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Muenster, Germany

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A Munster street scene in Germany
Entweder es regnet oder es läuten die Glocken. Und wenn beides zusammen fällt, dann ist Sonntag.
(Either it is raining or the church bells are ringing. And if both together, it is Sunday.)

This is a common saying in the Westphalian city of Münster1, but such pessimism is not mandatory. Instead, it is one of the most beautiful - and pleasant to live in - cities in Germany and possibly Central Europe. And to crown that, weather statistics prove that there is no more rainfall than is average for Germany.

The Setting

Münster is the informal capital of Westphalia. This region is part of the federal state of North Rhine-Westphalia and views itself as an opponent to the Rhinelands, where most of the state's administration can be found2. As Fritz Steinhoff (1897 - 1969), minister-president of North Rhine-Westphalia, said:

Wir Westfalen müssen das halten, was die Rheinländer versprechen.
(We Westphalians must keep the promises the Rhinelanders make.)

As we can see, there is much animosity between the two regions, which leads to a strong community feeling in Westphalia and especially in Münster.

Westphalia is a very multifarious region, which has a lot of mountain ranges. In contrast, the countryside around Münster, the so called Münsterland, is flat as a stamp. It can be regarded as the southernmost part of Northern Germany, both geographically and culturally.


Many cities like London, Paris or Berlin have experienced so much history that the individual events are confused and eventually forgotten, even by those who caused them3. Other cities may simply be boring - but Münster has found a happy medium.

It is a rather old settlement. As early as the 9th Century, the city is recorded as having its own bishop, and was called Münster even then. The name is a corruption of 'monasterium', the Latin for monastery, after the one founded by the Friesian missionary Ludger. The origins of the town are unclear but it may be another two or three hundred years older. In the late Middle Ages, Münster became a member of the Hanseatic League, an alliance between major cities in Northern Europe for economic purposes.

Stuff Making an Even More Smashing Film than the Spanish Inquisition

The next significant event was the Täuferreich - the Anabaptists' Empire - in 1534 - 35. Anabaptists were among the earliest Protestants. They had a number of beliefs, including pacifism and a principle of not serving as government representatives. Their name means 're-baptised': they believed that baptism should be undertaken by adults who understand what it signifies, so although they had all been baptised at birth, they insisted on undergoing the ceremony again.

In the 1530s, the Catholic Church still thought Protestantism could be wiped out by force. And they wiped out not all Protestants, but at least the Anabaptists of Münster.

It was in January, 1534 when the versed Dutch preacher Jan Bockelson4 arrived in Münster, sent by the even more cunning sermoniser, Jan Mathys. Both were absolutely fanatical anabaptists and attempted to convert as many people as possible. Bockelson's message fell on fertile ground because of some rather weak Catholic bishops and an already well established, though small, anabaptist community. In the same year, Mathys followed him to Münster, and Bockelson proclaimed himself king of Münster. Soon, the city was under siege.

Jan Mathys was a very gifted speaker. Modern historians consider him as having suffered from a manic-depressive disorder, but his contemporaries only knew him for his fits of ecstasy and his skillful use of carrot and stick. His early death was caused by immoderate belief: on Easter Sunday (still in 1534) he walked outside the fortified city to welcome the Messiah, whose arrival he anticipated. The bishop's troopers were camped in front of the city, and poor Mathys stood at the pointed end of their lances. The soldiers liked neither him nor the idea of letting him go back in one piece, so they cut him into bite-sized bits.

Afterwards, the movement became more and more radical. The baptists' leaders praised themselves for the abolition of torture and increased in turn the number of death sentences, often executed by Bockelson himself. There were more women than men in the city, but the problem got solved: polygyny5 was introduced. Jan Bockelson, for example, had no less than 16 wives.

He had barely the time to enjoy his duties as a sixteenfold husband, because hunger broke out in 1535. The situation was so tenuous that white chalk paint was scratched off the churches, dissolved in water and served as milk. Defence lasted only to the point when food became more important than salvation to the citizens of Münster, which occurred in June, 1535. The more religious citizens were massacred the same day; the movement's leaders were imprisoned until 22 June, 1536. A few of them were able to flee before the invasion, but Bockelson, the baptist's mayor Bernd Knipperdollinck and the chancellor's brother Bernd Krechting were riven by red-hot pincers and eventually stabbed in the market place on the aforementioned day6. Their corpses were put in metal cages and hung from the St Lamberti church tower. Although the human remains were removed long ago, the Catholic Church refuses to this day to take the cages down, as a warning to renegades7.

