Historical Background: The Eifel District


John Diederich was born in 1812 in a tiny village called Lierstal. His wife, Anna Clasen, was born in 1814 in the nearby village of Arbach. They had three children when they emigrated from Germany about 1846.

Lierstal and Arbach lie approximately 40 kilometers (25 miles) southwest of the Rhine River City of Koblenz. According to the census of 1883, Lierstal was then a village of only 212 inhabitants and Arbach had 149. Other nearby communities include Bereborn (115 inhabitants), Calenborn (227 inhabitants), Mannebach (231 inhabitants), Oberelz (175 inhabitants), and Retterath (266 inhabitants).

These villages are in the Eifel Mountains, a region bounded on the north, east, and south by the world-famous rivers and vineyards of the Ahr, Rhine, and Moselle. To the west, the district passes into the forest of the Ardennes of Belgium and Luxembourg. The savage beauty of the Eifel is universally renowned as the peculiar mark of its landscape, whether ablaze with golden blossoming broom in the early spring or when the green foliage of the woods is reflected in the dark waters of the numerous ancient "maare" or volcanic lakes.

During the 1830s, when Ernst Moritz Arndt went on his "Rhein und Ahr Wanderungen" (Rhine and Ahr journeys), he had a strange experience at the inn at Muenstereifel. Although the name of the place included "eifel", the innkeeper tried to convince him, on the basis of old documents, that Muenstereifel was only in the "vicinity" of the Eifel but was in no way in the Eifel. "Everybody likes to push the Eifel as far away as possible from oneself", wrote Arndt, "as if this were an unblessed or even forsaken desert."

His contemporary, Karl Simrock, did not fare any better. He quotes in his work The Picturesque and Romantic Rhineland, published in 1840: "No matter from what side one may approach it, nowhere do people want to live in the Eifel. Everywhere it starts only three hours farther."

A researcher of legends, Heydinger, expressed his similar experiences in the fear that if one would push the Eifel from all sides so much farther, "it would finally be pushed off the map altogether."

This slander that the Eifel’s own inhabitants talked about seems to be even more peculiar, as this region was mentioned in a late-middle-age description as having a rough climate but otherwise as being a land of culture and a certain prosperity, brought on by handmade products that were treasured in the whole empire. In 1541, Sebastian Muenster wrote:

"About the Eyfel: Even though this land is mighty rough and mountainous, God did not neglect it. He gives every land something so the population can work and live. The Eyfel is bordered by the Hunsrueck and Luxemburg. In Bertrick, one-half mile from the Moselle River, are warm springs to heal the sick. Close to the County of Manderscheid, they make excellent wrought iron, also cast iron, which they sell to Schwaben and Franken. Their inhabitants are creative and ambitious. This land also has white cattle and lots of milk and dairies. It has far more fish than fowl and produces enough fruit for its own consumption. In the summertime you can compare the area around Manderscheid and Gerolstein to Italy because of its fruit."

However, if you look at historical data of the Nineteenth Century, you get a completely different picture of the Eifel than 300 years before. At that earlier time, agricultural wealth was mentioned, while at the beginning of the Nineteenth Century you hear about a catastrophic famine which would repeat itself a few decades later. Joseph Goerres wrote in the "Rheinische Merkur": "The majority of the Eifel population are starved to death, unable to work. They were not able to buy seed. More than 50,000 people are suffering under these circumstances."

At the same time, a desperate battle was being fought in the lead mining area of the Eifel to be finally connected to a road system; the iron and fabric industries of this area had already come to a standstill due to the lack of a system of transportation. Because of the economic misery, emigration to America took on unexpected dimensions. You hear about entire villages whose inhabitants left their land together.

When Blankenheim—the once-glamorous residence of the counts of Blankenheim—was supposed to become the county seat in 1816, the plan was dropped due to this reasoning: "The roads to Blankenheim are dangerous. They lead through endless moorlands, impassable forests, and across rough mountains. No trace of human habitation anywhere."

