Climate changes, so does society : farewell to sylt

the island will disappear when the sea level rises. The old sylt has long since perished, and with it the promise of advancement of the old FRG.

An article from

Dirk knipphals

30.1.2022, 11:46 a.m

T he sea, that’s happiness. Always been. And it still is. the beach, that is a place of being unquestioned.

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But what does sylt mean to me, this elongated island with its orientation exactly to the west?? There are many sylts. I have to think of sunsets first, nowhere are they as poignant as here. I am thinking of innocent children’s games, but also of the questionable nature of the upwardly mobile society and the long unresolved nazi era. Sylt stands for the experience that nothing stays as it is. Except the sea –

Oh man, what have I gotten myself into here? write a farewell to sylt, the colleagues said. the sea level will rise, sylt will sink, sooner or later. You know sylt. Write down the myth. And tell us about reality. Kampen, springer, fun beach brandenburg, faserland, thatched houses, "i want to go back to westerland", gosch.

Think about it, describe what it means to say goodbye to such a charged place. And one more thing: you can call it me. Write a me story. How often have I been here? Not to be counted. A hundred times? In childhood every vacation and many weekends. Until today at least once a year, if at all possible.

That sylt would be washed away was part of it from the beginning. Even when there was no talk of climate change and no knowledge of rising sea levels, the North Sea took a piece of the steep coast near kampen and the sandbank around hornum every winter. That will increase. Now the levels are rising. The glaciers are melting. The storm surges are increasing. there are interactive maps on the internet that show how far sylt will disappear at what water level, at one meter higher sea level, at two meters, at five meters.

Yes, it’s connected with feelings. It will be a long farewell for me.

I stand now, in this winter, in westerland on top of the dune at the beach crossing kapt’n-christiansen-street next to the little house where you have to show your spa card during the season, and look down on my childhood paradise lying below me.

How the grains of sand feel in your hair from all the tumbling on the beach. crabs scurrying to the side. Shells in many colors and shapes. The washed up seal that, dying, cried piteously. Waves. The trembling in the whole body, when one has been in the water too long again. And the sand in all its conditions. The muddy sand when you dig close to the water. The sand when it’s all light and flying, dried out by the sun. And the sand after a downpour, when you can carefully take small caking plates in your hand.

Earliest memories, reproduced again and again by memory, long ago they feel like a familiar stack of fading polaroids.

Otto comes to mind, the beach chair keeper. I don’t know much about him. just the name and that he had been in prison, which impressed us kids mightily. That he was friendly to us in a bearish, companionable way and in any case did not immediately shoo us away like many other adults at the time. He may have seemed like a buccaneer captain, and a bit like the father of Pippi Longstocking too.

It was around 1970, i was six, seven years old, when i wanted to become a beach chair attendant. We helped otto, pushed beach chairs back and forth, folded them open and closed. And when we came to the beach once in the morning, we found everyone upside down. They lay helpless on their bellies like stranded porpoises.

Great childlike excitement! With the seriousness of elementary school students we set about putting the beach chairs back together again. But otto got angry when we proudly presented him with the result. A storm was announced. The beach chair attendants had deliberately tipped the baskets over to reduce the attack surface of the expected wind. Now they had to do that work all over again.

Shortly after that the vacations were over.

But i also immediately remember how i stood up here at the beach crossing three and a half years ago, in the summer of 2018, and was suddenly so unbelievably angry at sylt, so struck to the core, as one can only be when something is really identitatively important to you. I thought that on this day I would have to say goodbye to this island and my childhood memories of it. Not because of the climate catastrophe, but for other reasons.

The shot in black and white shows dark clouds, the beach and stormy sea

The north sea produces its own waves. storm on sylt in 1990 photo: winter/timeline/SZ photo

I had turned the same age as my father when he died in 2018 to the day, 54 years, 8 months and 25 days. And I had gone to sylt alone for a week for this reason. I had imagined it beautiful, emotional and comforting. I wanted to walk a lot on the beach and think about my difficult relationship with my father, who had taken part in the second world war and never adequately dealt with the german defeat. But my trip turned into a disaster.

The people of sylt looked the other way

The disaster began when the metatarsophalangeal joint of my left big toe became severely inflamed. Instead of walking along the waterline in my mind, I could only hobble over the sand with difficulty, it was awful. And ridiculous too. I wanted to take care of last things and was all the time busy only with my big toe!

in addition, i discovered the book "der fall reinefarth" by the swiss historian philipp marti in a back corner of the clearly laid out westerland public library and – since i couldn’t go for a walk on the beach – devoured it on the spot.

