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Friday, October 1, 2010

Word of the month: Nibelungentreue

Let me start with a story: The coach of the German national soccer team, Jogi Löw, nominated two forwards (Podolski and Klose) to the squad he took to the World Cup in South Africa this summer that raised eyebrows: Podolski had just finished a miserable season for his club, and Klose hadn’t even played on a regular basis—he had been warming the bench for players in better form. But when playing for the national team, they had scored reliably year after year—often the winning goal in clutch situations. So, Löw owed them and was subsequently accused, by some critics, of Nibelungentreue when he nominated them. What did the critics mean by that?

The term Nibelungentreue combines two words: Treue, which, in this context, means “loyalty“; and Nibelungen, which refers, in Norse and Germanic myths, to the royal family of the Burgundians, whose capital was Worms on the Rhine river. The tale of their downfall is told in the Nibelungenlied (Song of the Nibelungs), an epic from the middle ages, in which misplaced loyalty plays a major part. Nibelungentreue, then, refers to a form of blind loyalty that persists beyond reason or to a point where it becomes counterproductive. My first comment will give a little more literary and historical background for this altogether interesting term. (And no, Löw's loyalty turned out to be no Nibelungentreue in the end: Both Podolski and Klose played well enough all through the Cup to silence the critics.)

Keep in mind that the Nibelungen in Nibelungentreue should not be confused with the Nibelung in Wagner’s The Ring of the Nibelung—he is a dwarf (Alberich), and the Nibelungen are a race of dwarfs in the Ring cycle.

Note on pronunciation: Watch your vowels! The i is a long "ee“ as in "see"; the "u“ a short "oo“ as in "foot“; and the "eu“ a diphthong as the "oy“ im "joy“: NEE•bah•loong•en•TROY•ah.


Ulrich said...

In the Nibelungenlied, it all starts when the kings’ sister, Kriemhild, marries the hero Siegfried. Soon after, Siegfried is slain by one of the kings’s vassals, Hagen, who accused Siegfried of an act of unforgivable treachery against one of his kings. Kriemhild swears revenge, and as a step toward that end, marries the King of the Huns, Etzel (the historic Attila)—she needs his resources to carry out her plan. She then invites the entire Burgundian court for a visit and upon their arrival, has the guests surrounded by Etzel’s men and threatens to kill them all unless they surrender Hagen. The kings refuse, and they all perish—Nibelungentreue in action.

Hagen himself had shown before the same kind of loyalty to his kings—he is warned at the beginning of the trip that they all will die, but accompanies his kings anyway, knowing that this means his own death—Nibelungentreue in action again. [BTW Wagner’s Hagen is much more monstrous because of his association with his father Alberich, who wants to use his son in his quest for world domination. There is no Alberich in the Nibelungenlied—Hagen is a knight like the other vassals, only more determined in his loyalty and more ready to act on it.]

Thus, Nibelungentreue turns something that is desirable, in principle—loyalty—into something to be avoided, and it does this through an apt literary/historical reference. But I have the sense that the term never completely shed the positive connotations associated with Treue—however loathsome Hagen may be, there remains something heroic about his single-minded dedication and the bravery in battle he is able to muster in its service. [Siegfried, on the other hand, comes across, to me at least, as a mindless muscle-man, a blond airhead whose bravery is no big deal because he became invulnerable when he bathed in the blood of the dragon he slew—except for one spot, which Hagen uses as aim for his spear].

For the Nazis, unquestioned loyalty to the death was a virtue (since their goals could not bear the scrutiny of reason). They tried to capitalize on the positive residue in the term Nibelungentreue and stripped it of its negative connotation altogether—it became something to strive for—perhaps best and most horribly personified in the stormtroopers (the dreaded SS) who kept on hunting down and hanging "deserters“ when WWII was in its last days and lost for all to see—these senseless murders accomplished nothing but to demonstrate loyalty to the cause until the very end.

With this, Nibelungentreue has come full-circle—if anything, it has acquired an additional layer of negative connotations, although this may not always be in play in daily usage. Certainly none of Löw’s critics wanted to accuse him of being a crypto-fascist—all they wanted to say is "too loyal for his own (and our) good“.

Marlene said...

Hi Ulrich, I loved the word--Is there anything close in English; I think not--but loved your description of the Nibelungenlied even more. Was it ever part of the curriculum in German schools in the way the Iliad once was here? Were any movies ever made based on the Nibelungenlied? Did it have an author? What an interesting post. Marlene

Ulrich said...