Nothing proves the deterioration of the cultural and social life in the Eifel more than the order of the year 1838, requiring entire communities to take part in wolf hunts. Wolves had terrorized the area for 20 years. It is hard to imagine a little more than 150 years ago, a few kilometers from the metropolis of Cologne—a wolves’ plague!

What had happened? What had made this area, situated between the Roman and Carolingian imperial cities of Trier and Aachen, the poorhouse of the nation? The inhabitants were not only miserable but also embarrassed about their deteriorated land, thus, they started to denounce it to any questioner.

The first mention of the Eifel in history promised quite the opposite. When Julius Caesar moved into the South Eifel in 54 B.C. with four legions, he met the distinct culture of the Celtic "Treverer" who inhabited one of their cultural centers on the widespread, strongly fortified Ferschweiler plateau. Immediately after the conclusion of the battles, the Germanic "Eburonen" in the North Eifel were supressed and the intense Romanization of the land between Trier and Cologne began.

During the long peacetime from 70 to 260 A.D., the Eifel experienced an economical and cultural heyday which has not repeated itself to this day. The best builders of antiquity interlaced the land with several big highways whose branches formed a dense road system. The mineral resources of the earth were regularly mined. Numerous Roman settlements, trade centers, and temples came into being. Roman engineers built the famous aqueduct which carried water from several springs in the mountains to Cologne. They had to bypass mountains and valleys for 100 kilometers in order to give the aqueduct a constant fall. The underground pipes have been excavated in many places, the spring mountings have been rediscovered. In Vussem, you will find the remains of an aqueduct. The culmination of the Roman culture in the Eifel were large estates with cold-, warm-, and hot-water baths, floor heat, big loggias like the ones known in southern Europe, mosaics, and walls decorated with frescoes. Even today, magnificent mosaic floors in the ruins of the villa Otrang near Bitburg show that never again have people lived as comfortably in the Eifel as almost 2,000 years ago.

When the Franks occupied the Eifel in the middle of the Fifth Century, the majority of the Romanized Celts fled the land. With them the Roman culture disappeared. The Franks avoided the large stone buildings of the Romans and built their typical farming communities in wood and clay in water-rich valleys which were favorable to agriculture and cattle breeding. Thus, the Eifel became a pure farm country.

Under the administration of the Franks, the Eifel was divided into several counties. The high plains of the mountains became the "Pagus Eflinsis" or "Eifelgau" (Eifel county) which soon gave the whole region its name.

At the time of Christianization, large cloisters were founded, three of which played an essential role in the colonization of the unsettled or deserted woodlands. In the year 650, the double cloister, Stablo-Malmedy, was built; in 698, Echternach; and in 721 Pruem, not far from the "Snow Eifel," still today one of the remotest corners of the Eifel.

Through intensive wood clearings, the land was made accessible. Farmers and craftsmen settled. The first marketplaces since the fall of the Roman trade centers developed. These cloisters enjoyed special favors under the Carolingians who enhanced them through generous contributions and made them into spiritual and cultural centers of their empire.

The abbey at Pruem received more gifts than the others; in the Ninth Century, it farmed almost 50,000 acres of land, and in 830, it was able to found a subsidiary in the upper valley of the river, Erft, later called "Monasterium in Eiflia", which is known today as "Muenstereifel". The abbot Regino of Pruem was one of the most important historians of his time, and his treatise "About Musical Science", kept its validity until the high middle ages. In 855, Emperor Lothar I entered the cloister as a monk after he had virtually showered it with relics and treasures. One can find his grave in the great basilica of Pruem, near the right side of the choir stalls.

The bonds between the Carolingians and the Eifel also became evident in the foundation of cloister Inden (today, Kornelimuenster) in 817 by Ludwig the Pious, a son of Charlemagne, and in the establishment of 40 royal estates which often housed imperial guests on their hunting parties. It is said that the Eifel was the favorite hunting ground of the Emperor Charlemagne, who had his throne at Aachen. Thus, a reflection of this first imperial residence since the end of the Roman empire fell even on the darkest forests of the Eifel.