Heinz reinefarth was a high SS leader and a terrible war criminal. He was in charge of the suppression of the Warsaw Uprising in 1944, a merciless slaughter on the part of the Germans. Tens of thousands of civilians lost their lives. And this butcher could then, after the war to north Frisia fled like many other nazis – northern germany had not yet been occupied at the end of the war – mayor in westerland and remain so until 1963. Reinefarth was highly respected, an "integration figure," as philipp marti writes, during whose tenure "the foundations were laid for the development of the municipality into a spa and seaside resort of european renown".

I remember feeling dizzy that day because my childhood games as a blond, blue-eyed boy on the beach had lost all innocence. The deceptions and partly brazen lies of reinefarth, who was unreasonable until his death in 1979 and who even sold himself as a resister against the nazi regime, as well as the overlooking on the part of the people of sylt are one thing. The other is the continuities in thinking, feeling, seeing, which continued to have an effect long after the second world war, at least subliminally, in the relationship to the world and in self-understanding.

the "nordic people" were for the nazis the model aryans, and the north frisians were among them. the fight against the north sea, the reclamation of land, the creation of living space, you were able to gain some heroism from them. the nazis turned Sylt into a fortress, with bunkers in the dunes (where I still played), gun emplacements, barracks (which after the war were used as country school dormitories, among other things) and a large airport. I had known all this long ago, but I had not put it together with my childhood paradise. Now I did.

What calmed me down again was the sea. I carefully rode my bicycle – it was better than walking – along the former route of the sylt island railroad through the dunes to the elbow at the very northern tip of sylt. behind the last bus stop, at whose bamboo bar i ate an ice cream, it can get really wild and lonely there. You can’t swim because of the current. You only encounter a few lonely hikers, sheep, sometimes seals and the vastness of the sky. I looked at the sea and could say with gratitude that at least this is no longer the sea of the nazis.

A woman in a blue raincoat on Sylt, she lets her colorful headscarf flutter in the wind

woman with shawl in the loneliness of sylt, 1982 photo: serienlicht/imago

i still grew up with pictures of heavy sea. frisian genrescenes with people who are bracing themselves against the wind. Emil nolde’s wild oil paintings of the sea with the heroic breakers. The lone human, at the mercy of the storms. It took this crisis in my attachment to sylt to realize that this combative relationship to the sea was not at all true for me. I have never experienced the sea as an adversary and enemy. i guess i owe that to sylt, the vacations, the weekends, the early summers. The writer vladimir nabokov says somewhere that the purpose of re-encountering one’s own autobiography can be to identify recurring patterns of life. This is obviously such a pattern with me: the sea is good.

later i was often on sylt in autumn and winter and saw a lot of storms. I have felt cold that penetrated to the bone. I have seen the North Sea waves, which beat far over the promenade of Westerland. But there was always something invigorating, something beatific in these moments.

the history of sylt is also the history of pacification and civilization. From the heroic-military the island has long since been recoded to the hedonistic-touristic. I at least can be thankful for that.

Was sylt a meeting place for the rich, powerful and beautiful??

If it doesn’t go straight into the cliches – chic, sansibar, sunsets, beach oats – two very different stories are often told about sylt.

The first is about how the island became a retreat and meeting place for the rich, powerful and beautiful in the old federal republic, with many of the people who met for the weekend in kampen and along the wadden side also controlling the media scene, which was still centrally located in hamburg at the time. This also ensured that the story was distributed nationwide.

a gold-plated chopper, a mercedes cabrio and a porsche parked in front of the Gogartchen restaurant on sylt

the gogartchen in kampen on sylt in 1983 photo: rolf hayo/imago

In hamburg they fought their journalistic feuds, the augsteins, springers, bissingers, nannens, jurgs, raddatz, bohmes, theo sommers, in kampen they got back together again. And both together probably strengthened their world importance. In other sectors, such as among Hanseatic private bankers or among the so-called captains of industry from the ruhr region, the situation will have been similar.

this story about kampen is one of the fixed points in the social history of the federal republic of germany. Even those who weren’t particularly interested in the upper class got a lot of details through the media. for example, i know that the big friday editorial conference of the weekly newspaper the time was brought forward by an hour, so that the bosses could still drive over the freeway to niebull on friday evening and catch the last car train to sylt there.

And I know that berthold beitz, the legendary general officer of the once powerful krupp group, liked to eat lobster with fried potatoes in his weekend thatched house in kampen, while arnd krupp von bohlen und halbach, the disbursed family heir, threw platinum hearts around on the dance floor in a bar, drugged up and with runny mascara. For the feuilleton chief of the time, fritz J. Raddatz, who recounts this scene in his book "my sylt," the heir looked like a character in a fellini film.

