamburg where they originated, based, as sources have it, on the life of a real person, and then morphing by the 1920s  into a distinctive form of risqué naïvity.  The jokes have been refined by the acidic or even dark humour of Berlin.  In the film Downfall, the first German-produced film of Hitler’s last days in the bunker, a man tells a joke, referring to the bombed city, a joke which skillfully renders in English the spirit of Berlin humour:   “Berlin is a warehouse!  Where is your house?  Where is my house?”

Cultural patrimony


The internet offers examples and I share three:

Granny is preparing to go somewhere in the car.  Little Erna says, “Where are you going to, Granny?”

“Just to the cemetery, my child.”

Little Erna ponders this. “But who will bring back the car?”

A media portrayal of Klein Erna

A second:

Little Erna asks her mother, “Is it true that storks bring babies?”

“Yes,” says her mother, “it is true.”

Little Erna ponders this.  “But who bonks the storks?”

A third, in true Berlin vein, and in my opinion, darkly cathartic:

After the war, friends come urgently to Little Erna.  “Is it true that the Russians raped you, little Erna?”

“Yes,” little Erna says. “Nineteen times.”

“But that is shocking.  It’s terrible.  And your sister?”

“Nah,” little Erna says, “she didn’t want to.”


© Will van der Walt

Les Semboules, Antibes

October, 2017



The Flockemann family

Wikipedia: Klein Erna Witze

Klein Erna Witze



A media image of Klein Erna








Will will travel

I am a part of all that I have met

Ek is deel van alles wat ek ontmoet het

Je fais partie de tout ce que j’ai rencontré

Είμαι μέρος όλων αυτών που έχω γνωρίσει

Soy parte de todo lo que he contrado

Ich bin ein Teil von allem, was ich getroffen habe

나는 내가 만난 모든 것의 일부이다.

Sono parte di tullo quello che ho incontrato

Ik ben onderdeel van alles wat ik heb ontmoet

Namibia from space


I am a part of all that I have met; 

Yet all experience is an arch wherethro’ 

Gleams that untravell’d world whose margin fades 

For ever and forever when I move. 

How dull it is to pause, to make an end, 

To rust unburnish’d, not to shine in use! 

From Ulysses by Alfred, Lord Tennyson, 1833


© Will van der Walt

Les Semboules, Antibes

October, 2017



The earth




Space Panorama NASA 1969





EMILE NOLDE – expressionist

It is the flattest landscape I’ve yet seen, the road to Seëbull, on the border between Germany and Denmark.  The roads are arrows; the poplar trees that line them are organ pipes.  The Free State is mountainous, by comparison. Here, in Seëbull, we find the Emile Nolde Foundation, a building in the style of the Bauhaus, which Nolde designed as his home in the 1920s.

                  The Emile Nolde Foundation

                   Emile Nolde, 1929

Today it is an art gallery, surrounded by gardens, also his design.  The spacious gallery displays a hearty number of his works.

                    Self-portrait, 1917

He was an expressionist, part of a movement that was paralleled by the Fauves in France, a movement that was suppressed by the Nazis in the late-1930s.  In this regard there is a painful irony in the life of Emile Nolde.

                Red and yellow sunflowers, 1920

In the chaos and bitterness after the First World War, he was attracted to the new political party of the Nazis, with anti-semitism to boot.  But after they had taken power in 1933, Nolde found himself officially declared as a “decadent” artist, with over a thousand of his works confiscated. Some were displayed in the exhibition of Entartete Kunst in 1937 to be mocked.

   Poster for the 1937 exhibition

The Nazis forbid him to do any further painting, but he worked on in secret.  These works he called his “unpainted paintings”.

“The Argument” – one of the unpainted paintings 1938 – 1945

After the war the honour Emile Nolde deserved was restored.  He died in 1956 at the age of 89.

     The Prophet, etching, 1911

For me his work touches abstraction at times, a characteristic mode of modernist painting.  The planes of colour surprise.  His human figures, most often earthy, even childlike and primitive, sabre the painting traditions away.  What he does sometimes moves under a dark cloud.

          “Landscape with young horses”, 1916

His painting is not detailed.  His spirit shatters that.  His world bursts open, full and rich.  His paintbrush is broad, as a landscape.

                          “Underway”, 19 –


© Will van der Walt

Les Semboules, Antibes

August, 2017



Wikipedia :  Emile Nolde



The gallery – Emile Nolde-Stift

Photo – Emile Nolde-Stift

Red and yellow sunflowers – PerformArts

Self-portrait – PerformArts

“Entartete Kunst”-poster – Nolde Stift

Prophet etching – PerformArts

“Underway” – PerformArts







ROMANESQUE AND GOTHIC – the human figure

 The human figure in a Romanesque church is small, stylized and, if you look, you see they are busy with something specific in their lives – they drive out demons or flee to Egypt on the back of a donkey.  Bernwards Portal, Hildesheim, Germany, illustrates this memorably.