The Netherlands: Made in Münster

In 1648, Europe lay in ruins. The ravaged lands, covered with debris and ashes, could barely support the war-torn population, which decreased not only by means of violence but also because of plague and pestilence. You think the two World Wars were a rather bad experience? At least there were governments who cared for the victims afterwards and who looked after reconstruction. That was not the case after the Thirty Years War, when the countries' leaders licked their own wounds. Everyone knew that no one won anything.

But at least there was peace, and it unfolded in two locations: Münster, where delegates negotiated for many years, and Osnabrück, a city located a little north of Münster.

The so-called Westfälische Friede (Peace of Westphalia) swapped the owners of many cities and regions all over Middle Europe and granted the Netherlands and the Swiss Confederation independence.

Even today, principles are in use which were invented during these negotiations, for example, that all participating countries have equal rights that are not determined by area or influence.

More War, Less Peace

Münster made its way through the centuries and came finally to that nasty episode known as the Third Reich. Although it was considered to be one of the Nazis' strongholds, there was also Clemens Graf von Galen, the 'lion of Münster'. He was bishop and later cardinal from 1933 until his death in 1946; he delivered three fulminating sermons in 1941 against the Nazis' euthanasia of disabled people. This was the first time these crimes were brought to public attention. Some people may have heard of them, but even if they believed they were more than just rumours, they did not dare to speak out in that age of denunciation and surveillance. Von Galen did, and he was successful: fearing the influential churchman, the Nazis stopped their operations. That he was not hanged instantly as several politicians proposed was sheer luck, because the minister of propaganda, Goebbels, feared the idea of Christian martyrs. Instead, they wanted to kill him after the war, but in the end von Galen outlived the regime.

Münster's historic inner city was almost completely destroyed in the bombings. The historic City Hall, where the Peace of Westphalia had been settled almost 300 years before, was hit on 28 October, 1944. It burned out so that only the famous gothic façade, built to show off the city's power and wealth, was left standing. As the hours went by, this tilted more and more until it finally collapsed in the early evening.

The prince-bishop's baroque castle was razed, and so was the inner city. About 90% of the older houses were destroyed. The Lamberti church, the one with the Anabaptists' cages, got levelled8. Münster was no more.

But its citizens were too self-confident and proud to give in. Unlike other cities that lost their historical structures, Münster was rebuilt true to the original in only fifteen years. The majority of the people contributed to the restoration; there has even been a Rathauslotterie (City Hall lottery) to fund the reconstruction.

Das war alles zerstört? Davon bemerkt man ja überhaupt nichts mehr.
(All this was destroyed? You can see no sign of that now at all!)

– The soviet foreign minister Edward Shevardnadse in 1990

The last trace of the war was a British garrison in the Loddenheide9. Since access to the area was forbidden, no one knows exactly what they were doing there. The last soldiers left in 1993 and today the Loddenheide is a combination of industrial area and a park that divides the industrial buildings from each other. A part of the green space is called the Friedenspark (Peace park), with the old garrison chapel - nothing else is left from the military - and a chestnut tree planted by the Dalai Lama.

Visiting Münster

If you want to visit Münster, a bicycle is indispensable. If you cannot bring your own because of distance or not having one, you can borrow a bike at the Radstation near the railway station - that is the biggest parking deck for bikes in Germany. If you bring it back the same day, it will cost you €7.50. Otherwise, you must pay €10 for 24 hours. Münster is the incarnation of a bike-friendly town, at the expense of car drivers, who rarely wait less than half an hour when letting the queue of bikes cross. If you set all warnings at nought and go to Münster by car, do it on a rainy day – or even better, on a rainy night. And do not go near the inner city.

Pedestrians visit the city at their own risk. They will be run over.

It will be assumed that you heed this advice and have a bike with you. Now you are ruling the streets. There are plenty of cycle paths, the most noteworthy being the Promenade, a circular alley around the centre built on the area formerly occupied by the medieval town wall. If you arrive at the train station, you will have to take the exit to the Berliner Platz, then go straight forward until you meet the alley. While driving around the Promenade you will encounter the first features.

