Wednesday, April 22, 2009
The strange afterlife of General Kleber (updated)
Place Kleber, in the center of the Grand Ile of historic Strasbourg, is where I like to start my city-tour when I have visitors. It’s an enormous (by Strasbourg standards) public square, recently renovated (for the second or third time this decade) to feature fountains and plenty of benches for people-watching. It’s where they put the city’s brobdingnagian Christmas tree each winter, and it also hosts concerts, markets and exhibitions throughout the year.
I’m not actually that fond of it as a public space, but I always bring people here, as it offers a nice starting point for the history of Strasbourg. Back in the town’s “free city” days, when it was only loosely associated with the Holy Roman Empire, the square was known as “Barfusserplatz,” (Bare foot place) for the inhabitants of the nearby monastery. When Louis XIV took over in the late 17th century, Strasbourg was instantly transformed from a merchant town at the crossroads of Europe, to a frontier city of France. Accordingly, a garrison was established in the city, and Barfusserplatz become Place des Armes.
The Bourbons only got to enjoy their eastern conquest for a century: in the unpleasantness unleashed on July 14th, 1789, Place des Armes became Place de la Revolution.
The Revolution eventually led to the location’s current, and most interesting name. Jean-Baptise Kleber was a local boy made good, having risen through the ranks of the revolutionary army to become one of its most distinguished generals, a position he retained after the ascent of Napoleon. When Napoleon invaded Egypt, he brought Kleber along and, when that venture went horribly wrong, left the Alsatian holding the can, so to speak. Kleber never saw France again – he was assassinated in Cairo.
This is where his story becomes bizarre. I had the privilege of interviewing another French-Alsatian general a couple of years ago who had written a book on Kleber. He told me that Napoleon refused to allow Kleber’s body to return to France, fearful that it would become a shrine to the Republican ideals that he had fairly efficiently crushed. Kleber was therefore stuck in a rum barrel on an island in the Mediterranean, to await a day when he was more politically acceptable. This took 18 years.
Even then, the indignities were not over. A man of the General’s stature required a proper state funeral, and for that, only Strasbourg’s Cathedral would do. However, the General was inconveniently Protestant (or irreligious, I’m not sure on this point). His corpse was therefore converted to Catholicism, so that it might enjoy the blessings of Strasbourg’s archbishop before being interred in a local cemetery (minus his heart, which was given a place of honour in a chapel within the Invalides in Paris).
Even then Kleber's post-vivo adventures were not over, as he was then dug up and re-interred in 1838 in the square that now bears his name, under a statue immortalizing him and his more notable victories (on which a sphinx rests behind his feet like an obedient puppy).
The square retained its name throughout the period between 1870 and 1918 when Strasbourg was (re)claimed by the Germans, even as Kleber’s statue became a focal point for Alsatian nationalists resentful of the Kaiser’s “Prussian-izing” policies.
Very briefly – between November 18 and 22, 1918 – the space did honour to Karl Marx, by grace of the communist government that gained power here in the chaos at the end of the Great War. French troops quickly put and end to that nonsense.
In 1940, Kleber was on the move again – the Nazis moved his body to a local cemetery, tore down his statue, and named the square after Andreas Roos, an Alsatian nationalist executed by the French a few years earlier. Kleber’s name and highly mobile remains were returned to the square after the liberation of 1944.
And so it has remained ever since. However, the indignities suffered by poor Kleber were not over. Under Place Kleber is a fairly large parking garage – which had to be constructed around the general's grave. Thus it is possible, while parking one's Peugeot, to see a shiny brass plaque marking Kleber's final resting place on the cement walls now acting as his sarcophagus.
Post- script: By coincidence, before moving to Strasbourg, a number of my friends in Montreal made me mix-CDs of their favourite music. My friend Daniel made me one with a cover he’d created on which zombies were cavorting on an image he’d found of Strasbourg on the Internet: Place Kleber. I was thus calling Place Kleber “Zombieplatz” even before I knew anything about its dead occupant’s wanderings.
EDIT: A scholar of European history, Nathanael Robinson wrote (presumably more accurately than I) about Kleber's afterlife on his blogs here and here. I'm fairly certain I ran across his posts at some point before writing mine - reading closely enough that I apparently absorbed his title, although little of his superior research. Check them out).
EDIT AGAIN: Blogger's being a pain - his blogs posts are http://rhineriver.blogspot.com/2006/06/strange-afterlife-of-jean-baptiste.html and http://europeendless.wordpress.com/2006/06/28/the-strange-afterlife-of-jean-baptiste-kleber/
NB: Amynah’s Mom arrives for a visit today, followed by her two Aunts. They are using our place as a launch pad to visit other destinations in Europe, so I’m not expecting to be too occupied on their trip, but nonetheless I might not be able to keep up on the blogging for the next week or so.