The Guidebook That Went To Hell

German publisher Karl Baedeker began printing guides for travellers in the 1830s; by the time of his death in 1859, they were famous all over Germany. Karl’s sons brought out English and French editions of the guides which soon included London and Switzerland, a tourist magnet at the time, as well as those covering Germany. By 1875 the Baedeker firm was gathering information for guides to Egypt, Palestine, and other non-European countries. The Baedeker guides were concise with a well-planned layout. They included excellent maps and city plans. Perhaps most valuable to the Victorian tourist, important sights were marked with an asterisk and must-see places received two. Thus, a busy bourgeois could budget his or her time and be certain they had not missed anything of importance. Further, Baedekers included information on local customs, how to properly conduct oneself, and advice on how much to tip:

…readers learned how to treat themselves for sunstroke and frostbite, learned where to find water closets in London and shoeshines in Cairo, learned in Rome to be wary of “practitioners styling themselves ‘American dentists’ without warrant” and in Turkey to be wary of border guards who might confiscate their Baedekers.

Consulting Baedeker in the film version of A Room With A View

The guides reflected the accepted notion that prosperous northern Europe was the epitome of industry and morality:

Baedeker handbooks never seriously doubted that in lower latitudes morals grew slack and manners coarse. Honor and dignity could be found in every climate, but less frequently and less predictably in southern ones. Whatever the beauties of Italy, “there are few countries where the patience is more severely taxed.” However well educated a Spaniard might be, the traveler should “avoid turning the conversation on serious matters, and should above all refrain from expressing an opinion on religious or political questions.” … As for the peoples of the eastern Mediterranean, Baedeker’s advice on “Intercourse with Orientals” noted that “many are mere children, whose waywardness should excite compassion rather than anger, and who often display a touching simplicity and kindliness of disposition.”

The writing was very personal and reflected the immediate experience of the person who described the tourist sights, whether one of the Baedeker family or another traveller. Tourists are told to appreciate this or that view at certain times of the day. Some passages are poetic, others deprecate the effects of mass tourism. Baedekers became the supreme tourist reference. English travellers to Italy, like Forster’s characters in Room With A View, used them, as did Sherlock Holmes. Bertrand Russell claimed Baedeker as one of his prose models (along with Milton and J.S. Mill). The word “baedeker” was added to the English language and meant “guide”. The Baedeker firm was at the top of its game and brought out guides to North America and Russia. A series of Asian guides was proposed but 1914’s Baedeker’s Indien was the only one to be published as World War I brought an end to all that. The military value of the guides and their maps had long been understood. One travel writer said that Baedekers were “written by spies for fellow spies”. T.E. Lawrence had used Baedekers extensively as a student in the Middle East. With the outbreak of war, Lawrence persuaded the War Office to print up facsimiles for the use of military planners. After the War, all copies were destroyed to prevent lawsuits alleging copyright infringement. One man took his Baedeker through Belgium during the Great War:

I was annoyed by [Baedeker]. It gave all the effect of accuracy, and then when I got there it wasn’t so. He kept speaking of buildings as “beautiful”, “one of the loveliest unspoiled pieces of thirteenth century architecture in Europe”, and when I took a lot of trouble and visited the building, I found it half down, or a butt-end, or sometimes ashes.

The humor is heavy-handed but the point is made: the old Europe, the Europe of Baedeker, is in ruins.

A page from Golden Lads by Arthur Gleason, 1916.

Germany’s collapse brought great difficulties to the publisher, but Baedeker’s persevered and was soon on top again. But now the world had shifted. Baedeker’s published emergency editions for areas of Europe that had been ravaged. Because most Germans now could not afford to travel outside their own country, Baedeker’s began printing regional German guides. French and English language guides dominated the firm’s output. The company began accepting advertising for its guides.

1919 sticker instructs patriots not to buy Baedekers but the French Blue Guides instead. Baedekers had red binding.

Before the Great War, Baedekers were slanted toward the nationality of principal language users. So English descriptions of sites connected with the Hundred Years’ War differed from those in French. Now this policy got the publishers into difficulties. A guide to Belgium mentioned the towns of Dinant and Aerschot, which had been the scene of civilian massacres by German troops. The German and English guides claimed that this was a response incited by snipers operating within the towns; the French edition left this out. The two towns sued Baedeker over the sniper reference and won in 1932. The judge said that the guide should have given equal time to Belgian and German accounts. A year after the court decision, everything changed for Germany and for the Baedeker firm. The new Nazi government oversaw all overseas travel, including handbooks, and German guidebooks were vetted by state committees. The guides saw extensive editing. In 1934, a new edition of the Mediterranean guidebook changed the wording from “Mediterranean peoples” to “Mediterranean races” — but only in the German edition. In 1936 the young Karl Friedrich Baedeker, then an editor, attempted a  credo for his family’s firm:

It is certainly true that the Germans have a love for, and habit of understanding other countries; but it is equally true that we make the mistake of assuming the same of other countries, which have neither the desire nor the inclination therefor. I also think that Europeans can only keep alive the will to understand each other, if Europe is seen as a dynamic concept, reaching for an ideal, such as Christian Occident, general Enlightenment, or Communism. If no such idealistic goal longer carries any weight, then nobody can arrest the apathy and enmity of its parts. Mere neighbourhood on a continent makes no guaranteed basis for getting on with each other. In this state of bad politics, it is important to learn to understand the psyche of countries, so that of the stranger can be made an acquaintance.

Of course Hitler had “a dynamic concept” and was “reaching for an ideal” but that ideal was of Europe as a German imperium. In 1936, Baedeker published a special traveller’s guide to Berlin and the Olympics that included a large map of the sports facilities. This was one of several instances where the firm was seen as creating something of value to the Third Reich.  The Baedeker firm kept printing guidebooks up to the beginning of the Second World War, but there were difficulties. A June 1940 printing of Baedeker’s Holland appeared a month after the German invasion of that country. It saw little use. On the other hand, when General Falkenhorst received orders to prepare an an attack on Norway, he quickly procured a Baedeker and used it to create an invasion strategy. In March of 1942, British bombers attacked the ancient city of Lübeck, destroying its medieval cathedral. Hitler ordered vengeance raids against English towns of cultural signifigance — Exeter was the first, then Bath, and Norwich in April. Following the Exeter raid, regime propagandist Gustav Braun von Sturm is reported to have said that the Luftwaffe was going to work its way through Baedeker’s.

Lubeck, March 1942

Many places claim that von Sturm said that Germany would attack any site with three stars. Since Baedeker never gave more than two stars, I think that this tale is BS. Exeter’s Cathedral, though an “admirable example” of the Decorative Geometric style, is “small and unimposing”. It gets one star.

Exeter, April 1942

These bombings have become known as the Baedeker Raids or the Baedeker Blitz. Other targeted English towns have tried to add their name to the list, thus proving the value of the Baedeker brand. In August 1942, the German government ordered that Baedekers be censored to remove information that might be of military signifigance. In 1944, it ordered that the guides should only be sold to certain classes of people. Baedeker’s lowest point came in late 1942 when it was ordered to publish a guide to the Generalgouvernement area of Poland, which was meant to be depopulated of Poles and Jews so that it could be re-settled by Germans. Presumably the guide was to be used by these pioneers. It was published in 1943. The introduction was by Governor Hans Frank, later sentenced to death at Nuremburg. The Generalgouvernement of Poland, he said, was the traveller’s first greeting of the East. There were helpful notes about areas that were now jezt Judenfrei — “free of Jews”. Rzeszow, once known as “Little Jerusalem”, was “formerly dominated by Jews”, says the Baedeker. Rzeszow’s Jewish population was 15000 in 1939, 100 in 1945. The Baedeker identifies Auschwitz as a train stop. Baedeker’s Generalgouvernement was reprinted in early 1945 at a time when the area was occupied by Soviet troops — just another of the examples of Nazi idiocy, the notion that truth is what Authority says it is, no matter the facts. This was probably the last Baedeker printed for some years.

Lublin, now “free of Jews”. Baedeker’s Generalgouvernement

Baedeker’s Leipzig offices were destroyed in a bombing raid. In 1948, the firm began trying to re-establish itself and published a pamphlet on Liepzig, “a flower of ruins”. Once again, Baedeker ran into problems as authorities removed the location of Soviet headquarters in the city. These censorship attempts were inept and the HQ was still included, with map reference, in the index. Other guides to other German cities appeared over the next few years. Baedeker’s, like Germany, was divided in those years. Part of the family established a company in the British zone based at Freiburg. This branch both competed and cooperated with the East German firm. In 1987,  two years before the Berlin Wall’s collapse, the companies joined forces to publish a guide to Berlin, thus ending their enmity. Baedeker’s is now revived. The new guides are similar to Fodor’s and have little of the personality of the pre-1914 books. The Lonely Planet and Rough Guide series are the contemporary Baedekers. Old Baedekers are collectible —  a copy of the 1936 Berlin edition will fetch $125 or so, perhaps more if all the maps are intact and it’s in very good condition. The Generalgouvernement guide is priced at $150 or thereabouts. A good collection — from the mid-19th Century to today — gives a picture of European society from the time that Europe ruled the world, through its collapse, to the current attempt at a new edition. Notes: “Baedeker’s Universe” by Edward Mendelson “Baedeker’s History” by Alex Hinrichson at the Baedekeriana website.

3 comments on “The Guidebook That Went To Hell

  1. nursemyra says:

    i always enjoy your posts

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