As a retreat for the elite and at the same time as a place of decadence, that’s how the public imagined kampen back then. It was as much a part of the mental interior of the old federal republic as "dalli dalli", the east-west conflict, collective bargaining, made in germany and "der aktuelle fruhschoppen".

i remember that in my grandfather’s beach castle, which – every summer newly decorated with mosaics of fish and ships made of shells – was for a while something like a general attraction of sylt, suddenly all the adults looked up at the promenade and nudged each other. the then famous industrial heir, playboy and photographer gunter sachs, member of the international jet set of davos, saint-tropez and whatnot, leaned over the parapet and looked down on us. what i unfortunately don’t remember is whether the actress brigitte bardot, to whom sachs was married for a few years, was actually standing next to him at that moment or whether her absence was regretted by the adults all around; in any case, her name also came up in our beach chair.

christian kracht’s debut novel "faserland" still lives from this background of high society and moral painting on its first pages. In the book, long since a classic, kracht has the sad rich kids of kampen driving through the dunes in a convertible and drinking champagne, the children of the managers and their desperate housewives who have conquered this place. As a contrast to this, he describes the tourist mass processing with scampi and fish rolls at gosch on the harbor of list.

A great sadness blows through these first scenes of the novel, and the saddest thing about it is that sylt only serves as a backdrop for the more or less serious emotional attempts and hollow social prestige games of the characters – and that the narrator basically knows this, too. But even through this sadness and all the ennui, the sylt summer is blowing. When I reread it last year, I couldn’t help thinking that the "I" narrator should have simply left his so-called friends behind and gone down to the beach. He would have had other ideas (but then christian kracht wouldn’t have been able to write this novel either).

Those who work on sylt often can no longer afford to live here. For native syltians this is also a humiliation

The second sylt story tells of how the island has long since ceased to be what it once was. In the meantime I have read or heard this story in many variations. Neighbors in the suburb where i grew up told them. Sylt had become too crowded for them, and they had long since preferred to go to amrum or denmark, if not to the maldives anyway. Or, always very popular, disappointed ex-sylt-riders write the story as a glossy report in magazines. For some veterans of sylt, the island is now too nouveau riche, but without thinking about their own role in its rise.

It is part of the fundamental self-deception of many social climbers to think that, once they have reached the top, they can simply turn off the social processes that brought them to the top. But that’s not how it works, especially not on sylt.

In our society, many people may be socially isolated on the one hand, but on the other hand, the wealthy are becoming wealthier and wealthier and the rich are becoming richer and richer, so that the real estate prices on sylt continue to go through the roof and there is no end in sight for luxury renovations and new developments. With a tragic point for the native syltians. Given the rise in the cost of housing, many of them have long since had to move off the island and find a house on the mainland. If you go to the train station in westerland early in the morning, you can see how strange things have become. the first trains of the day are often full. But they are by no means masses of vacationers, but mainly bakery saleswomen, cleaners, the employees of the spa administration and all the service personnel who keep the operation of the place running.

Those who work on sylt often can no longer afford to live here, and have to commute from the mainland. That is tedious. For native syltians it is also a humiliation. They could certainly tell you a lot about the shocks to their self-image when, on the one hand, they have to live on the mainland because of people who pay an easy 20.000 euros per square meter, has to move away from his home, and on the other hand also lives from exactly such people. Also a case of gentrification.

I also have to cope with losses, on a different level of course, when it comes to sylt. because in reality it is inaccurately told when i write above that i would look down on my childhood paradise. When you look at it in the light, my childhood paradise no longer exists, it has long since disappeared. It didn’t take a storm tide to do that, it took time, the sand washes up, and the construction boom.

indeed, in the half century i’ve known sylt, a lot has changed, most of it actually. The tetrapods, mighty four-footed concrete blocks in whose cavities we used to play hide-and-seek: long since buried by the sand washed up every year to protect the shore. the kurlichtspiele, the great cinema in fifties style, on whose small stage in front of the screen i once saw the real pippi langstrumpf, the actress inger nilsson, who toured the vacation resorts in a red wig: torn down and replaced by an apartment building.

The concrete belt of tetrapods that was supposed to reduce the undercutting of the land masses during high tide on Sylt

The beach near wenningstedt, 1984, is dominated by concrete tetrapods photo: dieter klar/dpa/picture alliance

the open-air swimming pool in keitum, where i learned to swim: demolished. the small aquarium at the wave pool with the seahorses and seals, where i wanted to become a marine biologist: torn down. The miniature golf course on the way from our apartment to the beach: closed and long since built over with an apartment building. The meadow on the way to the southern forest in westerland, from which the larks rose and jubilantly chirped their songs (i still have them in my ears): also long since built on.