After the Carolingian empire was divided, the Eifel became part of the Franconian East Empire and, thus, of the German emperor’s dominion. But times had changed. The Carolingian division into counties started to break up when the counts regarded as their property the area given to them for administration, and when that land was divided among their families. The progressive deterioration of the imperial central government lead to a complete dispersion of the old territorial unities. The counts grabbed everything that was not made safe and fortified by cloisters or Episcopal administration. In violent conflicts, new counties came into being between which smaller noblemen defended their modest estates with fortresses.

This is the cause for the establishment of 140 fortresses in the Eifel, traceable to the Eleventh and Twelfth centuries, giving witness to the multitude of small rulers. From these, some families achieved greater political importance in the course of the following centuries: names as those of the lords of Manderscheid, Blankenheim, Reifferscheid, Daun, Aremberg, Neuerburg, Schleiden, Virneburg, and some others have played a more- or less-famous role, although never a decisive role in the history of the Eifel. This was reserved for the four big territories that surrounded the Eifel: Kurtrier, Luxembourg, Kurkoeln, and Juelich. One day, united among themselves, the next day hostile toward each other, they tried with money and violence to make the small Eifel dynasties dependent in order to spread their influence in the mountainous region.

Thus, the counts — since 1356 dukes of Juelich — brought a large part of the northern Eifel under their sovereignty after heavy battles. The same fate befell the Ahr region through the counts of Cologne. The feared archbishop Balduin von Trier expanded his reign up to Hillesheim in the middle of the Eifel; in 1576, the spiritual principality even took over with not-at-all-peaceful means the wealthy abbey of Pruem. After bitter fights with Kurtrier, Luxemburg had to give up its ambitions to gain a foothold in the Moselle valley, but it gained considerable parts of the western Eifel. Whatever independent Eifel lords were left over between these power blocks tried with more or less luck to use "swing politics" for which especially the lords of Kronenburg became famous. But only a few such as Blankenheim, Gerolstein, Manderscheid, and Aremberg were lucky enough to keep their independence.

During all these quarrels of the nobility — be it that they fought each other on the battlefield, besieged their fortresses, or battled each other in court — the ordinary people stayed relatively unmolested. The diverse agriculture — one could even find vineyards between Aachen and Muenstereifel — produced enough food for self-sufficiency; the mining of basalt, iron, and lead permitted a modest trade; and the hardships brought on by the feudal gentry stayed within limits so that one did not see any reason to participate in farmers’ revolts. Kaufmann found out after careful analysis: "The Eifel was, therefore, not an inhospitable or impoverished country during the middle ages."

One could live reasonably well, even though more modestly than at the times of the Romans and Carolingians. When the monk, Sebastian Muenster, gave his friendly and hopeful description of the Eifel in 1541 — even if his comparison with Italy turned out somewhat effusively — he could, however, not anticipate that he caught in it, so to speak, the last cheerful moment of the land.

For then a disaster came over the Eifel. In the meantime, feudal states had developed around the desolate, wooded hills that were rich and powerful enough to consider their own borders as too narrow. They took advantage of every weakness of their neighbor or of a doubtful inheritance to wage dreadful wars against each other. Here you had powers of a dimension fighting each other as you did not find them in the Eifel, and even the side effects of their disputes brought death and misery to the land. For the Eifel was never the target of military actions but always their backland, and maybe that was its misfortune: an army marching through, a siege, a battle were bad enough — but an army that settled for the winter meant nearly indescribable misery.

It all started with the Juelich feud in 1542–43. Emperor Karl V wanted to collect the rich land as a fief. Duke Wilhelm formed an alliance with France against the emperor, and he invaded the latter’s inherited land of Brabant. During the countermove, Dueren and Monschau were demolished; the fortress in Nideggen — considered to be invincible — was destroyed; trade with the so-far-wealthy dukes collapsed.

Only 40 years later, during the "Koelner Krieg" (War of Cologne) in 1583, Spaniards and Dutchmen raged through the areas of Rur, Urft, and Erft; Muenstereifel and Tomburg were laid in ruins and ashes.