The Zwinger, the remains of a dungeon, can be visited by tourists. Initially a defence fortification, it was converted to a prison by Johann Conrad Schlaun (1695 - 1773). The baroque builder Schlaun is recognised as the most influential architect in Münster. Apart from that, he had an enormous beak. We will later see further buildings by him. During the Third Reich, prisoners were backdoor executed10, so that today the Zwinger serves as a memorial. Within the Skulptur Projekte Münster 1987 (see below), installation artist Rebecca Horn installed a work of art into the Zwinger. Clicking metal hammers, flickering candles and dripping water create a nightmarish atmosphere.

The 30-metres-tall Buddenturm is the oldest remaining part of the fortifications. Inside, so people told their children, lives a giant named 'the Budde' or the 'red Herod', who will come out and eat them if they refuse to eat their soup, but these parents believed the Budde to be very gentle, though a giant in reality. Since the tower cannot be visited, the validity of these legends cannot be checked by common people. We only know that if there is a giant inside the tower, it will have got a cold, because the Buddenturm served as a water tower.

Time for another Schlaun! The Prince-Bishop's Castle, built from the combination of sandstone and bricks Schlaun preferred, houses the university's administration, therefore it cannot be visited either. Hear the glockenspiel11 here on top of the castle! A moat shaped like a five-pointed star contains the castle's backyard and the botanical garden. You can visit it for free, but you will need some time. Very, very beautiful, but leave it out if you are only one day in Münster.

Near the castle lies the Aa12 lake, with nice picnic places and the zoo. You may have heard of the black swan Petra that lived there a few years ago. She fell in love with a swan-shaped pedal boat, but after two years in harmony the poor boat was left by Petra for another swan.

Besides the zoo you will find the Museum of Natural History with one of Germany's biggest planetariums, both highly recommended!

Near the train station lies the old harbour. Nowadays, this is a trendy district where many artists and musicians live, some of them with studios open to the public. The centre of this district is the Hawerkamp.

Now head for the places inside the Promenade. The most famous street is the Prinzipalmarkt (main market) that consists of old merchants' houses with richly decorated façades and arcades. They are known for the fact that there are not even two gables that resemble each other. You could buy some ice cream and take a seat on the City Hall's steps. At the end of the Prinzipalmarkt, you will find the Lamberti church with the cages of the Anabaptists. It is notable for being one of the last churches with its own warder, who blows a horn each half hour from 9pm until midnight.

The Prinzipalmarkt encloses the Domplatz (Cathedral Place). Go there on Wednesday or Saturday to enjoy the market. Inside St Paul's Cathedral you will find the grave of Cardinal von Galen and a huge astronomical clock that informs not only about time but also about the positions of the sun, moon and planets.

Another noteworthy church is the Überwasserkirche. Its tower roof was torn down by the Anabaptists who placed cannons on top of the church. It was soon rebuilt, but the sloppy construction did not survive a severe thunderstorm and has not been rebuilt since.

The next important Schlaun building is the Erbdrostenhof, an important magistrate's palace. It is known for being very representative, despite the small area it occupies and the dense building around it - both prevent a nice view, but Schlaun managed this problem by rotating the building in a manner that seemed to be very odd to the people of the Baroque Era.

Admirers of modern art will love the Picasso Museum, which holds a remarkable collection of his graphical works. Also, there are great special exhibitions that are arranged with much attention to detail. Among art museums, this one is an outstanding experience strongly recommended to those who like this kind of amusement.

As you will see, Münster's building style is rather unique. The city's administration took care that new buildings should fit into the aesthetic style of the older parts of the city. Bricks are the most commonly-used material. Large concrete deserts like in many other cities that had to be rebuilt after the war do not exist; instead, Münster is very green. There are parks all over the place, alleys, playgrounds and the omnipresent cycle paths. But that does not mean there are no modern buildings. Even in the inner city, directly adjacent to the neighbourhood around the Prinzipalmarkt you will find buildings like the new library.

Recurring Events

Apart from the market twice a week, there is the Send, a giant fair in front of the castle that takes place in spring, summer and autumn. Go there on Friday, because of the fireworks. By the way: it is the only situation in Münster when bikers are at a disadvantage.

In winter, the Send is replaced by the Christmas Market. It is not centralised but dispersed over five places in the inner city. Try the little potatoes near the City Hall.

Horse lovers will like the Turnier der Sieger13 every August, where the winners of several national dressage and show jumping challenges compete against each other.