Now they are heaving this ugly protective wall against the storm tides onto the promenade in westerland and accepting that the precious view of the sea will be blocked by concrete. At the latest, this measure really has something desperate about it.

Our apartment was 300 meters from the beach, I can see it from my vantage point at the top of the beach crossing, it was pretty much just behind the dune in an elongated two-story apartment building with green balconies, next to the small cemetery for unknown sailors. How adventurous it seemed to me to walk barefoot and in swimming trunks from there to the beach! And how short it seems now.

I can’t contribute to the history of the rich, powerful and beautiful with my family background, and I can’t contribute to the history of the native sylt population either, but I can contribute to a possible third story, which is not told so often, although it was and still is the most powerful story: the story of the appropriation of the island by social climbers, like my parents were.

This story goes back a long way, to the time when sylt had to make a decision about its direction after the second world war. Should it look for its future in the development of the "people’s bath", to inexpensive offers for the broad population, for which among other things the SPD faction sylts voted; or in more exclusive offers for the elevated need together with the associated thicker purse. The decision was made to go for the upscale, and in doing so, the company was able to tie in with seaside resort traditions dating back to the german empire.

WE box 29.-30.1.2021

As a child, he played among the beach chairs; later, our author returned to sylt and observed the island’s transformation. Now it could fall victim to the sea, of all things. A farewell – in the taz am wochenende of 29./30. January. In addition: the vaccination issue divides families and circles of friends. can vaccinated and unvaccinated still stay in conversation? And: 17 chickpea recipes in twitter length. From saturday on at the kiosk, in the ekiosk, in the practical weekend subscription and around the clock at twitter.

Had yet emperor wilhelm II. I spent the night at the miramar hotel right by the sea. the writer thomas mann spent three summers on sylt in the mid-1920s, left a famous dedication in his pension haus kliffende in kampen ("at this shattering sea i have lived deeply") and was inspired to great descriptions of the waves off sylt, which he finally included in the legendary snow chapter of his novel "der zauberberg". There one writes of "refreshing melancholy" and of the "predatory nature of the waves".

No one less than the philosopher theodor W. during one of these summers, when he was still growing up as the son of a frankfurt bourgeois, adorno secretly chased after his idol thomas mann on the beach, which he only confessed to him in exile in california, when they began working together on the "doktor faustus" novel. before the nazis turned sylt into a fortress, it was already a good middle-class spa.

the decision to go upscale led to the opening of the sylt gambling house in 1949, which had to cease operations at the end of 2021, and to fancy hotels, gastronomic offerings and nightclubs.

But the exclusive could not be held completely. the middle class, which had come into money, also pushed to sylt, and the island became a kind of public bath, that of the upper part of the leveled middle class society, that is, of those who thought they had "made it" – with educational advancement, small family, forty-hour week and all that. Among the communities of sylt, there was a division of labor, with its subtle distinctions and tangible class barriers. Kampen with its thatched roof houses and some areas of the tidal flats with their frisian properties kept the reputation of exclusivity. In Wenningstedt and Westerland, and from there south, apartment houses were built for people like us.

At the latest with the construction of the new spa center in westerland directly behind the spa shell with its twelve floors and several hundred apartments, which is still a thorn in the side of many sylters today, the exclusivity was gone at the end of the sixties.

My mother told me over and over again how she came to buy our apartment; it must have been one of the most important moments of her life. I myself played a part in this, as a four-year-old with bronchial problems. the pediatrician advised a stimulating climate and sea air. And so in the summer we rented a room in a boarding house in westerland with grandfather. On the way to the beach my parents passed the new apartment building, a corner apartment on the mezzanine floor was still available.

I sometimes see that moment of my parents in my mind’s eye. survivors both. My father was also a perpetrator, in his late forties, a working-class child, a participant in the war, and also a war invalid – he lost his left forearm in the polish campaign, and the rest of his arm in the final battle near dresden – who was neither able nor willing to leave behind his nationalist influences. He had already had three marriages, had worked his way up to become a well-paid lawyer and notary, and now once again had the wind of a new beginning under his wings (the leukemia diagnosis came shortly afterwards).

My mother, 21 years younger, refugee child from Kolberg, father unknown, mother’s nerves shattered since the flight, now a housewife and mother herself, and for the first time in her life with the feeling of having safe ground under her feet.