But all this fighting appears pale compared to the terrors of the 30 Years War, starting in 1618. Kaufmann verified that during that time 205 towns, 327 castles and forts, and 2,033 villages were destroyed in the Rhinelands. The real horror hides behind terms like, "Quartier", "Kontribution" "Fourage", "Tractament". These are synonyms for uninterrupted pillage, going on for decades among the Eifel population, who themselves, marked by starvation, were expected to provide bread, meat, wheat, and beer for the marching armies. The chronicler of Muenstermaifeld left a moving description that compares the conditions in his area before and after the wars: agriculture had completely ceased to exist; the once-prosperous livestock had been totally wiped out; the majority of the people were starved, had fled, or died. Whole villages disappeared forever. The pastor of Deudesfeld, near Manderscheid, reports that he left his parish because not a single one of his parishioners was alive. Allied and enemy troops were equally bad; in some areas, German soldiers were feared more than the Swedish or French.

Even after the Westphalian Peace Treaty of 1648 (the official ending of the 30 Years War), the cruelties in the Eifel continued. The private war of archbishop Philipp Christoph of Trier against his own chapter brought soldiers from Lorraine, Cologne, and France into the country, who stayed a good many years and scorched and looted the local city halls around Trier.

On top of all this, at the same time, people who burned witches roamed the land. Words cannot describe the bestialities that went on in the name of Almighty God. Thousands were tortured and burned; a neighbor’s dead cow was enough reason to prosecute someone; especially-wicked persons confessed riding on a broom through the air or claimed to have participated in an orgy with the devil’s grandmother.

But the suffering of the Eifel population would not be over for a long time. In 1667, the so-called "predatory wars" of King Louis XIV of France began. In 1672, he turned against the Netherlands in order to get hold of the Rhine delta. The defense lead by the Dutch people, with extreme violence, destroyed the North- and "Hoch-eifel". The small town of Rheinbach was leveled to the ground. In the following years the Sun King tried, and failed, to conquer the area on the left side of the Rhine River.

In 1688 he started the third predatory war. At first it was fought with the objective to push the French border to the Rhine River. Then it turned into a war of destruction, after this plan could not be realized militarily. Although the height of the campaign was the total devastation of Rhineland-Palatinate, the command of the French war minister to the ill-famed General Bouffler "Destroy, demolish!", also brought the Eifel to the verge of ruin. The war aim of the French was to put a large area of scorched earth between France and the German Empire, therefore, forts, villages, and towns were systematically destroyed. Reuter reports that General Montclaer was said to have with him a list of 1,200 places to the left of the Rhine River to be destroyed. Especially all fortresses were demolished. This is why — with a few exceptions — today all castles and fortifications in the Eifel are in ruins or have completely disappeared.

This war ended in 1697. It left behind a totally ruined land where existence was almost impossible. During the Spanish War of Heritage (1701–1714), an English army under the Duke of Marlborough, crossed the Eifel not knowing what to expect. After 12 days, half the army had died of starvation. By the year 1748, two more wars had taken place, but we want to end here the account of brutal terror by kings, archbishops, dukes, generals, and other famous statesmen of the past. A land was left behind whose misery could not be worse. Sebastian Muenster would not have recognized the Eifel. War and destruction had hit every corner of Europe, but nowhere else did the fighting go on for centuries.

In the second half of the Eighteenth Century, changes took place. Instead of going back to agricultural diversity, people in the Eifel almost exclusively started growing potatoes. This one-sidedness backfired in the Nineteenth Century as it did in Ireland, in great famines. Flocks of sheep crossed the wide plains of this desolate country and changed the Eifel into heathy grounds where only tough juniper escaped the hungry sheep. Through reforesting this strange scenery of endless juniper heath has — for the most part —disappeared. Small areas of this landscape have been preserved and can be found at the impressive Kalvarienberg, near Alendorf.