Bernwards Portal: God gives Eve to Adam

The intention of the sculptor, probably prescribed by the church, is educational and illustrative.  Incidents from the Bible are portrayed.  What strikes me, is how childlike the figures are, almost as if the communities they were intended for, were childlike, eight, nine centuries after Christ.  It is a Europe rising from the shadows of the Dark Ages.  It is as if the search for form is breaking from the post-Roman world, from the world of Byzantine (400 – 600 a.d.).

Romanesque capital: the strange and the charming

There is Eastern influence in the form of the Romanesque figure of the human – monsters, devils and decorative motifs.  Some of the scenes portrayed in Romanesque are deliberately dramatic.  An example is Judas hanging himself.  The incredible variety of figures and forms suggest that sculptors were often left to their own devices.  The world of Romanesque figures is one of surprises.


Romanesque – a world of surprises

The churches with their rounded arches are to a human scale.  What they built, was houses of God, not cathedrals.  The pillars, the panels of art, everything is within easy reach, with you.

The wind changes direction from the eleventh and twelfth centuries in Western culture.  It is a renewal that would, in the centuries to come, be reborn in different forms.  The need to make a greater statement with churches yielded to the concept of cathedrals of monumental dimensions.

Notre Dame de Paris – monument to Gothic

This is Gothic.  Even today contemporary architects stand amazed by what was achieved.  So too, the form of human figure changed.

Chartres Cathedral Portal

I am referring specifically to the portals of Notre Dame in Paris and Chartres Cathedral.  Here the human figures lose their caprice.  Now the figures, as part of the new architecture, form a uniform community of believers, rather than individual figures busy with something specific.  The figures stand formally next to one another.  The vertical line dominates in the design.  The figures are static in their ecstasy.  They are focused on the coming life, a choir of figures untroubled by this world.  My interest comes from limited experience, but I will not forget the figures of the portals of Chartres – stone that radiates.

A radiance from stone


© Will van der Walt

Les Semboules, Antibes

August, 2017



Bernwards Portal –

Romanesque capitals 1, 2  –  Pinterest

Notre Dame de Paris –

Chartres Portal and detail –




France, Germany  




It was the year 1972.  My wife and I drove from the border between West and East Germany on the highways built by Hitler in the 1930s.  The surface was badly pockmarked.  All around the landscape of East Germany seemed to be lying fallow to us, in contrast to West Germany where every inch was manicured.

West Berlin, an island behind the iron curtain, was a vital, progressive city with much of interest.  We’d planned to see East Berlin as well.

The Wall museum on the western side was an experience of triumph and tragedy honouring those who had tried to escape East Berlin.

Monument for those who attempted escape

Monument for those who attempted escape

At Checkpoint Charlie, the crossover point, we passed the guard in his American uniform sitting behind a comic book.  He hardly looked up.

Then, the no-mans-land … an unforgiving strip with steel x’s, thick rolls of barbed wire, and the Wall, a metre thick and, in some places, four metres high.  And this is where there had been the belle époque promenade Unten den Linden before the war.

Nomansland, Berlin Wall

No-mans-land, Berlin Wall

We gingerly trod the narrow path amongst the rolls of barbed wire, most aware of the machine guns trained on us from faceless watch towers.  On the east side of the crossover, a phalanx of border guards surrounded us, checking our passports with suspicious efficiency.  We too, were checked.

I remember East Berlin as broad, deserted streets with charcoaled ruins from the war, twenty-seven years before, here and there, the badly-lit museums and the slogans, not a corner without them.

Graffiti, a cross and the Wall

Graffiti, a cross and the Wall

I’ll admit :  when I left East Berlin it was with a grossly-simplified notion that this system was not an alternative economy;  it was a machinegun.

Seventeen years later the Wall came to a fall and soon after, the Soviet Union splintered.  In 2014 the Germans celebrated a quarter of a century without the Wall, as well as the reunion of the country.  Pieces of the Wall at the time were given to various countries, including South Africa.  It is exhibited on St George’s Mall in Cape Town.

A message to South Africa

A message to South Africa

The experience of the Berlin Wall shook me.  Today it disturbs me to hear of a leader somewhere who builds, or threatens to build, a wall to solve political differences.

                                        Something there is that doesn’t love a wall  ̶   Robert Frost, Mending Wall

Drawing by Walter Hanel

Drawing by Walter Hanel


© Will van der Walt

Les Semboules, Antibes

December, 2016



Monument  –

No-mans-land  –

Wall, cross and graffiti  –

Piece of Wall  –

Drawing  –




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