Actually, they could not afford the apartment, the timing was unfavorable. The family home in the suburbs of kiel had just been bought and remodeled according to our own wishes, and there were liabilities. But the mixture of "doing something for the children" and increasing one’s own social prestige through an address on sylt was too seductive. i still remember how proud i was as a child of the nf license plates (for north frisia) on my parents’ cars, which you only got if you had a registered address there. This is the pride they gave me.

Our apartment was barely fifty square meters in size. living room with kitchenette and balcony – a balcony is important on sylt. Bathroom. Two small bedrooms. In one of them we spent the night with children, sometimes six of them, together with cousins and the daughter of our housekeeper. We slept in the ten-square-meter room in three bunk beds, which were placed at an angle so that you could jump from bed to bed and play pirate ship. Our vacations on sylt resembled private children’s shore excursions. And our parents were often not there at all, they stayed in kiel, work. We were looked after by our grandfather or our housekeeper.

When I superimpose some memories with more recent impressions, I can run through social developments as if in fast motion.

Back then people built beach castles. The entire beach in front of westerland was parceled out into small principalities surrounded by piled-up sand ramparts, with a beach chair enthroned in the middle of each of them. In these beach chairs the adults sat and wanted to have their rest. We children ran through the narrow corridors between the sand castles down to the water, that was our adventure playground.

Then it became a kind of public bath after all: westerland on sylt, in the summer of 1982 photo: SMID/imago

The leisure time behavior was still completely different than today. the fun-fitness-mix of yoga on the beach, aperol-sundowner with sea view and windsurfing course did not exist yet. And the free WLAN on the beach, which would nowadays also allow a home office in a beach chair, of course not at all. In those days, people brought their own sandwiches and rice pudding to the beach. Today we snack on crepes with feta cheese, arugula and honey mustard. back then, no one would have thought of jogging along the promenade. Today, functional clothing also dominates in restaurants.

it may also be that my parents, as social climbers, felt latently a little uncomfortable in the midst of the finer manners and pleasures exhibited on sylt. If you look at the way vacationers today take their crab rolls and cocktail sauce for granted (a real mystery to me) and sip their cocktails with straws on balmy summer nights, you no longer get the impression that habit plays a role in leisure behavior.

it is the sea that makes sylt

Old times. our apartment in kapt’n-christiansen-strabe has long since been sold, and i have since lived in many different accommodations on sylt, sometimes with the family for two or three weeks in the summer, sometimes on my own for a few days to catch some air. Once we were invited to one of those replica Frisian farmhouses, for which – I checked on immoscout – you would have to pay tens of millions; something like that really impresses you.

With a little luck, and if you are early, you can still rent nice, established vacation apartments with garden sharing, an afternoon tea with cake and then once again into the sea, that has already something. But I’m also moved by the 28-square-meter mini-apartments, also with balconies, which often have a slightly helpless maritime flair: a few shells and a small lighthouse on the windowsill, photographs of waves running out on the sand on the walls.

I continue to stand up here at the beach crossing and hesitate. The winter sun fights its way through the drifting clouds. Seagulls hang like threads in the sky. The storm tides will come, but the island is still there. What to do with it now?

I could ride my bike to the church in keitum and look for rudolf augstein’s grave, as i have done a few times before. i could also walk along the rantum basin, where you can watch strange birds even in winter. Or I could – one is always hungry on sylt – eat a fish plate with fried potatoes, not at gosch, but in the main house of the fish store bluhm in the new street behind the aquariums, where the lobsters are still waiting for customers with their claws tied together.

I’ll leave all this and go down to the sea. In the end, it’s the sea that defines sylt. If you get very close, right up to the area where the waves run out onto the beach, you are completely surrounded by their noise. The banging, sucking and roaring of the waves. The bursting of the air bubbles when the outgoing wave seeps into the beach. The scraping and rustling and pushing of the grains of sand moved by the water.

The sea in this area, at the transition from water to land, is quite present. And at the same time you get a feeling for how every story about sylt covers other stories, just like the waves sometimes overlay each other.

For me, the often not very high, but powerful waves off sylt have always remained the benchmark, the urmeter, with which I have compared all other waves in the world. The waves of the Baltic Sea: somehow not yet fully grown. The breakers at the atlantic coast: rather interesting from a sportive point of view. The waves of the pacific: too big and wide, out of scale. The gentle ups and downs of the andaman sea: not bad either, differently meditative.

Did I write above that the sea never changes? That’s not true. The sea is constantly changing. It’s a different sea every day. And it is also not true that the sea will stay when sylt is gone. It will no longer be this sea. The sea in front of sylt will no longer be there without sylt.

If you let that thought get to you, it’s hard to bear.

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