Recently, I strolled through my local woods and came across a carved Irminsul leaning against a tree some way back from the path. Intrigued, I made my way over, to find that the Irminsul had runes carved across the top. Now, my rune reading skills are a little rusty. But after a while I established that two people had been married here and this marker left as a witness.
I was absolutely thrilled at this point, and also a little disturbed. I was thrilled because this was such an unexpected display of heritage. It was the first of May, too, a day which in Germany is full of traditions, from Maypoles to dances. That had already made me think about intangible heritage, and what importance it has in creating not only a sense of identity but also a sense of place. Through the First of May events going on all around me, it really felt like being back in Germany proper. It was, and felt, entirely different from all the other places I had lived in.
The Irminsul of course has further interesting layers. I have come across this symbol before since returning to Germany. I found out at the time that it is meant to represent an actual column of sorts which in the 8th century AD stood in a town in North Rhine-Westphalia. What exactly it represented, or what purpose it served, cannot, as far as I understand, be established through any historical sources.
In other words, for the Irminsul to be used today means a reappropriation and reconstruction, and certainly to a degree a reinvention that fills in the blanks of a past symbol and associated meaning. And in this way, it illustrates a lot of what has been written about heritage as a selection and appropriation of the past for present-day needs. In the case of the Irminsul in the woods, for the couple that placed it there it clearly has a ritualistic meaning, perhaps a religious one, and perhaps one that connects them to the time and people of the historic column.
Here is where my discomfort had its root. For of course, we’re talking about a German context here. And the last time I came across this symbol was in a news item about an Irminsul that had been erected on top of a protected, natural stone formation called Externsteine on New Years Day this year. Unlike the Irminsul in the woods that I found, this one was painted in white, red and black, colours that were used by the German Reich (although in a different order). For this reason, but also because the symbol is used by a neo-nazi organisation in Germany, the Irminsul was seen as a right-wing symbol, and the Staatsschutz, a special police force dealing with politically motivated crime, went to investigate.
On one hand, one might of course argue that any symbol can be misused by anone. After all, even the Arthurian legend, of generally harmless association in the UK, is shamelessly misused by clearly far-right groups, without the tale itself being tarnished. But the sensitivities and fears are strong in Germany when it comes to anything potentially far right. And so in the news article about the Irminsul on top of the Externsteine, management of the monument put right-wing, reactionary positions in one sentence with all and any interpretation of the site that is not fully scientifically proven, saying that they equally distanced themselves from both . Thus the connection is made: the symbol is intrinsically suspicous, the right-wing interpretation the most likely.
The discursive process that begins its work, then, is a forced framing of a symbol that in itself really has no association whatsoever with right-wing views. Objectively speaking, one must acknowledge that with so little known about the historic Irminsul, one may disagree with the reappropriation, reproduction and reinvention of the symbol and its meanings by some folks, but one cannot reasonably assign to them a far-right attitude by default. And while the Irminsul on top of the Externsteine had other characteristics that do seem to make a far-right intention likely, never mind disrespecting a scheduled monument, the strength of this reframing applied to all uses of the symbol quickly becomes a form of censorship.
I was relieved when I realised the runes on the Irminsul I saw in the woods merely referred to a wedding celebration. I was relieved because actually, in the back of my mind I had applied that censure. And that makes me wonder about the impact of such ever-present pressure on this couple’s practice, assuming, as I have every reason to do, that they are not, in fact, right-wing radicals. It is an impact that also lacks objective justification in and of itself, just as the scientists accuse reconstructions and reappropriations of lacking a scientific basis. As I found out, it clearly puts groups in a position where they feel they must justify themselves (which is of course what many people constantly demand of Muslims today as well).
As a society, and definitely as heritage managers, we should be weary of allowing such processes to run their course without critical examination. A more distinguishing attitude is called for, and I cannot help but feel that this is a task for interpretation: to represent the diverse perspectives without pre-judgment, and to help people gain the skills to be critical for themselves, and to not jump to any conclusions.
 I could write here about the Authorized Heritage Discourse asserting itself in this attitude. But that’s not the point of this post.