Also in August the Montgolfiade of Münster, a hot air balloon festival, takes place. It is the oldest event of this kind in Germany and brought the wonderful word 'Montgolfiade' to us14.

The best-known event throughout the world is the Skulptur Projekte, held once a decade. Running since 1977, many artists are invited to Münster to produce a sculpture to be displayed outside in the city. Most sculptures are shown for 100 days, but some are bought afterwards by the town. Notable artworks are:

  • Claes Oldenburg's Giant Pool Balls - three concrete spheres with a diameter of 3.5 metres. In the beginning, many citizens did not like them and some tried to roll them into the Aa Lake. Today they are one of the newer landmarks of the town.

  • Ludger Gerdes's A Ship For Münster - an artificial ship-shaped island with a pavilion for a bridge and two poplars for masts in an artificial lake. In 2005 approximately 500 tons of mud were removed from the moat since the ship looked rather wrecked.

  • Thomas Schütte's Cherry Column - A sandstone column with big red cherries on top. The sandstone stands for the medieval houses in the inner district, the cherries for the rebuilt but old-fashioned houses.

  • Rebecca Horn's Counterrotating Concert - See above. It is installed in the Zwinger and contains dripping water, ticking metal hammers and similar sound instruments.

  • Remy Zaugg's Bronze Sculptures15 - he took old statues that greeted the city's visitors in the early 20th Century and placed them in the middle of a large roundabout. People complained about the change of their location until it was discovered that no one knew where the statues had stood when they were first erected.

  • Lothar Baumgarten's Three Ghost Lights - three lights were put into the Anabaptists' cages, symbolising their restless souls.

  • Keith Haring's Red Dog For Landois16 - a metal dog sculpture, apparently barking to the sky, that embodies the artist's protest against skyscrapers.

  • Huang Yong Ping's The Guan-yins' 100 Arms - a bottle rack with fifty arms that hold broomsticks, hooks and other trivial items. The artwork refers not only to a Buddhist goddess but also to the crucifix of the St Ludger church that lost both arms in a world war bombing.

  • Guillaume Bijl's Archaeological Site (A Sorry Installation) - a fake church spire in a hole that leads visitors to think an actual tower is being dug out.

Culture and Education

Although the old-established citizens are considered to be very conservative and strictly Catholic, the city is shaped by the many students. One in four inhabitants of Münster attends a school or university, the largest being the Westfälische Wilhems-Universität17, one of the five German universities with the most students among much bigger ones like Frankfurt, Munich or Cologne and before Berlin and Hamburg. Thus, there are more than 1,000 pubs, taverns and bars. Münster, though rather small, is a cultural centre with supraregional importance. The university accounts for the many museums, some of general interest, some very specialised, for example the Leper Museum.

There are uncountable numbers of theatres and cinemas - not only mainstream houses but also art house cinemas and stages, especially around the harbour.

Münster is always worth a visit, being an extraordinarily beautiful city. If you go there just for one day, you will want to come back, and if you stay some time, it will still not become boring. But always remember to have a bike.

1For technical reasons, we can't display the 'ü' character in the title of this Entry so we use the alternative spelling of Muenster.2The other ones are in Münster, as it is said: 'There are all authorities in Münster one can imagine and also some no one can imagine.'3Possibly because of their own death.4Also known as: Jan, Johann or John of Leiden, Jan Beuckelszoon, Johann Beuckelz etc. Think of further combinations yourself.5One man marrying a number of women.6The post-medieval people had a very impressive imagination. Note that these events took place more than 400 years before the invention of shooter games!7This is the official statement, but there is evidence that they just want to impress modern youth.8The cages themselves were removed and stored during the war; when the church was rebuilt, the cages were hung up again.9'Lodden' may have meant a planting of young trees, etymologists say, and 'Heide' is simply a heath.10Executed in secret.11Glockenspiel here means a set of bells rung by an automated mechanism to play tunes.12'Aa' is Dutch-German slang for 'river'. There are lots of Aas all over the region which get confused even by residents. Some Aas are actually called Aafluss, that is Aa-river or river-river officially.13Winners' tournament.14After the Montgolfier Brothers, who invented the hot air balloon.15without an official name.16The eccentric founder of the city's zoo, where the sculpture stood in the beginning.17Westphalian University named after Emperor Wilhelm II.

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