How Mark Twain Saved Heidelberg

by Mark on January 26, 2010

In 1945 Allied and Russian troops crushed Germany from the west and east. Berlin, Hamburg, and all the major cities were destroyed by bombers and artillery. General George S. Patton’s 3rd Army roared through the Rhine Valley pummeling Frankfurt and Manheim without mercy. The army raced south and lined its tanks and artillery along the Neckar River. Across the water was the thousand year old city of Heidelberg. The old college town residents took one last look at the ancient walls and cobblestoned streets before fleeing east. To the surprise of both sides, Patton’s guns remained silent and the city peacefully surrendered, preserving a treasure of architecture and culture. Who could imagine the spirit that kept the guns quiet was none other than Samuel Longhorn Clemens, aka Mark Twain?

In 1878 America’s favorite author came to Heidelberg. At the time Mark Twain was most famous for Innocents Abroad, a witty travelogue. His goals were some rest and to work on two books. Tramp Abroad was his second travel book. Americans were eager to know more about the world, especially through the humorous eyes and words of their favorite author. Disappointed about the sales of an early fictional book, Tom Sawyer, Twain was determined to create a better sequel.

Mark Twain arrived in Heidelberg on a raft. He wrote this about his journey, “. . . nobody has understood, or realized, and enjoyed the utmost possibilities of this soft and peaceful beauty unless he has voyaged down the Neckar on a raft.” His biographer, Justin Kaplan, believed this raft trip broke the block that stalled Huckleberry Finn. Twain found an inn on the mountain above the city and got to work.

A large portion of Tramps Abroad is about Heidelberg. He crucified the German language, “It is easier for a cannibal to enter the Kingdom of Heaven through the eye of a rich man’s needle that it is for any other foreigner to read the terrible German script.” The author loved Heidelberg, “. . . the last possibility of the beautiful.” He was enthusiastic about the university. “You will have the utmost freedom of philosophizing.”

Tramps Abroad was a success. U.S. tourists, especially students, rushed to Heidelberg. Twain’s enthusiasm helped Heidelberg University create sister schools, like John Hopkins University, the University of Maryland, and the University of California at Berkeley.

Prior to the Battle for Heidelberg, no bombs had fallen on the city, despite it being a center for concrete that created gun placements and presses that produced propaganda. The Allied Air Force said they tried to stay away from colleges, except for those in Cologne, Munich, Frankfurt and most other German cities. On March 29, 1945 Brigadier General William A. Beiderlinden spoke to his commander, Major General William F. Dean about the tactics to take Heidelberg. Dean ordered Beiderlinden to negotiate a peaceful surrender. He did so. The German Army retreated. Heidelberg was saved. The same Allied army moved up river and destroyed Stuttgart. Germany surrendered on May 8. Heidelberg became Patton’s Headquarters and it hosted NATO until 1993.

No one is sure why the Allied Air Force and both General Deans and Beiderlinden decided to spare Heidelberg. We know Dean was a graduate of the University of California, a sister school. We know the new barracks for the U.S. Army were named Mark Twain Village.

When traveling in Germany, visit the Alstadt, the ‘old town of Heidelberg. A narrow cobblestone street snakes up toward the castle beneath baroque and other priceless architecture. Barges glide up the Neckar as university crews’ row in their shadow. On a Sunday afternoons families enjoy desserts and a few beers in a huge square around the cathedral or they hike up the mountain and gaze on the city that was miraculously saved almost sixty-five years before. You may or may not believe in Mark Twain’s magic, but consider this: the city’s name was originally Heidelbeerenberg meaning Huckleberry Mountain.

Leave a Comment

Previous post:

Next post: