Quick – think of a world city. What are your mental thumbnails? Paris: the Eiffel Tower, broad boulevards, a leisurely way of life. Rome: grandeur, ruins, the majesty of the Vatican, noise and bustle. Athens: a glimpse into the ancient past, quaint shops, good food, bouzouki music. Cologne? Well, there's that monstrous cathedral by the railway station, about half a million tons of blackened stone lace. It's raining. Must be a gloomy, self-important sort of place. Beer, sausage, and dour looks.
Wrong. Totally wrong. If you thought that, you probably did the one-hour stopover, glanced at the cathedral, and grabbed a bite at Wienerwald. And you missed Cologne – the city whose major contribution to world culture is self-deprecating humour, and whose true holiday is Karneval. If you venture away from the cathedral, ignore the blandishments of the Römisch-Germanisches Museum, and proceed into that warren of medieval streets beyond, you will come to the Alter Markt. There you will find the key to the real Cologne – in its true monument: the Schmitz-Säule, erected as a gift to the city by the award-winning architect Josef 'Jupp' Engels in 1969.
This is the story of Jupp Engels, the visionary, and how the Schmitz-Säule came to be. We will also look into its profound historical significance in the context of Western culture.
Köln and Kölsch
Somebody's been living in Cologne for over 2,000 years1. The Ubii, a Germanic tribe, settled there around 38 BCE. The Romans showed up in 50 CE. (This is important, so take notes.) The Romans named the place 'Colonia Claudia Ara Agrippinensium' in honour of Germanicus' daughter Agrippina, who was born there. Quite a city back then, Cologne had a population of 30,000 and a big wall.
Moving rapidly through the centuries, we come to the Middle Ages. Yes, the word 'cologne' for 'smelly stuff' comes from Köln. That 4711 brand is named for a house number. Like many medieval cities, Cologne numbered the houses in order of construction – not very practical, and a nightmare for the postman. There are still lots of medieval buildings in Cologne, including the one over at the Neumarkt with the stone horses' heads looking out the window. To make a long story short: the house owner said his wife couldn't have got well from the plague, this was as unlikely as the horses getting into the house and looking out the window. But the lady, who had indeed recovered and left the graveyard with the help of some friendly grave robbers (!), was standing at the front door, and the horses broke out of the stall and ran up the stairs. A sculptor was called in to memorialise the event. . . at least, that's their story, and they're sticking to it. There's a surprise around every corner in Köln.
Every city in the world has a distinctive accent. Köln has its own dialect. It's called Kölsch, and it's a form of Ripuarian German2. Not only do the denizens 'talk funny', but they nickname everything. It's not only ignorant foreigners who call St Pantaleon's Church 'St Pantaloon' – so do the locals. They make up words not needed in more staid communities, such as 'Kallendresser'. We'll explain what that is in a moment. It's part of the story. But first, let's talk about the Schmitz family.
The Schmitz Family – Rhenish Aristocracy
The locals call the name Schmitz rheinischer Adel, or Rhenish aristocracy. There are five pages of Schmitzes in the Cologne telephone directory. According to Jupp Engels' monument, here is the origin of the Schmitz family:
AN DIESER STELLE LAG EINST, VOM RHEIN UMFLOSSEN,
DIE MARTINS-INSEL. VOR DEM JAHRE 1000n.CHR. WURDE
SIE, DURCH ANSCHÜTTUNG DES ROEMISCHEN HAFENS,
MIT DEM LINKSRHEINISCHEN KOELNER UFER VERBUNDEN.
AUF DIESER INSEL TRAFEN SICH RÖMISCHE LEGIONÄRE
MIT BLONDEN UBIERMMÄDCHEN,
URAHNEN DER FAMILIE "SCHMITZ".
On this spot was once the Island of St Martin, surrounded by the Rhine. Before the year AD 1000, this island was connected to the left bank of the Rhine at Cologne through damming of the Roman harbour. On this island, Roman legionaries met with blonde Ubian maidens, the ancestors of the Family 'Schmitz'.
So there we have it: the origin of the numerous Schmitz clan. It's official, because it's on the monument. Also, the City of Cologne officially thanked Herr Engels for donating this monument to the city. The certificate can be seen in the hallway of the house he built.
Who was Jupp Engels, and What Did He Build?
Josef 'Jupp' Engels (1909-1991) is usually described as a 'Cologne original'. Which means he participated in Cologne humour, big-time, and tried to boost the city's morale wherever possible. The saga of his architectural accomplishments begins in the year 1956 CE, during the Wirtschaftswunder.
The Wirtschaftswunder, or 'economic miracle', is the period in the 1950s and 1960s when West Germans, by putting their shoulders to the wheel and taking advantage of goodwill abroad, managed to rebuild their country from the devastation caused by World War II. 1945 was the 'Year Zero' – people starved, eking out an existence in the bombed-out shells of the ruined cities, often quite literally without a roof over their heads. It took hard work to shift all the rubble and start again, but start again they did. In 1956, Jupp Engels bought a piece of this ruin, a small space in the Alter Markt, a tiny square in Cologne's Old City. There he built a house, a new one, but fitting right in with the older architecture. For this accomplishment Engels was awarded the Cologne Architecture Prize that year.
While digging his foundation, Engels found a number of interesting things. It would have been hard not to – every renovation in Cologne that involves digging is in gross danger of turning up an archaeological artefact or two. The first thing Engels found was a medieval doorway. He didn't want it, so he traded it to his neighbour for something he did want: the right to reproduce his neighbour's Kallendresser. Engels had the Kallendresser reproduced in bronze by artist Ewald Malaré.
Okay, you say, I'll bite. What's a Kallendresser when it's at home? Well, it's truly at home in Köln, so let us show you.
Cologne dialect defines a Kallendresser as 'somebody who answers the call of nature in a drain'. It's an ancient figure in Cologne and environs: nearby Bonn, for so long the capital of West Germany, featured a similar figure on the John F Kennedy Bridge3, saved from the wreckage of an older bridge. (It was mooning Beuel on the other side of the river, an old local feud.)
Engels was so proud of his Kallendresser that he founded a Karneval order in its honour. In Cologne, if you do a lot for the city, they don't give you a loving cup. They give you a bogus Karneval medal and a funny hat, and pour beer down you while telling jokes that are older than Methuselah. The Kallendresserorden honours members who helped preserve Cologne's unique traditions.
To add to the general levity, Engels also commissioned the erection of a statue group in front of his tiny house. These two figures, Tünnes and Schäl, represent the original Cologne joke-telling types. Tünnes has a big nose, and Schäl has crossed eyes (schäl comes from 'schielen', to look cross-eyed).
The second great archaeological find Engels made, however, was too good to give away – at least, until he'd found a way to share it properly. Under the medieval part of his house, Engels found a section of the ancient Roman harbour. These stones he collected to form his lasting monument to Cologne history: the Schmitz-Säule.
What Has NASA Got to Do with It?
The year: 1969. The place: the Alter Markt, Cologne. The Schmitzsäule was being placed exactly – according to astronomical calculation by the Institut für Weltraumforschung der Stadt Bochum – 389 994 km and 100m away from where Neil Armstrong first set foot on the Moon. The Schmitzsäule informs us that this event occurred 'AM 21. JULI (GENAU UM 3 UHR 56 MINUTEN UND 20 SEKUNDEN MEZ)', that is, on 21 July at exactly 3:56:20 Central European Time, so there. The column also informs us that Armstrong first set his left foot on the Moon. So now we know. The column goes on to state:
WERNER VON BRAUN UND DIE NASA
NAHMEN VON SÄULE UND INSCHRIFT
Neil Armstrong, Werner von Braun and NASA have gratefully acknowledged this column and inscription.
With this magnificent gesture, Jupp Engels has put the entire history of Cologne – indeed, of Western Civilisation itself – into perspective for us. The Schmitz-Säule embodies at once the flow of history from the glory that was ancient Rome, its influence on the history of the Rhine region, the continuity and will to survive of a humorous, hard-working people, and dreams that reach far beyond this tiny square and out to the stars.
You may travel far and wide on planet Earth. You may stand in many cities, admiring monuments to human achievement. You may reflect on the past, the present, the future, and wonder at man's accomplishments. But here, in front of the Schmitz-Säule, you may see history in a nutshell. . .
And laugh. Remember to look up at the Kallendresser on your way to the pub.