A modest economic upswing took place after 1794, when French revolutionary troops occupied the Eifel. They did away with the old class system, all clerical and wordily feudal powers were dismissed, and the Eifel population received civil rights. Compulsory labor and taxes to cloisters and nobility came to an end.

During the occupation by France, which lasted until 1814, new markets of the old Eifel industries opened up: quarries, iron and lead mines again took up production on a large scale. For a long time, the Eifel population fondly remembered their French "occupiers".

The highly praised alliace with Prussia then brought to the land an economic downfall. The Eifel became a border area cut off from its traditional markets by the newly formed boundaries in the west. Although the Prussian government ordered a few conducive measures as the reforesting the wasteland with pines, it omitted the most important thing: the development of the mountain country through a network of communications, which would have enabled the metal industry to join the new technique of smelting.

In a hopeless struggle for existence, the last part of the huge beech forests that once covered the whole Eifel was cut down, until even the thus-gained charcoal for the ironworks became scarce and expensive. Thereby the competition with the cheaper coke was lost, the iron industry of the Eifel folded, thousands lost their jobs. Then, when the great famines caused by rained-out and frozen harvests started, a big part of the population left the land. The Eifel became known as "Prussian Siberia" and insulted as "hungry boarder of the empire". It disappeared completely as an old cultural land from the consciousness of the public and also of its own population — the experiences of Ernst Moritz Arndt and Karl Simrock were typical.

Thus, the Eifel became a forgotten country, a white spot on the German map. Even when educational travels had become fashionable and travel guides covering half of the world had been published, in 1836, the Eifel existed for Baedeker only in the Ahr valley. Later the romanticists became fascinated by this unknown land, by the remnant of its old culture and the unique landscape formed by volcanoes. In their descriptions and images, they transmitted an encounter with loneliness, sadness, and melancholy — deeply felt in the verses by Ernst Thrasold.

With the witnessing of the scenery characteristic of the Eifel, began its romantic literary re-discovery. At first it was the Ahr valley with its bizarre rock formations that moved the hearts; soon the admiration of the lonely Hoch-eifel (high Eifel), with its impressive volcanic cones and legendary, almost unnatural, round lakes followed. The description of the classical Kyll valley, between Gerolstein and Malberg, came next; also the loveliness of the valleys of Salm, Nims, Elz, and Lieser was not long-hidden.

But only since the turn of the Twentieth Century has a consciousness slowly developed for the important witnesses of art and culture, which this land had guarded in total oblivion and which had survived miraculously 200 years of war and destruction: the monasteries of Maria Laach, Himmerod, and Springiersbach count among their collections the best works of their era on German ground.
The fortresses of Elz and Buerresheim became shrines for castle lovers, and such perfect examples of half timbering as in Monschau or Monreal, are hard to find elsewhere. The great wood-carved alters in Zuelpich, Klausen, and Muenstermaifeld, as well as numerous well-kept-but-almost-unknown churches in the tradition of the hospital church in Kues at the Moselle River witness the artistic richness of the late gothic style in the Eifel, shortly before the centuries of war destroyed so much forever. Therefore, nothing is less correct than the often cited remark that history had been silent in the Eifel. It is just not as obvious as somewhere else. One has to know a lot about the Eifel in order to discover a lot.

This all the more so, as the Twentieth Century — especially before World War II, changed the face of the land once more incisively. The desolate plains with their big flocks of sheep have disappeared, replaced by the field mosaic of an intensive agriculture. Forests have returned to the high plains, and dams — with their widely ramified reservoirs — have lent a new accent to the multiform scenery of the Eifel.

A dense traffic network has taken away the inaccessibility from even the remotest area, although not their solitude. Many of the once-impoverished towns and villages have regained historical character by restoration of the old structures, especially the half-timbered structures. It is debatable, however, if one has lost or won more by the Autobahn built into the landscape.

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Note: This history and description of the Eifel was written by Walter Pippke and published in Die Eifel, a book of photographs published in 1983 by DuMont Buchverlag, Cologne. It was translated for us by Marie Luise Nazar of Virginia Beach in 1985.

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