@Marlene: I hope your loyalty to this blog will not turn out to be a sign of Nibelungentreue in the end:-)

When I went to grammar school in Cologne in the 50's, the Nibelungenlied was introduced sometime during the middle grades. I'm almost sure that that's no longer so: It is not exactly easy reading b/c it's written in Middle High German, which is understandable to current speakers of German, but only with the help of a glossary at the bottom of each page. In other words, reading it is hard, and in Germany, as in the US, things that are hard have been gradually eliminated from the curricula--learning is supposed to be fun and nothing but fun!

The original epic is written in 8-line, rhyming stanzas--author unknown. There a numerous more modern (greatly abbreviated) retellings in prose. Among these, my favorite is a version that was published in Vienna around 1908. It was designed and illustrated by Carl Otto Czeschka, a well-known artist of the Viennese Secession movement (which I'm particularly fond of). I took the image I used in my post from that book (it shows one half of the panel depicting the final battle between Etzel's men and the Burgundians).

Movies: Fritz Lang (of M and Metropolis fame) retold the story in the 1920's in a silent movie, which I saw some 30 years ago in a restored version. My impression of Siegfried as a blond airhead owes much to that film! Here's the scene where Siegfried kills the dragon.

From the 1950's, I remember a Kostümschinken telling the story once again, this time in color.

Ulrich said...

Here's another scene from the silent movie. This one shows how Siegfried's body is brought back to the castle at Worms and discovered by Kriemhild. It suggests to me that Lang's set and costume designers must have been familiar with the Czeschka illustrations because the costumes, the drawbridge and castle exterior, and the interior decoration seem to be derived directly from his panels.

Marlene said...

Ulrich, I loved the clip of that horrid Siegfried attacking that sweet-faced dragon. The movie itself is so beautifully done. I think Lang was working in film around the same time as D.w. Griffith, but Lang's shots make Griffith look like an amateur.

I wonder if Lang wanted to make Siegfried seem a brutal, blood thirsty beast, Is Wagner the only composer who drew on the Niebelungenslied for an opera.

Do you know how Lang's movie was received? Was it a popular success? I generally love all of your posts, but I think you have outdone yourself with this one, since it has so many offshoots from the word itself. Marlene

Ulrich said...

Correction: Alberich is part of the Nibelungensaga prior to Wagner (I have no copy the Nibelungenlied where I live now and cannot check if he makes an appearance there, too), and he does appear in the silent movie. However, he is not nearly as evil there as he is in Wagner's Ring cycle, and he is not Hagen's father.

Ulrich said...

@Marlene: From what I can tell by clicking through various documents on the web, the Lang movie was a popular success both in Europe and in the US. It had a musical score explicitly composed for it, which you can hear in the clips on YouTube. Lang was upset, I read, when in the US, they played Wagner's music instead!

The restored version I saw years ago is long, very long. The restorers seem to have used every scrap of the original material they had, perhaps out of reverence or for historical reasons (i.e.. they really wanted to restore the version Lang had produced), and it's exhausting, even with a break between parts 1 and 2--the final battle at Etzel's court seems to go on forever, and the images become very repetitive.

This is really too bad b/c inbetween, there are scenes of great power and pathos. I remember, in particular, a scene from the beginning of part 2: The Burgundians leave Worms to visit Kriemhild at Etzel's court (somewhere in Austria or Hungary), and the old queen mother, Ute, leans over the battlements of the castle and watches the long line of warriors disappear through deep snow--she seems to know, and we know, that not a single one will return...

Funny: Everyone who watches how Siegfried kills the dragon seems to take pity on the animal--I've no idea if Lang intended it that way or not.

mac said...

@Ulrich: your most interesting blog yet!! Thank you. Lots of food for thought and googling.

Marlene said...

The clip I looked at had music. I have to see if it was the original music because it was a very powerful element of the brief clip.

I found your description so interesting, I was thinking of getting the movie version, but when I read what you wrote--that the film was long and, in some parts, seemingly endless, I realized it's not for me. Are there other German epics that equalled the Nibelungenlied in importance?

I love the picture you included too. It's very Klimt like without the kitschiness.

Anonymous said...

I usually just read your posts and don't say anything unless of course it's on a political topic, at which point I have to put in my two cents. But I agree with Mac, this is just your best post yet. Really fascinating. Deine Frau

Esther said...

Ulrich, this isn't about Nibelungen (which I found vey interesting too) but about your new mural and your building project page in general. You have talent coming out the kazoo, if you'll pardon my inelegant term. I am so impressed with all of it, and the mural is really lovely. I don't remember complaining about the length of the lines; hell, I don't even remember this page. (I have now bookmarked it.) I'm getting old and dotty, Ulrich, but I can still appreciate artistry, so thank you so much for sending me the URL. P.S. I also love the Ulrichian touches of fauna, although I was a bit taken aback by the snake.